Aug 24

Millions of meters of land


According to Egypt’s current president, the country has received more than $20 billion in “aid” from Gulf countries, namely, Saudi Arabia (a trailblazer in promoting democracy and freedoms in the region), the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. $20 billion is a lot of money but where did it go? Furthermore, what qualifies that sum of money as “aid?” To put the number into perspective, this Gulf “aid” is about four times the annual revenue of the Suez Canal. That sum of money could have paid for completing the third metro line and building the entire fourth metro line in Cairo with some spare change to do a tram line somewhere. That sum of money is also about 12 times the annual US aid to Egypt. However, just like the US aid is not as philanthropic as it sounds (most of the money is actually military contracts and Egypt ends up spending more than the “aid” money annually for US military equipment and maintenance), Gulf “aid” isn’t the gift to the Egyptian people that it purports to be. Where has this money actually gone and what impact on the lives of Egyptians, particularly those living in cities, has this money made? This is not a Marshall Plan type of aid, resulting in specific development projects that actually impact the economy, provide sustained jobs and services. To put it bluntly, what are Gulf backers of the regime getting for their money? (besides the political clout they buy in Egypt, for example see the size of the new Saudi embassy in Cairo)

One possible answer is land. Lots of land. Millions of square meters of Egyptian land.

We’ve heard before about Walid bin Talal’s land in Toshka, south Egypt. The Saudi business tycoon acquired 100,000 faddan from the Egyptian government for 50 EGP/faddan (a faddan is roughly 4200 sqm), that’s $7 per 4200 square meters! This state-sanctioned land grab was brought to public attention after the 2011 protests started, a time when people thought corruption can be brought to justice. This led to a friendly resolution and bin Talal generously gave back some of the land at its original cost and kept the majority.

More recently, another massive land sale was in court. This time it was land in Giza with one side of the “property” overlooking the great pyramids. The land was sold to a Kuwaiti company during Mubarak’s years and was also brought to court after the revolt started. The exact area of the disputed land is unclear, one report suggests that the total land was 110 million square meters (one and half the total size of the city of Beirut) sold at 200 pounds per faddan or 4.5 piasters per square meter! Other reports, including al-Ahram, confirm the size of the disputed land but they use the less foreboding number of 26,000 faddans (which roughly equals 110 million square meters). That land was designated by the government as desert land for agricultural reclamation. However, not only did the Kuwaiti company not invest in its reclamation for food production, it carried out illegal digs in search of antiquities and carried out extensive quarrying to sell millions of dollars worth of Egyptian stone. The court case, which just ended earlier this month, not only allowed the company to retain the land but also gave it permission to urbanize it rather than its original purpose of transforming it into agriculture. All this for a sum of cash totaling nearly 45 billion Egyptian pounds to be paid by the company to compensate the Egyptian state. But don’t hold your breath, most probably after the first installment nothing will be paid and everything will be forgotten.


Another case is Port Ghalib in Marsa Alam on the Red Sea. There, a Kuwaiti businessman bought an estimated one million square meters of land on a virgin beach in one of Egypt’s still unexploited coasts. In addition, the same buyer, Al-Kharafi, also bought the airport across the road from his private resort city of five and four star hotels and built a power station. This is Egypt’s only privately owned/managed airport. Egypt Air passengers aren’t exempted from the additional fees added to tickets for flying to this airport: a flight from Cairo costs around LE1500. It is not clear if the government built Marsa Alam International Airport then sold it to Al-Kharafi or if he built the airport. Reporting on the land and airport sale is slim, but according to al-Sharq al-Awsat the Kuwaiti investor plans to spend a total of $1.2 billion in total in this project (including everything: airport, power station, land, construction and management of a collection of high-end hotels and resorts, a marina, etc.). That is a bargain. What we have here is a situation in which one person owns the airport and the collection of resorts and hotels across the road only a ten minute ride away and possibly even the transport options between the two so that mostly European tourists arrive at his airport, take his bus or limousine to his hotel then leave the country with minimal contribution to the national GDP. Great investment for Egypt!

These deals are only the tip of the iceberg. Other deals are much more vast and involve the Egyptian government in more direct ways such as the privileges accessed by Emaar and the recent deal with the UAE company Arabtec. The Suez Canal project also involves the Saudi Dar al-Handasah, and the UAE’s Dubai Ports. There are certainly more opaque deals with great financial losses for Egypt where Gulf investors have their way with the country’s resources with little return to Egypt’s economy. These gulf regimes are not only backing the Egyptian regime financially, they and their businessmen have access to concessions that depend on approval of the highest echelons in the Egyptian regime and the military, which acts as the gatekeeper to Egypt’s resources and lands. In the absence of transparency, civilian oversight, and democratic governance, Egyptians will never fully know the extent of missed opportunities to the Egyptian economy brought onto the country with these “investments.”

Aug 13

Roller-coasting the city


المدينة "تتشألطبعيداُ عن النقد البطولي

أدهم سليم , يوليو 2014

يمكننا فهم مأزق الممارسة النقدية (1) في مجال العمارة و العمران إذا ما أدركنا انحسار المساحة المتاحة من الخطاب المعماري المعاصر و التي يمكن أن تتناولها تلك الممارسة بالنقد . فمن ناحية تفرض المادية المفرطة للعمارة ارتباطاً وثيقاً بحزم معقدة من الهياكل المهنية و الأكاديمية التي تنتج العمارة نفسها , تلك الهياكل التي تحتاج هي نفسها للتثوير و النقد , كمناهج البحث و التدريس , و برامج الكمبيوتر المستخدمة في إنتاج الرسومات المعمارية , و الممارسات المهنية المتعلقة بصناعة التشييد . هناك دائماً هياكل مهنية موروثة و مستقرة و من الضروري استمرارها على حالها حفاظاً على “الاستقرار” لأنه في مكان ما على هذ الكوكب هناك دائماً مبنىً ضخم لم يزل قيد الإنشاء و من غير الممكن تغيير “النظام” أثناء إنشائه , ما يجعل نقد المدينة كحكاية مستساغاً أكثر من نقدها كمادة .

و من ناحية أخرى هناك انعتاق لم يحدث أبداً للممارسة المعمارية ككل من فلك الانتاج الرأسمالي , ذلك الفلك الذي يحصر دور الممارسة النقدية في خلق “الجميل” كمرادف “لـ”الجديد” , بشكل يجعل النقد مرتبطاً بالضرورة بممارسات موازية ذات علاقة بالتسليع و الـتنميق (2) , و يحدد دور الممارسة النقدية كآلية يتيمة للمراكمة العدمية للتجديد الذي سرعان ما يفقد جدّته, و هو ما يدفع الممارسة النقدية بدورها نحو الغرائبية و العبثية في بعض الأحيان كرد فعل أخير على كثافة الطلب الرأسمالي على الأشكال المعمارية الجديدة.

و من ناحية ثالثة أزعم كذلك أن الممارسة المعمارية المعاصرة هي ربما أكثر وعياً من سابقاتها بتاريخيتّها (3) , أي أنها أكثر وعياً بأنها حلقة ضمن حلقات تاريخية . كتب نظريات التصميم حافلة بمفردات اصطلاحية تم الاتفاق عليها حديثاً مثل “منهج” (4) , “مدرسة” (5) , “نمط” (6) و غيرها تعكس بشكل واضح أن هناك وعياً مستجداً بوجود منهج “قديم” في مواجهة منهج “جديد” , و مدرسة “جديدة” في مقابل مدارس سبقتها , و هكذا . أحد ملامح هذا الوعي هو انحسار مساحة ممارسة النقد إلى مواجهات ثنائية بين تيار محافظ و تيار تقدمي.

النقاط الثلاث السابقة تدفع المعماري و الأكاديمي الألماني ماركوس ميسن للحديث عن أهمية ما يسميه  “الممارسة النقدية المتعامدة” (7), في إشارة لأصحاب المقاعد الواقعة بين مقاعد الحكومة و مقاعد المعارضة في مجلس اللوردات البريطاني (8). التموضع الفراغي لهذه المقاعد (8) في قلب صالة المجلس بين مقاعد الحكومة و المعارضة و بشكل متعامد عليها يشي بالدور الذي يلعبه هؤلاء . لا يشكل الـ “متعامدين” فصيلاً ثالثاً متسقاً يعارض كلاً من الحكومة و المعارضة , و إنما يمثلون مجتمعين مساحة محتملة لرؤى نقدية بديلة متعددة و متجاوزة للظروف السياسية و الاقتصادية التي أنتجت رؤى الفريقين . الممارسة النقدية المتعامدة ترى نفسها دوماً متحررة من تقاليد المحازبة و من التزاماتها , فهي ترتكز في الأساس على درجة من المبادرة الذاتية , و تعلي من قيمة التغريد المنفرد . النقد المتعامد هو ممارسة متخطية لتقاليد الإجماع و الأغلبية (9) , ليس هناك ما يمكن أن نسميه مدارس أو مناهج أو أنماط أو اتجاهات غالبة على حراك المتعامدين , بل توجد مبادرات فردية تختلف في مدى جديّتها .

