Resentment festers in Egypt's grinding slums Poverty gives insight to massacre at Luxor

November 23, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAIRO, Egypt -- At the butcher shop of the sons of the sheik, the impoverished women of Imbaba line up for camel meat.

Verses from the Koran blare from a tape recorder as Ahmed Hawari sharpens his knives. Camel is the only meat he sells. His customers, the poorest of Cairo's poor, can afford no other. This is a dusty warren of mud and brick tenements, 1 million people in two square miles, a shantytown that lacked water, electricity and crudely paved roads until a couple of years ago.

Imbaba's astonishing poverty and resentment is not what tourists see when they come to Egypt. Instead, they are drawn to the pyramids, the Sphinx, the Nile, sparkling languidly below the balconies of luxury hotels, the fantastic ruins at Luxor, about 315 miles upstream. The two Egypts tend to come together only in violent explosions such as the one in which 58 tourists were killed last week in a massacre at Luxor.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has dealt with Imbaba in two ways, brutally at first and now with what passes for government largess in this city of almost 8 million people.

Imbaba was a breeding place of the Islamic militant campaign against Mubarak that began five years ago with attacks against security forces and Coptic Christians. The same year, in six bloody weeks, the Mubarak government launched its offensive against the chieftains of Egypt's Islamic militant movement known as al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, or the Islamic Group. Warfare between the two sides has cost more than 1,150 lives since then. The Gama'a claimed responsibility for the attack in Luxor.

In 1992, the Gama'a ran the gray slums of Imbaba. A more militant offshoot of the Jihad movement that killed President Anwar el Sadat, the Gama'a ruled with force and religious fervor. The community was one of the shanty neighborhoods in greater Cairo that the government didn't recognize. In the absence of a civil authority, the Gama'a became a source of assistance, an arbiter of disputes and later, an autocratic power.

The neighborhood became known as the Republic of Imbaba.

When Egypt's state security forces stormed the area in December 1992, a battle ensued in which the government killed several Islamic militants and residents and arrested 600 Gama'a members.

Then came the nicer treatment. The government opened a police station in the area and promised to deliver services to these towns.

Grim conditions improving

"Life is getting better here," said Hawari, who opened the butcher shop with his brother Ahmed in 1991. "It's getting cleaner, and we see improvements all the time. Six years ago, people couldn't even enter this area."

Change is relevant, especially in a society of extreme poverty like Cairo.

In Munira West, goat herds and donkeys feed off mounds of garbage piled in the middle of a square. The splashes of color that break up an otherwise gray landscape come from the vegetable carts stacked with tomatoes and cauliflower, zucchini and yams.

And from the vendors, large women wearing long, loose tunics of bright colors, their heads wrapped in scarflike turbans.

A lawyer advertises his tax services on a placard hung from a balcony. A street banner announces the opening of a Muslim preschool. A grocer charges 15 cents to use the black hulking telephone he has on a table outside his shop -- in a country where a government clerk earns about $30 a month.

Mahmoud Morgan sits behind a desk in the local school named for his family and built in 1988. Dressed smartly in a blue suit and red silk tie, Morgan is the local councilman from Munira West, a member of Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the man charged with bringing the services to the people.

When the Gama'a ruled Munira West, there was no hospital, no nearby school, no drainage. "Legally, they said we had water, but it never reached any home," said Morgan, a tall man of 40 whose family once farmed the land now occupied by Munira West. "Now, all the houses have running water."

In more developed countries something like a hearse might be taken for granted, but not here.

"One of the problems we faced," he said, "was the people wanted a funeral car. It was difficult for us to [raise] money for this car -- there wasn't enough trust."

Morgan proposed using $2,300 that had been raised to expand the local mosque to help finance the hearse. "And we got the funeral car about six months ago," he said.

Now he's working on even more ambitious plans: a community center for the neighborhood, which will house postal and telegraph offices, social services and a registry of births and deaths.

"All these services make people concentrate on their community and not look at the outside problems. When there are schools, the literacy rate will be better. The more hospitals, the better health. There won't be this anger against the government," he said.

Anything could help in this harsh place.

Survival economy

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