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.”
Sims is one of Cairo’s sharpest observers. He was one of the first scholars to study Cairo’s informal areas – large and expanding “extralegal” neighborhoods, as he defines them, that were built without planning or permits mostly on once private, reclaimed agricultural land. They began to proliferate in the 1970s, largely funded by remittances sent home by Egyptian men laboring in the oil-boom Gulf. The informal areas have come to dominate the city’s urban fabric, yet are known pejoratively in Cairo as ‘ashwa’i areas or ‘ashwaiyyat (“random” or “haphazard” in Arabic), condemned by the government and the well-to-do as vast slums, as home to rural migrants unable to adapt to the city life, and, beginning in the 1990s, as havens for Islamist militants. Which isn’t to say the government has no presence in informal areas. Corrupt urban bureaucracy tacitly accepted their expansion, making access to basic municipal services and infrastructure a matter of bribes and clientelism. Often described in monolithic if shadowy terms, many informal areas are left off maps of the city altogether. Yet Sims shows that they demonstrate great adaptability, with a variety of building types and a vernacular order mimicking the patterns of medieval Cairo, with their density, their compact plots, and their narrow, meandering streets.
Cairo 2050 was the government’s response to this rapid, informal urbanization. The scheme promised residents of informal areas a new “civilized residential environment” miles away in the desert, while their old neighborhoods, like the areas in Giza near the pyramids, would become luxury centers of tourism and business. You might call Cairo 2050 useful, then, not for grasping some imaginary future, but for understanding the city’s recent development – and for deepening our understanding of social unrest in Egypt, stoked by the regime’s misplaced urban planning policies. “In a way it seems that government planners enjoy going through a rosy design exercise in which they can conveniently forget the reality that is present-day Cairo and over which the government has so little control,” Sims writes. “It is much simpler to look so far into the future that nasty details need not besmirch the vision.” Put another way by a foreign architect I spoke with in Cairo this summer who has worked in Egypt for 20 years: “What’s so worrying about Cairo 2050 is that so much money could have been spent on such a fantasia.”
When you fly into Cairo, you land at an airport in the desert on what was once a British army base, the huge Heikastep camp, built in the 1940s. A decade later, part of it became Cairo International Airport. After Egypt’s devastating defeat to Israel in June 1967, the Egyptian military responded by spreading out in a defensive “dispersal strategy.” It had, after all, lost the Six Day War on the first morning, when its air force, sitting on exposed runways outside Cairo and in the Sinai Peninsula, was destroyed by swift, surprising Israeli air strikes. As Sims writes, much like the British had when they occupied Egypt, after 1967 the army “peppered Cairo’s deserts with various camps, fortifications, air bases, air defense batteries, and factories.”
This is not only a bit of Cairo trivia. By the 1970s much of Cairo’s desert, on both its eastern and western edges, was under military control. This allowed the state, underwritten by the army, to plan and dream of the city’s expansion and future in the desert, no matter the budgetary or environmental costs. The geography that had always bounded Cairo and its predecessors in the Nile valley – the bare Moqattam hills to the east; the Saharan desert, to the west, that begins at the Giza plateau and ends at the other side of North Africa – would be redefined.
In 1950, when Sims begins his narrative, Cairo was enjoying a postwar boom, “poised to expand at a scale never before seen in its history.” Waves of rural migration into the city before and during the war accelerated after the Free Officers coup in 1952. Led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the new regime instituted agrarian reforms, seizing and redistributing huge, private estates in the name of social justice – but really in order to eliminate the old, landed elite. Coupled with state-sponsored industrialization and public housing projects, these changes encouraged massive internal migration. A city of about 2.8 million in 1950 – less than one-sixth of its population today – Cairo had over 6 million residents by 1965. By 1976 it was nearly 8 million, the scale of expansion pushing against the confines of nature. So the Egyptian government looked to the desert, the vast tracts of land under military control, as a new frontier for industrial towns and state-subsidized housing for the working classes.
The desert cities constitute the government’s urban planning priority to this day. As Hosni Mubarak proclaimed in an address to his rubber-stamp parliament in 1996:
The conquest of the desert is no longer a slogan or dream but a necessity dictated by the spiraling population growth. What is required is not a token exodus into the desert but a complete reconsideration of the distribution of population throughout the country.
