A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sputterings From an Unfinished Revolution: the Nile Towers Violence

Simmering and sputtering below the surface in Egypt are reminders that the revolution had not only political but economic and social roots, and that little has been done so far to address these grievances. Railroads have been on strike recently, and the labor unrest at the big textile plants in Mahalla in the Delta, has resurfaced yet again; Mahalla was up in arms a year before the rest of the country embarked on the revolution.

Today we've seen another example of these simmering resentments explode into public view, this time not out in a provincial town but right along the Nile. The shantytown that backs up against the elite Nile Towers development erupted in violence, with at least one and perhaps two reported dead, windows broken and fires set, and cars burned along the Nile.

Photo by Egypt Independent
There is some uncertainty about the spark that set off the latest violence,  but none about the tinder. The Nile Towers, a huge complex of apartments, a luxury hotel (the Fairmont), a shopping mall and cinema multiplex. It stands where the ancient suburb of Bulaq, today a rundown neighborhood of central Cairo, adjoins the Nile. A shantytown of unapproved housing sits in its shadow, and the developers (among them billionaire Naguib Sawiris) want the shanties, which are legally considered squatters, off the land. An increasingly large sector of Cairo's population live in the ‘ashwa'iyyat ("informal" or "haphazard" housing), often without electricity, water or sewage service. The shanties around Nile Towers, known as Ramlat Bulaq,  have been condemned by the city and the police ordered to evict them, but the inhabitants have held on stubbornly, many claiming to have documents proving ownership. Protests broke out when a child died in June in a fire which, residents claimed, the security at Nile Towers refused to help put out. The Egypt Independent — partly owned by Naguib Sawiris, ironically — has recently run two articles on the problems around Nile Towers, "Cairo's Central Slum Under Threat," and "Land Rights, Labor and Violence in a Cairo Slum."

The provocation this time is unclear. One report said a man entered the Fairmont Hotel and was demanding money at knife point; tourist police shot him, sparking the rioting. Others spoke of shots coming from the towers into the shanties below, or of the involvement of an undercover security man. As usual the violence erupted before the facts were clear, as longstanding resentments apparently erupted.

There has been greater violence associated with the strikes in Mahalla or the railroad protests, but the Cairo elite and the tourists don't see those. Fires along the Nile outside a five-star hotel garner a different level of attention, including, perhaps, from the new Cabinet being sworn in today.

If that new Cabinet imagine that their appointment marks the success of the revolution, the inhabitants of Ramlet Bulaq and the other ‘ashwa'iyyat might beg to differ.

No comments: