Snapshot of an ancient city

“Despite being very old, very big, very crowded and gloriously messy, it can’t quite claim to be the oldest, or biggest or grubbiest world metropolis.” This is how Max Rodenbeck, author of Cairo’s biography Cairo: The City Victorious (2000) describes his home city. “Cairo is not a city of superlatives,” he adds. However, it is necessary to ask, which Cairo are we talking about? Like most cities of its size, age and complexity, it is difficult to describe Cairo in wide brush strokes, let alone to analyse it and tell its story. There are multiple Cairos, which are inhabited by multiple societies that only intersect or interact in few spaces. And within these sub-parts of Cairo there are even more cultures, histories, societies and lives that belong to various networks that make up the city. Cairo’s present complexity is the result of over 60 years of mishap, mismanagement and poor planning. And understanding this complexity is equally difficult because of state policies and malfunction: the state’s inability to conduct accurate research, keep records, collect data, document urban and social change and its unwillingness to allow researchers access to available information. Without data, Cairo’s descriptions abound but mostly rely on journalistic accounts, historical anecdotes and discursive adventures. Cairo may be a serious contender for another superlative: the most misunderstood city?

Some of the basic numbers such as population estimates are debatable. According to the CIA World Factbook, Cairo’s population (2009) is 11 million. But this number almost doubles when considering Cairo metropolitan region. The census of 2006 had greater Cairo, or the Cairo metropolitan region, at 16,1 million and the 2010 estimate is 19 million. The dividing line, however, between Cairo proper and its surrounding metropolitan area is not fixed. The state keeps official records and conducts census every decade, but the data is protected as a matter of national security. Without accurate population numbers and mapping of where this population lives, works and travels across the city, necessary development studies and plans inevitably miss the mark. Facts, such as numbers and accurate mapping, proved to be a highly political matter in last year’s elections during the so-called “transition to democracy” supervised by the military junta. Voting districts and corresponding seats in parliament did not reflect facts on the ground. In fact, Cairo, with an estimated one quarter of Egypt’s population, was represented in parliament with only one-tenth of the seats. Without these most basic facts and figures, it is no wonder that many of the books, portraits and even some of the studies done on Cairo in the past 60 years can be regarded as “fiction” or at least as impressionistic.

Cairo can be understood across time by identifying the boundaries of the city at key historical junctions. There are four distinct historical eras in Cairo’s urban history: Cairo before 1860, 1860 to 1950, 1950 to 2000, and finally 2000 to present. According to standard narrative today’s Cairo was established in 969 by the Fatimids led by General Jawhar al-Siqilli. The new city was laid out over four years and construction included major buildings such as al-Azhar Mosque. Over the course of the next nine centuries Cairo grew incrementally, expanding beyond its original walls several times, but it remained an inland walled city east of the Nile. During the 19thcentury the city witnessed several key changes: first during the reign of Muhammad Ali, founder of the modern state of Egypt; and later by his grandson Khedive Ismail. Ali sought to modernise Cairo by improving hygiene, introducing new boulevards through the city to ease transport of people and goods, and effected laws and regulations to guarantee access to sun and fresh air in residences. Ismail looked beyond the existing urban fabric and sought to expand the historic limits in a westward direction towards the Nile. Nineteenth century urban plans followed contemporary models, with tree-lined avenues, city squares and public parks. These plans and regulations guided the city’s growth well into the 20thcentury. Suburban developments by private companies, Maadi to the south and Heliopolis to the northeast, were constructed at the turn of the century.

The third phase in the city’s development begins roughly in 1950 and lasts for half a century, during which the state expanded the city yet again beyond its historic limits in both the east and west. The west bank of the Nile, Giza, was urbanised as well as the new massive development of Madinat Nasr to the east. During the Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak presidencies (1970 to 2012) people urbanised massive swaths of land without the guidance of state-approved plans. These areas became known as informal settlements. The map of the city transformed dramatically during this period. The state bureaucracy failed to provide urban expansion plans that corresponded with massive population growth in the capital due to rural-urban migration. The 1990s witnessed far-reaching economic reforms, which concentrated wealth in the top five percent of the population. These wealthy families led Cairo’s fourth era of development, a privatised extra-urban oriented phase, where the desert periphery was transformed into an archipelago of gated communities. Since 2000 the urbanised area of Cairo has nearly doubled, however the population density varies significantly from the new communities in the desert to the informal areas and the pre-1950 parts of the city.

