Egypt’s Wealthier Citizens: Class Privilege and the Right to the City

2021-09-20    |   

Egypt’s Wealthier Citizens: Class Privilege and the Right to the City

Every year in Egypt, the month of Ramadan witnesses many ads for residential communities and consumer products, along with a surge in donation campaigns exposing many aspects of poverty and marginalization. Often, such ads stir fierce public debate over the class distinctions and privileges that some enjoy. For example, this year controversy arose over an ad for a new residential resort featuring a selection of celebrities comparing its two branches, both extremely expensive. Last year, controversy surrounded an ad for a new urban settlement that portrayed life therein as ideal and complete, and even suggested that a sense of “community” separates its residents from the rest of the city.


The definition and boundaries of social classes in Egypt have not been systematically studied. Usually, poverty and wealth are treated as well-defined poles of a dichotomy between which lies a “middle class” – a term that describes extremely disparate realities. Anthropologist Samuli Schielke explains that this term encompasses citizens “with higher education but few material means”, on one hand, and “rich and powerful people, including judges, military officers, and businesspeople”, on the other. He adds that the term “upper-middle class” describes citizens who have incomes far above the average, work in the free professions, and possess educational and economic capital. According to Schielke, this upper-middle class comprises those who could be called “bourgeoisie” in Marxist analysis.[1]


Amidst this ambiguity, housing conditions appear to be one of the most objective indicators of class. Generally, the area where a person or family lives and their stake in the property market – i.e. whether they rent, own, or own multiple units (and in which locations) – indicate the extent and nature of their class privileges.


In a previous article, we discussed the urban replanning project that the current regime has been systematically pursuing since 2015 and its failure to factor in the human and social cost. Building on that, this article questions the position of wealthier citizens – particularly the upper strata of the middle class – in this project and the extent to which their class privileges in property and other realms translate into a right to the city. Do these privileges grant those who possess them a voice in city planning and organization decisions?


The article focuses on two residential areas in Old Cairo, namely Heliopolis and Zamalek. On multiple occasions over the past years, their residents have voiced opposition to aspects of the urban planning project that affect the nature of their residential area and daily life. The two areas reflect two different, albeit similar, levels of class privilege that the term “upper-middle class” does not adequately describe. Hence, I have decided to label their residents “wealthier” and not necessarily the absolute “wealthiest”. In other words, they are “wealthier” than the vast majority of citizens.


I will begin by reviewing various situations in which residents of these areas voiced opposition to certain urban replanning projects, the tools they used, and the outcome and impact on the projects. Then I will analyze the phenomenon of the formation of local online spaces for addressing the areas’ issues. Finally, I will present a critical analysis deconstructing some perceptions about “wealthier” citizens’ relationship with the city, particularly in light of their continued migration from it to new urban settlements.


Zamalek: Between the Metro and Cairo Eye


One of the issues most troubling Zamalek residents is the passage of Cairo Metro’s third line through their neighborhood. The residents have opposed the project since its announcement in 2012, and the opposition is still resurging even as its inauguration draws near.


The locals used many tools to voice their opposition: occasional angry signboards in the streets, social media campaigns, petitions, and complaints filed at several governmental and nongovernmental levels. For example, in 2012, they filed a complaint to the European Investment Bank, one of the project’s donors. In 2017, they threatened to resort to international litigation, having already pursued domestic litigation before the administrative judiciary.


The opponents made many arguments. They contended that the metro endangers the area’s infrastructure and historical buildings, and that it affects the area’s class composition, which is the argument that received the most focus, at least in the media. Each time the residents’ opposition resurges, the situation is presented as the “wealthy of Zamalek” or “sirs and madams of Zamalek” objecting to the metro because it will increase the presence of street vendors and microbuses, among other things.


The only break in this pattern was one situation wherein the objection focused on the fate of one historical building that was home to many public and famous figures during the 20th century. Neighboring excavations rocked the building’s foundations and almost caused it to collapse. Nevertheless, these arguments did not affect the progress of the metro project, which is set to be completed in 2023.


