After the events in Egypt of the last several weeks, most of us are familiar with the main criticisms of the former Mubarak regime: It snuffed out free speech and political representation, its interior ministry ran a police state rather than a police force, the services it provided were wretchedly ineffective and mismanaged, and Mubarak and his cronies siphoned off public money into their own pockets with impunity.
Ordinary citizens fought against this regime in a variety of ways, such as organizing protests, or exposing police corruption. They paid for these actions with jail time, torture, and in some cases, their very lives.
But you didn’t need to choose to become an activist in order to feel the weight of all that corruption bearing down on your shoulders. Mubarak’s kleptocracy ensured that ordinary Egyptians endured countless indignities that often existed out in the open, for everyone to see.
When I visited Cairo in April, 2010 it didn’t take me long to spot a blatant example of this corruption: hundreds, perhaps thousands of what appeared to be apartment buildings still under construction. Their concrete skeletons poured, walls patched up with rough brick, steel rebar jutting out of roofs and walls. Yet for all this construction, there was a mysterious absence of any construction workers, equipment, or scaffolding. In fact, many of these buildings appeared to have residents – as evidenced by laundry hanging in windows that lacked shutters.
I found out via a travel companion and several Egyptians I spoke to that these buildings are primarily a result of a loophole. So long as a building is still under construction, it’s not subjectable to property tax. And because the housing shortage in many cities like Cairo is so severe, owners have no trouble finding families willing to live in a shell of a building. For some it’s a better option than living on a roof, or in a cemetery, but that isn’t really saying much.
The photos in the gallery above were taken on an elevated highway in the western suburbs of Cairo that is one of the main routes to get from downtown to the pyramids. The fact that anyone visiting Egypt’s number one tourist attraction can see these structures says a lot about how comfortable Mubarak’s regime had become with their rampant corruption – they didn’t even attempt to hide its most visible representations. Nor did the officials responsible for the loophole make any attempt to distance themselves from the developers and landlords they were supposedly regulating.
We drove at highway speeds for over ten minutes, and the entire time almost all the buildings we could see were unfinished, they cover an enormous area, and that’s just in one suburb. In between photographs I took some video on my old Canon HV40 which you can see below. I didn’t bring my gorillapod with me on the trip (I hadn’t planned to do much filming in cars), so please excuse the handheld.
(Music: “Reach for the Door” by my friend Elevator Boy)
These construction sites don’t have electricity or water, and given their height I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to live in these structures. Residents either go to the washroom in buckets which they carry downstairs or share a communal toilet on the ground floor. When a sandstorm rolls in off the desert, their apartments and all their possessions are covered with sand due to a lack of windows or even properly sealed walls. And as with any construction site there are nails, steel, and rough concrete edges that are hazardous enough to workers, let alone the many children that live in these structures.
The indignity of life in these buildings must be bad enough, but what makes it much worse is how much money developers, landowners and government officials have been making by charging rent for buildings which cost literally nothing to operate, and almost nothing to build. Ahmed al-Maghraby, who was Mubarak’s Minister of Housing until the revolution, has a net worth estimated at $1.8 billion.
Now that Egypt’s state prosecutor is free from intimidation and threats, he’s preparing with investigations against several former ministers, including Maghraby. The cases need the approval of the military to proceed and the supreme council is reviewing the evidence. It remains to be seen if the new government can start to grapple with the indignities of the old, and provide Egyptians with a more promising future.