Cairo: Megacity Without a Mayor

Mohamed Elshahed founded Cairobserver, Egypt’s first architecture and urbanism website. He speaks with Senior Editor Jonathan Guyer about the city’s grit: which historic areas are at risk, what residents say about their own neighborhoods, and how the government reacts to endemic problems.

Cairo’s urban fabric has gone through a “shocking transformation” since the January 25, 2011, uprising. Historical neighborhoods are deteriorating and informal construction is booming, as municipalities fail the city’s twenty million residents. Two years ago, Mohamed Elshahed founded Cairobserver, Egypt’s first architecture and urbanism website. It documents the grit: which historic areas are at risk, what residents say about their own neighborhoods, and how the government reacts to endemic problems. Elshahed is currently a fellow at Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME), a multi-disciplinary research forum in Berlin. He is an architect and researcher focused on the modern architectural and urban history of the Middle East. Cairo Review Senior Editor Jonathan Guyer spoke to Elshahed via Skype on October 26, 2013.

CAIRO REVIEW: We see you as the mayor of Cairo, because you’re paying close attention to all of the details, which buildings are being demolished and which new parks are being built. You’ve created a space to talk about it. Give us a tour of what is happening in your city. How has Cairo developed since January 25, 2011? Is it better or worse off?
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: I tend to shy away from saying something is better or worse because it’s difficult to measure in those terms, but there’s definitely a lot of dynamism. Most of the things that are happening are actually not reported and not visible to people like us, because they are happening in a geography of the city that we don’t typically access. I’m talking about ‘us’ in a broader sense as English-speaking, relatively privileged residents of the city. If you notice, even on Cairobserver, the Cairo that I cover is the Cairo that I physically occupy. You’ll find that most of the topics have to do with things that are downtown-centric. I am very aware of my blind spots.

That said, since the 25th of January, in the last three years, there has been quite a lot of change happening, on the one hand. But on the other hand, some things haven’t changed at all, and they probably won’t for a while. There has been increased urbanization happening in pockets of the city that have been “frozen”—that’s literally the expression that is typically used in Arabic. You put property in the “freezer,” it means you just kind of leave it as is, untouched. That sometimes happened to entire areas of the city, where development didn’t really happen. It’s not preservation. It’s a very passive form of preservation. This was done with a very top-down approach. Once the regime loosened up a bit, or it seemed that they were gone—or whatever people thought was happening—urbanization happened with a very increased rate in those areas. I’m talking about the historical areas, the core of the city. This has transformed entire neighborhoods completely. Darb Al-Ahmar is the obvious example that everybody talks about within the architectural preservation community, because it is a shocking transformation that only happened in the last two and a half years.

CAIRO REVIEW: What is that transformation?
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: Darb Al-Ahmar is the historic area that’s kind of the antique quarter, home to the elite of the city at point, and later on the working class. Obviously it has maintained its historic quality and has a very high density of monuments and historic houses. Hence, it has been famous for being historic Cairo’s gem. It’s interesting when you have the luxury, as a city, of having an entire district that maintains its historic character. In Cairo, Darb Al-Ahmar was that. And that has completely transformed in the past three years, mostly because of all the problems in the management system of the city, especially the historic parts of the city, which had to do with monuments. Of course defining what is a monument and what is not a monument is a big question. But Darb Al-Ahmar doesn’t only have monuments, it has an urban fabric that is mostly residential. Those kinds of houses in this residential fabric weren’t protected in the same way, but it was frozen. It was that kind of gray space between being recognized by the state as a monument and therefore preserved, or just given no value at all. It was somewhere in between. Those houses were restricted, so people couldn’t renovate them, which is a problem. You couldn’t make more money out of them by rents, because of rent control issues. Once they had the chance, they tore them down and they built anew, or they sold the land and built new properties that could be then sold and rented. We’ve lost quite a lot.

