This past August in Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb built over desert by a Belgian industrialist in 1905, I sat in an architect’s office, a place called Cube Architectural Consultants, and heard a glowing, impromptu presentation on “Cairo 2050.” Cairo 2050 is a series of outlandish master plans and megaprojects for Egypt’s capital that the regime of Hosni Mubarak began promoting in 2008, with the help of the United Nations and the Japanese government. Its future, an earnest architect informed me gently, was “uncertain in the new Egypt.”
Imagine Dubai in the Nile Valley, if instead of building it on empty sand, futurist skyscrapers and business parks rose over what are now the packed, informal neighborhoods that today house the majority of Cairo’s estimated 17 million people. This authoritarian, outsized development “vision” would involve relocating millions to the furthest edges of the desert — areas banally termed “new housing extensions” — to make way for “10 star” hotels, huge parks, “residential touristic compounds,” and landing-strip-sized boulevards lined with a monotony of towers. It’s unlikely to happen in an Egypt after Mubarak — if it was ever possible at all, given budgets and popular resistance. Still, Cairo 2050 offers a glimpse at the Egyptian government’s approach to urban planning and policy. As David Sims, an economist and consultant who has worked in Cairo since 1974, writes in Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, the Cairo 2050 project represents “a continued penchant for the manufacture of unrealistic dreams” on the part of “government planners and their consultants.”
Egypt’s government is designed for a dictatorship: It is extremely centralised and tightly controlled by national policy, and local councils are void of power. Although Cairo’s three governorates have separate budgets and various departments, they largely depend on the country’s ministries, led by presidentially appointed ministers, to care for essential elements of the urban environment: housing, schooling, transport, parks, healthcare, etc. Governorate budgets largely go to paying salaries rather than public spending. There is no unified city government with elected local officials and a mandate to effectively manage the city. Instead, governors do the occasional ribbon-cutting, and make hollow announcements regarding randomly selected projects that suit their whimsy.
A good piece on Cairo's governance as a metaphor for the country's by Mohamed ElShahed. This kind of stuff is part of what has to change in the way the country is managed. Also, informal areas are as much designed for corruption and the rise of a mafia state as they are for autocracy.
My friend David Sims' new book on Cairo's urban planning, Understanding Cairo, is newly out on Amazon.com. It comes highly recommend to anyone who wants to know more about Cairo's urban history, the problems of the slums and gated communities, the way the city has evolved and more. A must for the library of anyone interested in Egypt and this confounding city.
This week I have been reminded of the January 1952 Cairo fire, a riot by poor Egyptians targeting foreigners and the wealthy that was manipulated by the police and the British. From the conclusion of Anne-Claire Kerboeuf's article in Cairo Times, Volume 6 Issue 20:
More than just a fire, 26 January 1952 was an unprecedented national mobilization that for the most part was organized at the grassroots of Egyptian society. That mobilization was undermined by political, economic and social rivalries among the Egyptian elite that were exploited by the British. Those rivalries weakened the whole state apparatus inasmuch as high level officials used them for their own political intrigues and to satisfy their personal interests.Thus, Fouad Serageddin allowed the organization of a riot by paying Ahmad Hussein and did not take elementary precautions to contain the predictable overflow of 26 January. Notably, he deployed very few police officers in Cairo ahead of the demonstrations, unlike the governor of Alexandria. As for King Farouq, he kept 800 police and army chiefs in his palace during the riot for a banquet to celebrate the birth of his son. He also delayed giving the army to go-ahead to intervene.
A great storm is ravaging through the Eastern Mediterranean:
In Egypt at least three people died when a factory collapse in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, officials said. Five people were seriously injured, they say, blaming the accident "on bad weather and heavy rains."
Twenty-six ships were barred from entering the Suez Canal and 29 vessels delayed for three hours. The waterway was hit by poor visibility and winds of up to 40 knots an hour, said an official at the canal, which is Egypt's third-largest source of foreign revenue after tourism and remittances from expatriate workers.
Red Sea and Mediterranean ports were closed for a second day on Sunday, while an Italian container ship, Jolly Amaranto, was stranded off the north-western coast after its engines broke down.
