Slumdogs vs. Billionaire

Egypt's richest man, Naguib Sawiris, has cast his eye upon the Cairo slum district of Ramlet Bulak. The police want to vacate the area and are terrorizing its inhabitants. Yet, residents refuse to give up the fight. A report by Markus Symank

By Markus Symank

Night after night, the inhabitants of Ramlet Bulak are torn from their sleep by the same nightmare. As always, in the early morning hours, the police troops move in to this Cairo slum. Armed with batons and live ammunition, the public servants begin to smash windows, break down doors, and storm into bedrooms. They aim to arrest all the young men living in the shantytown. The police violently pull the men from their hiding places and throw them in dark blue police vans. If family members get in the way, they are cursed, beaten, or taken along to the police station. The police can't be bothered with troublesome search warrants. The whole district is under suspicion.

Dozens of men from Ramlet Bulak have been arrested in this way by the security forces since early August. Twenty-two of them have been brought to the Tora high security prison, where former dictator Husni Mubarak was held. "The government is treating us like terrorists," complains Magda Hassan, whose two sons have been held without charges for days by the police.

Conflict ignited by a murder

The police terror began with the death of Amr al-Bunni on 2 August this year. Like many other inhabitants of Ramlet Bulak, the young man earned his living as a security worker at the Nile City Towers. The pompous pair of towers, housing a hotel and offices as well as a shopping mall, was built ten years ago by the property magnate Naguib Sawiris. The slum lies in the shadow of the two towers.

Dingy construction project: the slum district of Ramlet Bulak in the heart of Cairo in the shadow of the two pompous Nile City Towers

​​Al-Bunni grew up next to the luxury complex. The hut of his parents, slapped together out of bricks, scrap wood, and corrugated sheet metal, is only a stone's throw away from the 142-metre-high twin towers with their golden façade and view of the pyramids of Giza. The young man never entered the Nile City Towers. His monthly wage of around 120 dollars would not even be enough for a night in one of the hotel's cheapest category of rooms.

When al-Bunni arrived that Thursday to pick up his wage, a fatal argument broke out. The paymaster refused to hand him his salary. Al-Bunni began to insult the man and loudly threatened to resort to violence. A hotel security officer immediately pulled out his pistol and shot the unarmed slum dweller. The event was captured by a mobile phone camera and quickly circulated on the Internet. Even the most biased interpretation of the evidence cannot support the claim that the security officer acted in self-defence.

Super rich vs. paupers

The coexistence of the dwellers of Ramlet Bulak and the owner of the Nile City Towers has come under stress numerous times in the past. A few months ago, when a fire broke out in the slum, hotel officials refused access to water to extinguish the blaze. A small child died in the fire. The inhabitants of the shantytown also suspect that Naguib Sawiris, the hotel owner, has an interest in their district. His men have frequently offered slum dwellers money to vacate their homes. Some families have yielded to the pressure. Their abandoned huts were immediately demolished.

After al-Bunni's death, things finally came to a head-on collision between the super rich businessman and the paupers. Friends and relatives of the murdered man went on the rampage in front of the towers, broke windows, and set cars on fire. Some of the protesters forced their way into one of the buildings and threw stones at the police and fire fighters. Security forces were then employed in huge number and fired some 30 canisters of tear gas into the slum district. A few days later, the police began their nightly raids. "The police are trampling all over our rights. It is as if there hadn't been a revolution," complains Magdi Hossam, the unofficial media spokesman of the slum dwellers.

Who owns the land?

According to Mohammed Chidr, the fact of pervasive police brutality in Egypt is not enough to explain events in Ramlet Bulak. The young lawyer suspects more is at stake. He thinks the rioting that took place after the death of Al-Bunni is being used as an excuse to vacate the slum in order to make room for Naguib Sawaris' latest construction project. Sawaris already purchased the approximately ten hectare large area, which is in direct proximity to the Nile and Cairo's city centre, from the government in the 1990s. The land is said to have been sold at far beneath its market value. The rumour is that government officials were generously bribed.

