Lean ing embl em ofa city’s corru ption

When a 13-floor tower block in alexan­dria col­lapsed it shone a light on egypt's shoddy con­struc­tion stan­dards, which are leav­ing many res­i­dents fear­ing for their lives, re­ports mia jankow­icz

The Guardian Weekly - - Weekly Review -

Pen­sioner Madiha Ab­del Alim was head­ing home to her flat in Alexan­dria when she looked up and no­ticed some­thing strange: the 13-storey block in which she lived was sud­denly tilt­ing pre­car­i­ously over the nar­row road. Con­cerned, she im­me­di­ately con­tacted the lo­cal author­i­ties. “They did noth­ing,” says Alim. “They said: ‘Oh, that’s nor­mal. It’s a very tall build­ing.’” Three days later, the tower top­pled and crashed into the build­ing across the road.

Soon, im­ages of the “lean­ing tower of Alexan­dria” went vi­ral across Egypt – seen as an em­blem of Egypt’s com­pro­mised con­struc­tion in­dus­try, its le­gal loop­holes and fre­quent cor­rup­tion. Mirac­u­lously no one was hurt in the col­lapse of the Azarita block, but its res­i­dents lost their homes and many were forced to take refuge at a lo­cal mosque.

The high-rise, which only had per­mis­sion for four floors but stretched up to 13, was just one un­safe build­ing among an es­ti­mated 14,500 in the city of Alexan­dria alone. Egyp­tian re­search group the Built En­vi­ron­ment Ob­ser­va­tory es­ti­mates that each year “around 200 peo­ple lose their lives, and over 800 fam­i­lies are made home­less as a re­sult of over 390 res­i­den­tial build­ing col­lapses”.

The tower was fi­nally de­mol­ished last month by a team of en­gi­neers led by the army. The gen­eral in charge, who asked to re­main anony­mous, said the de­mo­li­tion was one of the most com­plex they had ever un­der­taken.

The Azarita block was desta­bilised in late May when the much older build­ing next door col­lapsed, ac­cord­ing to Alim. Her block had been held tightly in place by the sur­round­ing build­ings, its foun­da­tion rods “short as the legs on a cof­fee ta­ble”, as she puts it. With­out ex­ter­nal sup­port, the build­ing be­gan to lean over. It’s a stark ex­am­ple of many hur­riedly con­structed de­vel­op­ments that are quickly re­plac­ing Alexan­dria’s rich but de­te­ri­o­rat­ing ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage.

Dr Islam Asem, pres­i­dent of the city’s tour guides syn­di­cate, says it was around the time of the Egyp­tian Revo­lu­tion, in 2011, that “Alexan­dria’s [built en­vi­ron­ment] re­ally de­clined”. He de­scribes how weak gov­er­nance in the fol­low­ing years has un­der­mined Alexan­dria’s strict con­struc­tion laws. At the same time, de­mand for hous­ing has spi­ralled thanks to a boom­ing pop­u­la­tion, a pre­car­i­ous econ­omy, and a ten­dency for cit­i­zens to pri­ori­tise property as the main form of fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity.

Though the law is clear on max­i­mum build­ing heights – which al­lows new con­struc­tions to rise no more than one and a half times the width of the road it is built on – build­ing in­spec­tors can be per­suaded to ap­ply only a fine, rather than place a de­mo­li­tion or­der and in­sti­gate le­gal ac­tion if the rules are breached. The sum of the fine varies, but is of­ten cov­ered by the landowner’s profit from rent­ing flats in the il­le­gal higher floors.

Alexan­dria build­ing in­spec­tor Hamza Mostafa claims he didn’t need to take bribes to sup­ple­ment his gov­ern­ment salary of 2,000 Egyp­tian pounds ($112) per month. But, he says, “ev­ery­one takes [bribes] from that,” al­leg­ing that many of his col­leagues, in­clud­ing the head of the dis­trict he works for, are in­volved in some form of cor­rup­tion. It is well known among de­vel­op­ers that Egyp­tian property law favours oc­cu­pants, so they of­ten sell off the top floors of a new de­vel­op­ment first – there­fore pro­tect­ing the lower floors from de­mo­li­tion or­ders. “Ev­ery­body blames some­body else,” Mostafa says. But le­gally speak­ing, the buck stops with what is col­lo­qui­ally known as a ka­hool (a scape­goat), usu­ally some­one with lit­tle to lose who agrees to be named as the landowner in ex­change for a cash lump sum. The Azarita build­ing’s ka­hoola – in this case a woman – is cur­rently in cus­tody. De­spite wide­spread knowl­edge of the in­ef­fec­tive laws, the in­dus­try does nev­er­the­less sat­isfy hous­ing de­mand; and given a dearth of other op­tions, many res­i­dents are will­ing to take the risk and live in un­safe or il­le­gal hous­ing.

Sarah al-Kha­teeb and her hus­band Ramy Ahmed live near the now-de­mol­ished tower. When they put the de­posit down for their flat, they knew that the planned eight-storey de­vel­op­ment had per­mis­sion for only four storeys, but were as­sured the build­ing stan­dards would be good enough. But soon af­ter they moved in, the build­ing grew to 18 storeys. “They go up three floors in a week­end. We’ve seen it … they don’t even get the ce­ment to harden. And so these build­ings are like layer cakes,” says Kha­teeb.

It’s a cal­cu­lated risk many Alexan­dri­ans must take. One earth­quake in Cairo in 1992 killed more than 500 and left 50,000 peo­ple home­less; it was un­usu­ally de­struc­tive for its size be­cause it hit so many poorly con­structed build­ings.

The res­i­dents of the Azarita build­ing have been granted 100 Egyp­tian pounds per day in liv­ing al­lowance and tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion, ac­cord­ing to the state news­pa­per al-Ahram; 21 new per­ma­nent homes have been al­lo­cated to res­i­dents so far. But many evac­uees are un­will­ing to leave the area, where their jobs and com­mu­ni­ties are based.

Alim’s fam­ily were of­fered shel­ter by a char­ity in Kafr Abdo, far from the neigh­bour­hood, where women were directed to one hall and men to an­other. “It was very hu­mil­i­at­ing,” says Is­mail Ab­del Meneim Abdo, her hus­band. “I said, ‘why should we do this, let’s leave’ – we were cry­ing. Why should we stay here when we could stay in the mosque in Azarita, where we know things?”

Of the gov­ern­ment al­lowance, the cou­ple say they claimed six days’ worth of liv­ing al­lowance be­tween them be­fore giv­ing up. To col­lect it from the min­istry, they faced queues, chaos and were treated poorly by of­fi­cials. “It is un­pleas­ant,” says Alim. “They are not deal­ing with us in a nice way.”

De­spite the cov­er­age and no­to­ri­ety of Azarita, no one seems op­ti­mistic that the col­lapse will be a wake-up call to the gov­ern­ment or the mu­nic­i­pal author­i­ties. “You have to wait un­til the [build­ing is] dan­ger­ous, and then they solve the prob­lem,” says Mostafa, who is frus­trated by hand­ing in non­com­pli­ance or­ders only to see them evaded.

Mrs Kha­teeb agrees. “Just be­cause the me­dia is around, they [the author­i­ties] have got to look good. But two weeks from now …” Her hus­band chimes in: “Two weeks af­ter this, ev­ery­thing will be back to zero. Back to zero.”

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