أكثر من ذلك , يلفت ميسن انتباهنا في كتابه “كابوس العمل التشاركي” (10) إلى الضرورة الملحّة في بعض الأحيان لأن تكون الممارسة النقدية أيضاً غير مهنية , غير متخصصة , بل و ربما هزلية أيضاً في طرحها . تخيّل كم المفارقات المبدعة التي يمكن أن تحدث عندما تستمع لوجهة نظر ثلاثة عشر من غير المتخصصين حول مجال تخصصك!

هذا بالتحديد ما حدث بالفعل منذ عدة أسابيع خلال عرض نتاج الحلقة الأولى من ورشة عمل “المدينة تتشألط” , و هي ورشة عمل من تنسيق أحمد زعزع , كريم نمس, محمد معتصم, آجنس ميهالتشيك , و محمد حسن , يستضيفها مركز “مجاورة” في حي الخليفة , و تهدف لإنتاج سلسة من الإنطباعات عن معني المدينة , كجزء من عملية العصف الذهني لمشروع قصة مصورة تحمل نفس العنوان .

بشكل أولي يعكس عنوان الورشة درجة من التصالح مع اللعبيّة (11) , و يخبر عن جهد تنسيقي (12) لا يرى خطورة في اعتناق “الشألطة” كوسيلة للنقد . و يظهر ذلك مرة أخرى في شكل الحدث الذي يتحدث فيه غير المتخصص بينما يجلس فيه المتخصص في مقعد المستمع , و هو ربما انعكاس لتقليد معماري قديم , إذ عادة ما يلجأ المعماري لتبرير نفسه للمجتمع بوساطة الفيلسوف . في “المدينة تتشألط” تتشألط الأدوار , يجلس المعماري في مقعد المستمع و يحاول أن يلعب دور الفيلسوف بالعكس , و كأنما يرى نفسه للمرة الأولى في المرآة .

ذلك النوع من النقد الرومانسي , غير المحترف , و غير المكترث ينطوي على درجة من الشاعرية و السذاجة الإيجابية التي يجب أن يتسم بها أي عمل نقدي فعّال . و هي شاعرية لا نعجز عن أن نجدها في أعمال المشاركين في الحلقة الأولى و طروحات المشاركين في الحلقة الثانية على السواء .

على سبيل المثال يعرض المعماري كريم نمس (و هو أحد المنسقين) رؤيته للمدينة كخلفية (13) للعمران , يتساوى فيها المقدس و الخالد مع المدنس و الفاني حين يتحول مسطح القاهرة ككل - بما فيها الآثار و الأهرامات - إلى عشوائية محتملة . يحاول كريم نمس أن يقف على نوع العلاقات العمرانية التي يمكن أن تنشأ عن هذا النوع من الفهم حين يدرس بشكل بدائي نوع الفراغات و الاستخدامات التي يمكن أن تنشأ من نمو عمراني يتخذ من هضبة الهرم , على سبيل المثال , بيئة لنموه . كيف يمكن لسكان الهرم أن يستخدموا أحجاره كمسطحات لسوق أسبوعية متدرجة؟ كيف يمكنهم أن يمارسوا شعائر الصلاة الإسبوعية التي تتطلب منهم الاصطفاف في مواجهة مكة من فوق الهرم؟

في المقابل يتحدث المؤرخ و الباحث شهاب فخري عن المدينة كنوستالجيا , و يعرض رؤيته للمدينة كصراع بين سردية “رسمية” في مواجهة سرديات أخرى عديدة غير رسمية . تماماً كمخبر التحقيقات يجوب شهاب المدينة بحثاً عن الأدلة المادية التي يمكن أن يبني منها سردية متماسكة يمكنه أن يشعر تجاهها بالحنين , يفحص المدينة كمادة , يصنع ثقوباً في تربة شوراعها ليخبرنا أن هذا الشارع كان بحيرة فيما سبق . بعده تحاول الصحفية سلمى شكرالله أن تفهم المدينة كسلسلة من المانشيتات الصحفية , تتحدث سلمى عن الخريطة الصحفية للمدينة , أسماء الأماكن : ميدان التحرير , ميدان مصطفى محمود , شارع محمد محمود , ساحة رابعة العدوية , إلخ تنفصل عن كونها مجرد مؤشرات سلبية على الأماكن , إنما يصبح لها دلالتها في سردية كبيرة مرتبكة لمدينة تموج بالعنف و بالفوضى السياسية . أتساءل هنا : إلى أي مدى يمكن أن يكون هناك فعل سلطوي واع يهدف لتعطيل سردية المدينة التي تحاول سلمى أن تصيغها بلغة صحفية متوازنة؟ هذا التعطيل الذي يتجسد أمامنا يومياً في صورة حواجز خرسانية و معدنية تعيق تكوين النوستالجيا التي يبحث عنها شهاب . على الجانب الآخر من التساؤل تتحدث الباحثة السياسية آيه نصّار عن انطباعاتها عن فيلم “حياة أو موت” الذي يحتفي بالمدينة كمشروع حداثي يهدف للوصول لكفاءة الاتصال . تتحدث آيه و يملأ الشاشة خلفها عدد من كادرات الفيلم تظهر تمجيداً بصرياً لوسائل الاتصال الحديثة و كفاءة البنية التحتية للمدينة , تلك البنية التحتية التي يمكنها أن تنقذ حياة مواطن قبل أن يتجرع “الدواء الذي فيه سم قاتل” . و تتحدث آيه عن إنه على العكس مما قد نتصور , فإن تلك الاتصالية المفرطة للمدينة قد تعكس قدراً هائلاً من السيطرة السلطوية على مقدرات ساكنيها الذين يمكن أن تصل إليهم السلطة أينما كانوا .

هذه الطروحات أبعد ما يكون عن النقد البطولي للمدينة الشائع في الأدبيات المعمارية الأوروبية , التي عادة ما تلجأ لتصوير المدينة كمشروع طوباوي . “المدينة تتشألط” ليس عرضاً طوباوياً ينتصر للمدينة أو ينتصر عليها , كما أنه ليس نقداً مباشراً للممارسة المعمارية المعاصرة بهدف الوصول لـ”الجديد” , و إنما تكمن بطولته في ممارسته للمدينة راديكالياً من منظور المتكلمين دون إدعاء بطولة , المدينة تتشألط يهدف بالأحرى لـ”شألطة” فهمنا للمدينة دون كثير من البريق .


1. critical practice

2. stylization

3. historicity

4. discipline

5. school

6. style

7. cross-bench praxis

8. cross-benchers

9. post-consensus practice

10. The Nightmare of Participation

11. playfulness

12. curatorial statement

13. neutral substrate

Aug 03

Amman: urban archipelago

image[King Faisal Street, the city’s ceremonial boulevard.]


[Artist illustration of Amman’s new Abdali development.]

By Patrick Sykes

Amman has just got a new city centre. Rising from a former military base, its 384,000 square metres are, in the words of the brochure, an “exceptional synergy of residential, commercial, hospitality and retail outlets in one vibrant and prestigious address.”[i] Whilst the branding pitches it as “The new downtown” and executives call it “a new centre”, the Abdali Project is decidedly weighted toward the already more affluent, suburban west side of the Jordanian capital – which developed on the back of remittances sent back by citizens who had followed the oil boom to the Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s – from the historically overcrowded and neglected east, where most of the hundreds of thousands of refugees whose arrival dominates the city’s modern history have settled.

The project brochure bears uncanny traces of the city’s establishment. Just as today’s developers eye Amman’s “strategic location … in the heart of the Middle East,” in 1921, when the first king of Transjordan Abdullah I was choosing a capital to anchor his arbitrary kingdom, keen to actualise the authority bestowed on him by the British, he opted for Amman over other more likely candidates because of its place on a strategic Ottoman railway that brought traders and Hajj pilgrims from Damascus to Madina. While the palace-less Abdullah I ruled for several years from a train carriage, the incumbent king, his great-grandson Abdullah II, hopes to assert his power through a fledgling “mixed-use” financial centre.



The promise of a new Downtown contains within it the myth that there is one to replace – something hasn’t been the case for decades. The cash-strapped Abdullah I lacked the resources to erect the monuments or grand civic buildings that would demarcate such an area, and instead built his state through spectacle, drawing crowds to parades and speeches in public spaces. When it did begin to take shape in a triangle known popularly as al-Jazira (The Island), it did so at the cost of intolerable congestion, and the second half of the 20th Century saw the creation of multiple, overlapping “masterplans” to tackle the problem – each one succeeding the vested authority of the last. In the name of mobile modernity, the central markets were relocated to the city’s southern periphery in 1966, and around the same time the old souq next to the al-Husaini al-Kabir mosque was torn down to clear space for a transport hub for taxis and buses. Government departments and services – from ministries to the police and post office – were moved to the surrounding hills. The center was deliberately drained of its destinations, and filled with the means to visit other places instead. The car is still venerated today in the only public museum dedicated specifically to the city – the Royal Automobile Museum.

