The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

وداعاً أحمد شر�

Communist lawyer Ahmad SharafEddin passed away last night at the age of 57.
Sharaf was a student leader in the 1970s, who went on to become a labor lawyer. He was a devoted soldier in working class battles and a ruthless civil rights campaigner at the Lawyers' Syndicate.
May he rest in peace…

I'm posting a feature, I wrote for the Cairo Times back in 2002, about Awlad Allam slum in Dokki, where Sharaf grew up.

Diamond in the rough

Nestled among the high towers and fashionable boutiques of Dokki lies a slum with an illustrious past, Hossam El-Hamalawy explores

A slum in Dokki!? Eyebrows go up whenever anyone hears of the existence of Awlad Allam, an "informal neighborhood" (read slum area) in the heart of upmarket Dokki. Not far from the Shooting Club, just behind the Ministry of Agriculture complex and the elite residential area by Mossadeq Street, Awlad Allam was actually one of the first settlements on the west bank of Cairo.
This small shaabi enclave in a wealthy area was once known for its political militancy. But unlike most slum areas, in which Islamist groups from the Muslim Brotherhood to Al Gamaa Al Islamiya have thrived, Awlad Allam was a stronghold of communists and other leftist groups throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It most notably produced several leftist leaders who played a key role in the students' and workers' movements of those decades. However, in the 1990s, the neighborhood's reputation changed. After being a center of militant secular politics, authorities have accused it of being a hotbed for drug dealers and thugsan accusation strongly denied by its residents, though they admit that apathy, unemployment and frustration have spread among the youth.
Now, while the residents of Awlad Allam have abandoned leftist politics (or, as they might say, leftist politics abandoned them), they are facing a greater challenge than State Security crackdowns. For over two decades, they have fought off an attempt by the government to evict them from their prime real estate and move them to the new residential areas around Cairo.


"The story [of Awlad Allam] is passed on from one generation to the other," says 25-year-old Emad Mubarak. "Dokki was then an agricultural areano buildings, no nothing." Emad is the brother of Hisham Mubarak, a pioneering human rights activist in the 1990s (and occasional Cairo Times contributor) who passed away in 1999. He is also a prominent leftist activist in his own right and has faced persecution from the State Security police on numerous occasions. He decided to follow in the footsteps of his late brother as a human rights lawyer.
"People are always shocked when they find out about the existence of a shantytown in the middle of Dokki," Mubarak says. "But we were here before Dokki was built. This is the case in many other areas. The slum existed before the posh district, unlike the common stereotype." There are several histories--and urban legends--about the neighborhood. But legal documents in the possession of former student leader and current labor lawyer, Ahmad Sharaf, show that the inhabitants of Awlad Allam settled around the year 1900 after emigrating from Upper Egypt.
"The [inhabitants of the] old part of Awlad Allam were working the land of Princess Fatma Ismail," explains Sharaf. "She owned all of these lands, including the area upon which Cairo University was built. Later it was taken over by the [Ministry of] Awqaf." What started a century ago as a scattering of peasant huts has evolved into a five-feddan slum with a population ranging between 15,000 and 20,000 persons. Until the 1960s, most of the residents were peasants. But now things changed.
"You find professors, police and army officers, judges, teachers, lawyers and doctors," says Gouda Al Sheemi, a 59-year-old resident who works at the National Research Center. "This is a microcosm of Egyptian society."
The diversity of professions isn't the only common aspect of this community--the poverty of the slum's inhabitants is evident. Around 100 families receive aid from the Ministry of Social Affairs, according to Sharaf. Until recently, Awlad Allam lacked basic facilities. The inner alleys were only paved three years ago and drinking water pipes were only installed in 1997.
"Before that women used to carry big plastic containers on their heads, and walk to a public water pipe outside the slum to get their families' share," recalls Mubarak. "The houses are so small that you can't even now extend the pipes inside, so the pipes surround the houses!"

