A low-income neighborhood in Cairo. Officials need a new plan to cope with unplanned sprawl and substandard living conditions.
A low-income neighborhood in Cairo. Officials need a new plan to cope with unplanned sprawl and substandard living conditions. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: The transitional military government in Egypt posted a poll on Facebook today. Why, you might reasonably ask? They wanted to get a sense of relative popularity among the 20 presidential hopefuls in the election this fall. This is definitely not Hosni Mubarak's Egypt anymore. The idea of an online survey -- much less open elections -- is beyond novel. But a lot of the problems the Mubarak government had are still going to be there waiting for whoever wins this fall. Housing is one of the big ones. More than 18 million people live in Cairo now. And if the government's going to get the economy going again, it's going to have to find places for all those people to live.

That's where our series Economy 4.0 comes in -- how to make the global economy work better for more people. Today our special correspondent David Brancaccio goes house hunting in Cairo.

David Brancaccio: Enough with the Nile already. The search for better ways for Egyptians to live means getting away from that river where the bulk of this country's population is jammed cheek by jowl. Cairo's population density is double even Manhattan's and real estate is so tight that one downtown slum sprawled into a rock quarry. For a rapidly growing population, one answer to the housing crisis is to develop land in the desert away from the river.

I'm not the first to have noticed that this 3-year-old outpost called Haram City looks like a village on Tatooine, Luke Skywalker's boyhood planet: terracotta townhouses with domed roofs pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Unlike some of Cairo's famous new suburbs that cater to the rich, this place was designed to offer "affordable housing within fully-integrated townships," to quote the company that developed the project.

Abdelzaher Mohamed works for his family's company that does metal fabrication. He bought a place here two years ago for his wife Shereen and two kids. He's done great work with the interior, like building a loft...

Child speak in Arabic, saying "computer"

Yes, the computer is here. The inside of his house, Abdelzaher loves. It's what's going on outside that's a problem for him. He says "developers promised to build a community but the picture sold turned out to be completely different" from what he ended up with. Here's what happened: People from a slum in central Cairo now live in this particular section of Haram City. These residents were essentially dumped here by order of the government after a fatal rock slide in 2008 embarrassed the Mubarak regime into doing something about unplanned sprawl into shantytowns. These working class people weren't given legal rights to their new housing, no leases or deeds. They were told, here's where you are living, get used to it.

Abdelzahir says he has nothing against the poor people who lost their houses. They are, he says, Egyptians just like him and he wants them to live better. His problem he not getting what he contracted for -- a planned, gated community, with tidy shops arranged along a town square. As opposed to this: a jumble of tables piled with bread, cell-phone cases, and cans of tuna. It's not what many of the working class people had in mind either.

Ahmed Abd-el-Tawab is a marble craftsman who says he got strong-armed out to Haram City as part of the government's anti-slum campaign. At first he tried commuting to his old job, but it took three hours a day. Now he sells bags of cement and plaster here in his suburban purgatory. He says there's little work and no community here. He says, "I love the ground on which I used to walk in Old Cairo -- the gatherings, my neighbors. There's no replacement for it."

And there's the contradiction for a place promoted as the future of housing in Egypt. No one got what they wanted. The middle class folks -- like Abdelzaher -- had paid for serene, orderly living. And people from the shantytown need something they did have before: community, the ability to walk to friends and to work. Even the man who designed the buildings in Haram City admits the project's a disappointment.

Mamdouh Hamza is one of Egypt's most prominent urban planners and architects. The crucial thing going forward, Hamza says, is building -- not houses but that word again, "communities" -- self-contained ones, with the working, shopping and sleeping all in the same enclave. Plus, friends and family need to shift as a group.

Mamdouh Hamza: The neighborhood are moving together!

The new Egyptian authorities pledged to build a million new units of affordable housing over the next five years. That's more than 500 new homes a day, which some critics say is a stretch. But Hamza envisions cooperative communities out in the hinterlands -- farming, textiles, where living and jobs and friends are in one spot. Cooperative communities, he calls them. Or...

Hamza: It is in a way, something like a kibbutz in Israel.

Brancaccio: I was about to say, it sounds a little bit like a kibbutz.

Hamza: It is like a kibbutz. Cooperative societies in Egypt a hundred years ago! Maybe before it was in America or anywhere else! Look at everything humane and everything social and you find it started in Egypt!

Hamza spoke out about his vision recently and got 1,200 people from all walks of life volunteering to be pioneers in Egypt's western desert. Not another Haram City; this time it would be people moving there by choice, as a community.

In Cairo, I'm David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

An economist makes a link between affordable housing and when people have sex in Egypt. Search Marketplace's Economy 4.0 blog for that.

Follow David Brancaccio at @DavidBrancaccio