A friend of mine is studying urban development in Cairo for his dissertation. Almost exactly 2 years ago he explained his assumption that “in the contestation over what a city looks like, you can get an unusual and rich perspective on collective identity.” It sounded like some kind of strange holistic remark at the time, but I think I understand now, and I see what he means. He is in Cairo–a nice representation of the problem with Egypt. I owe my view of Egypt’s problems (and my sense of brooding over current portents) to the observations of my friend, heretofore and eternally known as Jon.
The Arab Republic of Egypt currently has about 90 million citizens, about 8 million of whom live abroad. 35-40% of Egyptians live in poverty, on less than $2 a day. The economy is still very agriculturally-focused, though petroleum exports (particularly in transit through the Suez Canal) and tourism are both very important. Egypt’s population has expanded rapidly over the past 40 years due to the introduction of industrial agriculture techniques which have made the country far less-dependent on the flood-rhythms of the Nile River (which rhythms have ceased anyway with the construction of the Aswan High Dam). The City of Cairo had a 2006 census count of 6,758,581 people; combined with its satellite cities and suburbs the Cairo Metropolitan Area counted 19,439,541 people–nearly 1/4 of all Egyptians. As Egypt is by far the most-populous Arab country and so the cultural center of gravity in the Arab World, so is metropolitan Cairo as the most-populous urban center in Egypt the stage where the various twists in Egypt’s modern political drama unfolds in earnest.
Ugh, I’ll try to keep a lid on such talk, honest.
A year ago Jon characterized Cairo as a chaotic jumble that works (though he never seemed inclined to describe the Egyptian state that way). But in spite of the millions of families, the neighborhoods and informal associations that traverse winding and narrow streets and often equally informal living accommodations–including people living in the mausoleums of the Necropolis–many Egyptians apparently fear an unspecified coming explosion of their city.
When Jon originally told me this, I was almost indignant at the mere mention of the myth. The idea that cities foster violence and social collapse is now old–and way off the mark: “Cities don’t explode. They implode when too many of their people fear a coming explosion and flee to the suburbs, which hollows-out the tax and consumer base necessary for the city to support itself.”
“Well, I know, but this mythology of Cairo’s coming explosion has a lot of power over people there. And it is encouraging people to move out of the city.”
I hadn’t known of the plans to build satellite cities on Cairo’s outskirts. About 1/2 a dozen such cities are now in varying states of development, within commuting distance of Cairo, with populations of hundreds of thousands to several millions planned for the end of the decade. This population shift will be expensive, and heavily-subsidized: Public water from the Nile–quite accessible to Cairo which flanks the legendary and still-essential river–will have to be piped upland miles into the desert to irrigate parks and shade trees, and to provide clean drinking water and sewerage for major cities that in some cases only recently broke ground. Maybe these new towns will be paradise on Earth, but with Egypt’s comparative poverty and aridity, and the intensity of infrastructure and services that would be needed to plan several new cities outside of Cairo at locations that have no economic value aside from being outside of Cairo? Wouldn’t diverting all that water so far afield be wasteful?
“Wouldn’t diverting all that water so far afield be wasteful?”
“Well, sure,” Jon granted.
“…Well? Why are they doing this?!” I asked. “Can this whole process really be driven by some mythological fear of urban collapse in Cairo? What, the government is marshaling the whole country’s resources to help the rich escape?” Then: “Wait…Who owns the land?”
“Well, this is where it gets sensitive: Many people with connections to Egypt’s military own land outside of Cairo that’s worthless desert right now, but once the water is brought there and those cities are planned-out it’ll be worth a fortune. And the development firms that will lead those building projects are owned by relatives of leading military figures, or else military leaders otherwise have a stake in them.” It was then that a thought occurred to me about Jon. He might work-out all the angles in a complex political architecture, then in subsequent conversation might leave it to you to work them out yourself in asking him the right questions, which he answers discretely if not discreetly. It might be he wants to see if the next question that comes logically to you corresponds with the one he had, thus affirming his conclusions; or maybe he is simply curious to see which parts of a potentially-political subject you find interesting without direction.
The Liberal Ironist is a student of political science in general. As such I want to know more about power.
A 2nd thought occurred to me promptly after the 1st: If Egypt’s collective identity is supposed to emerge in Cairo’s “urban renewal,” that collective identity is the plot of Chinatown: A vested oligarchy appropriates a vast hinterland of little natural value but near to a growing city, and conveys a regular supply of fresh water to that land at great expense, literally granting ownership of the future to itself through what on the face of it is a wasteful investment of infrastructure. The political discourse calling for the expansion of Cairo does go back decades; in its latest iteration, here is a poorly-translated but still-illuminating 1993 op-ed from al-Ahram Weekly. I’ll be curious to see whether elite abandonment of Cairo for these satellite cities leads to the impoverishment and decline of this cultural and media center of the Arab World. In a brief but revealing 2010 report, the New York Times suggested that this process is already underway:
“The Egyptian government has spent untallied millions of dollars building new roads and power and water lines to the desert areas it designated for future development. It has sold huge parcels of land to developers in opaque deals, and built some low-income housing. But it has relied primarily on private developers to put up the cities’ more expensive villas and condos, as well as the malls and offices.”
The article noted that some public housing has been built–in theory for the working class–but that poor squatters have often been relocated there, too remote from jobs in Cairo to support themselves there. The Liberal Ironist cannot decide if this is part of a callous plan to compel poor squatters to abandon the Cairo area altogether, or simply the result of incompetence.
Why bring this up? This is what puts Egypt’s recent military coup into context. This offers you, dear reader, an idea of the immobile assets Mubarak’s old coalition of military officers and commercial beneficiaries of state largess want to protect.
Will satellite cities built on the outskirts of Cairo create the living and working spaces for a growing new middle class, or simply a means for the insular rich and the protected to get away from the toiling millions? If it’s the former, a few more years of tyrannical peace could come to appear providential looking back, leading Egypt into the global economy–and delivering Egypt’s expanded middle class to an easier democratic transition later on. This would be similar to the East Asian development model–though in those cases the development of human resources and promotion of a high personal savings rate were as important as the development of infrastructure. In a worst-case scenario the rich and regime-connected simply move out of Cairo into its newest suburbs, leaving behind them a capital city in which they are now not personally invested. Failing political institutions in Cairo and declining job prospects for the young people left behind could lead to a 2nd, more-radical revolution, one that would actually embody the anarchic sentiment and embrace of violence that die-hard regime supporters allege about the current Muslim Brotherhood. This would have been caused not so much because of Islamist sentiments among the masses–which are present but seem more-conservative than radical–but because the last existing state institutions which are viewed as offering an independent and patriotic voice (namely, the courts and the military) would have bared their fangs, for the deplorable end of protecting their large shares of the pie.
The villain in Chinatown didn’t have to worry about a revolution in the future because the people of Los Angeles were always free to choose their political leaders, and even he with all his power just has to accept the result of any election. But if a military oligarchy sacrifices the health of its largest city to a massive contrived real estate bonanza, they could separate hundreds of thousands of Cairenes from convenient access to their jobs, and leave Cairo proper without effective public goods provision. Cairo is too big to ignore, yet the Generals have just indicated they won’t give people a peaceful means to hold their leaders accountable once these plans come off the rails.