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

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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.

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[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!

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[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. 

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[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.

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[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.]

Port Said municipality’s war on trees

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[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?

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[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.

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

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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.

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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.]

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[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.]

Event: Symposium on social accountability, government responsibility and municipal management

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هل تعرف تكلفة رصف الطرق وإضاءة الشوارع وصيانة الحدائق بمنطقتك؟ هل تعرف مين الجهات الحكومية المسئولة عن تمويل بناء الوحدة صحية أو مركز الشباب؟ مين بيحدد أولويات الخدمات التي تحتاجها منطقتك؟ مين بيراقب تكلفة هذه الخدمات العامة وبيتأكد من جودتها؟ لو عايز يبقى ليك دور في تحسين منطقتك ومسائلة الأجهزة الحكومية عن مستوى الخدمات فيها ممكن تعمل ده من خلال “المسائلة المجتمعية”

تنظم مبادرة التضامُن العمراني بالقاهرة، وقسم السياسة العامة والإدارة بكلية الشئون الدولية والسياسات العامة بالجامعة الأمريكية بالقاهرة، ندوة عن آليات “المسائلة المجتمعية” كأحد وسائل رفع كفاءة الخدمات المقدمة من الجهات الحكومية للمواطنين في مجال العمران، وضمان عدالة توزيع هذه الخدمات بين مناطق وأحياء المدينة المختلفة. وتتطرق الندوة لجوانب أخرى مرتبطة بآليات المسائلة المجتمعية مثل الشفافية وحق المواطنين في الوصول للمعلومات وبالأخص في مجال العمران.

وتتعرض الندوة لجهود بعض الجهات الحكومية وغير الحكومية العاملة في هذا المجال في مصر، كذلك بعض التجارب الدولية التي طبقت مفاهيم المسائلة المجتمعية بصورة ناجحة ومؤثرة. وتنتهي الندوة بنقاش مفتوح.

برنامج الندوة

الجلسة الأولى
- قسم السياسية العامة والإدارة، كلية الشئون الدولية والسياسات العامة، الجامعة الأمريكية بالقاهرة
- مركز العقد الاجتماعي
- هيئة كير مصر

الجلسة الثانية
- مبادرة التضامُن العمراني بالقاهرة
- المركز المصري للإصلاح المدني والتشريعي
- نقاش مفتوح

تقام الندوة بالقاعة الشرقية، بمقر الجامعة الأمريكية بميدان التحرير، القاهرة (الدخول من شارع محمد محمود)

الندوة باللغة العربية، والدعوة عامة

الرجاء تأكيد الحضور على: http://goo.gl/Uy3t5


Do you know who pays for paving the roads, fixing the street lighting or maintaining green spaces in your neighborhood? Do you know which governmental agency is responsible for building your Healthcare Unit or your Youth Club? Who decides the priorities of public services needed in your area? Do you know who monitors the cost of these public services and ensures their quality? If you want to have a role in improving your neighborhood and to hold governmental agencies accountable for the efficiency and quality of public services in your area, you can do that through “Social Accountability”.

TADAMUN: the Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative and the Department of Public Policy and Administration, School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (AUC) organize a public Symposium with the aim to develop a better understanding of social accountability mechanisms to explore their potential role as a tool to improve the standards of public service provision and ensure the equitable distribution of services across the city. The Symposium also addresses the importance of government transparency and the right to access to information to enable citizens to hold the government accountable for its urban planning policies, its implementation of urban development projects, and its management of urban areas.

To this effect, the Symposium will illustrate the recent efforts of some governmental and non-governmental agencies active in this field in Egypt. It will also demonstrate some successful and effective international practices concerning social accountability. The Symposium will conclude with an open discussion to facilitate strategic action.

Program

Session I:
- Department of Public Policy and Administration, School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, AUC
- The Social Contract Center
- CARE Egypt

Session II:
- TADAMUN: the Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative
- The Egyptian Center for Civil and Legislative Reform
- Open Discussion

Time: June 26 at 6-9pm

Location: The Oriental Hall, AUC Campus, Tahrir Square, Cairo (Please enter from Mohamed Mahmoud Street)

The Symposium is open to the public and will be in Arabic

RSVP: http://goo.gl/Uy3t5

For more info on the event click here.

The severed branches of local government

by Aaron Jakes

Sometime in the middle of last March, while I was still living in Cairo, I was working at my desk when I heard a noisy argument outside my window. The street in Zamalek where I lived was home to about a dozen little shops, along with a small café and a cafeteria, and I had long since learned to tune out the shouts and clamors that punctuated the busy working day outside. So I didn’t take much notice of the altercation or the more subdued commotion that followed for the next couple hours. When I headed downstairs and into the street a bit later, I was immediately struck by the brightness of the afternoon sun and by a queasy feeling that something was out of place. The cause of these unexpected sensations, I quickly discovered, lay before me in a pile of logs, neatly stacked next to the curb. Those logs were all that remained of the trees that had formerly lined the entire block.