The modern-day heritage of these decentralisations is the eight duwaar (roundabouts) that now orientate residents’ and visitors’ everyday experience of the city’s topography. Amman effectively now has eight centres, each a traffic island that provides its own point of orientation for further navigation, and each with similarly little to see in and of itself. The city is a terminal in which its citizens have a stake.

This civic schizophrenia is rooted in Amman’s demographic make-up. From Palestinians fleeing the creation of Israel in the 1948 nakba, to Southeast Asian migrant workers,to Syrians displaced in our own time, Jordan’s relative stability – along with that proudly “strategic location” – has made it an adopted home for many – with the majority bound for the capital. For most of these migrants, their movement – whether forced or free – was (or is) intended to be temporary. But as they build new lives, they of course leave their mark, giving them a split perspective that at once looks outward and inward. One of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods is called al-Muhajiriin (The Emigrants), the Palestinian drivers who make their living ferrying tourists to the Dead Sea commentate the journey with the diminishing distance to Jerusalem, and former construction workers speak simultaneously of their pride in the city they helped to form and its ultimate in inadequacy in comparison with the home they left behind. “There was no-one here before us, these were empty lands, wastelands, we made Amman,” one man told Jordanian anthropologist Seteney Shami.[ii]


Now their sons and grandsons are building the “new downtown”, but their stake in the city as a home does not extend to any say in the direction of its development – despite constituting the majority of its population. Neither the mayor nor any of his forty councilors are elected, and the preservation of a Jordanian majority in the national parliament is enshrined in law. Al-Jazira is returning, but this time as an “elitist urban island,” according to one study of the Abdali Project,[iii] in an echo of the reclaimed land of the Gulf’s artificial islands that have become icons of the economic peaks on which they float. For better or worse, the site will be as distinct from its surroundings as islands from the ocean, and, paradoxically, better connected to distant centres of world trade. It will displace a transport hub, just as one was in turn erected to displace the central markets decades earlier, and thus the cycle begins again, at one remove.

Patrick Sykes is a journalist based in Beirut. Follow him @Patrick_Sykes

[i] Official project brochure, ‘Abdali: The New Downtown of Amman’,

[ii] Seteney Shami, “‘Amman is not a city’: Middle Eastern Cities in Question,” in Urban Imaginaries: Locating the Modern City (2007), ed. Alev Çınar and Thomas Bender.

[iii] Rami Farouk Daner, “Amman: Disguised genealogy and Recent Urban Restructuring and Neoliberal Threats,” in The Evolving Arab City, Tradition, Modernity and Urban Development (2008), ed. Yasser Elsheshtawy.

Jul 30

EIPR: Housing policies fail to benefit the poor

By: Yasmine Hassan

Egypt has spent billions of public funds over the last four decades on a housing policy that never reached its target beneficiaries, a paper issued by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) revealed on Tuesday.

Recent studies by EIPR have proved that Egypt’s housing policies — including the national housing project known as “Iskan Mubarak” and the current Social Housing Project “Million Units Project” — ended up mostly benefiting those in middle and higher income brackets rather than the poor.

More than LE24 billion in public funds and billions more in private funds was spent on “Iskan Mubarak” and over LE9 billion to date on the “Million Units Project” since 2012.

The government has launched several projects in the last few years promising to solve the housing problem in Egypt.

The Social Housing Project (SHP) was launched by the Ministry of Housing in 2012, promising to provide a million units for young and low income families between 2012 and 2017.

Another project, also called the Million Units Project (MUP), but unrelated to SHP, was launched by the Army Corps of Engineers in cooperation with an Emirati developer, Arabtec, and announced by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in March. It has promised to provide one million units for low-income families between 2015 and 2020. 

A third project is the Central Bank Initiative (CBI), a joint initiative by the Ministry of Housing, Guarantee and Subsidy Fund (GSF) and World Bank Affordable Mortgage Program. Based on this project, the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) has agreed to provide lower interest rates for 10,000 subsidized units. 

An expert group meeting was recently held by the Ministry of Housing to discuss a new housing policy for Egypt on May 22 this year. Among the attendees were officials from the ministry, UN habitat, domestic and foreign experts and representatives from civil society organizations.

One of the key recommendations, which EIPR presented at the meeting, is overseeing and controlling the real estate market, in order to bridge the gap between the cost of housing and incomes. While the government is already spending billions of pounds on subsidized housing projects, it has also been enforcing policies that have increased the gap between prices and incomes, outstripping its own subsidies. Thus, an independent body is needed to govern the real estate market, recommends EIPR.

Other suggestions include the re-directing of housing subsidies so that they are truly pro-poor, through redefining the legal definition of “low income” families to only include the extremely poor and the poor. Additionally, project units should be allocated through rent and not mortgages, and a government body created to oversee the enforcement of housing policies. This body would also coordinate between the various groups involved and monitor access to state funds.

Furthermore, EIPR suggests restructuring subsidized housing programs to better respond to the different housing needs of families, such as rural/urban differences as well as geographical and cultural variations. Such programs must also target families who have access to inadequate housing, whether due to structural problems, overcrowding, tenure illegality or lack of infrastructure.

The budget for the 2014/2015 Financial Year highlights the failure of the government’s housing policy, which does not support the right of the poor to pursue adequate housing, EIPR asserts.

EIPR is an independent rights organization, which has been operating since 2002, focusing on issues of civil liberties, economic and social rights.

imageThis article was originally published on Mada Masr.

Jul 26

Call for participation: two new print issues of Cairobserver


(Scroll down for English)

دعوة للمشاركة

سوف تبدأ “مشاهد القاهرة” العمل بشكل متزامن فى انتاج عددين جديدن، يركز أحدهما على الجامعات بينما يركز الآخر على مناطق وسط المدينة. كلا العددين من “مشاهد القاهرة” سوف يسعى إلى توسيع نطاق الموضوعات إلى خارج القاهرة، بحيث ننشر مواضيع من مختلف مدن مصر. ونحن ندعو كافة الدارسين والكتاب والمعماريين والمؤرخين وأصحاب الأرشيفات والمصورين وكل المهتمين إلى المشاركة فى هذين العددين. وسوف تكون محصلة هذا الجهد عددين كل منهما على شكل مجلة من خمسين صفحة بحجم التابلويد.


ينظر عدد “مشاهد القاهرة” الخاص بالجامعات إلى الجامعة من أكثر من جهة: كموقع مادى داخل المدينة، وكمساحة لإنتاج الأفكار والتصورات حول البيئة المعمارية، وأيضا كمساحة للصراع فى سياق المواجهة المستمرة بين الشباب والسلطات. ونحن ندعو المشاركين إلى عرض أفكارهم حول عدد من الأسئلة المقترحة إلى جانب غير ذلك من الاختيارات:ـ

الموقع الجغرافى: كيف تتوائم الجامعة بالمعنى الجغرافى مع موقعها فى المدينة؟
الإنتاج: هل ما زالت الجامعة معملا لإنتاج المعرفة، بالذات فيما يتعلق بالأوضاع الحضرية لمصر وتاريخها وسياساتها وواقعها العمراني؟
المعرفة: ندعو الطلاب والمدرسون بالذات فى أقسام المعمار والتخطيط العمرانى والعلوم السياسية إلى التفكير فى مناهج الجامعات وعلاقتها بالحقائق الحضرية فى مصر. ماهي علاقة اساتذة الجامعات بمشاريع الدولة في مجال التخطيط والعمران؟ وما علاقة الاساتذة والطلاب في اقسام العمارة وصراعهم بين التفكير النمطي والتفكير الإبداعي في الرؤية الى المشاكل العمرانية المصرية وحلولها؟
الحرم الجامعى: يمكن اعتبار المساحة التى تشغلها الجامعات مدنا صغيرة قائمة بذاتها. ونحن ندعو المشاركين إلى بحث تصميم الحرم الجامعى وكيف يتحرك الناس حوله ومعمار الحرم الجامعى وكيفيات استخدام المساحات داخل الحرم الجامعى والمساحات التى تقع خارج أسوار الجامعة مباشرة.

تود “مشاهد القاهرة” أيضا أن تشجع الطلاب من دارسى العمارة والقضايا الحضرية والمواضيع ذات الصلة إلى نشر ملخصات لأعمالهم ومشاريع رسالاتهم فى هذا العدد.

