Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings: Downtown Cairo and the Fall of Mubarak

If the twentieth century in Europe was an urban century, then the twenty-first marks the transition to a global urban epoch. In 2008, the global urban and peri-urban population surpassed the rural for the first time in human history. Every week one million people move to urban areas. The rapid urbanization is bringing the world closer together in a vast

Deen Sharp

British Journalist specialized in architecture and Arab World affairs

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If the twentieth century in Europe was an urban century, then the twenty-first marks the transition to a global urban epoch. In 2008, the global urban and peri-urban population surpassed the rural for the first time in human history. Every week one million people move to urban areas. The rapid urbanization is bringing the world closer together in a vast series of urban hives. Within the cities themselves, however, inhabitants are growing further apart. Urban protest around the world – the Arab uprisings, Occupy Wall Street movement, Los Indignados – emphasized the centrality of urban space and place as sites for socio-political and economic change.

The rapid urbanization of the globe has constructed cities that are formed not around the users of the urban space but for the imperative of profit making. The rich and powerful have attempted to construct and form an architecture and landscape of control and exclusivity that perpetuates their power and wealth. Increased social inequality has been carved into the spatial forms of cities across the globe. The inhabitants and users of a city may be innocent but the financers, politicians and professionals that construct a city never are.

To understand the Arab uprisings and the continued unrest in the region, it is critical to take an account of space, specifically the production of space and its processes. An analysis the Arab uprisings through the urban lens exposes the state elites’ neoliberal capitalist and kleptocratic production of space and the everyday consequences of the high levels of concentrated wealth and power. Simultaneously, an urban analysis reveals the empowering and fascinating dynamic that occurred when, at the very moment the regimes seemingly finished their enclave cities, urban inhabitants coalesced in  public spaces throughout the region, transcending class, religion, and ethnic divisions andbinding together their fragmented cities.

Indeed, the production of space in Cairo offers a particularly fascinating example of this phenomenon. Politicians and businessmen connected to the management and production of the built environment in Egypt were among the first and most prominent to be arrested following the 25 January 2011 uprising. Land deals by the government with private developers immediately came under scrutiny. The Mubarak regime produced a built environment through a cynical and prodigal framework.

At the core of the regime’s spatial thinking was the goal to move the urban poor from the Nile valley to the desert. The Mubarak regime built upon the legacy of Anwar al-Sadat and his economic initiative of infitah (“the opening”). Downtown Cairo lay at the core of Sadat’s neoliberal project, in which he desired to displace the current inhabitants to desert cities on Cairo’s fringes and restore the center to a sanitized business zone. Mohamed Elshahed, author of the blog Cairo Observer, noted that Sadat envisioned replacing the inhabitants and their built environment in areas such as Bulaq with “a new business district to showcase Egypt’s economic realignment with global capitalism.”

Sadat failed to remove the urban residents of the center to the periphery. Mubarak, however, continued the onslaught on Bulaq and similar areas. And in post-Mubarak Egypt, attempts to remove residents from central Cairo have not stopped. Businessman Naguib Sawaris and the Shokshobi family, responsible for the inelegant Nile City towers, now threaten the Bulaq community with eviction. The recent violence at the site of the Nile City towers, which resulted in one death, did not happen in a vacuum, but is an inflection point in a larger battle between the urban poor of Bulaq and state and business elites over the right to the city.  

Despite the forty-year battle to de-densify and peripheralize Cairo by the government and investors, the center did not hollow out and provide the space for global capital to fill. Bulaq and other informal areas have shown remarkable resilience against state attempts of planned dispossession and dislocation. When the government has succeeded in dislocating inhabitants of informal areas to desert cities the victory is often short lived. Residents of desert cities soon return to the center; the lack of adequate jobs, transport, and community in the desert cities leave them with little choice. Subsequently, Cairo continued its rapid expansion and densification.

The shift in government and private capital to the periphery resulted in a rapidly eroding urban fabric in the center and the increased informality of the built environment, as the state left urban residents to find their own solutions to resolve the housing crisis. The rise of informal settlements in Cairo has been remarkable and a direct response to the flight of the government from the center. Informal settlements are estimated to make up sixty-five percent of Cairo’s built environment, around twelve million people, and the city is thought to have some of the highest urban densities in the world.

The absence of the state in informal areas has placed a heavy burden on the urban poor. The majority of informal areas are not connected to basic infrastructure and lack access to clean water, sewage, and other basic utilities. Residents in informal areas, nevertheless, have been active in organizing around activities where the state should otherwise be present. The neglect of the inhabited urban fabric and the focus of urban solutions on “clean slates” in the desert is part of a cynical political and economic strategy. Mubarak’s regime sought through desert cities to transform the landscape and the built environment themselves into tools of domination and control.  

