Post-Revolutionary Cairo: Blocking the City, Un-Blocking the Urban Planning?
Original text in French : http://ifpo.hypotheses.org/4419. Translation: Teo Firpo.
Almost two years after the January 25th revolution, Cairo lives a paradoxical moment. Cairo is the main stage of the protests, whereby the political and social changes underway in Egypt find their repercussions on the urban scale. Between 2011 and 2012, the city experienced a material and institutional blockage that opposed its urban management to its daily practices. Today the metropolis finds a renewed attention from a number of actors that are mainly involved in ‘civil society’. These actors aspire to ‘revolutionise’ urbanism.
The general popular enthusiasm created by the fall of Mubarak has rapidly made way for a collective feeling of disillusion. Process of transfer of power started with the transfer of power from the army to a civil regime and became effective through the election of Mohammed Morsi in June 2012. Cairo bears many marks of this transition period that are still very relevant six months after the presidential election.
Initially, the army took hold of Cairo’s central spaces, putting in place a policy of control and blockage of the city. Despite Superior Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) originally supported mass gatherings since January 25th, it severely repressed them during the ‘Battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street’ (Barthe, 2011). Afterwards, SCAF sought to block access to Tahrir square. Walls with reinforced barbwire were erected (photos 1 & 2) on most of axes leading to this symbolic spot of the revolution and the nearby Ministry of the Interior. This process of militarisation in downtown Cairo turned the Egyptian capital into a city-at-war. It has entailed two major consequences on the practices and representations of space.
Firstly, walls in downtown (four walls in November 2011 turn out to be six in May 2012) have forced pedestrians and cars to use alternative routes during six months. This phenomenon has intensified traffic-jams along Nile’s banks and Abdeen area that are the only two possible ways to circumvent Tahrir and cross the river from either side. Though Tahrir has lost much of its status as centre of the city, particularly after the relocation of cultural institutions and economic activities to the periphery, it has remained a major traffic junction (CEDEJ, 2012b). Cutting off access to it necessarily has resulted into a blockage of the adjacent districts, incapable of absorbing the urban fluxes.
Moreover, closing this space fully contradicts its function of open area of movement and exchange during the revolution. In few months, army has managed to sabotage its main symbol. The romantic image of the square has emerged during Arab Spring was also spoiled by ‘thugs’ (baltaggy) and drug-dealers. They took advantage of army repression on protesters to settle in. They were only driven out of the square by the government during summer 2012.
Secondly, revolution period has also paused decision-making in the field of urban planning. It has blocked, rather institutionally than physically, the city. Improving standards of living in the urban space – especially for the 65% of Greater Cairo inhabitants living in ashwa’iyyat (CEDEJ, 2012a) –, was one of the core demands of the 2011 protests. Urbanisation remained a secondary concern during the legislative and presidential elections. No serious discourse emerged on a general urban policy recently. The newly elected President Morsi has committed in fact to a number of promises before his ascension to power: traffic reduction, construction of one million social housing units and the organisation of municipal elections. The latter has not yet taken place and it has been postponed to an unknown date. Financing the new social housing seems to be very problematic for the government, as the Minister of Housing recognised in a September 2012 interview to the press. Finally, no one in Cairo has noticed an improvement in traffic conditions, whether they are users or public transport personnel – on strike since September 2012 to achieve higher salaries. Furthermore, on several occasions throughout 2012, gas stations across the country were out of service. Rumours of a coming hike in prices have been fuelled by threats endangering the costly basic products subsidies programme. This created panic and shortages. Moreover, road-accidents killed over 15,000 people since 2011 (Elshahed, 2012), which is higher than victims of violences since the revolution.
