by Mahmoud Fouly, Wang Xue
CAIRO, Oct. 4 (Xinhua) -- Egypt is looking for both industrial and touristic development by its ongoing process of moving the leather tanneries in a small neighborhood in Old Cairo to the outskirts of the capital city in Robeeky industrial area between two desert roads.
Located near the River Nile Corniche and behind the Magra al-Oyoun Wall that dates back to about 500 years, Cairo's tanneries, some giant, some tiny, have been operating for decades and the government has been considering moving them and using the area for touristic purposes since 1995.
"Moving to Robeeky area faced several challenges in the beginning, but the government has recently provided the suitable finance for the transfer process, and I believe Robeeky will be ready in less than a year," said Mostafa Hussein, the owner of a giant tannery, leather exporter and former member of the Chamber of Leather Tanning.
Hussein supports the government transfer plan, but he believes that the one-year period is not long enough for leather tanning businessmen to move from Cairo to Robeeky without shutting down and losing some of their customers.
"Moving the tanneries is a civilizational and technological shift, yet the grace period and the social dimension need to be well considered," the tannery owner told Xinhua, noting the neighborhood should be evacuated and all tanneries moved by July 2017.
Earlier in September, Egyptian Trade and Industry Minister Tarek Kabil announced that the government started pulling down some of the tanneries in Old Cairo to move the leather tanning industry to Robeeky industrial district as per a cabinet approval issued in 2014.
"Compensations will be provided on the spot to those tannery owners who decided not to move to the new district," the minister said in a statement.
He added that the ministry's plan is "to create an industrial leather tanning community based on the highest technological standards to attract investors specialized in this industry and open more exportation markets for Egyptian leather tanning products."
As for Robbeky, the government established an ideal modern tannery to be a standard for those who would move theirs to the new district and it will provide over 1,000 apartments near Robeeky to make it easy for future workers in the new industrial area.
While the move is expected to make a leap in modernization of leather manufacturing process and increase Egyptian leather exports, which is currently about 200 million U.S. dollars per year, thousands of workers, whose skills would be automated, complain of their anticipated unemployment.
"I use some wood sheets to manually nail and spread the leather and this will be replaced by a machine in Robeeky. What shall I do?" said Sayyid Mohamed, a 61-year-old tanner, at a one-storey block of evacuated small tanneries, noting he has been doing this work for 52 years.
As for Hussein Mostafa, the manager at giant El-Gonih Tannery and son of its owner, he said that he does not intend to lay off any of the workers but urged the government to find alternative jobs for the affected ones.
The leather tanning neighborhood in Old Cairo includes 1,066 tanneries, 205 stores and 1,450 apartments, according to the official survey.
On Tuesday, Old Cairo District Chief Mohamed al-Taweel said that about 18 tannery owners have received total compensations of about 4 million dollars for giving up their places, noting three more tanneries are currently being pulled down.
"The project of moving tanneries to Robeeky aims at ending the harmful environmental effects of the industry, preserving the historical value of Magra al-Oyoun Wall and replanning the district as a tourist area," the official said.
Mahmoud Qirat, the owner of a small tannery, decided to give it up and get a financial compensation instead of moving. He said that moving can be afforded by large tannery owners who export their production, but those of small tanneries don't have enough finance to equip the new place with suitable machines.
He warned that shutting down small tanneries, as he did with his own, may not only affect tanners but also the local leather-based industries such as shoemaking workshops.
"Small tanneries are the ones that provide leather to workshops in the local market, while large ones export their leather production," he told Xinhua at the ruins of his tannery.