Image: Angry Egyptian woman
Ben Curtis  /  AP
An Egyptian woman who lives in a shack overlooking the area of the deadly rock slide expresses her anger at the government, whom she claimed had been warned by residents for many years that such an event could occur.
updated 9/13/2008 3:46:44 PM ET 2008-09-13T19:46:44

For years the shantytown grew in the shadow of a limestone cliff, its wooden shacks and shoddy brick apartments creeping up and spreading over the hill. The whole time, the limestone was cracking inside, slowly and invisibly, from the slum's own sewage.

Last weekend, the cliff finally gave way. It rained giant boulders onto the poorest of Egypt's poor, killing at least 80 people in the Dweiqa slum, with whole families still believed buried under the rubble.

The disaster left many Egyptians furious at what they already considered a corrupt, inept government for failing failed to protect the slum dwellers from a calamity that experts had long predicted.

"No one cares about us, they dump us here and forget about us," said Wael Abdel-Ghani, who lives with his wife and daughter in a one-bedroom brick hovel at the top of the cliff overlooking Dweiqa.

People in the slum on the edge of the capital threw stones at officials at the disaster site, protesting that the government was not doing enough to help them.

"Everyone knew this mountain is dangerous," said Abdel-Ghani. "But because it's us who lives here, they don't care."

Egyptians are increasingly fed up with a U.S.-allied government that they consider too incompetent and corrupt to take care of its own people.

Wealthy businessmen dominate the government, led by President Hosni Mubarak for 27 years, and many feel money flows only to a thin crust of the upper class. In the meantime, 40 percent of Egypt's 80 million people live on around $1 a day, and inflation has risen above 20 percent.

Cairo a city of contrasts
The Egyptian capital has become a picture of contrasts. Billboards lining the highways advertise villas in luxury suburbs that have sprung up in the desert around the city. A Persian Gulf developer recently announced a $2.1 billion project to build villas farther back on the limestone plateau.

Yet half of Cairo's 18 million people live in dense slums that fringe the city on all sides — sprawls of rickety brick dwellings built without regulation, often by migrants who come from the countryside seeking work in Cairo.

Safety standards are mostly ignored. A ferry sank in 2006 and killed more than 1,000 people, but its wealthy owner, who is closely linked to the ruling party, was acquitted on negligence charges this year. Major train fires and collisions in recent years have killed hundreds.

When a fire erupted earlier this summer in the upper house of parliament, some Egyptians saw it as payback for the neglect they say they face.

The Dweiqa shantytown both grew up and, in the end, collapsed on corruption and incompetence.

Dweiqa is a part of Manshiyet Nasr, one of Cairo's oldest slums, which cropped up in the late 1960s in a wasteland between a centuries-old Islamic cemetery and the Muqattam plateau. Manshiyet Nasr eventually swelled to more than 1.2 million people squeezed into 2 square miles of narrow lanes and ramshackle apartments.

Corruption helped fuel growth
The growth was paved by corruption. Residents unable to afford homes elsewhere bribed city authorities to build illegally, as did developers looking to rent to new migrants.

Mustafa Mahmoud Sayyed, a tailor, said he paid a city council engineer about $60 to let him put up a one-bedroom shack on the edge of the cliff overlooking Dweiqa. Now, after the collapse, he sleeps in the mosque with his wife and their newborn daughter.

"It became very dangerous to live here," he said.

Dweiqa, home to about 100,000 people, is right at the foot of the plateau, squeezed on the other side by a dump where burning tires send a toxic smell drifting over the houses and shacks. Women shopping in rural galabeya robes pack the mostly unpaved alleys, and men work in metal workshops and small grocery stores or sit at small coffee shops.

Twenty years ago, the government built temporary housing, known as the Shelters, on the cliff directly above Dweiqa. It has since become permanent and even poorer than Dweiqa, evidence of a government project gone wrong.

While Dweiqa's alleys bustle, the dirt roads of the Shelters are lifeless. A few men and women lounge idly outside the rows of brick, bunker-like houses. Garbage piles dot the district, and sewage seeps from the many buildings never hooked up to the water system.

Report warned of danger
In the late 1990s, the government's National Institute for Astronomical and Geophysical Research issued a report to the government warning of the danger in the shantytown. Sewage was soaking into the rock, dissolving limestone and swelling veins of shale, weakening the cliff face.

The planned solution came in 1999, when construction began less than a mile away on the Suzanne Mubarak Housing Project, built with a donation from the United Arab Emirates to house the people of the slum. It was named after Egypt's first lady, who is touted by state media for her charity projects for women, children and the poor.

But most of the 10,000 apartments are empty. One reason, residents say, is that administrators demand heavy bribes to allow anyone to move into the complex.

"Only when you give 10,000 pounds ($1,800) to the local authorities, you might get an apartment there, or if you are a relative of the governor or the head of the municipality, you might get one," said Mahmoud Samir, a construction worker who lives in Dweiqa. "Otherwise, you will stay here until you die."

Haidar Baghdadi, a lawmaker representing the surrounding Manshiyet Nasr district, also accused "corrupt thieves in the housing authority" of demanding bribes for the apartments and letting their own relatives move into the project.

Housing Ministry officials did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Thousands of homes to be made available
Days after the cliff collapse, Cairo Gov. Abdel-Azim Wazir announced that 2,000 homes in the project would be made available immediately to Dweiqa residents. Around 90 families have moved in since.

The government has tried to tackle Cairo's slums. It has connected some to water and electricity lines, and stepped up the construction of public housing to replace others. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said earlier this year that 500,000 new apartments were built in 2007, 15 percent more than the year before.

But even when they are carried out, the measures don't always work. Some slum residents refuse to move to projects far from the city center. Or they take a public apartment, then rent it out for extra cash and stay in their slums.

In Dweiqa, police and workers still hacked away at the boulders a week after the collapse, looking for more victims.

"My whole house is gone. Where shall I go now?" said a weeping Nasreen Mohammed, whose two daughters were injured in the rock slide.

A bearded man watched the rescue workers and shouted, "The place has turned into a mass grave."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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