Egypt's illegal construction time bomb

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Media caption,

Twenty-eight people died when an apartment block in Alexandria collapsed

Barely a week goes by in Egypt without news of a collapsed building.

Earlier this month, a building in Cairo caved in, killing three people, days after a block of flats collapsed in Alexandria, killing many more.

Questions are being asked as to why so many Egyptians lose their lives this way, and why it appears that the problems have been worsening since Egypt's 2011 revolution.

We arrived in the area of Maamoura in Alexandria just as another body was being pulled out.

Large crowds had gathered around the space where, a few hours earlier, a large block of flats had stood.

It appeared to have been, in effect, attached to the tower block next door, but had fallen away in the early hours of the morning as people slept.

Clothes were still hanging from the walls eight storeys up, but the people they belonged to were now buried under the rubble far below.

In the end, 28 eight bodies were recovered.

But this is nothing new in Egypt and particularly Alexandria, which has a notorious record. Every year engineers say around 20 buildings collapse in the Mediterranean city alone.

'Left to collapse'

Driving around Alexandria it was shocking to see buildings leaning visibly, and more alarming to see their occupants on balconies, hanging out washing or chatting to neighbours.

"These blocks are occupied by families with low incomes and families who were forced to buy homes in cheaper buildings which are illegal," says Nasser Darwish, a professor at the Structural Engineering Department of Alexandria University.

Image caption,
Mohammed lost his whole family when their block of flats collapsed in Alexandria

He estimates that in Alexandria, right now, there are hundreds of buildings with major structural flaws, about 170 of which are in danger of imminent collapse and need to be evacuated immediately and demolished.

"Nobody wants to deal with the social problem of where you put the residents that need to be moved," says Prof Darwish. "Nobody wants to deal with the security problem of having to confront the buildings' owners. So they are just left to collapse.

"The authorities need to recognise that the most important thing is the lives of our people."

In another part of Alexandria, Gomrok, people angrily told us that it was clear that the local authorities did not think that way.

We visited the site of a building which had collapsed six months ago. Work was going on to build a new tower block in its place.

People who were affected said they had received little compensation for relatives who died, and nothing for the belongings that had been lost.

To the side, standing quietly, we happened to see a boy, looking lost, staring at the building work. It turned out that 16-year-old Mohammed had been orphaned in the tragedy.

He told us a huge tower was being built illegally on a tiny plot next door to his home, and that when it had risen to 10 and then 11 storeys his family had complained.

Then he described how one afternoon, while he was playing in the street, the new building toppled over, crushing his home and smashing into two other buildings. Twenty-one people were killed.

"My whole family were on the ground floor," he said. "It took a day to find their bodies. Now most of the time, I'm just in the streets, hanging around here."

'Large bribes'

A statement from the office of Alexandria's governor said the issue of removing illegal buildings was being dealt with, and that a wide-ranging investigation had been launched.

But we found out that the new building being built where Mohammed's home used to stand itself had no licence. Over the years, this has become the norm.

Though there is a legitimate, respected construction industry in Egypt, it is the illegitimate, unsupervised, often dangerous side of the building trade that is flourishing now.

Getting approval to build from the authorities has historically been extremely time-consuming, and often involves giving large bribes to officials.

Instead, people choose to build illegally, sometimes with no help at all from engineers, and offer smaller bribes to the police to keep them at bay.

In a resort city like Alexandria, building taller and taller is something money-hungry developers find hard to resist.

"There is a combination of administrative corruption, greed and ignorance," Prof Darwish says. "And the grip of law now is more loose than before."

That is something which has compounded the problems since Egypt's revolution two years ago.

As well as the bureaucratic issues and corruption that there was before, there is now also far less fear of the security forces and the authorities.

In spite of tough economic times, construction work is going on all over Alexandria.

It is clear that the mistakes being made now are storing up even more trouble for the future, when the next tragedy is nothing less than inevitable.