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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Egyptian Urban Exigencies: Space, Governance and Structures of Meaning in a Globalising Cairo

  • Author(s): Duffield, Roberta
  • Advisor(s): Amar, Paul
  • et al.

Greater Cairo’s claim as amongst the world’s largest urban conglomerates demands discussion of its spatial organisation and governance. The challenges of pollution, overcrowding and poverty are unavoidable when 22.8 million citizens aspire to cohabit one space, historically lacking robust mechanisms for formal civic engagement and enforcing the social accountability of successive national governments. These issues of urban inequality and le droit à la ville became drivers of social anger during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. A period of reduced governmental oversight on spatial ownership and a newly galvanised civil society following these protests opened a brief window for a new mode of urban citizenship that demanded a more equitable urban existence for Cairo’s inhabitants. This moment, however, appears to have ended. The installation of the Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi administration in 2014 proposes a new period of state-led politicised urban development for Cairo’s future, adjourned during the years of regime change following the revolution. The current governmental vision for the Egyptian capital coalesces around notions of a global city that demonstrates the urban trappings of a locus of international flows of capital, business and tourism. This includes the construction of high-end commercial and residential areas, mass slum clearances and the reimagination of the city’s multiple architectural heritages as ‘open-air museums’. Inspiration is drawn from the economic prosperity of rising eastern metropoles particularly Dubai, appropriated as an emulative model for Arab success. The apex of these ambitions is arguably the New Administrative Capital, currently under construction 45-kilometres away from Cairo which proposes a ‘smart’, green, connected city as the new seat of Egyptian national prestige in the twenty-first century.

The findings of this thesis are based upon research from a five-month period of participant observation in Cairo that informed a familiarity with area and populations of enquiry, informal interviews with knowledge stakeholders involved in urban issues, and a range of primary and secondary written sources. They reveal a paradox at the heart of current hegemonic planning logics which proclaim a better Cairo through de-densification and development, but with little introspection on its inhabitants’ immediate needs or learning from previous urban development in the city. Globality as intimated through the built environment manifests as a hollow visuality of cosmopolitan modernity orientated around elite consumer practices, informed by neoliberal subjectivities and private-sector economics. Practical considerations of infrastructural investment and adequate social housing projects are side-lined by a myopic commitment to the aesthetics of stature as a short-cut to success. This is upheld by the Egyptian Armed Forces reasserted role as a prominent economic beneficiary in Egypt’s speculative elite real estate and development sectors. The spectre of 2011’s mass uprising runs throughout Cairo’s urban development, consciously rationalised in the securitisation of symbolic sites of revolution, or indirectly perpetuated through projects that promote a class-based usability that corresponds to politicised and moralised narratives of risk and identity regarding visibility in public spaces. Without a comprehensive long-term solution to complex urban needs and a mounting public debt incurred through poorly-conceived megaprojects, the future appears set to engender further civil dispossession from Cairo’s urban environment.

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