Originally published in The Daily Star (Lebanon), 8 January 2013
In the shadow of the Pyramids of Giza, the soaring tombs which showcase the genius of ancient Egypt, lies a neighbourhood wracked by grubby backstreet politics.
Named after the monuments which tower high above the horizon barely half a mile away, the Pyramid Gardens estate is one of the most notorious examples of urban creep which has all but swallowed up the Giza plateau.
But in addition to being an ill-advised planning eyesore, the estate has become a sobering snapshot of the challenges facing Egypt following this month’s referendum on the new constitution.
Homeowners in the compound allege that rogue property developers are flouting UNESCO regulations designed to protect the Pyramids by constructing illegal apartment extensions and selling them off for handsome profits.
Mahmoud Sayed, a 46-year-old lawyer who recently started a campaign to highlight alleged abuses by the estate’s management committee, told The Daily Star that Pyramid Gardens had fallen prey to a corrupt relationship between property speculators and Mubarak-era officials who still govern the area.
Landowners in the estate are voting for pliant representatives to head the area committee, he said, who then turn a blind eye to illegal development in return for the perks of office.
“It’s a problem of the political culture,” said Mr Sayed, a father-of-three. “It’s happening because of the culture of the old regime.
Initially established under Nasser-era laws designed to dish up cheap land for the masses, Pyramid Gardens has ballooned into a giant compound of villas and luxury apartments which now boxes in the Giza plateau on its western flank.
Administered through a committee which is headed by a former MP in Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party, locals say that the 1,000 acre neighbourhood has been brought low by corruption and mismanagement – a legacy of decades of despotism which filtered down to every level of government across Egypt.
The Daily Star repeatedly tried to contact the committee for a comment, but nobody was available.
Lax building regulations are nothing new in Cairo, a mega-city of some 17 million people where an estimated two thirds of the population live in ‘informal’, unlicensed neighbourhoods.
But two years after the Egyptian insurrection, the problems facing Pyramid Gardens demonstrate how difficult it will be to dissolve the decades-old networks of power and patronage which took root under successive military rulers.
Local government remains stuffed with former army officers and ex-members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
Not only is the head of the Pyramid Gardens estate a former member of parliament for the NDP, but the man who runs the local hayy – the tier of government which includes the compound in its jurisdiction – is a former major general in the Egyptian army.
The situation is not unique. Under Hosni Mubarak virtually all local government was in the hands of the NDP, while ex-generals and military officers could often count on a plum posting at the head of a city municipality after hanging up their boots.
“For the generals who use to work in the military, this was their retirement prize,” said Ahmed Abou Hussein, an analyst from theEgyptian Decentralization Initiative. “They would become a governor or head of a city. It was a nice way to retire.”
But as with all corrupt regimes, the system could only prosper by feeding ravenously off itself.
Pyramid Gardens was established under the Housing Co-operative Law – a socialist programme originally conceived by Nasser as a way of enabling Egyptians to purchase cheap land for affordable homes.
But according to Khalid Abdelhalim, an expert on the co-operative movement, thousands of the projects eventually came under the control of former army officers or regime officials who had connections with the ruling regime.
He said: “Under the past regime it was very difficult to get involved in something, especially if that meant investing money, without getting personal assurances from people inside government.
“It was very normal for co-operatives and other projects to get an influential guy, like an ex-military figure or someone who was well connected.
“These were the rules of the game,” he added.
Mr Abou Hussein said he believes the struggle over local government is one of the key battles which will define the success or failure of the Egyptian uprising.
But two years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, there are fears that the controversial constitution which was approved in the recent referendum will simply pave the way for another era of autocracy – this time beneath the Muslim Brotherhood.
The new national charter, hammered out by an Islamist-dominated assembly and then fast-tracked to a public vote, includes a number of clauses relating to local government.
Muslim Brotherhood figures say the changes, which include a call for local councils to be directly elected, are necessary to slim down the unwieldy, autocratic bureaucracy of the past.
But liberal opponents point out that the constitution does not address the crucial question of whether regional and city governors – the ultimate executive powers – will be elected by public vote or selected by the President.
“We’re fighting for a free democratic system,” said Hossam Allam, from the liberal Al-Wafd Party. “We did not join the revolution to change the totalitarian power of one party for the totalitarian power of another.”
Other concerns have been flagged up by activists and opposition politicians, with critics of the charter saying it fails to protect the rights of women and gives de facto legislative oversight to Sunni Muslim clerics.
However Amr Darrag, a Muslim Brotherhood figure who was secretary general of the assembly which drafted the constitution, rejected such claims, and accused Egypt’s liberal opposition of playing politics. “We all have different political views and it’s impossible to please everybody,” he said.
“But the problem is that some people have their eyes on the coming elections rather than finishing the constitution.”