"The state had absolutely no right to sell the land," says Mohammed Chidr from the "Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights". For years, the human rights organization has been defending the interests of the poorest of the poor and has often achieved success in the courts against the government and security forces

​​Yet, the deal is illegal for a completely different reason. Although most of the families in Ramlet Bulak have roots in rural Upper Egypt, they have lived for generations here in the slum. According to Egyptian law, they therefore automatically possess the status of sole landowners. "The state had absolutely no right to sell the land," says Mohammed Chidr.

Struggle against the state and security forces

The slum dwellers have placed their hopes with Mohammed Chidr and his team of lawyers from the "Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights". For years, the human rights organization has been defending the interests of the poorest of the poor and has often achieved success in the courts against the government and security forces. "This time things are particularly complicated," sighs Chidr and rubs his hand over his shaven head. The lawyers must fight on three fronts simultaneously.

For one thing, they want freedom for the 22 imprisoned men, who are currently being held without charges. Most of them were only arrested days after the riot in front of the Nile City Towers. One of the imprisoned men doesn't even live in Ramlet Bulak – he was in the district on the day of his arrest to pick up his car from a garage.

In addition, Chidr has to prove that the current inhabitants of Ramlet Bulak have been living there for more than 20 years. This is no easy task, as the state has never issued the hundreds of concerned families with deeds to their land.

Wrecking-ball at the ready

The greatest challenge for Chidr, however, will be to prove the cooperation between Naguib Sawiris and Egyptian security forces. There will certainly not be any assistance from the authorities in this matter. The governor of Cairo is regarded as a close friend of the richest man in Africa. In June of this year, he issued a decree calling for all residents to completely vacate the district. Since then, the decree has been constant threat hanging over the heads of the slum dwellers.

"Theoretically, they could move in the wrecking-ball at any moment," says Chidr. Even the state media has come out in opposition to the residents. They are constantly referred to on Egyptian television and in the newspapers as "baltagiya", or good-for-nothings. The Sawaris family refuses to comment on events. A media spokesman for its business group, Orascom, responded to a newspaper inquiry on the matter by saying that it takes no position on "political events" as a matter of principle.

In June of this year, the governor of Cairo issued a decree calling for all residents to completely vacate the district. Since then, the decree has been constant threat hanging over the heads of the slum dwellers

​​It is unclear as to why the slum dwellers are only now coming under such extreme pressure. Perhaps it is linked to a report that President Mohammed Mursi plans to replace 20 of the country's 27 governors, an alarming prospect for local authorities. Such a move could indefinitely postpone Sawiris' construction plans. The coming to power of the Islamists has been a great source of hope for the lawyers at EIPR. Although the new head of state has announced that all slums in the centre of Cairo will be removed by 2015, he promises that every slum dweller will be offered fair compensation.

The government builds walls

Most families in Ramlet Bulak have expressed satisfaction with this offer. "No one wants to live here," says Anwar Ramadan Abdel Latif, as he wades through the garbage in front of his two-story abode. "If we are offered a decent price for our property, then we will be gone by tomorrow," says the family man, who is influential in the district. The lawyers are demanding around 2,000 US dollars per square metre. So far, Orascom has not even offered a tenth of this sum.

At the same time, the government is attempting to starve out the slum dwellers. They have to haul salty water with buckets from the Nile. In order not to sit in the dark at night, they illegally tap into the power mains. Other slums, which came into existence much later, already enjoy electricity and running water. The only visible investment in Ramlet Bulak provided by the state is a man-sized wall separating the slum from the Nile City Towers. Tourists at the five-star hotel shouldn't have to ruin their stay with a view of the slum.

"We've learned our lesson"

Abdel Latif, one of the spokesman from Ramlet Bulak, is brimming with fury at the authorities. Both he and his eldest son are on crutches since the police shot them in the legs. His youngest son is missing his top row of teeth thanks to the local police. The chickens, doves, and rabbits that Abdel Latif raised in his hut did not survive the massive use of teargas in the district. Only two geese can still be heard gaggling on the roof.

Despite all the hardships, Abdel Latif refuses to give in. Last Sunday, he and other slum dwellers organized a press conference to draw attention to police violence. The security forces immediately arrested him. Shortly afterwards, when dozens of family members, activists, and journalists assembled in front of the police station, authorities let him free. "The security forces haven't learned anything since the revolution," says Abdel Latif. "But we sure have."

Markus Symank

© 2012

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp