From time to time, Egypt wakes up to the news of a collapsed building and the death of dozens of people. The news is usually accompanied with a government decision to examine the condition of the collapsed property, arrest its owner and the payment of a meagre compensation to the families of the dead and injured.
This is a recurring issue across the country, yet no official is ever held to account.
Egypt is becoming one of the countries whose quality of construction cannot be trusted, according to a study by the College of Engineering and Construction at the University of Florida, USA.
The number of deadly property collapses in Egypt reveal a clear crack in the structure of the old neighbourhoods in the capital, Cairo, and this calls for checking the integrity of the foundations of a number of buildings across the country. However, this may simply reveal a secret world of tycoons who benefit from construction violations.
Accidents and discrepancies
A few days ago, 14 people, including children, were killed in the collapse of a five-storey building in Hadayek Al-Qubba, north of Cairo. The building collapsed when the owner of one of the units attempted to demolish one of the internal walls in his apartment. The property was constructed in the 1980s without a permit, and a decision was issued to restore it but it was not implemented, according to a statement from the Egyptian Public Prosecution.
But more tragic was the collapse of a 14-storey building in the Miami area in El-Montazah Awal district, in Alexandria this month. The collapse led to the death and injury of dozens, in an accident that is not the first nor the last of its kind, in a coastal governorate that witnessed the collapse of 22 properties in whole or in part during the first half of this year only.
More than a week ago, an eight-storey building also collapsed in the city of Rashid in the Buhaira Governorate, killing four people and leaving 13 others with fractures and wounds.
The Egyptian authorities do not provide accurate details of the number of properties that collapse in the country, the number of victims or the number of buildings that are on the verge of collapse, and there are big discrepancies in official data.
In 2020, the government’s Technical Inspection Agency for Building Safety estimated that 60,000 buildings had been issued demolition orders. While the Ministry of Local Development put the figure at 111,800 housing units across Egypt, with a total of 69,900 orders implemented.
According to data from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), 97,535 properties are on the verge of collapse, classified as non-restorable and need to be demolished, compared to 3,233,635 in need of restoration.
Meanwhile, a study by the Egyptian Centre for the Right to Housing found that there are 1.4 million properties on the verge of collapse across Egypt while unofficial estimates confirm that there are more than seven million which are in violation of building codes.
Characteristics of the crisis do not stop at conflicting official data but extend to more serious aspects related to ignoring construction safety standards and widespread corruption in issuing building permits from local agencies, as well as paying bribes to officials to turn a blind eye to building violations.
Egyptian Minister of Local Development, Major General Hisham Amna, announced during a speech before the Egyptian Senate in March that the number of requests for reconciliation in building violations amounted to 2.8 million, of which 1.6 million were in the countryside and 1.2 million in urban areas.
In addition, people often resort to carrying out construction activities at night, on official holidays, and in an accelerated manner, without adhering to technical or engineering standards to evade follow-up by government agencies.
People also make internal changes within their units, including removing pillars and walls, without getting an expert opinion, which affects the integrity of the building and may cause its collapse at a later date.
With the high prices of raw materials, contractors are reducing the proportions of iron and cement used, or using low-quality materials, such as bad sand (poor sand mixed with dirt), mixing cement with dirt and iron filings, or using rusty iron and expired cement, according to statements issued by the head of the Building Materials Division of the General Federation of Chambers of Commerce, Ahmed Al-Zaini.
Alexandria, which is on the Mediterranean coast, is particularly affected by weather factors, water leakage, and the increase in salt concentration in the soil, which makes building high-rise towers in the coastal governorate a risky adventure.
Egyptian construction expert, Engineer Mohamed Helmy, revealed another cause for the crisis, related to ignoring soil suitability tests before construction to determine the type of building can be supported and the number of floors that can be built. He stressed that many people ignore this, and add additional floors, not to mention the greed of contractors whose main goal is profit, so they reduce the ratio of reinforced steel and cement in the concrete mixture, whether for bases or pillars.
The expert told Middle East Monitor that the life expectancy of many buildings – which is 50 years – has expired without maintenance, restoration or rehabilitation taking place. These buildings do not conform to specifications and suffer poor maintenance of the sewage network, which sometimes causes landslides in the soil, thus the recurring incidents of buildings collapsing in old working class neighbourhoods.
More seriously, people hire construction workers to design buildings, instead of expert engineers, and they use bearing walls, which are built with no concrete pillars/columns. It is a method mainly used in the Egyptian countryside and leads to an increase in the construction loads on the buildings and an imbalance and thus a decrease in its life expectancy.
Those who commit violations have been offered loopholes that allow them to escape punishment. Article 104 of the Egyptian Building Law No. 119 of 2008 stipulates: “He shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of no less than six months and a fine of no less than double the value of the violating works with a minimum of 50,000 pounds (about $1,620), and not exceeding three times the value of the violating works or one of these two penalties, anyone who establishes works without observing the legally prescribed technical principles in the design or implementation of construction works, supervision or follow-up of implementation, non-conformity of the implementation with the drawings, data or documents on the basis of which the licence was granted, or fraud in the use of building materials or the use of materials that do not conform to the established specifications.” These are such meagre penalties that allow for an increase in corruption rates and are not considered a deterrent to perpetrators of fraud and violators of construction safety requirements.
Engineering expert Ihab Al-Masry stressed during his interview with Middle East Monitor that the corruption of engineering departments in neighbourhoods, city councils and governorates is the back door to building violations in Egypt. These violations are passed in exchange for financial bribes, in addition to the corruption of contractors who manipulate the type of concrete, the number of columns/pillars and the diameter of the iron used to save on materials and increase their profits, in addition to ignoring compliance with the standard conditions for construction and the earthquake code.
Urgent government action is needed, experts have warned, to remove properties that are on the verge of collapse, restore others, force real estate owners to carry out periodic maintenance, criminalise the purchase of violating properties and carry out legal amendments that can lead to stopping building violations. The government also needs to attach the engineering departments of neighbourhoods and city councils to the competent housing directorates, ending the work of those with inadequate engineering qualifications, and tightening penalties against those responsible for granting permits to violating buildings, otherwise Egypt will suffer more victims in deadly real estate accidents.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.