Book Egypt’s Housing Crisis: The Shaping of Urban Space 2020
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Yahia Shawkat (YS): Ever since I can remember, there has been a housing crisis in Egypt in one form or another. Now, many cities all over the world go through housing crises and, for some, they end. Egyptian film has portrayed the housing crisis as a main plot almost non-stop between the 1960s and the 1980s, with the subject continuing on in various guises. What surprised me when I dug deeper was how official rhetoric—from government officials, parliamentarians, all the way up to presidents—mentioned it. Through this time, language was carefully chosen, using the then popular “housing problem” in the early 1950s, before moving on to the “housing crisis” within that decade, and then reverting back to the “housing problem” in the mid-1970s until this day. Film and news on the other hand, have stuck with “housing crisis.” Here, I felt that the “housing crisis” was a story that needed to be written as such. I felt that this should be in a form that speaks to a wider audience, rather than the reports or policy notes that I am more used to writing. And since nothing just happens to be, but is the product of a trajectory of events, I needed to dig into history.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
YS: In Egypt’s Housing Crisis, I try to present the spectrum of how people access homes. In the beginning of this project, I mainly looked at renting and buying, but I quickly found out that self-building is the main method of making a home in Egypt, while over the years housing provided by employers or as social welfare have waxed and waned. Within this main narrative of housing access, the book looks at different dimensions of these methods: the policies, politics, and social demands behind them.
And since nothing just happens to be, but is the product of a trajectory of events, I needed to dig into history. For instance, serious steps to build public or social housing started to be taken in the 1940s after a few decades of half-hearted attempts. Most literature on housing on the other hand starts with 1952, the birth of the Socialist era. For government intervention in villages, and arguably the forerunner to modern urban planning, I had to go all the way back to the 1840s.
Readers will get an overall impression of housing in Egypt over the last century or so, with case studies on rent, informalization, and government housing.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
YS: In one way, my book builds on my usual method of using both qualitative and quantitative data to analyze housing. For example, in past articles I have written or edited on the Built Environment Observatory, to work out or explain how housing is becoming more unaffordable, I gather housing price data, read laws on real estate, and speak with people that are looking for a home.
With this book, however, I had the time and the writing space not afforded to generally short and real-time articles to explore the history of housing by looking at the development of policies over decades instead of years. There is a trove of primary sources out there that very few people have touched, at least those researching housing. For example, I was able to find many speeches and writings for Gamal Abdel Nasser on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Archive that mentioned his views on housing in much detail. There were even once-private government documents such as cabinet and committee minutes that showed candid views and debates on rent and social housing. Similar documents for later presidents are not available, which means that the book may be a bit unfair on Nasser.
And while I am used to reading through statistics, it was quite an adventure digging up more historic data on housing, such as tenure—renting versus buying and self-building, for example—which, compared to most countries, covers a relatively recent period from the 1960s and 70s. Here, the statistics helped give an idea of whether government promises were kept and whether plans succeeded.