Modeled on American suburbanization in the 1950s and inspired by developers such as Robert Moses (who redeveloped New York), Mubarak’s urban scheme set to work to plan the massive dislocation of people from the restive political and integrated urban core to the quiescent and disconnected desert cities. The urbanization of Islamist movements, who had been able to fill the absence of the state in some informal areas, made this task all the more immediate. Cairo historian Nezar Seyyad noted, in his book Cairo: Histories of a City, “In neighborhoods such as Imbaba, constituted of dilapidated public housing surrounded by informal settlements, militant Islamic organizations like Al-Gama‘a al-Islamiya have succeeded in penetrating and reorganizing the area’s social fabric.” Mubarak, it turned out, was right to fear the high densities and the rise of social movements among the urban poor.

Mubarak and his cronies grew distracted, however. The creation of the desert cities was not just a defensive political mechanism by the regime. It was also an opportunity to make a lot of money. In the 1990s, although the regime continued its policy of attempting to shift the urban poor to desert cities, a more capitalist approach was taken to build housing for the middle and upper classes. Dreamland, Utopia, Hyde Park, Madinaty [My City] and Beverly Hills, all gated communities for the middle classes and rich, emerged.

Land was sold to developers, often connected to state elites, at below market value, and the state built the infrastructure for the private developments – at huge cost to the taxpayer. This was also accompanied by neoliberal reforms that shifted state investment away from manufacturing, bakeries, social welfare, and infrastructure and into financers, cement and steel factories, and huge infrastructure projects in low-density fringe areas of the city. Urbanist David Sims wrote in his book Understanding Cairo: The logic of a city out of control,“… the suspicion is inescapable that the real reason for the new towns and other desert projects around Cairo is to add to the speculative frontier, replenish the land resource needed for state patronage and continue to create conditions for profitable private schemes with little or no utility value.”

The result of ignoring the utility value of desert cities is a desertification of the urban fabric. Urban poor evicted by the state from the center to the periphery, soon return once again to the center. Sixty-four percent of units in New Cairo, according to Sims, are vacant or closed. Thousands of houses have been built without the jobs for people to sustain them and miles of roads have been constructed for people without cars to drive on them. Despite the terrible traffic in Cairo, only fourteen percent of the population own cars. In the Egyptian economy, at all levels family and community networks are critical for employment opportunities; networks that few could afford to give up to live on the fringes of the city. Indeed, even if the urban poor wanted to move to the fringes, few could afford to.

The redirection of investment from the center to the periphery has created disastrous urban conditions for inhabitants of the city. But for those in power and investors it has produced what geographer Neil Smith terms the “rent gap”: “A space where gentrification occurs in urban areas where prior disinvestment in the urban infrastructure creates neighborhoods that can be profitably redeveloped.” The “rent gap” is when large-scale investors or developers invest in degraded areas on the basis of the gap between the actual rent and potential rent after rehabilitation. The original inhabitants are priced out of this new investment and subsequently displaced.

In the production of two $3.5 million project documents by the government before 25 January 2011—such as "Cairo vision 2050", which fed into "Vision of Cairo 2050" —the “rent gap” is realized. The winning proposal for the redevelopment of Downtown Cairo created gentrified space filled with Dubai-esque towers, luxury hotels, open-air museums, and green parks. Tahrir Square is reconfigured, into a destination landmark filled with shops, restaurants, entertainment, and cultural activities. 

The current residents of Downtown Cairo are conspicuous by their absence in Cairo 2050. Indeed, under the title “Main Concept of the Vision” a red circle is drawn around Cairo and large arrows bounce out of the center that indicate the intention of, “redistribution of population all-over the region.” At the very moment that the rich and powerful had devised a scheme to mainstream the idea of displacing and dispossessing thousands of Cairenes, at the very moment the neoliberal project of socially stratifying the city had ostensibly been completed, the city’s populous united in open revolt in the heart of the city.

The urban poor, and in particular those threatened with violence, displacement, and dispossession, led the march to Tahrir Square. Areas such as Bulaq and Shubra came out as key to the facilitation of the January 25 2011 revolution. This huge “non-movement” to claim back the city and reconnect with the urban fabric, despite the spatial fixes of the state and capital, was critical to the magnetization of Tahrir Square.

The fusion of bodies in Tahrir Square and public squares throughout Egypt constructed an anti-Mubarak space. Not only a space of negation, Tahrir Square actualized a post-Mubarak space and revitalized the center of the city from a denied space to an active political place. Cairenes disrupted the established notions of who gets to shape the city. However, the remnants of the regime are working hard to ensure that the image of an alternative future to Egypt is not projected. The government agency, the General Organization for Physical Planning, is reportedly preparing Cairo 2052. Nevertheless, while the remnants of the regime create fantasias for the future and reminisce about the past, the right to the city is present.

Translated by Jadaliyya

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