CAIRO REVIEW: Are there other neighborhoods that have changed since the revolution?
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: The other area of the city that has faced significant transformation since the revolution is Giza. Giza is bizarrely not considered a part of the city of Cairo. It is part of the Greater Cairo, but it is managed by an entirely different bureaucracy since it is a totally different governorate. Giza is a largely informal part of the city. With the exception of very particular pockets—of course Mohandessin, Dokki, Agouza, the parts that were planned in the 1940’s and 50’s, and Haram Street that leads to the Pyramids—the majority of the whole governorate, its urban part, is informal. But there has always been a part that was not urbanized quite as densely, which is the part that faces the Pyramids—between the Ring Road and the Pyramids themselves. In the last several years, it has started to be urbanized more and more. Land started to be sold. When agricultural land is divided into smaller plots, their agricultural potential is limited… Now if you’re on the Ring Road, you can hardly see the Pyramids themselves from certain angles, even though they are only literally a few hundred meters away. It’s a shocking transformation. And it seems that the officials don’t mind it at all, which is a problem. All of this building is not responding to a market need. It’s not being occupied. All of the urbanization that happened in the past three years in Giza, on agricultural land, along the Ring Road—it’s all empty. It’s all vacant. And we don’t really know the status of the kinds of infrastructure that all of these buildings have access to. It’s quite a huge problem that was really exacerbated in the last two-and-a-half to three years.

CAIRO REVIEW: We’ve also seen grassroots, community-building—informal communities on the Ring Road that have developed utilities and community services. Can you talk more about this dynamism?
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: There’s a huge question of definition that always comes up. The line between the formal and the informal is not only very vague geographically—it’s very hard to draw a line of where one begins and one ends—but really those definitions are not firm.

What I just highlighted in a negative light—this rapid urbanization within the informal sector in Giza—shouldn’t reflect how I see all of informal urbanization. This is a very particular kind of business venture by people who are abusing the fact that land is cheap and is available, and the state apparatus has been weakened or distracted by focusing on the political situation. Therefore, they are using this opportunity to maximize potential profit. This is one form of informal urbanization.

There are other [examples] that are more positive, like communities that actually occupy the buildings that they were built. Informality here basically means that they were not part of the state plan. Because sometimes the building quality itself doesn’t differ much from whether it was built in another part of the city, with permits and so on. It’s a question of legality in that sense. There are some of the initiatives that have happened, such as people coming together to pave streets, to provide basic forms of infrastructure. The famous example is Ard El-Lewa, a community-driven initiative where people came together and collected money, and built an access ramp onto a highway that is nearby. Of course the highways of Cairo are not designed to serve everybody, they are designed to serve a very particular minority. Therefore the placement of on-ramps and off-ramps is very particular. Sometimes you’ll have a highway going through a very densely populated area, but this informal area has no access onto the highway.

Some people have almost fetishized this development [in Ard El-Lewa]. Basically as a way of critiquing the failures of state planning, they emphasize the positive value in this kind of initiative. But others are very critical because it means, they think, it gives the state a free pass. The state really doesn’t have to do its work, and by turning a blind eye to communities doing this kind of thing it’s like there’s no responsibility to provide access to roads.

CAIRO REVIEW: Back to the changes since the revolution: Tahrir Square has obviously been the focal point, and at one point Morsi planted grass in it and tried to give it a makeover—
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: And the army just did the same.

CAIRO REVIEW: What do you see as the future of Tahrir Square? What will it look like in five, ten, fifteen years?
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: We already have news that there will be metal gates installed, which sounds like a ridiculous idea. It is going to cost like 1.5 million Egyptian pounds to put metal gates on all of the entrances to the square. The thing that Tahrir offers as an example, as a case study, is a couple of things. On the one hand, it’s been a place—and it has a long history of this—where dreamers can project their fantasies as to what the space should be like. Sometimes these fantasies have more to do with aesthetics, and sometimes it has to do more with politics. Then there’s the reality that we function in a very particular kind of state in which public space poses a threat. Tahrir Square has already been a space that was very highly controlled and made unfriendly by the heavy fencing of all of the sidewalk space and the removal of shade trees, which had happened about ten years ago, after protests against the Gulf War and Egypt’s participation in the Gulf War. The present potentials that are offered, such as the erection of these metal gates, build on that reality. It doesn’t really build on what me, as an urbanist or someone concerned with the city, thinks the future of Tahrir should be. A conversation needs to be had about using the opportunity of Tahrir as a case study to raise much wider questions about the role of public space within a political system, such as the one that is in place in Egypt.

