Along central Cairo’s corniche, the twin towers of the shimmering Nile City complex – containing malls, movie theatres and hotels – screen the ugly truth behind them.
Stuck in ramshackle hovels in the towers’ shadows, the residents of the Ramlet Boulaq slum struggle to keep their land and have their voices heard.
The juxtaposition says much about Egypt’s biggest modern-day problem: the stark divide between the rich and poor, exacerbated by a housing crisis and rampant privatisation of land.
Ramlet Boulaq was born when migrants relocated from southern Egypt in the early years of the 20th century to work in Cairo’s factories. Generations were buried and new ones born on the land, but the ambitions of big business to turn the area into a luxurious Nile-front complex now threatens Ramlet Boulaq.
During the early days of the revolution that toppled long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak last year, the men of Ramlet Boulaq protected the towers as looters tried to break in when police abandoned the streets.
The co-operation briefly alleviated tensions between locals and the billionaire property developer, who rewarded them for securing the towers. He offered them monthly pay in return for looking after Nile City, a joint venture with a rich Saudi Arabian family.
But trouble came in July, when clashes broke out after the towers’ management reportedly refused to provide residents with water hoses to put out a fire that left a five-year-old child dead.
Then, in early August, guards killed a man following a scuffle after he went looking for his payment. Clashes erupted, and residents attempted to set the towers’ parking lot on fire. They burned cars and motor bikes and tried to break into the building.
The violence was a reminder of the simmering hostility between the two sides, clubbed together in the same area but with little in common. While opulance is the towers’ signature, Ramlet Boulaq is without sewage, electricity or running water.
Now, with land sharks eyeing the remaining property around Nile City, the slum is struggling to stay in place..
A few residents have already moved out after accepting payments of $500 to $1000 per square metre for land many say costs 10 times more. But a majority of Ramlet Boulaq’s residents are standing firm, at least for now, in the squalor and under the shadows of their rich neighbours.