Cairo 90210?

CAIRO, Egypt — Incessant honking, a bridge jammed for hours, and enough smog to merit the number one spot on the World Bank’s most dangerously polluted cities list.

Welcome to Cairo. Home to around 17 million. Many who can afford it, are getting out.

“I used to be in my home, and when someone called me they thought I was on the street because it was so loud,” explained Amira Mohamed, single mother of three, for the reason why she moved from her house in central Cairo three years ago to an approximately $500-a-month apartment in a wealthy suburb. “I had to run away from the crowds and the noise.”

More and more tailor-made communities — boasting names like Hyde Park, Beverly Hills and Uptown Cairo — have sprung up on the outskirts of Cairo in recent years, catering to an exodus of middle- and upper-class Egyptians who, like Amira, are escaping the traffic, pollution and chaos of the center of the city to move to an essentially American suburbia in the desert. 

Meanwhile, about 20 miles away down a billboard-lined highway, the congested slums of central Cairo — with average family monthly incomes as low as $30 — continue to multiply.

As the gap between Egypt’s rich and poor grows, so do the ill effects of urban sprawl in Africa’s largest city — a city otherwise known for functioning relatively well given its diversity.

“One of the characteristics which many have commented upon in Cairo is the economic and commercial heterogeneity of the city, and the ways in which people of different economic classes live amongst each other — certainly with strong hierarchies reinforced,” said Diane Singerman, American University School of Public Affairs associate professor and editor of the book "Cairo Contested: Governance, Urban Space, and Global Modernity." “But now there is the move to a kind of 'enclave architecture,' or a ‘privatized exclusivity,’ and very obvious spatial social polarization in space and increased stratification.”

In fact, Egypt’s leading real estate developers are doing more than just building luxury residential compounds for Egypt’s elite. They have also launched plans to construct entire satellites cities to serve as local and international business hubs.

The message, said Esmat El-Nahas, public relations director for SODIC, one of the local leading high-end real estate developers, was: “You can live here. You can work here. You don’t need anymore to commute into town, which has become really overcrowded. What we are trying to do is have when people come here they just live here and stay here.”

In SODIC’s Westown, which has a Dubai-esque model skyline plopped in the middle of the Egyptian desert, future inhabitants can choose if they want their apartments to be decorated in natural zen or modern Islamic decor. The city will boast underground parking and a promenade of shopping and cafes that was likened to Barcelona’s Las Ramblas — all to be completed in the next 7-13 years. SODIC denied a request for a starting price for its residential property.

A lifestyle opportunity … for some

In the past six years, Egypt’s economy has grown significantly thanks to major steps by the government to implement liberal economic reform efforts. Before the global financial crisis, Egypt’s GDP was growing at more than 7 percent, and although it’s petered down to a little less than 5 percent growth rate in 2009, the country is still ranked 29th in the world for GDP growth, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Yet, Manal Tibe, director of the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights (ECHR), explained that the reality on the ground is that this generated wealth has yet to trickle down, and very few Egyptians can afford this new and improved world in the suburbs.

Egypt’s average per capita income is only $6,000 a year (placing Egypt 134th in the world income rankings). The country has a a median age is 24.8 years, and many Egyptians who are poised to move out of the family home, get married and start their own lives, simply cannot afford to do so, Tibe said.

“We say there is segregation in Egypt. Not like in South Africa based in color, but here it’s based on class,” she said.

According to the ECHR, 5 million of Cairo’s inhabitants live in informal housing communities, essentially slums, which in many cases don’t have access to basic services like clean water, sanitation and electricity.

“The informal housing sector, which is now massive in Cairo and other parts of Egypt, was in a sense a 'private' solution to the lack of affordable housing,” Singerman said.

Catering to the poor

Recent initiatives by some private developers to build affordable housing in Cairo’s suburbs in addition to high-end housing have gained some ground, but housing advocates and urban planners say that this causes new problems because there is a lack of sufficient public transportation into the city center.

“Much of this top-down development has been found in major cities to have devastated residential communities, and the dynamism of heterogeneous residential and commercial areas,” Singerman added.

When Amira Mohamed was asked whether or not she would ever move back to Heliopolis, the neighborhood of Cairo where she still owns a home, she rejected the possibility: “No I can’t. I would die.”