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.