By the late 1990s, though, the character of the satellite cities had changed in government plans from mass, working-class housing to suburban getaways in the desert. The regime and its business allies announced a series of high-end commercial developments and luxury, gated communities, complete with golf courses, amusements parks, and star architecture. Today many of these projects sit half-built. Are golf courses, or an office park designed by Zaha Hadid, really rising on that distant stretch of desert? Rather than being the solution to a population boom and a middle-class escape from congestion, the desert cities came to represent the failures and corruption of Mubarak’s neoliberal regime. Urban planning in the desert was sold off, effectively, to private real estate and business interests. Their low-density, wide streets, and sprawl – in contrast to central Cairo’s density – require massive infrastructure investments, from expensive access roads and highways to abundant water and sewage treatment plants. The desert cities are practically unreachable by public transportation. Central Cairo is well served by a metro system that runs in two lines both along the Nile and across the river to Giza. Its planned expansion, to connect the eastern and western desert edges of Greater Cairo, is years behind schedule, despite being a key factor in rosy planning reports on the viability of the satellite cities.
Despite decades of prioritized investment, over 60 percent of the housing units in the eight primary satellite cities of the desert are vacant, home to, Sims estimates, no more than 800,000 people total, less than 5 percent of the city’s population. Quixotic government projections said they’d already house millions by now. Much of the housing stock was built to feed state-sponsored real estate speculation, while the government failed to provide basic municipal services for the rest of Cairo, particularly the informal areas. “The suspicion is inescapable,” Sims writes, “that the real reason for the new towns and other desert projects around Cairo is to add to the speculative frontier, replenish the land resource needed for state patronage, and continue to create conditions for profitable private schemes with little or no utility value.” While Cairo 2050 is a fantasia, the desert cities are a failure.
Court battles that began in the last months of Mubarak’s rule verified the popular suspicion that the gated, luxury compounds of the desert were the product of shady land deals and kickbacks. Last fall a judge annulled the land deal behind Madinaty (“my city”), a multibillion dollar luxury project in New Cairo, because the land was not sold at auction. Since the fall of Mubarak, a former housing minister and the developer behind another desert project called Palm Hills have been charged with corruption over similar sweetheart deals.
Despite all these problems, the interplay between state planning in the desert and unregulated, informal expansion near the historic center has in some ways, Sims argues, inadvertently served Cairo – just not how the regime intended. In the ring of slums creeping in on the Nile, Sims sees “true ironic serendipity.” In his view, the state’s neglect of former agricultural land near the center in favor of developing empty desert on the fringes has actually saved Cairo’s density. Affordable housing arose in well-located but officially ignored former agricultural areas around the Nile, with only a fraction of poorer residents moving out to the desert as the government hoped. One could call it an urbanism of unintended, if functional, consequences. Cairo, al-Qahira, means “the victorious” in Arabic, but this way it is also the city accidental and fortuitous. “Cairo has been blessed,” he writes “both by geography and, ironically, by the state’s misguided approach to it.”
Cairo is a city often captured by stereotype: its unruly traffic, pollution, slums, decay, and general chaos, framed as an insult to the legacy of the Pharaohs. Sim’s vital book is written against this stereotype. There is hardly a mention of ancient Egypt, and little of the city’s medieval, Islamic past. Instead of anecdotes meant to capture Cairo in broad strokes, Sims offers data: census figures, population estimates, maps, floor-plans of informal housing, and sharp aerial images from Google Earth of informal density and half-built desert subdivisions. “Understanding means taking a jaundiced look at glib generalizations and especially at attempts to squeeze a city into some paradigm or global truth,” he writes. “It means that statistics and numbers and maps do count, as long as they are treated with a very critical eye.”