#مناطق وسط المدينة

يهدف عدد وسط المدينة من “مشاهد القاهرة” إلى تأمل مناطق وسط المدينة فى القاهرة والإسكندرية والمنصورة وبورسعيد والأقصر وغيرها من المدن والنظر فى أوضاعها الحالية والتحديات التى تواجهها. ما الذى يمثل وسط المدينة؟ هل تحتاج مدننا إلى مركز واحد فى وسط المدينة أو إلى عدة مراكز ولماذا؟ هل تحتاج المدن الصحراوية الجديدة إلى وسط مدينة أو أن هذا الأمر هو تراث عمراني يمت إلى الماضى ولم تعد هناك حاجة إليه فى سياق تلك المدن؟ هل يمكننا تصور مستقبل عمراني للمدن المصرية بدون إجراء تقييم شامل لمركز وسط المدينة فى تلك المدن وما تضمه من اقتصاديات ومعمار وتاريخ حضرى وتحديات حالية؟ هل يمكن لمدننا أن تحيا بدون مراكز نابضة فى وسطها؟ كيف نفهم تدمير سينما ريالتو فى وسط مدينة الاسكندرية تزامنا مع إعادة فتح سينما راديو فى وسط القاهرة؟ وكيف ننظر إلى ما حدث من إقامة تماثيل جديدة فى وسط الاسكندرية ونصب تذكاري في وسط ميدان التحرير بشكل عشوائي ادى الى موجة استياء؟

تتضمن المواضيع التى تناسب النشر فى هذا العدد: المساحة العامة، التخريب المعمارى في زمن “التنسيق الحضاري”، الفساد فى إدارة المحليات، ترابط فكرة وسط المدينة مع الرومانسية والحنين إلى الماضى، إعادة توظيف وتآهيل المعمار والعقارات القديمة. ونحن نحث المساهمين فى هذا العدد على التفكير فى تلك الأسئلة والخروج برؤى وتجارب وتحقيقات وتدخلات تلقى المزيد من الضوء عليها. وبالإضافة إلى مناطق وسط المدينة فى القاهرة والاسكندرية، ترغب “مشاهد القاهرة” على نحو خاص فى نشر مقالاتكم بشأن ما يحدث فى مدن الدلتا والصعيد والقناة.

تفاصيل المشاركة

يجب أن تكون المقالات المقدمة للنشر فى هذين العددين من “مشاهد القاهرة” فى حدود 500-800 كلمة، مرفقة بصور التقطها كاتبو تلك المقالات. ونحن نرحب أيضا بالمساهمات التى تركز على الصور او الرسومات أساسا. يمكنكم تقديم المقالات بالعربية أو الانجليزية مع تفضيلنا للغة العربية. لو أردت المساهمة فى هذين العددين، برجاء إرسال استفساراتك وافكارك إلى
Cairobserver [at] gmail [dot] com

على الكاتب أن يرفق مع مقالته نبذة شخصية عنه من جملتين. برجاء ذكر العدد الذى تريد نشر مقالتك به فى خانة الموضوع فى الإيميل، مثلا: جامعة أو وسط البلد

برجاء إرسال إيميل قصير يتضمن فكرتك حول المقال الذى تود كتابته قبل 1 سبتمبر . موعد انتهاء تقديم المقالات هو 15 أكتوبر 2014، وأى مقالات تصلنا بعد ذلك لن يتم قبولها.

اعداد “مشاهد القاهرة” هي محاولة للنشر الذاتي في مجالات العمارة، العمران والتراث. محتوى الاعداد نابع من مساهمات شباب المهندسين والمهتمين بتلك المجالات. لو أردت تقديم مساهمة مادية لدعم هذا الجهد وتغطية مصاريف التصمصم والطباعة أو لو أردت نشر إعلان فى العددين المذكورين، برجاء الاتصال بـ
Cairobserver [at] gmail [dot] com


Call for participation

Cairobserver will begin working simultaneously on two new publications. One will have a focus on universities and the other will focus on downtowns. Both Cairobserver issues will expand the scope of the themes beyond Cairo to include stories from across Egypt. This is an open call to invite students, writers, residents, architects, historians, archivists, photographers, and anyone else who is interested to participate in the making of these two publications. The final outcome will be two separate 50 page tabloid-sized publications.


The university issue of Cairobserver will consider the university from a variety of perspectives: as a physical site within the city, as a space for the production of ideas and imaginaries about the built environment, and as a space of struggle where youth and authorities are in a constant tug of war. Participants are invited to interpret the theme beyond the suggested questions below and to explore the other countless possibilities:

Mapping: How does the university, as a physical space, fit within its urban setting?

Production: Is the university still a laboratory for knowledge production, particularly pertaining to Egypt’s urban condition with its history, politics and physical reality?

Knowledge: Students and teachers, particularly in architecture, urban planning, and political science departments, are invited to reflect on university curricula and their relationship to Egypt’s urban realities. What is the relationship between university faculty and the state, on one hand, and between university faculty and their students, on the other hand, in regards to Egypt’s urban problems and possible solutions?

Campus: University campuses are mini-cities onto themselves. Contributors are invited to explore the design of university campuses, how people move around them, campus architecture, gendered uses of space, and the politics of space within the campus limits and the spaces immediately outside campus walls.

Cairobserver also encourages students working in architecture, urbanism, public policy and related fields to publish summaries of their work and thesis projects in this issue.



The downtowns issue of Cairobserver will revisit city centers in Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura, Port Said, Luxor and other cities to examine their present conditions and challenges. What makes a city center? Do our cities need a single center, a downtown, or multiple centers or downtowns and why? Do new desert cities need downtowns or is this an urban artifact from the past that is no longer relevant in new cities? Can we think of an urban future for Egyptian cities without including a comprehensive evaluation the downtowns of these cities, their economies, architectural and urban histories, current challenges in addition to identifying key stakeholders? Can our cities survive without vibrant inclusive downtowns? What do we make of the destruction of Cinema Rialto in downtown Alexandria and the reopening of Cinema Radio in downtown Cairo, the erection of new statues and monuments in downtown Alexandria and downtown Cairo that ignited public uproar? What about the persistent question regarding who owns the streets and sidewalks in downtowns?

Possible themes for contributions in this issue include: Public space, protest, street vendors, architectural vandalism, municipal corruption, romanticism and nostalgia, architectural preservation and real estate. Participants in this issue are invited to reflect on these questions and to bring their own interventions, experiments, investigations and visions. In addition to downtown Cairo and Alexandria, Cairobserver is particularly interested in contributions from cities in the Delta, Upper Egypt and Suez Canal cities.

How to participate

Contributions to these two Cairobserver issues should be in the range of 500-800 words with relevant photographs taken by the author. Visual and photographic contributions are also welcomed. Contributions can be in Arabic or English with a preference for Arabic. If you are interested in participating in these publications please send your questions and contributions to Cairobserver [at] gmail [dot] com

Authors must include a two-sentence biography with their submission. Please write in the subject of the email the name of the issue you are interested in: #university or #downtowns

Please send a short email with your idea regarding a contribution by September 1. The deadline for all final contributions is October 15, 2014. No late submissions will be accepted.

Cairobserver print issues are an independent publishing effort with content sourced from young architects and scholars. All work is voluntary and the expenses are limited to publication design and printing. If you are interested in financially supporting this effort with a grant, donation or to advertise in the publications, contact Cairobserver [at] gmail [dot] com

Jul 15

The man next to the governor: how a police state ruined a city


In June of 2013 a group of heritage activists, architects, and concerned citizens organized a protest outside the Cairo governorate regarding the speedy deterioration of historic Cairo. The historic city had been suffering for years but since 2011 the process of deterioration had increased to an unprecedented pace with new constructions rising in the small plots between registered buildings and with architectural details disappearing from buildings daily. A historic gate was demolished a month earlier after gaining official demolition permits. The situation was dire, and it continues to be, but there was no response from any of the concerned ministries or the governorate. A protest was urgently needed to bring attention to this pressing issue as the UNESCO status of the historic city could potentially be jeopardized and the historic urban fabric was, and continues to be, fragmented.

To our surprise, the governor came out of the building and interacted with the public. An invitation was extended for the organizers of the protest to return and meet with the governor in a roundtable discussion to communicate our concerns.

A few days later a group of around 10 visited the governorate. The fenced building overlooking Abdeen Square is highly guarded in such a way that makes it foreboding for the general public to approach let alone enter. This is the administrative institution that that is meant to run the city and manage its affairs. Yet the public is not invited to participate in this process of governance, is not able to elect the governor, and is not to have access to town hall meetings open to the public. Our visit to the governorate building must have been an unusual event. We were ushered to a waiting room then to a grand meeting hall and awaited the governor to arrive.

The governor at the time was Osama Kamal, who teaches civil engineering at Banha University. He was a decent man who seemed interested in our concerns. This could have potentially been one of the rare opportunities when Cairo residents sit around the same table with those managing municipal affairs.

