Chinatown in the Middle East: Cairo, Corruption, and the Myth of Urban Apocalypse

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.


2 thoughts on “Chinatown in the Middle East: Cairo, Corruption, and the Myth of Urban Apocalypse

  1. Pingback: Egypt’s Preventable Political Catastrophe | The Liberal Ironist

  2. heretofore and eternally Jon

    When I said you understood my dissertation better than I do, I was being glib, but only a little glib. After a year of feeling lost in the details, it’s hard to explain what it’s like to read a post by someone who has listened to the essence of what I’m up to, thought about it seriously, and responded with smart analysis. You’ve been in the academic salt mines enough to know what it would feel like to wake up to a reminder that there actually are high-level points to be made, and even better, someone else thinks they’re actually there.

    I also still quote (paraphrase, really, since I don’t remember the original verbatim) what you said to me when I explained what I was up to: there really are only seven stories in the world. And one of them is Chinatown. Hopefully without the daughter-sister angle. Hopefully.

    I have a few responses. First:

    ” 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…”

    That’s an awful flattering way to put that. It’s true that most things I am interested in have enough facets to them that you can talk about them from a number of angles, and I do tend to ‘leave it open’ and talk about different angles with different people according to whichever facets they seem to find interesting. But it’s not true that I leave people to work things out for themselves. I’m not that chessmaster-ish. It might be more accurate to say that I do not always present my ideas coherently enough that the whole is readily apparent to an informed listener. You know, like when I go on about myths and political fantasies and urban legends, and have to be politely prodded to confirm that yes, there’s a political economy angle here, and yes it matters.

    “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”

    A brief correction here. I’m pretty sure I would have been careful to say it’s not just military people. In the year or so since we talked, the English language press has gotten pretty savvy to the military’s economic empire, which is a good thing, but it’s important to remember that civilian crony capitalists are just as much a part of this system, and they have their own construction firms, real estate empires, etc. The military has fared relatively better since Mubarak’s fall – I would not be the first to describe the economic impact of Egypt’s revolution as ‘military capitalists outmaneuvering civilian crony capitalists, many of whom were associated with power-bases, particularly but not only Gamal Mubarak, which the military found threatening to their interests’. But nonetheless, it’s not just a story of military landholdings, and in any case, desert land outside of the nile valley by default is owned by the Egyptian state, not the military. They’re not (yet, entirely) the same thing, though the military does have a really bad habit of claiming dibs on choice land for their building projects – sports arenas, housing for officers, social clubs, etc. I’ve met people from various working class neighborhoods who complained that they wanted access to land to expand the neighborhood, and the military decided they needed the land instead.

    As for the big question, I think you’re right that the collective identity in question is the plot of Chinatown. I still think it’s true that the elites here sell, and believe, visions of modern cities in the desert, and fears that Cairo will explode if those desert cities aren’t built. But in practice what gets built is a certain amount of luxury housing, and a whole bunch of (usually failed) projects that could be more accurately described as ‘rent-seeking behavior by building firms owned by powerful people’ than as urban development.

    I’m not so sure that we’ll get a cyberpunk scenario, in which a privileged few live in suburban luxury while millions choke in a decaying central city (though Egyptians are already starting to talk like that’s the case), but none of the plans I’ve encountered seriously address how to deal with a city that’s like 70% informal housing. There’s no money in making the city better for most people, certainly not compared to the land-boom going on out in the desert. Meaning: spatial polarization between rich and poor is getting worse, and the Egyptian government still prefers to treat this as justification for more massive projects out in the desert, rather than upgrading the parts of the city people actually live in. I don’t see any of that changing anytime soon.


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