Understanding Cairo in Revolutionary Times

My book, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, was written in 2009 and polished up and published in 2011. With the dramatic events of January and February 2011, a couple of interesting questions can be posed: Does what was written about Cairo then continue to hold, and what might the departure of the Mubarak regime herald for the city? Answering these questions can highlight the complicated duality of Egypt’s future.

Certainly the removal of the sclerotic and self-serving political structure in Egypt is a cause for celebration, no matter what follows. A new consciousness is forming, based on a collective will of and for the people, one which is deeply suspicious of government promises and elitist interest groups. This can only be good news for Cairo. In my book I stressed that it is the entirety of population of the metropolis that should matter and be carefully counted, and that much could be corrected simply if government actions were measured by their benefits to the largest number.

The new towns around Cairo, towards which the government has lavished a huge chunk of the nation’s resources, need to be reconsidered. Not only do these satellite towns mainly benefit the rich and upper classes, they are inefficient and represent huge unsustainable failures that have attracted only a tiny fraction of their target populations, in spite of repeated government pronouncements to the contrary. After over 30 years of development, the populations of all these new towns do not exceed 800,000 inhabitants. Compare this to the 11 million people who live in Cairo’s huge informal or ‘ashwa’i areas. These informal areas are absorbing over three-fourths of the city’s additional population, and it is these areas which are in desperate need of improved infrastructure, streets and open spaces, schools, and a whole range of basic services. It does not require sophisticated analysis to conclude that budgetary priorities need to be drastically changed.

The same could be said for Cairo’s transport systems. With only 14 percent of households in Greater Cairo owning private vehicles, it would seem that public transport is key. Yet over decades the government has continued to favor the private car, building more and more highways and flyovers and developing sprawling desert suburbs where access is only by car. Conversely, the government has only haltingly invested in expanding the underground metro and is decades behind its planned extensions. And although much talked about, virtually no complementary measures (such as busways, dedicated bus lanes, improved minibus systems, private car exclusion zones, pedestrian-friendly areas, etc.) have seen the light of day. Again, it would seem obvious where budget priorities lie. A clear national project in revolutionary Egypt should be a crash program to finish the third metro line and build the fourth and fifth.

Just as re-directed State budgets could dramatically improve how Cairo works for its inhabitants, so too could re-direction of land assignments. As shown in my book, there are massive amounts of government land found in the deserts east and west of the metropolis, and over Mubarak’s reign this land bank has been used by the State to create what is considered to be the new, glittering, and modern Egypt and, at the same time, to raise patronage networks to a new level. Relatives and cronies of the President, the new business elites, army generals, and the heads of State enterprises have all benefited from these land allocations, and the result has been rampant land speculation and windfall profits which in turn have produced stalled or abandoned projects and dead capital as well as glitzy malls, gated communities, upscale subdivisions, and empty office parks.

Obviously, the large majority of Cairo’s inhabitants cannot be part of this desert Disneyland created under Mubarak. Luckily there are still some well located desert parcels that remain undeveloped, and there is more that could be taken back from failed business ventures. Such land could be used for affordable housing (especially auto-constructed by people themselves, as is most of Cairo), for workshop clusters and enterprise zones, and for a range of urban projects which would benefit Cairo’s youthful majority and not just the thin crust of the upper classes. Ironically, most well-located undeveloped land is in the hands of the military. A great opportunity exists to develop these tracts through planned and transparent land allocations, should the military prove to be one with the people, as it now seems.

These are just some of the measures which could be taken to re-orient Cairo’s development away from inefficient and wasteful grandiosity towards the needs of its inhabitants. Is there a chance that they will materialize in the new, revolutionary Egypt? Two obstacles loom:

First, by no means has the State been divested of all of its self-serving land grabbers and allied business elites. A few spectacular examples have been made of some ministers and businessmen, but three decades under Mubarak have created a very entrenched mafia at multiple levels, oiled by corruption, which will not easily be weeded out. The revolutionary spirit is so far focused on changing national political structures, and even if successful there is no guarantee that the manipulators and opportunists and bribers, so prominent in the past, will not still find fertile ground. Another, more complicated revolution is needed for fundamental reform of ministries and governorates, the courts, and economic authorities so that real accountability and transparency begin to dominate urban development.

Second, a sea-change in attitudes is needed. Cairo’s upper and professional classes are, with a few exceptions, still bewitched by the shining hope of a modern Egypt which somehow will materialize simply with more and more concrete. Call it the “Dubai-beautiful” complex. That most Egyptians are poor, that the economy remains stagnant, and that mundane needs must first be met are inconvenient truths that the “educated classes” ignore or, at best, perceive as a call for more of the top-down patronizing. The hope is that the Tahrir generation does not buy into this, and that new attitudes will prevail which sweep away the pompous posturing of the older professional elites whose models for Cairo are London, Singapore, or Dubai.

Thus it could be said that Egypt’s revolution still has a long way to go, at least as far as Cairo is concerned. The genie is out of the bottle, and the momentum is very impressive. But for the gains of the revolution to be lasting, a lot of work still needs to be done. The people of Cairo in their millions and millions do matter.

David Sims
February 15, 2011

To read an interview with David Sims about this book Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control (AUC Pres, 2010), click here.

February 2011

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