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Cairo: a history of people’s right to the city

A social and historical introduction to people’s struggle over the right to the city in Cairo, Egypt.

A view of Cairo's Mokattam area A view of Cairo's Mokattam area. Simon-Letellier/Demotix. All rights reserved.From the 1950s onwards, a large segment of Egyptian urban society has resorted to informal housing, resulting in two-thirds of the urban population now living in these dwellings, which the state deems illegal and which are devoid of planning or control. Over the years, neoliberal state policies have significantly contributed to the vast increase and mushrooming of these settlements, by favouring specific elite segments of society and leaving the masses with no choice but to resort to informal dwellings, as they fight for their right to the city. This is a result of the prioritisation of exchange value over use value in urban and housing policies.

As there are various understandings as to what the right to the city actually means, let's use David Harvey’s definition to clarify the approach I will be taking; “the right to the city is not merely a right of access to what already exists, but a right to change it after our heart’s desire.” In addition, according to Lefebvre, “it can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life”.

The population in Egypt in the 1950s was less than half of what it is today, and between 1947 and 1976 the number of urban dwellers in Cairo has tripled. As Harvey states, “the twentieth century has been the century of urbanisation.” Since informal dwellings began to emerge in 1960s Egypt as the only option people had for housing, the government adopted a “laissez-faire” approach to their continued expansion, which has in turn contributed to their growth.

Studies have indicated that this approach is not due to the absence of the Egyptian state, but the very peculiar qualities of its presence. It has been indifferent to the informal housing sector because it did not want to fuel any kind of dissent: an authoritarian survival strategy of risk avoidance. Furthermore, there were little or no popular demands for housing, since the people were financing these projects themselves, and the government could conveniently allocate its budget elsewhere.

Numerous scholars believe that no informal dwellings existed in Cairo prior to 1950. Major changes took place in Egypt during that period, which can be considered the beginnings of the transformation of the urban centre. In 1952, Egypt underwent a revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers and radical changes ensued with the end of colonial rule. President from 1956 until his death in 1970, Nasser paved the way to extensive industrialisation and implemented numerous reforms to supposedly strengthen Egypt politically and economically.

The most significant of these reforms were agricultural reforms, which limited the ownership of land and specifically targeted large landowners. The excess land reclaimed from the rich was then distributed to the peasants and the military controlled plots deemed vital for security. Moreover, part of these agrarian reform projects was the state claiming ownership of all desert land. Although people welcomed Nasser’s rule - especially the poorer segments of society - due to what appeared to be a redistribution of wealth, the majority remained excluded, as capital was transferred from the old bourgeoisie to a new bourgeoisie of technocrats and army officers.

Furthermore, as Lefebvre (1968) pointed out in his writings on cities, once industrialisation takes centre stage, agricultural production is no longer as important. Therefore, even if these land reforms had resulted in the redistribution of land to the peasants, it would not have necessarily re-adjusted economic inequalities, as higher value was placed on industrial production. This is another reason why agrarian poverty persisted in Egypt. Those who strove for what they believed to be a better life, decided to leave their traditional ways of living, and take part in the industrial boom, which resulted in a significant migration of rural peasants into the urban centres.

Numerous scholars have attributed the sudden creation and growth of informal settlements to the migration of rural peasants. However, Sims argues that the attraction to informal areas in the late 1960s was due to families living in urban centres beginning to seek better accommodation, as a result of “the increasing commercialisation of downtown space and deterioration of older housing stock.” It was very likely a combination of both factors, along with the start of what Lefebvre terms the urban revolution, when capital was becoming the main driving force.

The years following Nasser’s 'socialist' policies provide further proof of the state’s preoccupation with capitalist economic policies. As of the 1950's, the elite gradually established a monopoly on formal-sector urbanism. Anwar El Sadat, president from 1970 until his assassination in 1981, had a significantly different approach to that of Nasser and took Egypt down the path of what was known as infitah (open door economic policy) with extreme neoliberal reforms. His successor Hosni Mubarak, president from 1981 until his ouster after the 25 January 2011 uprising, continued down the same path; with large-scale privatisation further entrenching Egypt in neoliberal reforms. The commodification of space took priority, replacing use value with exchange value.

