Poverty and Politics in Ezbat al-Haggana

As Egypt considers its coming parliament, discussed among pundits and politicians alike, actual voting power lies far off the beaten track in slums such as Ezbat al-Haggana. Nagwa Raouf, founder of the House of Blessing local charity, says two million people live there.

“We have told the people, ‘Do not sell your vote, it is your dignity’,” she stated, but the call goes on deaf ears. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Ahmad Shafiq and Amr Moussa offered the equivalent of US $0.83 to cast a ballot on their behalf.

Islamist groups which had been active in Ezbat al-Haggana did not sell their vote, Raouf explained, though she was not happy with them either.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has worked with the people for eighty years, giving them money, clothes, and meals for Ramadan,” she stated. “But what have they done to uplift the people?

“Salafis are the same but worse, as they are close minded.”

In an area where the majority live below the poverty line, Raouf sought out a neighborhood Muslim imam to sanction a unique, if cynical, solution.

“With the sheikh we agreed to tell them to take the money, but then go and vote for someone else,” she said.

Ezbat al-Haggana is located in northeast Cairo, off the ring road, not far from high class developments built away from the downtown. With no housing provided, Upper Egyptians looking for work erected a shanty town not far from construction.

According to Raouf, thirty years ago Egypt’s Border Guard sold the Haggana land to its officers, who in turn sold it to local residents. It took twenty years for the government to provide local sewage and electrical service.

Despite the evident poverty, construction is booming, especially after the revolution. Local regulations forbid apartments from going over four floors, but this is widely disregarded. Contractors from outside the area make a partnership with land owners, offering to build additional apartments upon their one floor home. Contractor and owner split the floors, which in turn are sold or rented to others.

Or, perhaps, they are kept in family. It is common for 15-20 people to live in a single home, as migration trends from Upper Egypt dictate families live together, and near to neighbors of the same region. Though Haggana divides informally its sub-districts by native origin – Asyut, Minya, Sohag, etc – Muslims and Christians are intermingled along the same pattern.

Likewise, religious relations follow the Egyptian pattern. Raouf states that Muslims and Christians are fine neighbors, but the problem of church building traveled with the migrants.

There is one official, licensed church in Ezbat al-Haggana, but several unofficial meetings in family homes. Next to one of these someone recently erected an unlicensed mosque.

Local Muslims, Raouf explains, welcome Christian worship – but to a point. They know full well that services are conducted by their neighbors and have no objection. Problems begin when Copts seek to transform the exterior of their building to reflect formal church architecture. Muslims feel their allowance has been betrayed, while Christians feel their identity is denied by the refusal of official permissions. Fortunately, Haggana’s community leaders have had the wisdom to avoid stoking tensions in this area.

It is these community leaders who guard its people against outsiders, which can make even charity work difficult.

“First you have to love,” said Raouf. “Then you have to get to know them, then trust them, then win their confidence, and then finally you can help.”

Raouf’s House of Blessing succeeded by first working through an already established NGO, The Mountain of Mercy. She asked workers there to recommend ten families who stood in dire need of improved housing. Interviewing them one by one, she looked for who could help themselves.

She settled on a family originally from Aswan who settled in Haggana thirty years earlier. Raouf noticed the woman of the household kept her children in school and carried potable water to her home each day. She was industrious and principled.

The House of Blessing collected money from the Islamic zakat giving of family and friends. They demolished the woman’s home entirely and built for her and her family a two story dwelling, with a small shop attached to the outside. Half of the nearly US $6,000 project is paid by the charity, with the other paid by the family in the form of a no interest loan.

Raouf and the woman exchanged the warmest of greetings.

This type of fundraising is difficult in Egypt, however. To transform a nearby alleyway Raouf caught the attention of a Saudi Arabian television show, whose producer funded and filmed the construction of two complete buildings. Eight whole families were outfitted, benefitting over sixty people. Whereas many alleys in Haggana are stained by garbage or general disrepair, this one sported a dignified cement floor. Many months later, it was still in pristine condition.

“To change people you must change their home,” believes Raouf. “Before, people would look at this alley and say, ‘We are satisfied, should we go against what God has given us?’

“But God wants us to live well.”

Raouf believes residents should also live well politically. As she first benefitted from the reputation of others, she now lends her own to those who believe similarly. Before the fall of Morsi she assisted contact for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, and the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

“I work with different political parties so that people can experience them and compare between them,” she stated.

On the occasion of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, the Social Democrats were in town. They hosted a party and community dialogue on the process of writing a constitution. Held at a park outside of town, attendance was small.

“It is not a long term battle,” said Nancy Muneer, deputy director for the party in East Cairo, “but a very long term battle.”

No natural politician, Muneer has been working in areas like Ezbat al-Haggana since the 2011 revolution – but never before.

“My son joined the revolution, before which he had zero hope,” she said. “I am upper middle class but I can’t stand to see people eating garbage off the street. We have everything we need to live in a better way, we just need a system.”

Muneer is in charge of women and youth affairs in the party, and she has been transformed by the experience.

“I am involved because I love people and love Egypt. Many of us are like this,” she said. “It is very addictive, because you fall in love with these people. They are so simple, genuine, and humble.”

There are also so foreign to her world. Muneer’s experience underscores why liberals may have such difficulty in mobilizing the people. It is not necessarily that the poor of Ezbat al-Haggana are Islamist, ignorant, or easily swayed by religion. They are simply not known.

“We go to Gazira Club and City Stars,” she said, “but Ezbat al-Haggana is what real Egypt is like, and we don’t know it.”


Note: This article was originally written in 2012, but not published. I reviewing some of my older work I believe it is still very relevant to the Egyptian scene, even with the removal of many Islamist parties. The same political dynamics exist. Finally, at last contact, Mouneer is no longer working with the Social Democratic Party, having opted out of politics.