Visibility at Cairo airport was reduced to 300 metres.
As a long drought that affected the region came to an end, temperatures plummeted and storms hit Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel:
- In Lebanon seaside roads and ports have been closed after a 45-year-old woman was killed by a falling tree hitting her car – the year’s first snowstorm hit the country’s mountains;
- Off Israel a Moldovan freighter went down near the port of Ashdod but its crew of 11 Ukrainians was rescued.
- Syria’s capital Damascus was hit by snowstorms;
- Jordan suffered sandstorms and was braced for heavy rain and snow, which could lead to flooding.
Last night, Ursula and I went to see Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander's documentary about Cairo's trash collectors (and recyclers), the Zabbaleen. I had wanted to see this movie for months, but it was impossible to obtain on DVD, there were no screenings in Cairo and no one had put it up online — even though it won over 22 awards and, judging from the overflow crowd at Darb 1718, the great cultural center in Old Cairo where it was being shown outdoors in stifling weather, there is much demand for it.
Garbage Dreams follows the lives of a few boys from Mokattam, the hill East of Cairo near which many of Cairo's 60,000 Zabbaleen live and work handling the city's prodigious garbage output. The story of the Zabbaleen is a familiar one, so I'll just briefly repeat here for those who won't know it: they are a mostly Coptic Christian community of dispossessed peasants from Upper Egypt who settled in Cairo in the late nineteenth century and, as a community, became the trash collectors for about 60% of the city. Originally, contracts for trash collection were actually controlled by Bedouins who subcontracted the work to the Zabbaleen. In recent years, not only have they continued to collect trash, but they have also made additional cash from recycling what they collect, impressively reusing about 80% of the trash after sorting it. They live in filthy conditions, amidst their work, but with dignity and, until recently, regular income.
In recent years, the government began contracting foreign companies to use modern trash collection methods. These take Cairo's garbage to landfills and recycle much less of it — only 20% according to the film. This has eaten into the income of the Zabbaleen and is threatening their community, even if some of the workers for the company have been recruited from it. This is an interesting story, but unfortunately Iskander does not tackle it with sufficient diligence: we are given plenty of the Zabbaleen's side of things, but no explanation from the government or the companies about their strategy (which, I'm fairly sure, would have been even more incriminating — the ridiculousness of needing foreign expertise for trash collection is pretty self-evident.)
But perhaps this doesn't matter that much. The heart of the story are the lives of Adham, Nabil and Osama in the context of this threat to the community. They give poignant testimony about their awareness that they are at the bottom of the social ladder, there desire for both mundane and grandiose improvements to their lives, their attachment to their community and pride in its essential work. There are some pretty hilarious scenes, too, such as when the boys are taken to Wales in a NGO-funded trip to look at recycling methods in Europe. In their almost cruel exposure to a clean, green and prosperous Wales (hardly the reputation the country has, say, in London) they see ideas to take back home, but also great waste — there's a great scene in which Nabil lectures the operators of recycling center that they need to be more thorough about separation — essentially by doing the type of manual sorting done in Cairo that is simply impossible under European labor and safety regulations. "Here they have technology, but they don't have precision," he finally scoffs.
The greatest laugh of all for the Cairene audience came when one boy turns to the other at a road crossing, and says with wonder: "Did you see that car? It stopped to let people cross!" That is one other meditation on why Cairo came to be such a badly run city, saved from the total chaos by the hard work and good humor of its underclass.
The shape that Cairo is taking--physically and in people's imaginations--is something that has interested me for a long time. I've long been fascinated with the two extremes that seem to represent the future of the capital: the عشوائيات, the so called "informal" neighborhoods where as man as two-thirds of all Cairenes live; and the new private gated cities in the desert, whose recent, staggering spread is altering the dimensions and relations of the city.
I've just published a piece in The Review at the National that includes a lot of my thoughts on the topic. Here's part of the introduction:
Most capitals are magnets, but the speed with which the Egyptian one has grown in the last century is testament both to a remarkable centripetal power and to a surrounding vacuum of opportunity. Swelled by waves of rural migration, the population of greater Cairo has gone from less than one million at the beginning of the 20th century to about 18 million today – a megacity on the order of Mumbai or São Paulo, with more people than Lebanon, Jordan and Libya combined.