CAIRO REVIEW: Squares are really an orienting fixture of Cairo’s streets, whether it’s smaller residential ones like Beano’s Square or Vinny Square—or Nahda Square and Rabaa Al-Adiwiya, where protests have been cleared and protesters killed. What is the meaning of squares?
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: Instead of trying to pin which squares are important historically, geographically or culturally, it would be interesting to highlight the fact that there is no urban narrative. In Berlin, you would be walking into a particular urban space as a pedestrian and without looking for it, you might be confronted by a sign that tells you about the history of this space—that this space was the site of mass killings at one point, or the site of an important building, or something like this. An urban narrative is made visible and made present. This is what the squares and the streets of Egypt and in Cairo are missing. It’s not because the history isn’t there. It’s because there is no party—the Ministry of Culture, the governorate, the Ministry of Tourism, or whoever wants to do this—that has made urban spaces and urban events legible. Regardless of what we can agree on in this conversation about how important a particular square is, how do we translate that into a legible history for the pedestrian that is walking through that space? That’s the much more interesting way of dealing with that urban space.

CAIRO REVIEW: Bridges have become very symbolic, whether as sites of violent clashes or protests, or spaces for graffiti, or military checkpoints. What is it about Cairo’s bridges that make this a center of energy and conflict, of cafes, of everything?
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: The first thing that comes to mind is access to the Nile. The waterfront in Cairo isn’t the most friendly to pedestrians, and in many parts it’s inaccessible. Even though the water is only meters away you can’t access it. Visually you can’t see it because there are different structures put in place, or whatever. For residents of Cairo, going onto a bridge is the place where you can have a direct view of the Nile. That’s why anybody who would put a couple of plastic chairs on a bridge will probably have a customer sit down and pay a little something to have a tea. It’s partly a response to the inaccessibility and the bad design of the waterfront. This is one side of why bridges have such a prominent place in public life in Cairo.

When it comes to urban history, different bridges have layers of memory and history. For instance, Qasr El-Nil Bridge was the first bridge over the Nile, so it already had this historic weight and interesting story about the different formations of the bridge over the years. But also it became a romance spot [for young couples]. Then with the revolution it was a site of protests and clashes. Some bridges develop these kinds of hyper-dense urban narratives. People have favorite bridges, and Qasr El-Nil is still the top one in Cairo. It’s in really bad condition by the way. It’s been renovated. Just last month they started to repave the sidewalk but it was done in such an amateur way. I mean it’s shocking that this is what the state can do.

There’s another thing with some of the bridges: literally it’s also about the divide across Cairo’s geography, between the different governorates. Half of the bridge belongs to the Cairo governorate and other half of it belongs to the Giza governorate, so they have to coordinate when it comes to something like paving the bridge. And of course they have to go through the Ministry of Transport. You can also look at bridges as another case to talk about bigger issues in terms of who’s in charge of infrastructure, and how is it maintained, and why is Cairo divided into the bizarre lines where sometimes a bridge is technically part of two entities.

