Cairobserver — Revolution, political transformation and urban space in “Ezbet El-Haggana”

Revolution, political transformation and urban space in “Ezbet El-Haggana”


[Initiative of cleaning the area’s entrance by young residents of neighboring districts in partnership with young residents from the area.]

Based on fieldwork conducted in March 2011, this article presents a snapshot view of the period immediately after the start of the revolution and how those events and political shifts affected the residents of one of Cairo’s ‘ashwa’eyat (Informal urban areas). The article first appeared in ArchiAfrika Newsletter in July 2012.

By Hassan el Mouelhi

“‘Aish, horreya, ‘adalah egtema’eyah”

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians kept on chanting (Bread, freedom, social justice) in the main squares all over Egypt for 18 days. People from different classes, different education levels, and different generations were there. Things are changing! And tomorrow will be better! This feeling was spread between Cairo inhabitants, especially the youth, regardless where they are living.

Relation to government: Police is a part of “El-H’okouma,” meaning, the government. Youth in Ezbet El Haggana (referred to as EH in the remainder of the article) developed a negative relationship with the police (fear, mistrust, hate) because they feel discriminated against only because of where they live. During the last 3 months of each year (when police officers are expected to meet their quotas in the number of arrests), it is advisable not to go outside the EH area alone late at night. If someone from EH was stopped by the police somewhere in Cairo, and was asked to show his I.D., and they recognized that he is from EH, chances are high for him to be treated disrespectfully, even if he had not done anything wrong. Two youth told me their stories with the police in the streets outside the EH area: when two young males were stopped by police and asked to show identification, the one with his place of residence in Heliopolis was set free, while his friend with a place of residence in the strangely named KM 4.5 (kilo arba3a we nos, the official name of EH) was arrested. The police give the youth of EH special treatment based on the perceptions of this particular part of Cairo.

When residents moved to KM 4.5 or EH area, they often refused to officially change their addresses as to avoid hassle by the authorities. This was the case with Mohamed El Fallah, who moved to KM 4.5 from El-Wayly (a historic district) nearly 12 years ago. Mohamed’s ID still lists El-Wayly as his area of residence.

As a reaction, this level of discrimination has caused the youth of EH to develop a feeling of hatred towards the police in general. The youth here were happy after the defeat of the police on 28th January and their draw back and disappearance from Cairo streets, as this meant to them that they were free of the systematic discrimination that was part of their daily life. From their point of view, they thought that this was one of the most positive consequences of the revolution.

‘Ashwa’eyat image in Egyptian Media:

Through the semi-structured interviews, I tried to find out what the residents of the area think about different recent Egyptian films that discussed life in “’Ashwa’eyat.”  Ashraf said: “such crimes or illegal immoral activities like drug dealing and prostitution are shown in the movies as if we are all like that. While in reality, yes they exist, but spread in different streets, and in a very personal individualistic scale.”

Interviewees agreed that films and other media propagate negative attitudes towards places represented on the screen that they identify as “home.” Khalifa commented on how the media shows Ashwa’eyat residents as criminals and drug dealers:“We have bad people in our area, but in a certain small spot, not everywhere!”


[During the celebration of the revolution, March 2011]

Revolution and political transformation:

It was clear from my interviews with residents that they started to feel empowered after the revolution, feeling that their future might be better, hoping for more justice, especially social justice.

Ezbet El Haggana follows “Madinet Nasr” in the parliament elections. Madinet Nasr, in contrast with EH, is a formal planned district for middle-high class residents, known for its sufficiency of services. Parliament candidates usually start their campaigns in EH giving promises for providing more services to the area, more job opportunities and improving the quality of life in the area. In addition, those candidates who do not belong to the area distribute money and food bags to buy the votes of poor residents. Residents confirmed these practices continuing during recent election campaigns when politicians hire local middlemen to buy votes of the area’s most vulnerable residents.