A radical history

Poverty, in addition to the political conditions the country was going through in the 1970s, radicalized many of the inhabitants of the slum. It's enough to bring up Sharaf's and Mubarak's names to any of the residents and dozens of residents gather around to recount the "legends" of Awlad Allam's favorite sons.
"I remember when we were children, Ahmad Sharaf and Hisham Mubarak were like folk heroes," says Ragab Abdel Hamid, a 28-year-old janitor and father of two. "We used to look up to them, and talk joyously about how they caused headaches for the government." Abdel Hamid has named his newborn child Hisham.
Communist militants had an active presence in the neighborhood for decades, organizing demonstrations, clashes with the police, and welfare activities. One of the earliest memories Sharaf has about his childhood was the 1956 demonstration against the Suez War.
"The people in the neighborhood took to the streets chanting anti-British and pro-Nasser slogans," he says. "We were carrying a symbolic coffin for [British Prime Minister Anthony] Eden that was made of wooden chicken cages. We all marched barefooted and in gallabiyas. I was seven years old then, and I had no clue who Nasser was at that time. I thought he was someone important in the nearby Ministry of Agriculture!"
That even marked the beginning of political activities in the area, which heightened after the 1967 defeat that pushed many of Awlad Allam's disillusioned youths to the radical left. Each generation of activists in the slum organized a madrassa talaie (vanguards school) through which the political message was passed on to the following generation. The "school" would be set up in the evenings at any nearby empty school building, mosque, Tagammu party headquarters, or even inside the homes of the residents.
"There were two objectives: private tutoring for young students to help them in their studies, and at the same time creating politically conscious cadres," says Mubarak. "It was easy to create such cadres, because of the poverty and the feeling of the educated individuals in the slum of the need to do something about it. That's why the people were attracted to the left, and the communists had the upper hand."
The slum's children were also taken on recreational trips to archeological places, and museums to know more about the history of Egypt. During the trips, the youngsters were taught to care about Awlad Allam, their "little Egypt," and also their country, "greater Egypt," adds Mubarak.
"We used to pay for everything from our pockets including the chalk bars," says Al Sheemi, remembering the evening classes he used to teach. "Today I meet doctors, engineers, and officers, who come up to me and say: 'Do you remember me? I was one of your students. You helped me a lot.'"
Political meetings were conducted, while everyone is sitting on the floor, eating falafel, in an atmosphere of comradeship and respect for differences. "At the end of the day, we were all friends; we were all brothers; and we were all Egypt," Al Sheemi added.
Mubarak remembers the "street theater" the communist activists used to organize when he was a child. "We used to get a group of tables; put them together and then cover them with a cloth. That was the stage," he says. "Plays were performed, talking about the regime and social oppression. We used to write these plays ourselves, and the youth in the slum would perform them." The shows were very popular. Huge numbers used to come and watch, including inhabitants of neighboring slums, from both sexes and all ages.

Politics to drugs?

However, with the retreat of the left and the general deterioration of political life in the 1990s, things changed. Awlad Allam's reputation went from being a political hotbed to a den of thugs, drug dealers, and junkies.
"There was no continuation between the 1980s and the 1990s generations," Mubarak says. "But my [1990s] generation is to be blamed for that. We couldn't follow the previous one. The Tagammu [party]'s headquarters doesn't exist anymore in the neighborhood. The Tagammu itself has changed, and became unwelcoming to radicals, especially Trotskyites, who make up for most of Egypt's new left."
For Mubarak, the problems in the neighborhood cannot be separated from the general problems Egypt is facing. "Everyone is depressed, with poverty all around you," he says. "You have big ambitions, but you know you won't be able to achieve them. Even the simplest dreams, like getting an apartment, have become impossible. Are you going to live with your family? They are already packed in sardine tins."
Drug use became prevalent as social problems such as unemployment and political helplessness became to dominate the lives of the youth. The step from drug user to drug dealer, with the nearby presence of upper class youths, was a small one.
"The presence of upper class 'cool' guys around the slum encouraged at some point trading in weed as a way of making a living," Mubarak suggests. But he stresses the fact that drug trade is not as spread as the government claim, and accuses the police of taking such claim as a justification for its brutal practices in the neighborhood. Local residents claim that police often make arbitrary arrests
"I was just walking in the street, and suddenly came this police officer asking for my ID," says Ibrahim, one of the teenagers in the neighborhood. "I showed it to him, but then he asked me to get into the police car." Ibrahim says this is a standard procedure, and that he was locked up several times before. "They usually lock you up for two days, and then release you with no reason," he added.
Teenagers are regularly imprisoned alongside hardened criminals and receive no protection from police in jails. "You have no idea what they go through inside," says Mubarak.
Drug-related offenses aside, locals claim the area has low crime ratespartly through self-policing. "Every neighborhood has got its own good guys and bad guys," says Salama Abdel Latif, a 43-year-old owner of a car workshop. "It's a small neighborhood. If anything happens, we all hear about it, and intervene to solve it."