Unfortunately, that potential was interrupted because the governor did not come into the meeting alone. To his left was another man, probably in his late sixties if not older, who didn’t introduce himself fully and for the rest of this blog will be referred to as Mr. Security. He spoke with confidence and defiance as if HE was the governor. Mr. Security was in charge of policing the part of the city we are concerned with, wasat district. He interrupted our conversation with the governor by showing a lengthy powerpoint presentation with images showing his men, the police, performing their duty in the historic city, inspecting streets, removing road blocks and arresting street vendors. None of these were our concerns during this meeting. Mr. Security then proceeded to explain that in order for the building law to be enforced and for the construction mafia to be stopped from building illegal buildings amid the historic city that lethal force will be needed. He argued that the mafia is armed and that the police can not show their force now because the security situation has been fragile since the revolution.



[Another historic house was demolished recently. There was no evidence of its poor structural condition. The house is in the heart of Darb al-Ahmar and was an integral part of the urban fabric surrounding it. There is a police station near by which didn’t prevent the destruction of heritage.]

At one point he argued that if an old house is nearing collapse that it would be in his interest, as a police man, to demolish it in order to avoid its collapse over its inhabitants. Mr. Security was sugar coating the destruction of the historic city as an act of protecting lives.

The governorate as an institution has no power to implement or enforce the law, it must always seek security clearances and to request ahead of time the need for a police force. However, in Egypt the police are utilized for political purposes, i.e they are more concerned with rounding up political activists and “trouble makers” than enforcing the law. What that means is, even if we are lucky and we have a governor who cares about a seemingly trivial issue, from the security state’s point of view, such as the protection of a thousand year old city and its buildings, he has no real power without the security apparatus fully supporting him. When it comes to saving two hundred year old house gates and three hundred year old houses, it is unlikely that the security apparatus will mobilize to enforce the law. In the meantime no proper investigations are carried out into who these construction mafias are and who provides them with materials and connects their real estate investments with utilities. For all we know the construction mafia could very well be closely connected with the “security mafia.”

While this meeting was meant to be about concerned citizens speaking to the governor, it turned into Mr. Security’s theatrics of how he is doing his best to control the situation. Every time a question is raised, Mr. Security would jump in to answer, and most of the time the governor was not able to provide more than his opinion on various matters since he is part of a chain of command and he relies on that chain to get information based on which he can sign off on a decision. But what became apparent is that these decisions are already determined by the information he receives from Mr. Security and his team. Even still, a gubernatorial decision will ultimately require approval again from the security apparatus. The governor then, in this structure, seemed to me like little more than a facade for the police state that actually runs the city.

When the “conversation” seemed hopeless in regards to the issue of heritage some of us raised other practical questions about specific problems that need immediate attention. I used this opportunity to bring attention to the pedestrian bridge over Azhar street that had been removed nearly a year earlier, making crossing one of Cairo’s busiest and most historically significant intersections nearly impossible. Not only was the bridge removed, but a fence was erected in the middle of the street diving the two directions of traffic, a physical obstacle for pedestrians crossing the street. I asked a simple question that to me seemed practical, why not place a traffic light and a cross path at this key location? Mr. Security laughed! To him Egyptians are like sheep, hordes, they won’t understand the concept of a crosswalk or a traffic light and that such things only work in “developed countries.” No need for a study to prove such claims, he knows best.

Mr. Security and the apparatus he belongs to seem to have fully embraced colonial mentality with all its racism and classicist outlook. He then said that there is a plan under consideration to erect new pedestrian bridges with escalators across the city in key locations. I was baffled by how such an expensive and unnecessary “solution” was considered when more obvious solutions were being dismissed as laughable. Who decides on the budget of these escalators and what urban study determined that this was the best solution to the problem? Furthermore, what is the bidding process, if there is one, that will determine the contractor who will carryout such a project? Pedestrian bridges are no laughing matter, in fact when they are built (in a city where the majority of inhabitants are pedestrians), they are inaugurated with great fanfare, even the prime minister, the housing minister and the Cairo governor all went last fall to inaugurate a pedestrian bridge, imagine that!


[The inauguration of a pedestrian bridge in December 2013.]

The meeting, which lasted over an hour, ended with no reached conclusions. A woman who runs the new, astonishingly new!, Cairo Heritage Preservation Unit, proposed future meetings. A week later the June 30 protests began, many of us joined, I did, naively thinking that things might change for the better. They didn’t. A new governor was appointed but most likely the man next to him who really holds the keys to running Cairo is still the same. 


[Hayat al-Nofus Palace in Malawy was incrementally destroyed. Its location adjacent to the city’s police headquarters did not protect it from destruction.]

I remembered this encounter today because of news that 20, out of a total of 28, new governors who will be appointed are officers, clones of Mr. Security. Millions of dollars go into the budgets of the security apparatus, which does little regarding the security of individuals, of society, or the security of heritage sites and national patrimony. In fact there have been a series of acts of destruction over the past two years in various cities and all of them were in sites directly adjacent to police headquarters with nothing done to prevent such acts nor to conduct proper investigation. For example a historic palace (pictured above) in the southern city of Malawy, adjacent to security headquarters, was incrementally destroyed. The museum of the same city was entirely looted. Another palace in Qena belonging to Makram Ebeid, a national figure, also adjacent to the security headquarters, was incrementally destroyed. And of course there is the bombing outside the police headquarters in Cairo that destroyed the Museum of Islamic Art across the street. In addition to the continued lack of security in many urban districts, these acts of destruction are either evidence of total incompetence or willful collaboration on the part of the security apparatus to erase national heritage, and to keep Cairo and Egypt’s cities comfortably cushioned in their position as third world cities, perpetually, forever.

There continues to be zero accountability. Despite the failures of the police state to perform any of its civic duties the budget of the interior ministry has been increased multiple times under the subsequent governments since 2011.

The first steps towards better cities are obvious: Participatory planning, accountability of public officials, elections of governors and local councils, transparent budgets, and rewarding competence over political loyalty.

These are already colossally difficult tasks. But with people like Mr. Security and his security machine intervening in how cities and spaces of everyday life for millions of Egyptians are shaped and how hundreds of years of historic heritage in cities are recorded and protected, such tasks are simply impossible.


[1949 Cartoon, a police man preventing a man from casting his vote. The police have a long history of political interference rather than civic service.]

Jul 12

Dispatch from Venice: 4 national participations worth a closer look


In June the 14th International Architecture Exhibition (Mostra Internazionale di Architettura) opened in Venice. Curated by Rem Koolhaas, this year’s exhibit is about “architecture not architects.” In the words of the president of the biennale, this is “a research-centered biennale,” in which the participating national pavilions explore the theme of “absorbing modernity 1914-2014.” I have reservations regarding the notion that modernity is “absorbed.” What does that really mean? If we are to accept the metaphor then who made this wet mess in the first place that was later “absorbed” by various nations? I’m not so convinced of the idea that nations are like pieces of toilet paper merely absorbing modernity produced by an unnamed source. Absorption is not an apt metaphor for capturing the last century of historical transformations that resulted in various, often uneven, forms of modernism. Together the sixty-six participating countries “present a portrait of a terrifying century in which almost every country was destroyed, divided, occupied, drained, and traumatized, yet survived,” Koolhaas writes in his introduction.

Nonetheless, the idea of a research-based exhibition reflecting on the history of architectural production over the past century in various national contexts produced some impressive results. Probably for the first time ever one can walk from one display to the next to learn about how various countries experienced this century of architecture. This might be the first true international comparative exhibition on architectural modernism. Some displays are much more impressive in terms of research than others, some missed the point completely, others fell short of really communicating a clear idea or narrative.

Here are snapshots of four of the participating countries and their “research-centered” contributions to the theme of “absorbing modernity.”




The Irish display is a good reminder that less is more. Rather than taking on too much, or everything that a century of modernism in a national context can offer, the curators of the Irish pavilion were smart to set their parameters. The Irish exhibition is titled “Infra-Eireann” and it “presents ten infrastructural episodes across a period of a hundred years. Placing architecture within a technological and cultural flow of national and international dimensions, it explores the operations of infrastructure in the making of modern Ireland at a range of scales from the detail design of objects to entire landscapes and other social and physical territories.” Whoever wrote that paragraph deserves an award for the most concise and clear concept and introduction to an exhibit.

With a variety of media (models, drawings, and photographs) the exhibit showcases 10 particular buildings or projects that the curators identified as key benchmarks in Ireland’s history of modernization. These ten projects fit under categories such as transportation, electricity, education, aviation, television and telecom. The selected buildings not only represent various technological and infrastructural milestones but they also span the century and therefore provide snapshots into what modernism looked like at particular moments in time. Selected projects include the Galway Regional Sanatorium designed by Norman White (1946), and RTE Television Center designed by Ronald Tallon of Scott Tallon Walker Architects (1962). Overall the exhibition wastes no words, space or time to deliver a direct and to the point view of a country’s history of modernism that is somewhat on the margins of the canonical histories of modern architecture. There are no polemics here, just good research. For more information, click here.