For centuries, Cairo’s expansion has been checked by geography: the city is bounded by a narrow strip of fertile, Nile-irrigated land, with nothing but desert beyond. The migrants who flocked to the city in the last century found there was nowhere to live: they built shacks on rooftops; they made homes out of covered alleys, inner courtyards, and stairwells. Priced out the soaring formal real estate market, they started building illegally--on the precious agricultural land that surrounds the city, and on the barren plateau that separates it from the desert.
Cairo has long been on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The city teeters under the weight of its multitudes – its public services worn ragged; its air pollution some of the worst in the world; its traffic barely managed by freeway overpasses and tunnels, clumsy last-minute bypass surgeries intended to repair the city’s clogged and failing arteries.
Faced with the city’s barely contained chaos and alarmed by the growing slums, Cairo’s elites have begun to dream of escape. Along the Ring Road, billboards advertise exclusive new private developments, with names like country clubs or bad discos – Utopia, Le Reve, Dreamland, Qattamiya Heights, Palm Hills, Belle Ville – and slogans like “The Egypt of My Desires”. One advertisement, overlooking dilapidated buildings in the centre of town, simply asks: “Why Are You Here?”
The piece goes on to look at, among other things, the--generally negative and very stereotypical--ways in which Cairo's "slums" are portrayed and discussed.
I couldn't quote from all the books that informed the piece, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to list some recommended Reading on Cairo:
1. Cairo Cosmopolitan. Ed. Diane Singerman and Paul Amar (AUC Press, 2006), and Cairo Contested, Ed. Diane Singerman (AUC Press, 2009). Collections of scholarly articles, many of them insightful and informative.
2. Maria Golia's Cairo: City of Sand (AUC Press, 2004). Loving and idiosyncratic essays about the city, full of wonderful details.
3. Mike Davis' Planet of Slums (Verso, 2007). Puts the development of Cairo's informal neighborhoods into terrifying global context.
4. Dina Heshmat's scholarly work Cairo in Contemporary Egyptian Literature (available in Arabic and French only).
5. Le Caire by André Raymond; 1001 Years of the City Victorious, by Janet Abu-Lughoud; and the extremely readable Cairo, the City Victorious, by Max Rodenbeck. Great books for getting to know the city and its history.
OK, this is quite cool: an architect commissioned to create a new project in Sixth of October City outside of Cairo (which is currently mushrooming with competing shopping mall / residential / office projects) created the draft of the project in Second Life. The website for the project is here.
The exercise will test the Arrow (Hetz) system, the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence), the ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence System, as well as Patriot and Hawk anti-aircraft systems, media said. It will simulate the firing of long-range missiles from Israel's foes Iran, Syria and Lebanon, and towards the end it will include a "live" missile interception, reports said.✪ Matthew Yglesias » Bernstein on Human Rights Watch | A good retort to the latest silly attack on HRW (by one of its former chairman) "or having the temerity to hold Israel to the same standards of international humanitarian law to which it holds every other country." But this just points to the problem of bias in the higher echelons of HRW - among former and current staffers. ✪ Almasry Alyoum | No Fly Zone | Nice story looking at the recent airport detentions of various kinds of activists. ✪ Almasry Alyoum | Pope Shenouda: "I Support Gamal Mubarak" | What a nasty little man, and what disservice he does to his flock. I hope Copts flee the Orthodox Church en masse over this. ✪ Arab states consider joint counter-terror police unit | "Arabpol." Oh Lord Have Mercy. ✪ Egyptcarpoolers | A carpooling connecting website for Cairo. ✪ Saddam Interview | Transcripts of interviews with Saddam Hussein during his captivity in 2004.
