Resident Perspective is a series of standardized interviews with Cairo residents to get their views on the city and their neighborhoods.
Where in Cairo do you live?
In a small gated community at the beginning of Cairo-Alexandria desert road.
List the most positive and the most negative aspects of living there.
Positive: it’s a quiet area, unlike most of Cairo’s neighborhoods - the area is booming so we have a lot of new places and activities to do there, so I don’t always have to leave the area.
Negative: I love cycling and taking long walks, which is not very easy to do there, so I have to go Downtown to do that - we don’t have any grocery stores in a walking distance, so I always have to take my car when I need to buy something - The ring road is crowded most of the time, so I always get stuck when I am trying to go anywhere outside the area.
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 my car most of the time, but I recently started using a bike every now and then. - I would love to see more people using bikes. When you are on a bike, you start seeing the city in a different way. You started noticing things and places that you might not notice when you are locked inside your car. But, as a female, I would just have to live with the sexual harassment and ignore it when I am on my bike, if I really want to enjoy cycling.
How does your district fit within Cairo? What would you like to see changed in that relationship between your neighborhood and the city?
It seems more like ‘an accessible’ neighborhood, but I see it rather a connected one: - it’s relatively close to three ring roads (mehwar, the other rind road from Lebanon Sq. and Maadi/Giza ring road) - close to Faisal and Haram and Giza pyramids -13kms to downtown Cairo - 10 minutes away from the Cairo/Alexandria toll station -almost 60kms away from Fayoum.
What are your top complaints about Cairo and what would you suggest to solve those problems?
Absence of proper sidewalks, sexual harassment, the absence of the cycling culture (a lot of people think riding a bike gives an image that you don’t have money or if you are a female, then it’s like you are looking to get sexually harassed).
Solutions: - the government should have proper sidewalks to allow people to use them instead of walking in the middle of cars. And, have proper traffic lights as well. - as for sexual harassment, I don’t see a solution to it in the near future.
What do you like the most about Cairo and what are your favorite places in the city.
Architecture in some areas, the weather (apart from the pollution), the feeling of the ancient city.
Favorite places: Downtown Cairo (especially Cafe Riche), Azhar, Ghouri, Al Moez Street area, 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?
Yes, I relate to the historic heritage in Cairo in general and I think I have a good sense of the city’s history.
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)?
My community is not really representative of the city because it’s a small community of less than 50 houses, but I think it would be better if we had better residents involved in the local government.
In the context of Cairo, what comes to mind when you think of these keywords?
Green Space/Parks: I don’t feel it exists in Cairo, we need to have a lot more green space/parks.
Gated communities: Booming (most of the newly weds I know move to gated communities).
Museums: They are there, but many Egyptians are not aware they exist or just never interested to visit them.
Downtown: People in my circle either started going there after the protests or most of them haven’t been there since they were kids. For them, it’s just an area they pass by on their way to another place. I know few people like me who enjoy going there.
If you could move to another district in Cairo where would you move to?
Downtown, maybe somewhere around Talaat Harb square.
*If you would like to tell us about where you live and share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.
Overshadowed by the continuing events in Tahrir Square yesterday (the Egyptian Army’s full war against civilian Egyptians in their own country), is another piece of news that would typically have been major: There was no water in many parts across central Cairo from Abasiyya to Zamalek. This is a very rare situation in this part of the city while it maybe not that unusual to the Mubarak satellite cities such as 6th of October. Those cities are on higher ground (water must be pumped up), built on absolute dry desert, with low density while using some of the highest quantities of water per day in Egypt due to the lush gardens and golf courses that are hardly used but remain an important symbol of status. Despite being home to some of Cairo’s most expensive real estate water problems in such areas is not unusual. Yet for water to be unavailable in the center of the city, which is in the Nile Valley (low ground) and where water is readily available, is a catastrophe. Apparently the water cut was due to a ruptured water pipe near Ramses Square which was so serious that trains at the station had to be redirected to Giza Station.
Meanwhile, while civilians in Tarir Square were showered with tear gas canisters and while large chunks of the city center was water-less, construction work continued on a new gated development also with a golf course in the heart of the city. Uptown Cairo is an Emaar development whose tagline is “be above it all” and which sits atop the Muqattam hills overlooking the Citadel with sweeping views over the city. Water for the golf course above this desert plateau will also need to be pumped up to maintain a green turf centered between 4000 multi-million pound homes.
The land was owned by the army, as is all land around the city which later became desert gated communities. These sales are opaque and are marred in mystery. Uptown Cairo land is said to have been sold for LE92 a square meter when it was valued at LE2200. The logic typically is that this kind of project is good for Egypt, good for Cairo, looks like progress and therefore it should be promoted with the sale or (give away) of land. In reality such projects create a further and deeper division in Egyptian society, and rewards the wealthy while punishing the rest of society whose share of resources is under threat by the rich minority who are given priority.