Dominican Republic



Speaking of countries on the margins of the history of modern architecture; the Dominican Republic is participating for the first time at the architecture biennale and it is an impressive first show. The exhibition titled “Fair Concrete: the promise of the ruin” takes one particular site constructed at a particular moment in the country’s history of modernism as site from which to reflect on the past future and the present of modernity. The Free World’s Fair of Peace and Confraternity, a mouthful of a title, took place in 1955 in Santo Domingo and it was organized by the country’s then dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. In a year 70 buildings were erected to host the event in an area that came to be known as La Feria. The resulting buildings are impressive reflections of the dictator’s ambitions and they “afforded him the opportunity to tout his accomplishments and to reprise, for an international audience, his number one favorite role: that of the Savior in Chief.” Reading these words as an Egyptian ring a few bells.

The exhibit does multiple things at once: on the one hand it functions as a kind of partial archive with a collection of images, texts and archival materials that introduce visitors to an unfamiliar episode in the history of modernism. These items are beautifully arranged in a space constructed out of concrete blocks, translating the title of the exhibition into a material and spatial experience. The next space consists of a series of floating light boxes with archival images of buildings and monuments from the fair site when it was first constructed juxtaposed with its contemporary present life, how it fits half a century later into the city’s social life. In fact this is at the core of the exhibit, how these “ruins” of a past future modern are part of the present social life of the city. For more information, click here.




Still on the margins of the cannonical history of modernism is the Middle East. Titled “Fundamentalists and Other Arab Modernisms,” Bahrain’s third participation at the architecture biennale presents an impressive overview of the region’s experience with architectural production over the past century. In a bold move, the commissioner of the pavilion, Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture, does away with one of the main, and perhaps most problematic, organizing elements of the Venice biennale: the nation state as an organizational category. Instead, Bahrain commissioned the Beirut-based Arab Center for Architecture (ACA) to create a survey of a century of architecture across the entire region. The result is a publication edited by George Arbid, director of ACA, that brings together essays by sixteen scholars about the Arab Maghreb, Arab East Africa, Egypt, Iraq, Arab Levant, Arabian Peninsula and Bahrain. By doing so Bahrain placed itself and its modernism within a regional context. Arbid selected 100 buildings from across the region which are represented in the book with wonderfully reproduced archival photographs and drawings. This is not an easy feat in a region where public archives are nearly non-existent. This is the first such compilation of buildings and essays focusing on the past century of architectural modernism in the Middle East. The hefty tabloid-sized book, 40,000 copies, are generously provided for free.

The exhibition space, designed by Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury, creates a circular enclosure within the Arsenal building with the books as part of the structure. In a time when many of the region’s nation-states are disintegrating along with their histories of modernization and modernism and when archives and libraries are burned, looted and with them the forever loss of a century of the region’s history, Bahrain’s pavilion is an urgent attempt to recollect and archive the remaining fragments. For more information, click here.




Interestingly the Middle East as a region appears in another pavilion. The USA pavilion, with an exhibition titled “Office US”goes a step further by presenting a global history of a century of architectural modernism. The link between the various projects built around the world is that they are designed by American architectural firms. One thousand projects in total are available in an open library, each project with a folder consisting of information about it, its designer and additional context. “The forms, technologies, and production processes of US architectural offices have traveled the globe over the last hundred years,” reads the exhibition description. It continues, “from the 1920s European importation of US architectural ingenuity, through the 1950s Marshall Plan architecture and the 1970s oil-fueled projects in the Middle East, to the contemporary global proliferation of super-tall buildings and NGO-sponsored interventions. Individually and collectively, these projects tell multiple, imbricated stories of US firms, as well as a broader narrative of modernization and its global reach.” If Rem Koolhaas is asking national pavilions to explore how modernity was “absorbed” in their respective countries, the US pavilion is shamelessly suggesting that the United States has, through its architectural firms, produced modernity like a discharge for the world to absorb.

American involvement in world politics looms large as one goes from one project to the next. Some of the projects include Hilton hotels built throughout the Mediterranean in the 1950s as part of Cold War politics. There are American military cities in Saudi Arabia. And of course there are many tall glass structures built in Gulf cities, which have given many US architectural firms a new lease on life and an endless market for them to provide their services. This is a very rich contribution to the biennale that may not look like much at first but needs many hours to explore. The viewer here is invited to be a researcher. For more information, click here.

Jun 28

Resident Perspective: Salah Salem

Resident Perspective is a series of standardized interviews with Cairo residents to get their views on the city and their neighborhoods. Share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.


Where in Cairo do you live?

Obour Buildings, Salah Salem Street. Belongs to Heliopolis district.

List the most positive and the most negative aspects of living there.

Positive: a garden between every two buildings, good cleaning services (trash, sweeping floors), good transportation (buses, and 2 new metro stations are now nearby “Stadium & Book Fair”), garage for every building, safe, has a nearby long avenue for walking, running, cycling, etc.

Negative: Loud traffic, not enough services (almost all of them are shopping stores), hard to form close neighbors because of the many companies and mostly-elder population, no nearby hospital or clinic.

How do you move around Cairo (modes of transport) and what would you like to see different regarding the future of transport in the city?

Ordered by frequency: - Walking - Metro (after the new metro extension for the third line) - Public buses - Microbuses (unofficial buses)

How does your district fit within Cairo? What would you like to see changed in that relationship between your neighborhood and the city?

Connected through transportation but isolated because it doesn’t provide services to Cairo. Maybe shopping stores and that’s it. So no need to really come over except if you work in an office here.

What are your top complaints about Cairo and what would you suggest to solve those problems?

1- Traffic: I think we should stop encouraging owning cars by all the projects focused on them like expanding crossovers or widening streets by removing sidewalks. Instead we need to make it even harder for people to get to their destination so they know that this is not a city designed for cars, this is designed for humans. We need wider sidewalks, bike lanes in main avenues, more metro lines and public transportation and less solutions for how to make car the center of the city. Also startups related to traffic like bey2ollak, wasalny, and others concerned with Cairo should team up to offer a reliable and safe carpooling service.

2- Losing Heritage: We need smarter solutions to saving our heritage. Stop bearing poor people because they live close to a monument, and start embrace them and teach them to use the monument to boost their business.

3- Harassment This is becoming ridiculous. There’s no point of making a street better if I don’t feel safe walking in it. We pick streets and roads based on safety first then anything else. So harassment is making Cairo a lot smaller for us because many streets are not a choice.

What do you like the most about Cairo and what are your favorite places in the city.

1- Many historical places: You almost have a monument for every major historical event that happened in Egypt here in Cairo.

2- variety in services and unofficial markets.

Do you relate to the historic heritage of your district or of Cairo in general? Do you think you have a good sense of history of the city? Would you say you are have “civic pride” or are proud to live in Cairo?

Yes I do, please note that most people taking this survey will have a sense of responsibility toward the city to fill it. So don’t count on the percentage of “yes” you get from that survey as a representative of what citizens of Cairo really think.

Do you understand how the city is governed/managed? Do you think your community/district would be better or worst if residents from the community/district were involved in local government (محليات)?

No I don’t, I have no idea who is responsible for what and I have a hard time finding answers.

In the context of Cairo, what comes to mind when you think of these keywords?

Public Space: No where.

Green Space/Parks: only ticket gardens, no gardens integrated with the streets.

Gated communities: Many, even if there’s no actual gate. and that’s in both expensive districts (new cities) and poor alleys where they consider those alleys part of their private homes.

Museums:  Egyptian Museum needs more labels on the monuments, no affordable guidebooks for Egyptians to buy and not enough security inside, monuments are kept in bad displays and can easily be sabotaged, cleaning staff are irresponsible. The Islamic Museum is always closed, the same with Agricultural Museum. The Coptic Museum is the best kept museum, nice displays, nice lighting, everything is labeled, the tour makes sense and organized chronologically, good staff. Abdeen Palace is good but security is strict and sometimes forbid access to rooms that are supposed to be among the tours. I wasn’t allowed to take photos of the palace from outside.

Unplanned districts: I think they should be embraced instead of being treated as ticking bombs.

Downtown: Been there only once, don’t feel safe going there because of Tahrir square tension.

If you could move to another district in Cairo where would you move to?

I have no idea. The problem is that nice districts to live in don’t have enough services and maybe that’s the reason they’re still nice.

*If you would like to tell us about where you live and share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

Jun 27

Egypt’s cities: governed by spectacle


In recent weeks there has been a series of media spectacles surrounding various figures in government demonstrating to the public that they are taking control of Egypt’s urban problems. The most notorious example is of course the president’s call for Egyptians to walk and use bicycles to travel around the city in order to decrease traffic congestion and to lower the government’s expenses on fuel subsidies. The announcement came during a morning event in which the president and members of the military academy took a ride in what amounts to an impressive photo op. The making of that photo op however entailed blocking streets and securing the area from bystanders. Behind the scenes of the cycling event was a traffic jam waiting for the event to end so that civilians in their cars and minibuses can have the road back to them.