Extensive building and land reforms took place, boundaries were set for urban growth and regulations for the conversion of agricultural land for urban use were set in place. Furthermore, the commodification of space for the creation of surplus value was, and still is, of great importance. Desert land owned by the state became available for reclamation, which resulted in further neoliberal reforms that allowed for the privatisation of state land; attracting international investors and in turn leading to land speculation, which drove the prices of land up further.

Furthermore, the rent control introduced by Nasser was abolished in the late 1990s, allowing landlords to charge tenants ‘market’ rents, and granting them the right to evict tenants, which resulted in a great number of people having to find alternative affordable housing. With prices soaring due to neoliberal reforms and privatisation, the informal housing market was the only viable option for the majority of urban dwellers. As Eric Denis points out, “the privatisation of reform was extended into the privatisation of politics, accelerating the downward spiral of exclusion, disenfranchisement and poverty dispossessing the rights and the potential of the workforce.”

The worst reforms appear to have taken place when Mubarak was in power. The early 1990s have become infamous as the decade of urban development privatisation. Neoliberal policies reached a peak with Mubarak’s liberalisation projects and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs). The rapid growth in Third World urbanisation and the mass production of slums was the direct result of SAPs and the retreat of the state.

Vast areas of state land were sold very cheaply to developers, a majority for housing compounds for the upper strata of society as the rich vied for social distinction, a perfect opportunity for capital accumulation. This contributed to the emergence of numerous enclosed, private and segregated communities, widening the gap between the rich and poor. Furthermore, as privatisation was imposed as the instrument of urban reform, a network of public services had to serve these new gated communities. This came at a price to informal urban dwellers, because informal areas were demolished to make way for public sector projects serving these new neighbourhoods, such as highways.

Informal dwellings that got in the way of the state’s creation of surplus value would be demolished. These demolitions typically take place with bulldozers destroying entire areas, sidestepping what Dorman referred to as the “human cost” of displacement: with a promise of providing alternative housing that rarely materialises, the less privileged are left with no ‘choice’ but to relocate to another informal dwelling. Surplus value has to be absorbed and the way it is absorbed is through urban transformation, which at times takes place, as Harvey says, “on the wreckage of the old for which violence is required.”

One consequence of these demolitions was an eruption of confrontations between security forces and the residents of informal urban dwellings. As Lefebvre predicts, “when the differences between the rich and the poor come to light and the feeling of belonging is strengthened; the city becomes a battleground.” Numerous clashes between security forces and residents of informal neighbourhoods took place in the 1990s, when the state was concerned with the increasing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in society.

The MB had gained popularity as a grass-roots organisation providing social services neglected by the government, especially after the 1992 earthquake that killed hundreds. To justify its actions, the Mubarak regime claimed that these areas were hideouts for “terrorists”. One such demolition took place in the Zirzara settlement of Al-Duwiqa in 1995. Another in 1988, when a Jihad organisation supposedly declared Ain Shams an independent territory, resulting in a confrontation that lasted several days as residents resisted security forces. Al-Munira in Imbaba underwent similar clashes with security forces in 1992, resulting in hundreds of arrests. Another standoff took place at the Rud al Farag market, when the government decided to relocate it; violence broke out and over a thousand of the vendors were arrested.

Successfully cleared areas were, more often than not, attractive investment opportunities for the private sector; a clear example of what Harvey terms “the accumulation of capital through dispossession.”

The state’s gradual implementation of neoliberal reforms and capitalism resulted in the complete neglect of use value. Housing is no longer regarded as a human need, but rather as a commodity from which surplus value can be generated. One might assume from this that few social housing projects were built over the years, however, the opposite is true; supply exceeded demand, yet informal dwellings continued to increase. Informal housing boomed from the 1970s onwards, and the demand continues to exist, due to its affordability and proximity to the urban centre – and therefore economic as well as social accessibility – compared to state sponsored formal housing.

