Walking through the alleys of Ramlat Bulaq, an old working-class neighborhood in northern Cairo close to the banks of the Nile, I encountered an 11-year old girl playing in front of her house with other children her age. She stopped me and said, “Do you know ‘Amr, the man who was killed? He used to get us candies. They said he was a criminal but he was not. He was angry because of ‘Ammar’s death.” I knew she was referring to ‘Amr al-Buni, a local youth shot by police in the course of this district’s long struggle against the encroachment of wealthy developers backed by the Egyptian state.
Bulaq is a name derived from belaq, an old Egyptian word that means anchorage. The area of Ramlat Bulaq was integrated into the expanding Cairo of the early twentieth century when two pashas built factories. For decades, everyone in the neighborhood worked in the factories and workshops along the corniche. An open green space separated the industrial zone from the railway to the immediate north and from the houses to the east. Today the four-acre neighborhood is home to about 600 families.
The neighborhood began a transformation in 1996, when an investor decided to erect high-rises on this prime riverside real estate. The factories were removed in favor of the huge Nile City Towers, which house commercial offices, a hotel and a shopping mall. Since the Towers opened in 2001, the owners have continued to buy up plots of land in Ramlat Bulaq, forcing the sellers to tear down their homes before they leave. Dangerous snakes lurk in many of the garbage-strewn plots.
Land surveys show that the Nile City Towers took up six meters more than allotted from the street on the eastern side. This expansion caused the first dispute with Ramlat Bulaq residents. For some time a woman named Nasma had operated a kiosk behind the factories and workshops. In 2009, the Cairo municipality demolished the tiny shop, accusing Nasma of taking the six-meter space. She sued, arguing that her kiosk had been built much earlier than the Towers. Nasma refused any kind of negotiation. She died in a mysterious car accident, which everyone in the neighborhood assumes is related to her case.
The backdrop to the current troubles is the 2011 uprising that unseated President Husni Mubarak. Before the uprising, Faris, a young man living in Ramlat Bulaq, drove a truck for one of the biggest construction companies in Egypt. “During the revolution,” he says, “on the day when the police disappeared from the streets, the day of rage on January 28, we were at home. We saw groups of thieves passing by in the main street. They looted the Arcadia mall about 150 meters from here. We, the families, young men and women, decided to protect our neighborhood and the Nile City Towers, as we were afraid of being accused of the thefts. That same week, the Nile City administration thanked us. The security manager called some of us, and asked us to work as guards. Some of the women got other jobs in the Towers. We were getting very good salaries.”
Seventeen months later, on June 28, 2012, a series of fires broke out in Ramlat Bulaq. Because the houses are small and attached to one other, the flames spread quickly. The residents asked the Nile City Towers to help extinguish the blazes by giving them access to the building’s water pump. The last fire happened that July, after the Towers had changed its head of security. When residents ran to ask the Towers for water, the administration said the person with the keys was not there. Four houses burned to the ground, and 15 families lost their shelter. Fifteen people were injured, and a 4 year-old child, ‘Ammar, died. It was this death that upset ‘Amr al-Buni.
Faris continues the story: “In June and July 2012, our salaries were later than usual. It happened as well in August. ‘Amr al-Buni was one of the young men who had been a security guard since January 2011. The morning of August 2, he went to the Towers to ask the security head why salaries were late. The tourism police refused him entry, and one policeman threatened to shoot him. The minute ‘Amr turned around to leave, the policeman shot him in the back, and ‘Amr fell dead. We heard the shots and ran to see what was going on. ‘Amr’s uncle was one of the first to reach the scene. He is an old man. He found ‘Amr lying in his own blood, and tried to carry him off to help. The policeman shot him in the leg as well. All the youth gathered, and began to fight the police in front of the Towers. Central Security Forces and police surrounded the place. A number of cars parked in front of the Towers caught fire. For four or five hours the fight continued. The police shot a number of us, though we were only throwing stones. That night and in the following nights, they arrested 51 young men, some of them with severe bullet wounds.”
After the clashes, human rights organizations volunteered to defend the detainees. Lawyers from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights released statements to clarify what had happened. In January 2014, the 51 detained men were sentenced to prison terms of three to 25 years. No one was punished for the death of ‘Amr al-Buni or the serious injuries to the other youths.
The Ramlat Bulaq residents fared better on other fronts. In 2012, they discovered that the prime minister, the Cairo governor and the Informal Settlement Development Fund had announced confiscation of additional neighborhood land in the June 20 Egyptian Gazette. The residents sued, and in August 2013 a judge overturned the decision. In March 2013 a resident found a master development plan for Ramlat Bulaq envisioned by the Informal Settlements Development Fund and the municipality. Four more towers were to be built in the north along the railway, displacing all the families. In response, on April 7 residents and activist allies organized a march from their neighborhood to Maspero, the state radio and television building, to call for transparency regarding the project, in addition to freedom for the detainees. They succeeded in halting construction.
In the meantime, the grassroots visions for the future of Ramlat Bulaq appear in everyday practices. To improve the neighborhood, residents are painting houses, sharing water and planting trees in empty plots. Everyday activities are not clearly divided between working and socializing. Women sit in front of their houses or head down the street to chat with others. Older men do the same. Vendors—women and men—sell their wares in the streets. In the evening after work, younger men hang out in those same spaces, talking, smoking and listening to music.
The decisions to transform Ramlat Bulaq, whether in the 1990s or today, have been top-down, with no consultation with the residents. Since July 3, 2013, laws prohibit strikes and demonstrations. But the residents have not given up their aspiration to participate in the upgrading of their neighborhood. They have knocked on the door of the new Ministry of Urban Renewal and Transformation, with whose officials they are still in negotiations.