Directly at the base of Muqattam Hills is one of Cairo’s densest areas, Manshyiet Nasr, also known as Garbage Village where about %90 of Cairo’s recyclable trash is processed. The total area of Uptown Cairo is about three times the area of Manshyiet Nasr which has a population of roughly 450-500,000 inhabitants (compared with Uptown Cairo which is to house 20-25,000). Where is the social justice in these numbers?
The government and the army have fully subsidized desert cities placing all their efforts and weight behind the notion that Cairo as it is can not be dealt with and therefore the desert cities are the only escape. Furthermore these developments are fully geared towards private car ownership (while only %15 of Cairo households own private cars) and absolutely no investment in improving existing modes of public transport or providing new ones to service those new desert communities.
Public housing built in desert cities include tens of thousands of units. Such projects have completely failed as the state give a plot of land to a contractor and demands a certain number of units with a limited budget to be fit within that plot. Without an overall urban plan, the contractor then is obliged to fit the required units within the plot in such a way that has no relationship with the city or context and which does not make for a cohesive city plan. This in addition to lack of basic services, work and transport options.
On the other hand, gated communities evolve as an escape for the new middle class (a class that emerged from the 1970s under Sadat’s open door policies and which isn’t a continuation of the middle and upper class that existed before the 70s). The new middle and upper class developed a serious case of hate against Cairo and its people adopting racist, almost colonialist, attitudes towards the lower classes. Along with this attitude towards the common people of the city, a stigma was attached to historic urban areas such as downtown and “Islamic Cairo.” It is the result of a defeated class, willfully forgetting history and heritage and aiming to forge a new identity in the desert.
This marks a serious departure for Cairo’s urban history along class lines. All throughout Cairo’s history, the wealthy always lived within the city core or in accessible areas to all social classes. The urban elite was invested in the city as a cohesive unit and supported various urban projects including the city’s extensive tram network. When the wealthy wanted to build a new city in the nineteenth century they wanted it to link to the old city at Azbakiyya. And later when private companies developed neighborhoods for the wealthy at Heliopolis, Garden City and Maadi, there were no walls or gates built around them. The class division created in Urban Cairo with new gated colonies is a disturbing, unhealthy and unsustainable development in Egyptian cities and society. The below comment is posted in response to the video at the top of this post and it encapsulates a common sentiment among Egypt’s middle, upper middle and upper class.
Colonization and colonial cities were not only about racial difference! Cairo’s gated colonies are on par with colonial urbanism: a favored minority creating zones of exclusivity benefiting from special benefits from the state, direct access to resources, using cheap labor of the locals and are backed and protected by a militarized government. WE ARE WITNESSING NOTHING SHORT OF COLONIZATION. Unfortunately Egypt’s elite are growing further away from Egypt while living in it. They are growing more ignorant of their own people, their own rich urban heritage and its potential. Golf courses must stop because when the water dries up everyone will suffer. Gated communities have proven to be a disaster to Egyptian society and to Cairo as they create a further divided society and city and promote avoiding confronting our national and societal problems. The moneyed and educated elite need to reconsider this social and urban model.
The Guardian- Jack Shenker
When news of President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall first washed over the crowds in Tahrir Square, protesters began to jostle in front of the watching TV cameras and hold aloft handmade signs. Amid a thicket of slogans, one stood out: “A kilo of meat costs 100 pounds, yet a square metre in Madinaty costs half a pound,” it read in Arabic. For most of the foreign journalists, those words meant nothing. For most Egyptians, they meant everything.
If you had to tell the story of Egypt’s popular revolt through one patch of land, that patch of land would be Madinaty – a dust-blown wasteland deep in the desert to the east of the capital, and eventual home to a $3bn commercial complex featuring 80,000 villas and townhouses, as well as new hotels, hospitals and schools.
Madinaty is just one of a rash of desert developments taking shape on Cairo’s sandy fringes, where signature Greg Norman golf courses sprout from some of the most arid land imaginable and Zaha Hadid-designed office blocks are winched skyward at addresses that can be expressed only in kilometre distance-markers. These are the satellite cities: half-built emblems of the country’s institutionalised corruption under Mubarak. Both the cities and the gated compounds within them mushroomed on the back of dirt-cheap land sales by the state; deals signed as food inflation spiralled and the most basic daily staples were put beyond the reach of millions of ordinary Egyptians.
“You may call them satellite cities, but they’re not satellites any more – now they’ve become the planets themselves,” claimed former minister Adel Naguib in an interview with the Guardian last year. At the time, he was senior vice president of Cairo’s New Urban Communities Authority. Twelve months on, most of Naguib’s senior colleagues are in jail, and, along with several other real estate developers, the firm behind Madinaty is being dragged through the courts.