The reason informal units are affordable is that construction costs are lower: because they are deemed “illegal” no fees are paid for permits. Moreover, there is a much wider variety of options and prices than in the formal sector, and the lack of official reaction to their expansion and growth means they provided a path of least resistance for low-income families.

During the war years between 1967 and 1975, the development of social housing practically came to a halt. Remittances from Egyptians working in the Gulf in the late 1970s and 1980s, when employment opportunities in Egypt were scarce, fuelled the boom.

Since the 1970s, the state has attempted to 'solve' the problem of informal housing. There is an abundance of studies and critiques of the government’s failure to provide social housing for urban dwellers who have been left with no choice but to turn to the informal sector, due to the continuous worsening of socio-economic conditions, the inaccessibility of the housing projects, the lack of economic opportunities, and the lack of public transportation and public services.

However, these are not the only problems. Many of the lower income strata work informally, meaning that they do not have employment contracts, which automatically excludes them from the pool of eligible applicants to state-sponsored housing. This signifies that the problem has been the state’s preoccupation with capital and concentrating wealth within a specific segment of society. From the creation of formal housing settlements outside the urban centre to the construction of gated communities to house the rich, it was a priority to segregate the rich from the poor.

Another common explanation for the failure of social housing projects is that the few who do attempt or are forced to relocate have reported that state housing units as well as their location make them uninhabitable, and so return to the urban centre in search of informal housing. Lefebvre’s describes the syndome in Notes on the New Town where “objects wear their social credentials: their function” in spaces ‘lacking spontaneity’ and ‘organic reality’ and through this separation or segregation everything is “hurled one by one into time and space” thus becoming ‘disjointed’ by an imposed “unification from above”; numbing people’s everyday life. The state fails to recognise that they cannot create towns; towns are the spontaneous products of social living.

In the case of Cairo it could be argued that the majority of studies tackle “urban practice”, and are designed to ensure that the structures are in place, but neglect the fact that social relations and interactions are essential for the creation of spaces for living. Instead, there should be a focus on what Lefebvre refers to as the “urban phenomenon”; the ecology of inhabited areas, the links between informal city dwellers and their space, the activities and relations, economic and social, that take place within these spaces.

As of today, there remains an on-going battle between the state and groups fighting for people’s rights to housing, mainly arguing for affordable social housing for the poor and emphasising the importance of its closeness to the urban centre. But the problem is not about making housing projects more affordable or accessible, but rather a complete change in urban thinking in alignment with Lefebvre’s writings on the right to the city. As long as there is the ‘fetishism of space’ and an ‘urban illusion’, the struggle will continue, because “the reduction of the urban to housing and infrastructure is part of the short-sightedness of political life”.

The state’s prioritisation of exchange value over use value has resulted in Egypt’s current housing phenomenon. However, I believe that the government’s inefficiencies have worked in people’s favour at times. It has allowed people to claim their own spaces, the freedom to create them as they deem fit through their experiences and social relations. Space is a product that does not arise in conceptual thought; it results from the relations of production. One could argue that neoliberal policies leading to the creation of gated communities in the 1990s and the expansion of the gap between the rich and the poor, in addition to Mubarak’s authoritarian tactics of violent clearances, actually resulted in people collectively claiming their right to the city on the 25 January 2011, as the dispossessed in Paris did in 1871. It was Lefebvre's claim that revolutions have to be urban - something the struggles in Egypt since 2011 seem to clearly bear out.

Since the uprising in 2011 there has been little to no political reform, with the military leading a counterrevolution to maintain the status quo. For people’s claim to the right to the city to be fully successful, radical social transformations need to occur. Political reform must allow wealth to be redistributed, so the state must come under democratic control. As Harvey sums up; “people need to control the production and use of the surplus and take back their right to the city from the hand of private or quasi-private interests.” Until this is achieved, Egyptians will continue to struggle for their right to the city.

About the author

Rana Magdy is Associate Editor for Arab Awakening. She completed her MA at King's College, London, and her research was on sexualized violence in demonstrations in Egypt.


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