Besides the ongoing metro issue, Zamalek residents have protested the Cairo Eye project, which was announced in 2021. The company New Hawaii for Tourism and Investment proposed the construction of the giant Ferris wheel – the largest of its kind in the Middle East and Africa – in Zamalek’s Masalla Garden to attract foreign tourists and create numerous jobs. From the project’s announcement, voices rose in opposition because of the danger it poses to the area’s infrastructure and environment and the traffic jams it will cause. Zamalek residents were not alone in their opposition to the project; rather, they were joined by many public figures, businesspeople, media personalities, and even some government leaders. In February 2021, the issue reached Parliament, whereupon Parliament’s Tourism Committee asked for the project’s details, MPs called for its reexamination and for further research, and the Ministry of Environment criticized it. However, so far, the project’s fate remains uncertain. Was it canceled, postponed, or subjected to a change of location or does it remain as it was?


Heliopolis and the Overpasses Issue


On the other side of Cairo, residents of Heliopolis remained relatively unaffected by urban planning projects until 2019, when a plan to build five new overpasses to increase traffic flow in the neighborhood was announced. The implementation of the first overpass began with the removal of a number of trees and green spaces in one of Heliopolis’ main streets, causing an uproar about the “tree massacre” among residents. They also mentioned that the overpasses will radically alter the area’s character and familiar geography. As the construction of the overpasses progressed, the opposition concentrated on two arguments. The first was the danger arising from the transformation of the area’s streets into highways without sufficient arrangements for crossing pedestrians and U-turns, which had caused a significant increase in accidents, at least per the residents’ observations. The second was the importance of preserving Cairo’s few green spaces.


In Heliopolis, the opposition was voiced primarily in online spaces through oppositional images and hashtags and calls for officials to intervene, along with alternative proposals and media coverage. It had no effect except in the most important and recent case, namely the commencement of the construction of an overpass beside (or above) the Basilica Cathedral. In this instance, the opposition was fiercer and expressed via numerous methods. Besides online means including groups, statements, and hashtags such as #no_to_building_the_Basilica_overpass, the residents appeared in various media outlets to voice their protests and signed petitions. Several NGOs in the area, particularly those concerned with architectural heritage, joined the locals in their opposition, in addition to the media focus and solidarity from MPs and public figures. The protest focused on this square’s historical nature and symbolism of the area, the cathedral’s architectural significance, and the existence of a clear and practical alternative (namely changing the direction of the square’s streets). Two days later, it was announced that there was never an intent to build an overpass in this area and the equipment was there for another purpose.


From this brief review of Zamalek and Heliopolis residents’ opposition to aspects of the urban replanning project, we can conclude that their class privilege (which varies in form and composition between the two areas) does not translate into a clear and influential voice in city planning projects except in exceptional cases such as the Cairo Eye and the Basilica Cathedral. Moreover, the suspension or discontinuation of these projects reflects the convergence of several factors that may or may not be connected to the residents’ opposition. Both cases involved an intersection of many actors, such as public figures and NGOs, in the expression of opposition, and in reality, the outcome remains unclear.


Local Online Spaces: Between Complaints and Identity


Opposition to urban replanning from people with class privileges may not radically impact planning decisions. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that such expression coincides with the creation of online spaces that transcend the original grievance (an overpass or metro project) to become spaces for circulating day-to-day complaints on the local level (e.g. about shops occupying the road and problems with the roads and streets) and exchanging views and finding solutions. In discussions in some Heliopolis groups, residents frequently call upon officials in the local administration, particularly the neighborhood, or even state institutions such as the President’s Office, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Administrative Control Authority by tagging them in their posts. These spaces sometimes receive responses from the local administration – e.g. comments by officials on citizens’ posts or invitations to meetings to discuss complaints – amidst a general trend among the various state institutions toward social media presence and engagement.


