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This is the Egypt that the regime doesn’t want the world to see

August 15, 2023 at 9:35 am

A beggarwoman sells tissue paper packets along the fence of the historic Azhar mosque in the Azhar district of Egypt’s capital Cairo on January 16, 2023 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

Under a propaganda poster bearing the image of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and the slogan “Citizens First”, a homeless person lies on the ground. This is in Manial, an area in Old Cairo, and it is a paradox that reveals a different side of Egyptian life. The people of Egypt were, after all, promised 10 years ago after the military coup in mid-2013 that their country would be “the best in the world.”

At midnight, near the former Faten Hamama cinema, a number of homeless people rush to sleep on a bench near the Nile Corniche to get some sleep in the “poor hotel” after an exhausting day of wandering the streets of Cairo under the sweltering summer sun. It’s part of their daily routine: search for a morsel of food to satisfy their hunger; a drink of water to quench their thirst; and a dark place to sleep and shelter their exhausted bodies and ailing hearts. They could be there for any number of reasons: government neglect, family abuse and cruelty, illness, a psychological crisis or financial hardship.

The scene is a familiar one on the streets of Cairo, with its elegant and popular neighbourhoods. It can be found across Egypt’s governorates and well-known squares thanks to a severe economic crisis afflicting the most populous Arab country and sending its currency to record low levels. Outrageously high prices and increasing poverty complete one side of the picture. The other sees lavish spending on a new capital and presidential palaces approved by Sisi. In response to accusations of corruption in September 2019 he said, “Are they for me? I am building a new state. Do you think when you speak falsehood I will be frightened? No, I will keep building and building, but not for myself.”

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Under bridges, inside tunnels and deserted buildings, on pavements, in the middle of public parks, near mosques and shrines, and on stairways, Egyptians seek shelter in the “new republic” that Sisi promised them after the 3 July, 2013 overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, the first elected civilian president in the country’s history. This was followed on 14 August by the elimination of Sisi’s opponents in the Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda Square massacres.

Shabby clothes and dishevelled appearances hide many stories of pain and oppression. Some of the homeless people show symptoms of psychological illness. However, there are no serious measures being implemented by state institutions to provide healthcare to homeless people in Egypt in need of urgent medical and psychological attention.

Others display all the signs of drug abuse, and their condition goes from bad to worse after being rejected by their families and wandering the streets while looking for a pill or something else to take their mind off their situation with a short-lived high. Most of them are young, and they steal in order to get their hands on their next hit. 

Beggars gather near banks, post offices and mosques to get a few pounds and some sympathy. They can be given hundreds of pounds by the end of the day; more if they also send out their sons and daughters to beg. 

Children on the streets will have dropped out of school, run away from their parents or paid the price of their parents’ divorce and fallen foul of a new stepfather or stepmother. They not only lose their family, but also their safety and they join the growing number of “street children”.

Gamal A lived in Al-Omraniya neighbourhood within a stable family and some luxury, but life turned upside down when his mother died suddenly and, a few months later, his father remarried. His stepmother was a controlling woman and asked for full control over the household. She kicked the young man out of the home because he was a “nuisance” in her eyes. He was forced to wander the streets by day and sleep by the side of the road. Some days he had food, others he didn’t and went hungry. He would rummage through rubbish bins for scraps to eat. Sometimes he would take drugs to “escape” from his reality. Then his mental and physical health deteriorated, and he died. He was just 16 years old.

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In Egypt today, you may find a child or a young man sleeping on the steps outside your home, behind a car, or inside a parking garage. You may find a lost girl who was the victim of sexual abuse; you may see an old man lying near the door of the mosque, or a lady lying on a staircase passed by hundreds of people every hour of the day.

There is no official data about the number of homeless people in Egypt, but the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights NGO suggests that it is about three million. That will rise when you include street children, missing individuals, addicts and others who were deceived by the president’s claims that the Egyptian people “are the light of our eyes.”

The homeless lifestyle is the same from one region to another. Homeless people wear worn-out clothes, and their bodies are covered with dirt, as if they have not washed in years. They urinate in public roads and defecate under bridges, or in public toilets if they are available, and may carry a bag containing their meagre belongings and documents.

They may be helped by passers-by, perhaps getting meals and drinks from them. Some keep close to restaurants and bakeries in the hope of a sandwich or bread to ease the hunger pangs; the bins at the back may contain a treat for them.

A security guard near Tahrir Square in central Cairo confirmed to me that the number of homeless people has increased in recent years due to the deterioration of living conditions. He noted that an elderly woman who was kicked out by her son sleeps near the property that he guards. In winter, he tries to protect her from the cold.

The police do not harass them, and officials do not care about them. They are the unemployed, the sick, the outcasts and the beggars, and many will die without their relatives ever knowing when and where. Only a relatively few of them are able to grasp a lifeline from the Ministry of Social Solidarity or charities.

“Years ago, mosques were open,” explained sociologist Dr Ammar Ali Hassan, “and they provided shelter for these people, but with the escalation of terrorism in the 1990s, the government decided to close the mosques after the evening prayer, thus depriving them of a safe place.” 

The Homeless Children and Adults programme of the Ministry of Social Solidarity reported that it dealt with 17,427 cases between 2017 and 2021, and provided services specifically for “homeless adults”, including some first aid. Almost 1,500 blankets and 8,778 meals were provided from the beginning of 2019 to the end of 2021, according to the programme. It’s a drop in the ocean.

A member of the Egyptian Senate and editor-in-chief of Al-Shorouk warned in February 2022 that sleeping on the streets has become a way of life in many main roads near major landmarks that are the international face of Cairo. “Is there no official body whose mission is to prevent such people from sleeping on the streets in this way that is humiliating and offensive to our country and our people?” he asked.

According to Sayed Ali, 55, he does not have a state pension that would allow him to stop living on the street. He had to leave his home after separating from his wife, losing his job and his children being unable to support him. “I sleep on the street, and I am not bitter,” he told me. “Sometimes I find food in the rubbish, so I take it out and satisfy my hunger, and sometimes there are people who help me, and God provides.”

A government hotline accessed by dialling 16439 isn’t much use. A recorded message says: “Dear client, thank you for calling the Ministry of Social Solidarity. We inform you that the official working hours are from 8 am to 10 pm.”

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There are just 25 social care homes nationwide for the homeless elderly and mothers with children. Beggars and those with psychological and mental disorders are not helped by the ministry, Mohamed Youssef told me. He is the head of the ministry’s rapid intervention team.

Political researcher Muhammad Kamal pointed out that, usually, in the event that a regime is unable or unwilling to accommodate homeless people, civil society takes on the role. “However, the current regime in Egypt has dried up the sources of this societal cooperation. If you add to that the erosion of the middle class, and the continuation of the dire political and economic situation over the course of the past 10 years, the disintegration of social relations, the decline of family ties, and the large families that ask about its members, these people have no options but the street.”

Such is the situation today in Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s “new republic”. It’s the Egypt that the regime doesn’t want the world to see.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.