Yet in a country where 42% of the population lives below the poverty line, glossy promotional catalogues for residential developments in the desert continue to proliferate, promising 14 different underfloor-heated bathroom configurations and urging prospective customers to buy into the surrounding desert and, more importantly, into the concept of an exclusive, secluded future.
For 14 centuries, Cairo grew only within the natural confines of the Moqattam clifftops to the east and the Saharan desert to the west. Now it is one of the densest urban areas in the world; today, Cairo – the biggest city in Africa and the Middle East – creaks under the weight of up to 20 million people, more than the populations of Libya, Lebanon and Jordan combined.
But over the past decade, the contours of this megacity have changed. Within the next five years, the two biggest hubs of desert development – 6th October City to the west and New Cairo to the east – are each set to house up to 5 million people. By 2030, when Greater Cairo’s population is predicted to top 30 million, government estimates suggest that half of those residents will live not in Cairo itself, but in a satellite city. No matter which direction you look out of Cairo, the pace of construction is breathtaking. “If you leave the area for two months and then come back, the whole place is unrecognisable,” says one project manager at a major New Cairo development. “This is probably the fastest-growing urban area you’ll see in your life.”
Next Move is Egypt’s biggest annual property expo, and last year’s event saw Ferraris, speedboats and string quartets wheeled out by competing companies looking to broaden their share of a real estate market that has been growing by 22% per annum in recent years and that contributes $16bn annually to the country’s GDP. Of the 67 major construction projects represented, only three were in Cairo “proper”, the rest lying in the desert beyond.
It’s a far cry from the early 1990s, when New Cairo consisted of little more than a ragtag settlement at Katameya, inhabited by a handful of Egyptians relocated there by the government after their homes were lost in a devastating earthquake. That was when Khaled and Tarek Abu Talib bought 250 acres of remote desert land and announced plans to build an 18-hole golf course and residential complex on the site. Most people thought they were mad. Today, their private gated compound is one of the ritziest in the country and its pool terrace looks out over an ocean of busily twitching cranes. The name Katameya Heights, like other developments that sprung up at the same time – Beverly Hills, Dreamland, Utopia – is now synonymous with the best in upper-class living; nearly a third of Egyptian children may be malnourished, but you wouldn’t know it from these toy-town driveways, where clubhouse membership packages start at $22,000.
The suburban drift of the Cairene elite has been going on for the best part of two decades, but in the past few years it has accelerated sharply. Whereas older developments were strictly for the extravagantly wealthy, today’s are targeted at a wider band of Egyptians, many of whom need little persuasion to vacate the choked city centre. When asked why they wanted to relocate, customers at the Next Move conference used the same word time and again: zahma, meaning “traffic” or “crowds”.
It was Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policy of handing out an acre of agricultural land to each nuclear family in the aftermath of his coup against British rule in 1952 that sowed the seeds of Cairo’s demographic explosion; as rural families grew bigger and dwindling land supplies got spliced up between children, waves of migration began into the capital, swelling its already saturated streets. Much of the construction that took place to accommodate these newcomers was informal; without a parallel upgrade in infrastructure, pressure on public services has been at a critical stage for years. Traffic congestion means it can take more than an hour to cross the Nile; green space is in such short supply that picnicking families have nowhere to gather but on the threadbare grass verges beside the city’s highways. “Years ago my home was a nice place, but now I barely recognise it,” says Anton Girgis, a telecoms engineer living in Giza. “The whole city has been transformed into one big shanty town.”
On the clifftop above Cairo’s imposing 12th century Citadel, a new fortress is taking shape. It is being built by the Egyptian arm of Emaar, a Dubai-based company responsible for the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Their project here is called Uptown, and the long approach to its sales centre is lined by giant pictures of light-skinned families having barbecues and parking their Mercedes in the garage.
The biggest challenge facing architects of the new urban communities was always the need to rebrand the desert into a hospitable zone of aspiration, rather than condemnation. “It’s where children can play safely, where neighbours foster long-lasting relationships, and where the community really cares,” declares a sign at the Emaar Misr sales centre above the maquette of Mivida, a $1bn Emaar villa complex in New Cairo. Every developer I spoke to insisted that the satellite cities represented a return to community, not an escape from it; the desert project reconstituted not as an act of elite self-interest, but rather as a progressive national mission for all Egyptians.
The current development is cited as the latest effort in a continuous line of post-independence expansion; both Nasser and Sadat, the argument goes, initiated building projects that were infused with a revolutionary legitimacy – industrial zones and workers’ compounds taming the wilderness into green pastures for a newly independent country. Yet the notion of the heroic desert pioneer hardly fits the satellite city dweller of today, sequestered behind high walls over which most of Cairo’s residents will never get to glimpse – unless they happen to work there as guards, nannies or cleaners.