When the government killed all the pigs in Egypt this spring — in what public health experts said was a misguided attempt to combat swine flu — it was warned the city would be overwhelmed with trash. The pigs used to eat tons of organic waste. Now the pigs are gone and the rotting food piles up on the streets of middle-class neighborhoods like Heliopolis and in the poor streets of communities like Imbaba. Ramadan Hediya, 35, who makes deliveries for a supermarket, lives in Madinat el Salam, a low-income community on the outskirts of Cairo. “The whole area is trash,” Mr. Hediya said. “All the pathways are full of trash. When you open up your window to breathe, you find garbage heaps on the ground.” What started out as an impulsive response to the swine flu threat has turned into a social, environmental and political problem for the Arab world’s most populous nation. It has exposed the failings of a government where the power is concentrated at the top, where decisions are often carried out with little consideration for their consequences and where follow-up is often nonexistent, according to social commentators and government officials.In the meantime, the government is now declaring a war on education (well perhaps it won that one a while back) and has postponed primary and secondary school until early October, leaving millions of parents with kids on their hands, and millions of kids who don't know what to do with themselves. For many of them it may seriously impact the all-important end-of-year exam (esp. for students taking the thannawiya amma), and again it's not clear whether there is a compelling reason to stop school. Although both of these decisions seem ridiculous to me and many others, I'm not an epidemiologist. As political decisions, I analyze them as part stemming from the politician's universal need to be seem to be doing something, even when nothing can be done, and in part from this regime's top-down, no questions asked, decision-making patterns. But New Scientist asked a qualified person to look into the matter and things are more ambiguous:
When swine flu started spreading globally last spring, the Egyptian government decided to slaughter all the Copts' pigs, tens of thousands of them. This made little epidemiological sense: the pandemic virus originated in pigs, but by then it was already a disease you get from people, not pigs. Just an excuse for someone to curry electoral favour by Copt-bashing, some concluded. Verdict: killing pigs bad. But then, maybe getting pigs out of Egypt wasn't such a bad idea. If the H1N1 swine flu virus hybridises with the H5N1 bird flu virus, it could spawn one that spreads like swine flu and kills like bird flu - not a nice thought. Egypt has plenty of H5N1 in birds and a steady trickle of cases in people, including several at the time of the pig slaughter: in total 27 Egyptians have died of it. There has already been a false alarm about swine and bird flu co-infection in Egyptians. The two may also co-infect pigs and hybridise there. There is H5N1 bird flu in Chinese and Indonesian pigs, and lots in Egyptian chickens, so it seems unlikely that the Copts' scavenging, urban swine would be free of it. H5N1 has shown little inclination to hybridise with human flu in pigs so far, but the pandemic swine flu virus, which seems right at home in pigs, may be less picky. Verdict: killing pigs good. Or maybe not. The Copts' pigs were the main system for getting rid of food waste in Egypt's crowded, chaotic cities. Now it is piling up and rotting. And with Egypt keeping schools closed until October to delay the pandemic, there are even more kids than usual playing in the stuff. Pandemic or no pandemic, this cannot be a good thing disease-wise. Verdict: who can tell by this point?That conclusion would reinforce my initial impression: might as well done more scaled-back, sensible measures (like handing out mouth masks to kids or trash workers) than these massive steps with many unforeseen consequences.
A few day's worth...
✪ Orientalism’s Wake: The Ongoing Politics of a Polemic | Very nice collection of essays on Edward Said's "Orientalism" from a variety of supporters, critics, academics including Daniel Varisco, Robert Irwin, Roger Owen, etc.
✪ The Sources of Islamic Revolutionary Conduct | I have not read in detail this small book by a US Air Force analyst, but scanning through it I see rather odd choices. For instance there are long chapters comparing Christianity and modern secularism to the Islamist outlook, except that it's never quite clear whether the latter means the outlook of engaged Islamist activists or ordinary Muslims. There is also copious quoting from Sayyid Qutb's "Milestones" as if it was representative of all Islamic thinking. Someone should give this a detailed look (and I'd be happy to post the result.) [PDF]
✪ Al-Ahram Weekly | Egypt | A clean break | On Cairo's garbage collection crisis.
✪ Irving Kristol, Godfather of Conservatism, Dies - Obituary (Obit) - NYTimes.com | Leaving behind a disastrous intellectual, social, economic and political legacy: alleged liberalism on social issues that shirks from real change, supply-side economics, and of course an imperial war doctrine.