Two of the neighborhood shopkeepers were standing together across the street, so I wandered over to ask what had happened. Earlier that morning, they explained, a large branch had fallen from one of the trees, damaging the hood and windshield of a car parked on the street. When the car’s owner arrived a short while later, he flew into a rage and demanded compensation from the proprietors of the shops nearest to the car, alleging they were at fault for failing to care for the tree. They argued back and eventually resolved the dispute by paying him a token sum, but once the disgruntled car owner had driven off, they gathered a meeting of the other shopkeepers. The trees, my friends explained, were the property and responsibility of the Governorate of Cairo, but it had been years since the city government had sent anyone to clean or prune them. It had therefore fallen to the small commercial establishments on the street to fill the void of basic municipal services, even in this most affluent neighborhood of the city. The shop owners had loved the trees and enjoyed the canopy of shade they provided. But the day’s events had convinced them that the cost and liability of upkeep were more than they could bear. With some reluctance and an awareness that they were breaking the law, they cut them all down.

I have found myself thinking a great deal about those trees in the months leading up to this week’s referendum on the fiercely contested final draft of Egypt’s new constitution. Since the drafting began, debates have raged over the religious identity this document assigns to the state, over the privileged status it reserves for the military, over the rights it does and does not protect, and over the balance of powers it describes between the different branches of the national government. But despite the breadth and intensity of the struggle over both the text of the draft and the process by which it was written, all sides have overwhelmingly focused on the central state that governs the nation as a whole.

In this context, there has been very little discussion of the seemingly mundane articles dealing with provincial and local government. But as my colleague Mohamed Elshahed recently argued in a fiery posting on his blog Cairobserver, these articles fail to address in any adequate fashion the problems of urban and local governance that affect so many aspects of people’s everyday lives. The issues, of course, extend well beyond the erosion of basic services that led my neighbors to take matters into their own hands and chop down some trees on our block. Indeed, as Elshahed and others have argued, the highly centralized and profoundly undemocratic structures of governance below the national level have played a central role in driving forward a process of rapid, haphazard, and devastatingly uneven urbanization across the country. The corruption, incompetence, and institutionalized impunity of provincial governors and local officials, moreover, played a crucial role in the pillaging of public resources and the unplanned allocation of land in both urban and rural areas under the Mubarak regime.

How a restaurant ruined a square (Arabic)


د. ميشيل حنا يكتب: كيف دمر المطعم الميدان

قررت إحدى سلاسل المطاعم الشعبية الشهيرة افتتاح فرع آخر في ميدان تريومف، واحد من أجمل ميادين مصر الجديدة.

في البداية قاموا بقطع شجرتين من أشجار الشارع أثناء عمليات تجديد الدكان، حتى تصبح اللافتة واضحة من جميع الزوايا، وأزالوا بلاط الرصيف الذي كان متجانسا مع أرصفة الميدان من أجل تركيب بلاط بلون مغاير هو لون بلاط المطعم.

عند افتتاح المحل قاموا بتغيير اتجاه ركن السيارات من موازي للرصيف، وهو الوضع الصحيح للركن في الميدان، إلى عمودي، وبالتالي صار اتساع الشارع الذي تمر منه السيارات أضيق، ثم صارت سيارات الزبائن تركن صفا ثانيا خلف السيارات التي تركن بشكل عمودي، تاركة حارة واحدة فقط لتمر منها السيارات العابرة، وانسد المرور في الميدان ليلا ونهارا، خاصة عندما تأتي سيارة شركة المشروبات الغازية الضخمة لتسد المكان تماما إلى أن تفرغ حمولتها، وامتلأ الميدان بسيّاس السيارات بصافراتِهم، ليغلقوا الطريق كلما قررت إحدى السيارات المركونة عموديا أن تخرج من المكان، والنتيجة جلطة مرورية أصابت المكان بالشلل التام، بالطبع يمتد أثرها إلى كل الميادين والشوارع المحيطة.

ثم امتلأت حديقة الميدان بالشحاذين الذين يتوافدون على المكان طمعا في حسنة تتمثل في ساندويتشات يعطيها لهم العاملون في المكان، وتحولت الحديقة إلى مكان لمبيت الشحاذين ثم إلى مزبلة كبيرة، وصار الميدان في غاية القذارة تتطاير فيه أوراق الساندويتشات والأكياس الفارغة طوال الوقت.

وأخيرا وليس آخرا قرر المطعم الاستيلاء على الرصيف، فقاموا بنشر ما يقرب من عشرين طاولة بلاستيكية على الرصيف كل واحدة عليها أربعة كراسي، ونقلوا الكاشير والجرسونات إلى الرصيف الذي تحول إلى حرم للمطعم، في منظر غاية في العشوائية والقذارة.

هذا ما جرى للميدان الهاديء، أو الذي كان هادئا، وهو مجرد نموذج لأفعال تتكرر بحذافيرها في كل شوارع وميادين مصر، تحت بصر وسمع رجال الأحياء ورجال المرور الذين يرون ويسمعون وكأن الأمر لا يعنيهم في شيء.

من مدونة مستنقعات الفحم