On the second storey of a skeleton-villa in a New Cairo compound named La Reve, I spoke to labourer Mohammed Sayed Mohammed, kefiya-clad and busy directing a team of seven workers – all relatives of his from the Upper Egyptian city of Sohag. “We make the villas and move on,” said Mohammed, who is paid $15 per square metre of construction – money that is then split between the family members assisting him. “I have no idea who will end up living here – someone higher than me! After I finish this villa, I’ll be lucky ever to be allowed back in; that’s why the owner is paying so much, to get away from the people.” He poured some water over his face and motioned his barefoot cousins to take a break from their bricklaying and plastering. “The people who will end up living here, they want the calm. It makes sense; everyone wants a corner of the world to themselves.”
Mohammed is getting married this year. Although he currently lives at La Reve, should he and his new wife move to Cairo, they will doubtless end up in one of the city’s informal settlements known as ashwai’yat, an Arabic word that means random or haphazard. Out near the ring road, mile upon mile of these soaring redbrick apartment blocks jostle for space, all permanently unfinished, clumps of steel rebars sprouting from their rooftops ready to shoulder the next illegally constructed storey. They are home to 10 million of Cairo’s poorer residents, paying between £1 and £40 a month in rent per family.
The rise of the satellite cities and the consequent spread of the ashwa’iyat became two sides of the same coin under Mubarak; the two spaces could not be more different, and yet each is a result of the retreat of central government – an abandonment to privatised luxury on the one hand, and a virtually nonexistent infrastructure of crumbling public services on the other. In the desert’s gated communities, where a two-bedroom flat costs £60,000 and a villa anywhere between £500,000 and £10m, residents were encouraged to “vote” among themselves on what day to have their grass cut or trash collected, comfortably sheltered from the problems of less privileged Cairenes downtown.
“For any social system to flourish,” claims Professor Ahmed Okasha, Egypt’s preeminent expert on mental health and a former president of the World Psychiatric Association, “you need different classes to have a symbiotic relationship. But here there has been a breakdown in social cohesion, which has gone hand in hand with the changes to land use engineered by the satellite cities. They intensify the gap between rich and poor, and that gap has produced a very dangerous situation for Egypt.”
Mubarak’s dictatorship relied on a rhetoric of “stability” and the value of “security” over freedom. The satellite cities took this idea to its most extreme conclusion – little surprise, then, that they became an early target for those seeking to bring down his regime. Long before Egyptians took to the streets on 25 January this year, a campaigning lawyer named Hamdy El-Fakharany was attacking the new developments head on. Last September, judges were asked to rule on whether the Mubarak regime had broken the law by flogging desert land to developers without holding competitive auctions. Madinaty and its parent company, TMG, were first up. Already rocked by the arrest, trial and death sentence (subsequently commuted) of TMG director and leading light of the ruling National Democratic party, Hisham Talaat Moustafa,following the murder of his ex-girlfriend, the company’s lawyer argued that El-Fakharany’s legal challenges would frighten off investors and “open the gates of hell”. Prime minister Ahmed Nazif also weighed in, saying that Egypt would be committing “economic suicide” if any land sales were annulled. The judges were unmoved; Madinaty’s land acquisition was ruled illegal.
El-Fakharany, who saw the original contract, says it ensured that the state was entitled to 7% of the residential properties built, while Talaat Moustafa – a close friend of Gamal Mubarak, the former president’s son – would get 93%. The government had also agreed to exempt the developer from all taxes and fees incurred during construction and relinquished rights to any commercial or retail space. “The deal couldn’t have been any more slanted to the side of the developer against Egypt,” says El-Fakharany. “It was as if it was drafted by an enemy of the state.” A hasty government effort to reissue the relevant sales contracts, through a legal sleight of hand, was cut short by January’s popular uprising.
Now Mubarak has gone and Madinaty has been joined in the dock by another mega-developer, Palm Hills, prompting many other companies to try to ward off legal action by voluntarily handing back land to the state. Two former housing ministers have been put behind bars and public anger against property developers has reached a climax. And yet no coherent alternative to the satellite city project – and its correlating boom in the ashwa’iyat – has so far been articulated.
Driving down an empty highway on a recent visit to New Cairo, I was struck by the bleakness of the building sites, the craters rupturing the street, the water pipes, phone cables and traffic signs left strewn across the roadside. Central Cairo may, as the writer Maria Golia once put it, hang together only by rubber bands, but New Cairo is a mess.
The future of these reclaimed lands will depend largely on the government that is elected later this year; many want to see them set aside for affordable developments with a community-driven public services infrastructure. But it is also possible they will simply be re-auctioned and new gated compounds built. Whether Egyptians will accept that as a solution to Cairo’s housing crisis remains to be seen. The only thing certain is that this megacity will keep growing.
Photo by Jason Larkin, more here.