Cairo can also be understood by breaking the massive conglomerate of the city into four major types of Cairos as identified on the map: historic core/planned, informal or self-built communities, desert communities, and peri-urban communities. Each of these urban patterns reflects Cairo’s different economies. There are at least three parallel economies in Cairo, which intersect minimally; these are the state/public sector economy, the privatised economy, and the informal economy. Each of these separate but not mutually exclusive economies is reflected in the pattern of the city. The public sector/state economy is limited to ministerial housing projects, while the private economy has the highest GDP and is visible in the large swaths of newly developed areas on the desert fringes – yet it has the lowest population density. The informal economy is represented by the informal housing sector, which has the lowest GDP and the highest population density. The latter economy entails informal methods of constructing, lending, buying and selling. Many of these communities function outside the control of the state but within the control of powerful families, mafias, contractors and other figures that often have links to the ruling regime. The private economy is minimally supervised by the state, is little taxed and many of these private developments are considered by analysts to be subsidised by the government.

David Sims, author of the book Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out Of Control (2010) has reflected on the relationship between economic policy and the city’s various urban patterns: “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.” While the government has financially supported development on the cit
y’s fringes as its way of relieving pressure from the urban core, in fact it has subsidised massive speculation by Egypt’s financial elite. Sims adds, “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.” The so-called informal areas are absorbing over three-fourths of the city’s new 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”.

The growing gaps between development and wealth found in each of these Cairos is a reflection of the city’s dysfunctional governance structure. Cairo does not have a municipality or a mayor in charge of the entire city. Instead the city is part of three separate governorates, or states if you will, each of these with its own governor and his bureaucracy. Local government has been effectively disempowered and local councils are not helpful for communities neither to organise and manage their districts nor to lobby the city’s government for development projects or even utilities. Instead, members of the ruling party, who control local councils, often pressure residents and local businesses to pay bribes in order to avoid legal trouble with the state. When it comes to basic services such as electricity, sewage, schools and medical care, the centralised ministries, not the municipalities, take charge. Ministerial posts are also appointed and often roles change with new administrations, making it constantly difficult for citizens who have business with the state to figure out the most recent process and steps. Cairo’s present condition is a reflection of Egypt’s corrupt political system.

As Cairo grows exponentially to the east and west, the city’s infrastructure struggles to keep up. Areas with the highest densities exist with minimal infrastructure, sometimes with no proper sewage, relying on shared bathrooms and septic tanks. Informal growth has generally replaced agricultural lands as those areas already had access to infrastructure, albeit for agricultural rather than residential or industrial use. Since the 1970s the state has encouraged private car ownership by subsidising fuel and expanding the city’s road network. Until the mid-1970s Cairo had roughly 125km of tram tracks that crisscrossed the centre of the city and connected it to surrounding districts. The majority of this tram network was removed to make way for private vehicles. Sims thinks it is time for the government to reconsider its private car oriented policies, “With only 15 percent of households in Greater Cairo owning private vehicles, it would seem that public transport is key.” The city has three metro lines with a forth in planning, however implementation has been excruciatingly slow. Although there are new city busses on the streets, they are not enough to serve the city and thus privately run minibuses have dominated as a primary mode of transport. A comprehensive transport policy that produces an integrated system is a necessary first step for any future government in Egypt.

The current political upheaval and struggle between the militarised old regime and new political forces point to a murky future for Cairo. Despite its many problems, somehow the city manages to function and this is the result of the versatility and resilience of the city’s inhabitants. The problems are clear and so are the solutions, however the political will needed to implement real change and to improve the city, study its current conditions, preserve its past and plan for its future is missing. The Mubarak regime produced a plan for Cairo’s future called Cairo 2050 in which massive redevelopment is imagined at the expense of dislocating the majority of the city’s poor population. The highly controversial plan was not discussed in Egypt or publicised locally but it was presented in Europe in attempts to attract investors. The inhabitants of the city are not part of the vision or part of its implementation. When asked about the plan, historian Khaled Fahmy had this to say, “What the inhabitants of Cairo need more than skyscrapers and fenced green areas is a government structure that respects their needs and responds to their desires, the only way to do this is to reconsider the way the city is managed and how its future is planned.” He goes on “only then will the government’s fascist claims that Cairo is beautiful and rich but has too many inhabitants who have led to its deterioration, only then will these statements end.”

Mohamed Elshahed is a researcher who focuses on architecture and urban planning in Egypt from the 19th century to the present. He is founder and editor of the Cairobserver, a websites focusing on urbanism in Cairo

Twitter: Cairobserver


This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project

image credits:  Peter Guiterez ; Jari Kirittu on Flickr


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