The city of Cairo has well over eight million inhabitants. It is the most populous?
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Script is copyright Reuters Limited. All rights reserved
Background: The city of Cairo has well over eight million inhabitants. It is the most populous city on the African continent, and in the Arab world, and among the biggest ten in the world. And it is still growing.
There are three main reasons for this. One is natural increase. The Egyptian birth rate is high, though not exceptionally so; but the death rate has fallen dramatically in the past 30 years. The population of the country as a whole is increasing at the rate of 24 per thousand (nearly 2 1/2 per cent) a year; and nearly a quarter of that population lives in Cairo.
The next is the attraction of the big city. It is estimated that about 200 people move to Cairo every day from the country areas, lured mainly by the prospect of higher wages.
The third is the growing importance of Cairo as a commercial centre. It is President Sadat's policy to encourage foreign investment in Egypt, and this has brought businessmen in large numbers to Cairo to investigate the possibilities for their companies. Also, many international banking and other commercial firms that once had their headquarters for the Arab world in Lebanon have been driven by the troubles there to seek another base. The most convenient alternative appeared to be Cairo.
All this has thrown a severe strain on accommodation, transport and public services. Tens of thousands of new apartments have been built in the past ten years; but the owners demand very high rents and big down-payments of "key money". It is almost impossible for middle-class Egyptians to find an unfurnished flat at a reasonable rent. Landlords find it more profitable to let their flats furnished to tourists and visiting businessmen.
The demand for office accommodation has helped to drive up the price of land in the city. Some big multi-national firms have brought buildings half-finished, and finished them off themselves. It has also thrown an acute strain on Cairo's telephone service, which is near the point of breakdown.
The streets are jammed with traffic. The lack of parking space forces motorists to park in double lines, reducing wide streets to narrow lanes. The buses cannot cope with about four million commuters a day who want to use them. About a thousand new ones were recently imported from Iran; but the Minister of Transport has said that many of those on the road at present are so old that new ones will mostly be taken up as replacements.
The problems of organising food and fuel supplies for the city are so great that shortages often develop. Queues form at government co-operative shops to buy rice, meat, soap, matches and other goods at subsidised prices. But black market operators employ agents to stand in the lines and buy up the goods for resale at about three times their original price.
The authorities are taking steps to improve the situation, particularly in housing and transport. The Housing Ministry has signed contracts with foreign firms to set up factories for pre-fabricated houses. Fly-overs and footbridges are being built to ease the worst of the traffic congestion. An underground railway is under consideration. Improvements in the telephone service have been promised; a new telex centre has been opened this year. But in making all these improvements, the government has laid itself open to the envy of the other parts of Egypt, and the accusation that it is spending too big a share of its resources on Cairo.
In the long term, it is pursuing two policies in the hope of reaching some solution: population control and decentralisation. Since the government's Supreme Council for Population and Family Planning was set up in 1966, nearly 3,500 family planning units have been set up throughout the country, and they have had some success in reducing the national rate of growth. They have found it much easier to get their ideas and techniques across to women in the big towns than in the countryside, where a large family is still a status symbol, a labour force and security for old age. While this is helpful to Cairo, it is not enough, so long as the drift from the countryside continues.
One attempt at decentralisation has already been made -- and failed. A new suburb of Cairo, Nasr City was begun in the early 19602, where it was intended to house all the government offices and public services; but many ministers refused to move there. Now two satellite towns are being planned, called El-Sadat (after the President) and 6 October (after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war). There are also plans to develop the country's second city, Alexandria, as a major conference centre.