In these spaces, the practical complaints and appeals to officials are mixed with lamentation over what has become of the area because of outsiders. Often, the current problem (such as a shop occupying the road or congestion in a street) is attributed to the evolution of the area’s class composition due, for example, to the immigration of people from poorer or lower-class areas. Hence, these local online spaces – as we observed in the case of Heliopolis – undoubtedly fuel the idea of an identity associated with the area that distinguishes its residents. These spaces also help to reproduce mental perceptions of the area via citizens’ posts. For example, the theme of nostalgia frequently emerges via posts of pictures of the area’s past. In this regard, the “past” is a vague term, sometimes referring to Heliopolis’ construction in the late 19th or early 20th century and at other times referring to the 1960s and 1970s even though its history extends back more than a century. Comments about “sophistication”, “taste”, “beauty”, and even “morals” accompany nostalgia for a better past in which the area and its residents were distinguished from others.


Thus emerges the contradiction of these online spaces: they foster perceptions of class distinction at moments that demonstrate that this distinction does not transform into a privilege and right to the city when it comes to either planning or confronting day-to-day problems. This does not mean that citizens stand equal before the urban planning projects that directly impact them; rather, it suggests that the class privilege of residents of areas like Heliopolis and Zamalek actually translates into the existence of an alternative for them, namely migration to new urban communities, which seems to accord with the state’s plan. However, contrary to public perception, this alternative often appears akin to a defeat that reflects the loss of the right to the city.


Emigration From the City: Toward More Precise Perceptions of Class Privilege


The migration of the wealthier classes out of Cairo and to new urban communities dates back at least two decades and has been observed in many studies.[2] These settlements have gradually come to represent class privilege in and of themselves. Homeownership (whether primary or secondary) in a new urban settlement has become a natural extension of the consumption pattern associated in public perception with wealth, as mentioned in the introduction. However, perceptions of this privilege are changing with the increase and diversification of the supply of these settlements. For example, when an ad for one such settlement last year portrayed an ideal life and distinct class identity, some social media comments pointed out that it is neither the best nor the most expensive; rather, other settlements are more expensive, exclusive, and therefore elite. Hence, while consumer patterns, especially housing, are a relevant gateway for defining social classes and studying their transformations, it must be accompanied with a realistic and dynamic perception of the markets. In other words, understanding the property market, specifically the new urban settlements, is essential to accurately analyze class transformations in Egypt.


In this regard, we must also distinguish between perceptions and the living reality of the wealthier residents. While many residents of Cairo’s “old areas” are migrating away as an extension of their class distinction and sometimes as an upward shift in class for them or their children, some see it as an imposed flight from the consequences of the class reformation that these neighborhoods are experiencing. Neighborhoods are witnessing replanning that is not merely urban but also social and thereby causes some residents of these areas to feel that they are losing their class privilege along with their familiar space.


Is There a Place for Wealthier Citizens in the Current Regime’s Socioeconomic Plan?


Finally, this article suggests that when we think about the definition and transformations of social classes in Egypt, we must separate perceptions – whether subjective or objective – of class distinction from the actual privileges available to wealthier citizens. We saw that despite the continuation – nay increase – of their sense of distinction, the right to the city and an influential voice in its shaping and transformation is not among the class privileges they enjoy. The privilege ends with the existence of an alternative solution, namely leaving the city. Once again, this article is not claiming that citizens are equally affected by economic, social, and urban circumstances. However, measuring by the right to the city, we can question wealthier citizens’ place and space in the current regime’s socioeconomic plan.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


Keywords: Egypt, Urban replanning, Class privilege, Zamalek, Heliopolis


[1] Samuli Schielke and Mukhtar Saad Shehata, “The Writing of Lives: An Ethnography of Writers and Their Milieus in Alexandria”, Working Papers No. 17, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, 2016.

[2] See, for example, several contributions in Diane Singerman and Paul Amar (eds.), Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East, American University in Cairo Press, 2006.

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