✪ Are Morocco And Algeria Gearing Up For Arms Race? « A Moroccan About the world around him
✪ Big mouth - The National Newspaper | Bernard Heykal on how the strength of al-Qaeda is impossible. Which makes sense, at least if you try to do it from the Bin Laden tapes as all the silly pseudo-analysis of last week showed.
✪ Ikhwanweb :: The Muslim Brotherhood Official English Website | Very much like the new look of the Muslim Brothers' English website, which I hadn't checked in a while. They have a very useful "today's news" feature that can also be used for archives by date.
✪ Al-Ahram Weekly | Economy | Depleting Egypt's reserves | A good article with details on the Egypt-Israel gas deal and why it may be a bad idea in terms of resource management, never mind political and financial sense.
✪ Al-Qaradawi's Fatwa Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | The alleged liberal paid by intolerant Islamists in Riyadh attacks the alleged moderate Islamist paid by Doha:
A news item reported in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper revealed that Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi had issued a fatwa prohibiting Iraqis from acquiring US citizenship on the grounds that this is the nationality of an occupier nation. However this fatwa has nothing to do with the reality on the ground, and contains more political absurdity then it does religious guidance. Sheikh al-Qaradawi himself is an Egyptian who possesses Qatari nationality, which was given to him after he opposed the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. However when an Israeli office was opened in Doha, al-Qaradawi did not renounce his Qatari nationality.
| "His brother Uday told Reuters: "Thanks be to God that Muntazer has seen the light of day. I wish Bush could see our happiness. When President Bush looks back and turns the pages of his life, he will see the shoes of Muntazer al-Zaidi on every page.""
✪ BAE to axe 1,100 jobs and close site | Business | guardian.co.uk | So Tony Blair quashed the Yamama inquiry to save jobs (or so he says) but BAe still carries out layoffs?
✪ Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen and Natalie Portman slam Toronto Film Festival protest - Haaretz - Israel News| Some stars come to Israel's side in the tiff over TIFF.
✪ GDC | Economist Conferences| Economist infographic shows public debt around the world.
✪ FT.com / Middle East / Politics & Society - Investors seek to revive faded glory of Cairo | On investment in Downtown Cairo properties and plans for gentrification. Look out for another article on this soon.
✪ No concrete proof that Iran has or has had nuclear programme – UN atomic watchdog | Just a reminder that the press reports have spinned things wrongly - this comes straight from the UN: "17 September 2009 – Refuting a recent media report, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) today reiterated that the body has no concrete proof that Iran has or has ever had a nuclear weapons programme."
✪ Egypt Islamic Authority Says Women Can Wear Trousers - International News | News of the World | Middle East News | Europe News - FOXNews.com | The world is going to hell -- what next, capris?
✪ BBC NEWS | Middle East | 'Many killed' in Yemen air raid | Serious turn in Yemen's trouble -- bombing a refugee camp!?
Long working hours in the Middle East and Asia – shortest in France People work an average of 1,902 hours per year in the surveyed cities but they work much longer in Asian and Middle Eastern cities, averaging 2,119 and 2,063 hours per year respectively. Overall, the most hours are worked in Cairo (2,373 hours per year), followed by Seoul (2,312 hours). People in Lyon and Paris, by contrast, spend the least amount of time at work according to the global comparison: 1,582 and 1,594 hours per year respectively.It's not surprising: you see people in Cairo work several jobs all the time, while the self-employed work extremely long hours. This is not the same thing as working efficiently, of course, and Cairo does not have the reputation for being a place where you can get things done quickly. People partly work longer hours because it takes more to get things done. But you can't deny that this is an unbalanced economy which forces people to work for ridiculously low salaries (particularly but not only in the public sector), privileges the upper middle class (which enjoys most of the benefits of low-cost living), provides little labor protection (indeed the police collaborates with factory owners to disband strikes) and where, on top of it, the state provides few quality services, meaning people must earn more to provide basic security for their families (i.e. health, etc.) The result: long hours, low quality of life. If only we could all be French.