While some cycling enthusiasts have embraced the gesture as pointing in the right direction, it should be noted that the president’s bike ride was not accompanied by a policy announcement or an actual government initiative to make Cairo and other Egyptian cities bike friendly, or pedestrian friendly for that matter. Once the cameras left the traffic returned and it was business as usual. The media spectacle was sufficient for some as it performed its palliative purpose without really creating real solutions nor proposing concrete steps towards making cycling or even walking a realistic mode of moving around the city for enough people in order for it to impact Cairo’s traffic, pollution or even obesity problems.

The spectacular approach to dealing with serious urban problems goes much further than issues of transport. Over the past several weeks there has been a series of reported cases of police and military forces using dynamite to destroy illegally constructed real estate across the country, from Cairo, Alexandria, Banha and other cities and towns.

As the video above shows these explosive acts of “applying the law” are insufficient to actually deal with the problem. Behind the collapsing building are many others like it. Egypt has hundreds of thousands, by the most conservative estimates, of these “illegal” structures, many of which were built during the past three years as a form of real estate speculation within the informal market. Furthermore, most of these buildings were in fact built “illegally” with the assistance of members of the state such as local government officials with ties to the National Democratic Party who profited by allowing such activities to take place while the country was experiencing political turmoil.

While using dynamite to destroy a few buildings sends a clear message that the very dysfunctional state that allowed these buildings to exist is now set to eliminate them, this is not a practical solution. Not to mention the million of Egyptian pounds wasted in this process of building and destroying and building again. There is no policy response created based on studies that provide long lasting solutions. Instead the state flexes its muscles, now that it chooses to communicate to the public that it is in control. This is happening while the state aims to build one million new housing units in a 40 billion dollar deal. What if a nationwide survey was conducted regarding these already constructed illegal buildings whereby criteria are set to allow for some constructions to remain and used as part of state’s affordable housing program?

Perhaps the winner of the prize for “most visible man in power” award is Alexandria’s governor. The official facebook page of the governor constantly updates Alexandrians about how the governor is literally taking matters into his own hands and is on the pavement daily dealing with issues such as trash collection, road construction and street vendors.

In the video above he is inspecting a site of where he will create a market for street vendors. The idea is simple, clear city squares of sidewalk vendors crowding the streets and give some of them an assigned space within an open air market place to allow them to make a living. Once more while this seems like a novel concept, but it is absolutely arbitrary and fails to tackle the problem within a policy framework. Instead there is an ad hock approach to the solution, as the governor himself is telling his army of assistants who should or shouldn’t have a space in the market. This is an unelected retired general with no experience or training in how to manage a city of four million residence and he is giving oral orders based on his personal judgement to solve a complex issue the is about economy, public space and social order.

These “solutions” might appear to work temporarily but they are fragile and have no solid foundations based on policies and laws that are applied consistently regardless of who is president or who is governor. These spectacular show stoppers are less about solving Egypt’s immense urban problems and are more about bloating the image of particular figures and the security establishments they belong to. Loyalties within the civilian ranks of the municipalities are to the general at the top first and foremost, if he is gone, the city falls apart. In other words, the lives of millions of Egyptians and their right to better managed cities is held hostage.


[Bulldozers used to destroy makeshift shops with their contents as part of Alexandria’s governor’s show of force]

In another video (above) the governor braves the streets of Alexandria, yelling at shopkeepers and giving them a “last warning” before he sends “forces” to shut their shops. Citizens are treated as children. The state enforces the law with nothing short of thuggery.

A few concluding points: Egypt’s cities have serious urban problems. Some of these problems are visible on a daily basis and make for great opportunities for those in power to show they are in charge. However, more serious problems such as daily power outages, contaminated drinking water and failing sewage systems won’t be the subject of any photo ops or spectacular videos by officials any time soon. These are problems that require real solutions, something the state with its current structure is incapable or perhaps unwilling to provide. In fact the Egyptian state, with its dysfunctional institutions, thrives on failure and the ongoing state of emergency. Real solutions would threaten the very existence of the many strongmen who claim they are barely keeping the country together from total collapse.

Egypt’s cities do not need strong men who walk the streets with sticks. If the governor needs to leave his office everyday to oversee road construction, relocate street vendors and demolish illegal buildings then what is the need for the tens of thousands of state employees who drain the state budget on salaries but do little more than push papers?

Enforcing the law means more than selective application using dynamite and bulldozers. It means real reform so that the law and the legal system that enforces it function consistently and continually with no loopholes. It means conducting serious surveys and studies of the current situation and putting experts to work to provide tailored solutions that are long lasting. It means drafting sound policy rather than governing Egypt’s cities with nothing more than ephemeral spectacles.

Jun 08

Port Said municipality’s war on trees


[In the name of development and modernization, Port Said’s sidewalks have been removed, trees cut, and streets damaged, making the already run-down city an even less hospitable urban environment to residents. Photo by Mohamed Kamal Mohamed. Click here for the full album.]

While cities around the world are working to improve walkability, create new public spaces, promote alternative transit such as biking, widening sidewalks and planting more trees, authorities in Egypt are doing exactly the opposite.

Last month residents in Suez Canal city of Port Said found their city under systematic attack by authorities. Without any public engagement over the planning and management of the city authorities began to remove century old trees that are as old as the streets they line. Not only trees but in many cases the sidewalks were also removed. Carrying out this task isn’t cheap nor easy, the obvious question then is: Why would the same authorities who fail to carryout minimum municipal management such as street cleaning, trash collection and maintenance of public buildings, why would these same authorities put so much effort into reducing the quality of life in a city already hit by economic stagnation and with its architectural and urban heritage disappearing everyday. Why put the effort to systematically undo the barely sufficient streetscape of the city?


[The “modernization” of Port Said streets as seen by authorities involves the removal of sidewalks in historic districts and cutting century old trees. Photo by Waleed Montasser.]image

Why are Egyptian authorities doing to an Egyptian city what Israeli authorities regularly do to Palestinian village: uproot trees and destroy infrastructure?

But this is not only happening in Port Said, cities across the county are confronting the same practices carried out by state authorities. Even in some of Cairo’s relatively affluent neighborhoods authorities have been systematically butchering trees with no warning or excuse. Sometimes, as is the case of Port Said, such acts of state-sanctioned vandalism are presented as part of “upgrading” or “modernizing” the city. In Port Said the official excuse for such acts of destruction was to widen the street, despite the relatively small number of cars in the city and the lack of any public demand to widen the street.

An important dimension in all of this is the issue of governance, which was discussed in Aaron Jakes’ article in the Egypt Independent in 2012. The article was instigated also by an act of tree cutting that took place on his street in Zamalek. Jakes writes: “For over a century, an arrangement designed to strangle political initiative at its roots has continued to shape the state institutions that often wield the most direct influence over people’s daily lives.” The residents of Port Said, Cairo, Damanhur or Alexandria have no say in whether authorities can just show up one day and butcher an entire street worth of trees, or show up one day and dismantle the tram system as happened in Heliopolis, or show up one day and destroy the entire sidewalk as an act of modernizing the street.



[The court building in Heliopolis, Cairo was fronted by a row of trees that disappeared over night. Photos by Michel Hanna.]


Members of the Port Said community complained and attempted to bring media attention to their ordeal but little was done to improve the situation. Below is a statement by two community initiatives concerned with Port Said’s heritage and urban future. The statement refers to the most recent constitution which protects the right to a a healthy environment and requires state institutions to protect natural resources (trees in this case) and to strive for sustainable development. Needless to be said, who cares what the constitution says if the structures of state institutions responsible for urban affairs do not allow for civilian oversight nor accountability let alone allow actual community participation in decision making.


As a side note, for the sake of context, it should be remembered that Port Said along with other Suez Canal cities are set for major urban transformations which have not been disclosed to the public. These transformations are part of the controversial Suez Canal development scheme financed by Gulf capital in partnership with the Egyptian military. Additionally, Port Said’s municipal authorities are always members of the security apparatus due to the city’s “strategic” position. This means that the governor and all those working for him are more concerned with whatever they perceive as “security” over the constitutional rights of residents to a tree and a sidewalk.

What kind of urban present and future could possibly come out of this stubborn, self-destructive, security-minded, authoritarian system that can no longer be called a municipal system?

image[Local residents can only document the damage. This is a typical image of butchered trees in Port Said, photographed by Waleed Montasser.]


[Another image taken by Michel Hanna who documents the continuous and relentless tree butchering process carried out by municipal authorities in his district of Heliopolis, Cairo. Here is an example of what authorities call “tree trimming,” otherwise known as urban beautification. Michel’s blog “Coal Swamps" is mostly dedicated to documenting these acts of tree-killing.]

Jun 07

Resident Perspective: Madinet Nasr

Resident Perspective is a series of standardized interviews with Cairo residents to get their views on the city and their neighborhoods. Share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

Where in Cairo do you live?

Nasr City. Intended to be widely spaced, for the elite. Ended up being densely urbanized, full of cars, with barely any passages for pedestrian usage.

List the most positive and the most negative aspects of living there.