Sims describes Cairo’s informal economy and transportation network, with the aid of government surveys and international development reports, revealing a city of perseverance and adaptability. The informal economy absorbs over half of Cairo’s labor force – which grows by some 200,000 people every year – while investment in informal residential real estate in Greater Cairo is estimated to be over $36 billion, almost 40 percent of the city’s total. Traffic might be horrendous, but informal transportation systems, like fleets of minibuses, shuttle millions across Greater Cairo every day, cheaply and efficiently, for between .5 and 1.50 Egyptian pounds (from less than a penny to a quarter). The private car, which Sims notes is the main traffic culprit, only serves a minority of Cairenes, like those in the desert cities, mainly accessible by car. Only 11 percent of households own a car, which means that some 15 million people rely on public transportation or taxis to get around.
Among the reasons that Egyptians took to the streets late last January, and did so in labor strikes and persistent protests for years before then, was a fundamental failure of governance. Demands for dignity, respect, social justice, even democracy came from citizens pushed to the edge by a regime that expected the public to be largely passive as it governed only to better itself and its cronies. Mubarak and his ministers spoke in heady, unrealistic terms about modernizing and improving Egypt for all Egyptians while ensuring that, in reality, only the elite would benefit. More than 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. This much-repeated statistic speaks less to the regime’s priorities than the fact that most people in Cairo, over 11 million, live in housing deemed illegal by a regime that siphoned planning resources and basic, municipal services toward a costly, corrupted dream in the desert. Cairo’s social inequality is spatial: the city expresses the failures of its government. Gated enclaves and golf courses on sand, far away from the hastily built houses and towers of cheap brick and concrete, fill in every available patch of agricultural land around the city.
Last summer in Cairo, which is always buzzing with rumors, I heard the following rumor about Farouk Hosny, the former Minister of Culture and Mubarak confidante: Several different architects and preservationists working in the medieval heart of Cairo told me that a fishmonger on Sharia al-Muizz, the main street of the area, had been forced to close as part of a costly, government-led urban renewal scheme, known as the Historic Cairo Restoration Project. The Ministry of Culture, in its hope to turn the area into an “open-air museum,” had over the last decade restored mosques and monuments, closed the street to traffic, and opened rows of tourist shops and shisha cafes. The fishmonger’s shop was apparently too shaabi (popular, local) for the new al-Muizz. One architect embellished the story, claiming the shop had been shuttered according to the personal whims of the Minister of Culture. The fishmonger had dared to invite Hosny and his guests to sit and have some fish during an official tour of the restoration work on al-Muizz. Hosny took this as an affront, this rumor went, and had the fishmonger shut down.
But on January 25th, the day Egypt’s revolution began, the fishmonger reopened. The police who monitored al-Muizz as a traffic-free tourist zone were gone, presumably fighting protesters in downtown Cairo. The fishmonger has been open ever since. “If the police returned and told him to close,” one of the preservationists told me, “the people here would kill them.” But when I went and talked to the fishmonger – I’ll refer to him as Amr – in August, he demurred. He said he’d been open since before January 25th and that he had only closed temporarily, while the street was being repaved. Not that Amr had kind words for Farouk Hosny, a reviled regime figurehead who did his best to co-opt the country’s vast cultural heritage. Many of the contractors hired for the restoration work in and around al-Muizz are huge state companies that specialize in poured concrete, not careful preservation. Hosny’s project manager for al-Muizz is in jail, convicted of taking bribes from these companies. Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, the feared Mukhabarat, owns one of the contractors, Wadi al-Nil. “For Farouk Hosny, this was all about money,” Amr said.
Besides capturing the profiteering of the government and its contractors in the name of historic restoration, this story also says something about the hollow priorities of the regime’s wider development view for Cairo. The Cairo 2050 vision adopted the “open-air museum” project on al-Muizz as a model for all of historic Cairo. This was the regime’s “urban dream”: With skyscrapers and luxury developments replacing all the informal neighborhoods, and their working-class residents shunted to the desert, the busy, historic heart of Cairo, home to plenty of crumbling, informal housing of its own, would be remade as a sanitized tourist park. Though Cairo 2050 is unlikely, the players behind it and the development desires that it signified have hardly left with Mubarak. “By no means has the State been divested of all of its self-serving land grabbers and allied business elites,” Sims warned in an essay last February. “The revolutionary spirit is so far focused on changing national political structures, and even if successful there is no guarantee that the manipulators and opportunists and bribers, so prominent in the past, will not still find fertile ground.”