Not going anywhere

Drugs may be the last thing on the minds of Awlad Allam's inhabitants. They are more worried about their own homes, from which the government has been trying to evict since the 1960s.
"Every generation has heard that the neighborhood will be demolished," says Mubarak. "My elder brothers heard it during their youth, and so did I later. We are not going anywhere, as we don't have any other alternative. Your home is sacred, and you'll never leave it, even if you have money."
The first major attempt at evicting the slum dwellers was in the beginning of the 1960s. The Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) sold the land to the Society of Broadcasters. However, the people refused to leave, so the society broke off the contract, and took only some plots of empty land around the slum, according to Sharaf. Several attempts occurred in the following decades, but were met by fierce resistance from the inhabitants that escalated into clashes with the police on some occasions.
After the 1992 earthquake, local authorities evicted some families from what they considered unsafe housing, and moved them to Qattamiya outside Cairo. "The orders for house demolitions, were signed in the [local authorities'] offices," says Al Sheemi. "The officials and engineers didn't bother to come down here and check the safety of the buildings themselves." He believes, like many others, that the earthquake was merely used as a pretext to begin emptying the neighborhood.
"You can't destroy our lives, and transfer us to Qattamiya, or Badr city," says Abdel Latif. "There was no single room [in the slum] that collapsed, unlike the case of other towers in high-class neighborhoods that couldn't withstand the quake."
At the center of the government's attempt at evicting Awlad Allam's residents lies greed, argue locals. Because of its location near Dokki, the land they live on could fetch a hefty price. Sharaf and other lawyers, together with the some residents, have been active in trying to transfer the ownership of the land and property from the Ministry of Awqaf to the residents. In 1990, the ministry finally agreed to sell them the land, but asked for a high price.
"Initially the Awqaf proposed hilarious figures: LE8,000 per meter," Sharaf remembers. "I told the head of Awqaf, 'if you sell all the inhabitants with their belongings you'd only get one house's price!' We asked for LE30-40 per meter like the other cases of Awqaf lands sold in other governorates. [But] the Awqaf is only interested in the money, and doesn't look at the social dimension."
According to Sharaf, the Awqaf secretly attempted to strike a deal with some businessmen in 1994 by which the inhabitants would be transferred somewhere else to facilitate selling the land for high prices. "They estimated the total value of the land to be LE26 million," he says. "Constructing alternative houses for the evicted inhabitants would have cost LE20 million. So the Awqaf will come out with a revenue of LE6 million."
After long negotiations, the Awqaf made a new offer seven months ago, citing prices ranging between LE2,000 and LE2,400 per meterstill prohibitively expensive by local standards. "My salary is LE500," says Al Sheemi. "How can I pay LE2,400 per meter? Give us a fair price that suits the people here, and we'll pay."
Abdel Latif echoes his words. "Why can't I have my own land like those who live in [the elite nearby] Moussadeq Street?" asks Abdel Latif. "I'm a human being just like them, and I have the right to a decent housing. Don't throw me at the [Qattamiya] mountain."

Cairo Times
August 2002