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Cairo's Middle Class Faces Severe Housing Shortage

LIKE most young couples, Michael Hilmi and his wife would like to enjoy the pleasures of married life. But a shortage of good, affordable housing has forced the architect to share a home with his in-laws, who are rather conservative in their views of marital bliss.

``I can't hug my wife in front of her parents,'' he complains. ``They think it's abnormal.''

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While Egypt's poorer people also have a housing problem, well-to-do Egyptians may feel the shortage more acutely because of their higher expectations.

``Traditional middle-class Cairenes are full of ambition, but they have limited economic means,'' says Mediha El Safti, a sociologist at American University in Cairo. ``They feel the frustration more than anybody else.''

Middle-class couples, concerned about their social status, want to own an apartment. Some couples delay marriage for years until they can afford one. Others, like the Hilmis, live with relatives.

The Hilmis have had a particularly disappointing experience. Michael, who makes the equivalent of about $150 a month, couldn't afford an apartment. His father, who has retired from the state railroad service, saved for years to buy an apartment for the couple five years ago.

But the apartment still isn't ready for the family, which now includes a three-year-old son, because the builders haven't finished the place. Such long delays are typical in Cairo.

For most aspiring young Egyptian men, marriage is a distant prospect. After men here graduate from college,they must serve a year in the army. It then often takes two more years to find a job, which usually pays between 60 and 80 (Egyptian; US$27-$37) a month.

Marriage customs present further financial obstacles. The man is expected to buy his prospective bride a ``shabka,'' or wedding present, which traditionally is jewelry costing up to E2,000 (US$900).

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The future bridegroom must then pay his fiancee's family thousands more pounds to furnish the couple's future flat. A prospective husband must buy an apartment for his wife, which she will be able to keep in case of divorce to increase her chances of finding another husband.

Another reason apartments are bought rather than rented is strict rent control, imposed by the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and still in effect.

Although Nasser's successor, the assassinated President Anwar el-Sadat, liberalized the Egyptian economy in 1974, many building contractors say they want more freedom to raise rents.

Sadat's economic policies resulted in tremendous inflation. Steel reinforcement bars used in construction cost E60 (US$130) a ton before the open-door policy. They now sell for more than E900 (US$1,945)per ton. So builders prefer to make their profits immediately by selling apartments, rather than be trapped between rising expenses and low rent ceilings.

The housing problem is turning many young Egyptian men to Islamic fundamentalism, according to Milad Hanna, former chairman of the housing committee of the People's Assembly, Egypt's legislature.

``Islamic fundamentalists provide new members of their movement with a wife and a room with a straw mattress'' he explains.

As Egypt's already overcrowded population grows by more than 2 percent a year, the prospects for middle-class college graduates become increasingly dim.

Ironically, a college graduate who attempts to climb Egypt's social ladder may earn less money than a lower-class plumber who is willing to settle for inferior housing.

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