One can justly bemoan the cozy, semi-corrupt symbiosis between recent Egyptian governments and well-connected developers building luxury housing, often by clearing out poor people living in what the government considers slums. In Egypt's Housing Crisis, Shawkat, an urban and housing researcher, documents the vast sums the government has poured into constructing housing that ordinary Egyptians cannot afford and which the government insists on marketing at prices that do not have sufficient buyers. The result is that, in a country with grossly inadequate housing, the rate of unoccupied housing is among the highest in the world.
Notably, much of Shawkat's volume goes against the tide of leftist critiques of free markets and their calls for greater government intervention and subsidies for "affordable housing." Indeed, the story he tells is of the damage done by governments and the ingenuity of Egyptians working around regulations. He charitably, and possibly accurately, attributes the government's actions not primarily to corruption but to its preoccupation "with modernist, 'scientific,' and dirigiste principles" and with "an obsession with top-down, engineered urban development," to quote David Sims' superb foreword.
Shawkat begins in the 1940s, exploring housing policies under different governments and the remarkable similarities in policies followed by all governments of the last eighty years. That such varied governments as the monarchy, Nasser at his most socialist, Mubarak at his most free market, and the current military-dominated regime had remarkably consistent policies demonstrates the deep roots of this system. The policies have a combination of a powerful ideological justification—modernization—and the self-reinforcing material interest of the regulators and the well-connected.
An important example of the system's dysfunction is the rental market and its changing and complicated government regulations. The lack of a stable and simple regulatory environment has driven landlords and tenants alike to evade the rules in what is politely called an "informal" market. Other examples are the complex and ever-shifting policies towards land ownership and privatization of state land, which have resulted in title to much of Egypt's land and housing being entirely unclear. Shawkat estimates that "at least 70 percent of families do not have secure tenure." The consequences are periodic, arbitrary actions by the authorities, often followed by protracted court suits that leave title up in the air for years. Further, he reports that "over two-fifths of urban dwellers and almost all rural dwellers liv[e] in homes they have built. ... The obvious point is that self-built [mainly informal] housing is the main and most suitable means."
Surprisingly, Shawkat devotes little attention to the role of the military. The military's insistence that it has to approve almost any transaction involving land—on the theory that control over land is a matter of national security—has been a stifling hand on reform efforts and market forces.
Shawkat endorses a variety of policies to facilitate self-built housing, but the bulk of his recommendations are for changes to government-funded housing, which seem hopelessly optimistic after considering the decades-long history of poor government management. Despite this, the book is an interesting and intriguing read.