CAIRO REVIEW: One of the things that has baffled me is how few highways there are in this city of twenty million. Ahmed Shafik, when running for president in 2012, promised to fix Cairo traffic in twenty-four hours. Who is in charge of the roads, and how can they be improved?
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: The first response to Cairo traffic is fixing the sidewalks—not even the highways or the roads. Because this is a city where 84 or 85 percent of the population doesn’t own cars. A lot of the trips can be done on foot if people can have a safe and wide sidewalk. But they end up taking a microbus, or a taxi, or a car or whatever, simply because they can’t walk the ten minutes because the sidewalks are in such horrible shape. I know that it looks like a lot of cars, but if it is a city of twenty million people, if there are five million cars then that’s enough to clog up the whole thing. The five million cars include company cars, buses, city buses, microbuses, and private cars. I think focusing on pedestrians and public transport will do a lot. One of the proposals that is almost always put forth, but never actually implemented, is to put more public buses on the roads. The number of buses in Cairo is so low per one thousand persons, compared to other cities like Bangkok for example, or Sao Paolo. We certainly need more public buses.

When it comes to infrastructure, road infrastructure is very complex, and again this goes back to the question of governance. The structure of government in Egypt in general, but also in Cairo, is one that doesn’t facilitate things being done. If you want to do something like build a road or pave a road, you have to go through so many bureaucratic institutions, that will all have to evaluate and measure and sign off with a zillion signatures before you can take on the project. And in the meantime, people have to live. So the infrastructure is not very streamlined. They have conflicting interests. The other issue is the military and its relationship to all of this, considering that roads are basically military-owned roads.

CAIRO REVIEW: All roads are military zones?
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: Not all of them, but Sixth of October is supposed to be a military route, which is a very American thing. American highways, many of them, are supposed to be able to be used by the military if need be. This is why, for example, when curfew comes the military can quickly access different parts of the city. The other thing is the contracted companies that get all of these big contracts to build roads, and sometimes the military itself builds roads, which they can do fast if they want to. Sometimes these contracts get drawn out, and so there’s corruption involved.

CAIRO REVIEW: Tell us about Cairobserver’s mission. How do you see it supporting and engaging with the urban fabric of the city?
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: Since I moved to Egypt in 2010, I was constantly talking about things that had to do with the city, based on observations from my daily experience. At the time, I didn’t realize that there was no media outlet that was concerned exclusively with the city, discussing different topics related to its architecture, its urbanism, urban issues. When you realize it, it’s a bit shocking for a city like Cairo. Not only does it have the history; it’s a massive city—geographically it’s huge, population-wise it’s huge. There’s so much going on. How can there not be a single website dedicated to urban affairs. Of course I never thought that I would do that. I was working on my PhD [at New York University] so I didn’t think about it. But after the revolution came a phase of excitement—what can everybody do? I was encouraged by people to start a blog.

This city needs a place for commentary and reflection on its urban condition, to be expressed to a wide audience. Magazines and newspapers that are widely circulating don’t necessarily have a section about the city or urban life. And that’s for Cairo the capital, let alone other cities that don’t even have anything. The cities we live in themselves deserve to be a topic of discussion. Politics in an abstract sense, and in the more conventional political debates that take place without being tied to spatiality—that misses a lot of our reality. This is one thing that came up: that the blog—discussing different urban issues—is by default political. All of these urban issues turn out to have something to do with politics.

CAIRO REVIEW: Cairo famously doesn’t have a mayor or executive overseeing the city. Would a lot of problems be solved if it did have someone who all of these agencies were accountable to, or would it be equally a mess?
MOHAMED ELSHAHED: Of course, if there were your more typical city government structure, where at the top you have an elected mayor and at the bottom you have democratic functioning community-based municipalities, things would be significantly better and things would make a bit more sense. At least then people would take responsibility when things don’t work because they are actively part of the process. But the problem now is that it just turns into this cycle of self-hate. It’s become this totally useless exercise of throwing your hands up and saying we can’t do any better. But that’s because there is no functioning government system for the city that people can participate in, whether on the local level or, again, on the mayoral level by electing someone. But this has to do with the whole national political situation. Obviously, elected mayors pose a threat to an authoritarian, non-democratic system that doesn’t seem to be going away.