Positive: The urban fabric is easy to understand, thus you’re less likely to get lost. There are a lot of close-by services, so you don’t really need to get out much.

Negative: There are a lot of gardens, which are poorly maintained, all gated off from the community instead of embracing the community. The streets are too wide to provide space for cars, making the thermal environment rather hot in summer. Buildings were intended to be with basement garages, that ended up being workshops or cafeterias that bestow a wide range of noise at odd hours throughout the day and during weekends. Buildings are extremely ugly, with barely any rhythm in style or shape. Ceilings are low and do not offer decent ventilation for indoor spaces. Most buildings are higher than was initially planned, which results in a dense community of massive number of cars, and a skyline that is cramped with horrid architecture.

How do you move around Cairo (modes of transport) and what would you like to see different regarding the future of transport in the city?

I use a car. I would much rather use a bike to a close-by metro station that can help me move around the city and enjoy the weather and sun. Maybe during summer, i would more likely park my car to the metro station, but i would definitely want to drive a lot less and save time wasted in Cairo traffic.

How does your district fit within Cairo? What would you like to see changed in that relationship between your neighborhood and the city?

My district is far but well connected within the city. I would like a stronger connection via metro lines and/or tram lines.

What are your top complaints about Cairo and what would you suggest to solve those problems?

Traffic: we need decent public transportation, plus on a broader scale providing job opportunities outside of the capital (decentralization). Harassment: social awareness and strict laws set to allow women to move around safely. Noise: I have no idea what can solve this problem except general decency, but it’s killing me!

What do you like the most about Cairo and what are your favorite places in the city.

I like Muizz Street the most in Cairo and older Cairo spaces such as Darb 1718. I also love Nile cafeterias and spaces that provide seating in-front of the Nile, i would love it if it were public open spaces, not just private paid for spaces. (Club 33, leftbank-Zamalik & Platform-Maadi).

Do you relate to the historic heritage of your district or of Cairo in general? Do you think you have a good sense of history of the city? Would you say you are have “civic pride” or are proud to live in Cairo?

I am extremely proud to be living in Cairo, that’s why I want it to improve.

Do you understand how the city is governed/managed? Do you think your community/district would be better or worst if residents from the community/district were involved in local government (محليات)?

Yes, and I would believe people’s involvement can actually change a lot.

In the context of Cairo, what comes to mind when you think of these keywords?

Public Space: Markets such as Ataba, or Boulak where people are free to use their space as they will and intersect with different lives from all over the city.

Green Space/Parks: Parks stranded away from the community with gates and tickets, like those of Nasr City.

Gated communities: An inevitable response for people who have the means to close off from the intolerable city.

Museums What comes to mind is the Egyptian museum with poorly maintained artifacts, with barely any description.

Unplanned districts: Places full of potential and capacity for improvement.

Downtown: A misguidedly-utilized district in Cairo, that can be maintained with much more respect in regards to its history.

If you could move to another district in Cairo where would you move to?

I would move to a gated community such as; Rehab or Madinaty.


*If you would like to tell us about where you live and share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

May 30

Cairo’s Traveling Peep Show Boxes


By Manar Moursi

It’s late in the afternoon on Sunday in Manial. Spring has arrived and bubbles are blowing in the air from an ice-cream cart look-alike. Two Cookdoor (fast food chain) employees in identical orange uniforms are seen peeping through the holes of what appears to be a cart but is tinted with pastel colors with a faceted form. A performer’s voice rings clear over this untouched quiet stretch of a corniche in Cairo with the words of a mawwal of Sheikh Immam:

“Protect your candle from the wind

Whether you choose to love or not

The morning is light dear fish;

Love whom you wish”

The ice-cream cart lookalike is the Wonder Box or Sandook El Agab, a storytelling-public art and design project inspired in form and function by the ancient Sandook El Donya/raree that were in use from as far as China to Europe and the Middle East from the 15th century onward. Earlier this month, two seemingly familiar objects a giant disco ball with Islamic patterns and an ice cream cart lookalike, visited the neighborhoods of Heliopolis, Bayn El Sarayat, Shobra El Kheima, Manial, Moqattam, Zamalek, and Ezbet Khairallah to awe and inspire audiences.


The traditional Sandook El Donya often took the form of a simple wooden box with magnifying lenses and a set of prints inside, which along with the storytelling talents of the showmen that accompanied it were a medium through which the public was transported through a magical journey of stories and places they had never seen before.

Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti is credited for the design of the first raree/peep show boxes in 15th century Europe. Alberti’s innovation was a mechanism which allowed users to look at perspective views through a small hole in a wooden box. Once viewers set their eyes near the hole they entered a private space of wonder beyond the mundaneness of their daily life. The traditional Sandook El Donya traveled from Italy to Egypt and once here, was modified with a form particular to this region, with puppets and “aragozes” that personified stories relating to this context.

Mahatat, a collective which brings art to public spaces along with curator Aida El Kashef conceived the idea to revive the medium of the old Sandook El Donya with new forms and techniques in early 2013. A year later, after receiving a generous grant from the Swiss Cooperation in Cairo, they invited 9 artists from multiple disciplines including architects to storytellers and musicians to work collectively on the design, construction and animation of 2 boxes with contemporary forms and techniques. These two boxes would begin their journeys across Cairo traveling from Moqattam to Shobra El Kheima.



Storytellers Laila El Balouty and Ahmed Mostafa collected stories from taxi and microbus drivers, as they were seen as vehicles which contain and collect everyday stories and myths that circulate around the city. These stories were merged and augmented through fictional devices. El Balouty and Mostafa worked in close collaboration with musicians Shadi El Hosseiny and Abdallah AbouZekry who composed the musical backdrop to the stories. Meanwhile architects Manar Moursi (of Studio Meem) and Mohamed Hassan worked alongside the visual arts team (comprised of Maya Gowaily, Yasmin Elayat and Youssef Faltas) to coordinate and integrate their structural constraints in the design of the two boxes.

For the design aspect it was important to visit and see existing traditional sandooks here in Cairo which are currently housed at the Agricultural Museum in Dokki and the Geographical Society in Qasr El Ainy. Further research was done not only on historical forms and techniques but contemporary uses particularly in India where the tradition is still alive in small towns across the subcontinent.





The artists decided from early on that one sandook would integrate traditional techniques with cutouts and projection mapping inside it while looking more futuristic from the outside. In contrast, the other sandook would integrate more interactive techniques while appearing to be more traditional in its exterior. Both sandooks were designed for private immersive experiences for the 4 viewers that were able to look through the holes at a time. The idea was to have 3 stories per sandook and to select members of the audience who could peep through the holes per story. The stories would be repeated in each performance site in order to allow more people to enjoy the experience. An important design objective was therefore to create a strong visual statement with the outer form of the sandook that would still captivate the non-peeping audience as they listened to the storytellers.

For the design aspect of the first sandook, I was inspired by a recent visit to Mashhad in Iran and the mirrored Islamic patterns that seemed to have psychedelic transcendental impact on those who witnessed their interiors.  I found those patterns repeated in egg shops and maklas (nut and seed shops) that dot Cairo. Seeing that mirrors were also employed as animation tools in the praxinscope-like techniques used inside the traditional sandooks, it was decided that mirrors in an Islamic pattern would be projected on a geodesic sphere to reference in some way both the context and these traditional techniques.

The form of a sphere was employed because of its purity and the desire to connect visually to magic crystal and disco balls. The designers wanted Cairo to have it its own giant disco ball that would travel accompanied by two storytellers and fantastical animated illustrations inside. The end result looked futuristic, like a giant space ship had landed in Bayn el Sarayat and in front of the Bazeleek Church in Heliopolis. Traveling around the city in an open truck the mirrors reflected light in brilliant patterns along their path.


The sphere was built as two geodesic domes that fit perfectly onto each other and these domes were further broken into 2 types of triangles that were attached together by joints that could be connected and disconnected. The idea was to construct something that can be assembled and disassembled easily on-site and then stored in a compact form in Mahatat’s office for future use.

For the second sandook, the form was derived from the everyday ice cream carts that one sees regularly around the city. The ice cream cart fulfilled both functional (size of projection screen) and aesthetic requirements as it was meant to disarm the viewer who would be called at by its everyday familiar sight with a slightly different palette of colors and form only to discover a whole set of digital interactive wonders to be experienced by peeping through its holes. In this sandook, the peeps were in a two level, dual layered experience for the viewer to move through. The peeps themselves were meant to be somewhat immersive thus their inward facing facets that acted as beehives of sorts to draw the viewers in.

The two sandooks will be traveling to Germany this upcoming July to perform at a university there. Upon their return to Egypt, the goal is to travel with both through different towns and small cities along the Delta.

Once out on the streets, the sandooks acted as transporters through time and space and purveyors of both edification and pleasure. In one story on the loss of the legendary Simon Bolivar’s sword, a drive through the city takes viewers to visit statues of the downtown midans, which come to life to startle and delight the viewers with their personal histories and contemporary stories.