EH residents are vulnerable to vote buying because of their desperate economic situation. Nagwa Raouf, architect, Emaret El-Ensan foundation- Founder/President board of trustees, witnessed drastic changes in the behaviors of the residents and the way they deal with corruption in the early days of the revolution. She commented on the first days of the revolution and its impact on the area: “…there is a lack of money in the area, because most residents earn their money on daily bases in the field of construction, which has almost stopped during and the days after the revolution till now (March 2011)”

The general economic recession, and especially in the field of construction that followed the revolution was reflected on the whole EH community. But it wasn’t only those working in construction who were affected. Mahmoud, a 25-year-old café waiter originally from a village in “Fayoum,” commented on the costumers of the coffee shop where he works:“The revolution is a disaster, everything in the country stopped, no work and no police. The coffee shop is suffering, as for the customer who was used to drink 5-6 cups of tea a day before the events, now, he drinks just one, if he comes at all! The truck owners who were used to have 5-6 transfers per day, now, its only once or even nothing!”

image[Amir fel Tahrir: Amir, 21, from Ezbet El Haggana area, sharing in the demonstrations in Tahrir square, Feb 2011]

Sustaining changes in attitudes:

Nagwa told me some stories that show how this community could confront problems, based on their solidarity and good communal relations:

1.     Gas tubes got to be very expensive (50 L.E. each) while normally it costs 10 L.E!  This led some youth to face this phenomenon, and they gathered the empty tubes from the neighbors, gathered 10 pounds from each of the neighbors, rented a car, and went to the main storage, paid 5 pounds for each, and 5 pounds for the car rent, and returned and distributed the tubes on the neighbors again.

2.     The quantity of bread produced by local bakeries was not enough of because of flour shortages. Flour for local bakeries, which is subsidized by the government, was sold to private bakeries for maximum profit. Some residents decided to face this policing bakeries and preventing owners from selling subsidized flour to private bakeries. Inhabitants pressured local bakeries to meet the demand for bread by negotiating additional work shifts.

3.     young residents initiated street cleaning campaigns resembling what happened in Tehrir Square. It was repeated in different EH neighborhoods, and was joined by children.

When cleaning the streets, 17-year-old Sara experienced some difficulties because of the stigma associated with the act of collecting garbage. Eventhough she was cleaning her community some of her neighbors, particularly older generations, made light of her activity. She wondered “… are they used to live within garbage, and can not live with a clean street?!” Her group of friends supported each other until they completed the task. 

Some links were established with neighboring richer communities. Cleaning the entrance of the area was arranged by “Al Seddik” mosque youth NGO located in “Massaken Sheraton” which is considered part of Heliopolis, a middle/high class district. On Friday 4.3.2011, about 150 boys and girls, aging from 16-26 years old gathered from different surrounding districts (Heliopolis, Nasr City, Al Rehab, El Tagamo’).  They swept the streets, removed garbage, and painted fences. Youth from both genders from districts of varying economics worked together, made friends, exchanged stories and perhaps established for themselves a newfound community of active citizens. 

Another resident, Ashraf spoke of the impact of the revolution on the attitudes of the daily labor. It happened just after some weeks from the start of the revolution and inspired by it, the concrete workers had a protest, asking for raises in daily fees from 60 to 65 L.E; it took them 2 days to get what they asked for. Hany (20 years) said about the revolution:

“…We want to eliminate corruption (Ezz, Adly, Shafik). Finding a job needs connections, and treatment in Police station was unfair. It will take some time, change won’t happen overnight.”

Three of the young residents accompanied me to Tahrir Square on one of the large Friday demonstrations in March 2011, a couple of weeks after the stepping down of Mubarak. They were proud of being there and of taking part in the process of changing the political reality of Egypt. I knew from them that they (among others) wanted to go to Tahrir Square again for other demonstrations. However, by late March 2011 the media had started to use terms such as “looters” and “thugs” and they were afraid of being mistaken for criminals, only because they live in KM 4.5 (EH). This shows that the mistrust problem between EH residents, especially the younger generation, and the government is still unresolved.

To conclude, the Egyptian scene in the last year following the revolution has witnessed monumental change in Egyptians’ aspirations and dreams. This has had a felt impact on the behaviors and attitudes of Egyptians in urban spaces, particularly previously disadvantaged residents such as those from EH. Their awareness regarding their right to the city has increased. The question now: How can this newly found right to the city be secured through the subsequent political process?


Hassan el Mouelhi is an architect, Emaret El-Ensan foundation board member, DAAD scholar and PhD student at Technical University in Berlin, Habitat unit. This article is a part of Hassan’s ongoing PhD research.

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