Beyond the governmental inertia in terms of urban policies, a majority of actors involved in planning, both public and private, have experienced full consequences of transition. The General Office for Physical Planning staff is a government agency in charge of planning. While it has not changed after Mubarak’s fall and the election of Morsi, their projects have been suspended. “Greater Cairo 2050” project is the Master Plan envisioned by Gamal Mubarak (son of the deposed president) to make the capital competitive on a global scale. This project has been heavily criticised by members of the new government and it had no significant impact on the city to date. The Plan has in fact been partially replaced by a new document called “Egypt 2052”. According to the Muslim Brotherhood currently in power, this new plan is supposed to re-balance territorial focus to the benefit of secondary cities that were neglected under the previous regime. Moreover, private actors seem to encounter several difficulties that are revealed by the withdrawal from the Egyptian market of many foreign investors, especially from the Gulf countries affected by the crisis. Likewise, the leading Egyptian real-estate groups (Sodic, Ehaf, Bahgat group, etc.) have delayed implementation of urban projects in the new districts of Westown and Eastown that are located in the ‘new cities’ of Six of October and New Cairo respectively (photo 3).
We are facing a dire political context of transition. The city’s dysfunctional aspects are exacerbated while actors are immobilised. In this context, are there any prospects for the un-blocking of urbanism? The answer could come from “civil society”, which has increased its abilities for action and freedom of speech since the revolution, and which has been increasingly interested in urban planning.
First of all, new urban experiments have come up (projects for eco-neighbourhoods, programmes of renovation of ‘modern’ architectural heritage, new label of high environmental quality, promotion of car-pooling and cycling, etc.) and they reveal the inclination of a number of actors towards sustainable development (Barthel & Monqid, 2011).
Moreover, today more than ever urbanism is debated, in think thanks, exhibitions, websites and studies, thus enabling the reinvention/reappropriation of public space by citizens who have long suffered from an authoritarian form of urbanism (photo 4). These changes are witnessed by websites such as www.cairobserver.com and www.cairofrombelow.com. They give a voice to Cairenes while criticising governmental projects and calling for a rethinking of urban practices. Similarly, Takween which is a group of experts available to advise urban planners and actors in their activities, are attempting to inscribe such concepts as the right to the city and the right to housing in the new Egyptian constitution.
Furthermore, Cairo’s inhabitants are more mobilised today than ever. They seek to compensate for the lack of public urban action, particularly in informal areas, where state agents have virtually disappeared since the Revolution, thus provoking a boom in construction. Popular committees have initially emerged in order to ensure security. They formed an association in February 2011 to obtain the right to the land on which they had built illegally, as well as certain collective services. Their actions were sometimes successfully as in the cases of Ard El-Lewa and Ezbet Kheirallah. Architecture and urbanism schools are not inactive. Students at Cairo and Aïn Shams universities are volunteered by their professors, as part of their curriculum, to conceive a new urban order in Egypt based on citizen participation.
These initiatives may lay foundations for redefinition of urbanism in Cairo. In order to do so government has to take their demands into account and international donors (World Bank, AFD, BEI, GIZ, etc.) have to maintain their aids despite they have already threatened to reduce them several occasions after the revolution. The major challenge for the new government is to come up with new vision for Cairo that takes into account the needs of inhabitants. After several decades of laissez-faire and urban authoritarianism property insecurity and social injustice have been reinforced in the biggest African megalopolis (Sims, 2010).
- Barthe B., 2011, “La bataille de la rue Mohamed Mahmoud”, in L’Égypte à l’heure du choix. Décryptage des défis de l’après-Moubarak (Blog du Monde.fr), 22 novembre 2011. [On line] http://egypte.blog.lemonde.fr/2011/11/22/la-bataille-de-la-rue-mohamed-mahmoud/
- Barthel P.-A., Monqid S., 2011, Le Caire, réinventer la ville. Paris, Autrement.
- CEDEJ, 2012a, “ʿAshwa‘iyyat”, Glossaire de la révolution, [On line] https://www.cedej-eg.org/spip.php?article641
- CEDEJ, 2012b, “Maydan al-Tahrîr”, Glossaire de la révolution, [On line] https://www.cedej-eg.org/spip.php?article632
- Elshahed M. 2012, “Road Rage”, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs 6, Summer 2012, p. 30-31.
- Sims D., 2010, Understanding Cairo, The Logic of a City without of Control, Cairo/New York, The American University in Cairo Press.
Roman Stadnicki (PhD in Geography) is head of the “Urbanism and Sustainable Development” Section at the CEDEJ (CNRS/MAEE), Cairo. He recently co-organized the international conference “Revolts and Transitions in the Arab World: Towards a New Urban Agenda?” (Cairo, November 7th-9th).