Urban Justice and Control Over the People

2024-05-16    |   

Urban Justice and Control Over the People

My mind cannot comprehend the extent of the destruction. I look around me at the city whose features I know and whose roads I navigate with ease. I see destruction, nothing but destruction – piles of red brick, concrete pieces, and yellow dirt. I remember my first sight of destruction (besides the ruins that existed on the corner of our street in the al-Haram area) in the wake of the October 1992 earthquake, which destroyed many sites and caused structural cracks in many residential and public buildings in Egypt. I also remember when I was a child following my father, struggling to trace his broad footsteps because of my small stature, on our way to visit my grandmother in Dayer al-Nahia in the al-Dokki neighborhood, with its narrow alleys and two and three-story houses packed together side-by-side. In the 1980s, we were living in al-Haram neighborhood, which had quiet, intersecting streets, a middle-class design, and tall residential buildings. It differed from Dayer al-Nahia, where my father grew up and his family lived, and from the Giza neighborhood where my mother’s family lived, even though all three were located in Giza Governorate, within the official limits of Greater Cairo.

I recall asking my father, while we were making our way to his mother and siblings’ house, why the children walked naked. He said that they are simple people who consider the street in front of their homes to be an extension of their houses because they are still inside their areas and everyone knows one another.

The 1992 earthquake – which registered 5.9 on the Richter scale, lasted 60 seconds, killed 500 people, and displaced approximately half a million – struck all areas equally. Upscale neighborhoods like Heliopolis were damaged to the same extent as “popular” neighborhoods. Even the tall concrete buildings collapsed, including the famous Heliopolis Tower, from which a few people were rescued after spending 80 hours buried under the rubble.

At that time, when the destruction was the result of a natural disaster, it made some sense to my child’s mind. A ground tremor caused by the movement of subterranean rock had led to buildings cracking and coming down. However, since 2018, I have been witnessing the bulldozers of a government that has decided to demolish more and more buildings on the pretext of building and development throughout Egypt.


Getting Rid of the Poor

When Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government announced a sustainable development plan for Egypt extending to 2030, we did not know its details or the decisions that it outlined. It included several development themes, one of which was urban development. One of the goals listed under this theme was to turn Egypt into a country without informal settlements [‘ashwaiyyat]. The slogan “Egypt Without Informal Settlements” came to the forefront of press headlines and Egypt’s development plans. The definition of informal settlements set by the Informal Settlements Development Fund, which was established in 2008, was based on the definitions adopted by UN-Habitat. Within two years, hundreds of areas were declared unsafe. They were then grouped into four categories based on the danger they pose. The first category comprises informal settlements located in the potential path of floods or rockslides and informal settlements located under high-voltage cables. The second category comprises temporary and unsafe structures such as shacks and tin houses. The third category comprises informal settlements in areas that pose a public health risk because they lack clean water or sewerage or are exposed to industrial pollution. The fourth category comprises homes that lack secure land tenure or are located on state land.

In its urban development plan to eradicate informal settlements, Egypt did not approach poverty as the problem; rather, it deemed poor people and their buildings, which they had erected with their own hands or via contractors and builders in their areas, to be the biggest challenge. The “Egypt Without Informal Settlements” plan was also linked to the emergence in 2021 of the term “the New Republic”, which el-Sisi promoted at the time, deeming its announcement to be related to the opening of the New Administrative Capital. This project spanned – in its first phase – vast swaths of land estimated at approximately 170 feddans. It also included several governmental and commercial neighborhoods, as well as a neighborhood for embassies. Governmental buildings were also relocated there, and an enormous presidential palace was opened. It also contains a number of top universities and service buildings, most of which are located in areas owned by major investors who had erected luxury residential complexes on them.

Although the plan to improve Egypt’s informal settlements emerged as a response to an urban disaster, namely the 2008 Duweika Rockslide and the death and displacement of hundreds of citizens, it cannot be divorced from the political context following the June 2013 coup. We cannot analyze architectural policies in Egypt in isolation from the two events that laid the foundations for them, namely the 2011 revolution and the 2013 coup. In June 2014, one year after the coup, el-Sisi appointed himself president, making promises that Egypt would become a showcase of civilization, culture, and development. In the process, he announced many megaprojects, including the expansion of the Suez Canal, the construction of the New Administrative Capital, and the construction of New Alamein.

However, what is most interesting to me personally in this context is the geographical changes inside the city affecting the lives of the residents of self-built areas. These residents and residents of “popular areas”, such Boulaq Abo al-Ela, Sayeda Zeinab, Shubra, al-Helmiya, and large parts of al-Maadi, constitute the majority of Cairo’s population. By “popular area”, I mean neighborhoods inhabited primarily by the middle classes and below, which consist of people with an average level of education who are mainly employed in free professions and descend from the effendi class in the early 20th century, the circumstances of which have deteriorated.

Hosni Mubarak’s government practiced policies of eviction to the outskirts of Greater Cairo, as happened to the residents of Tal al-Aqarib, Old Cairo, and other areas. Some were given residential units on the outskirts of the city, such as in El-Nahda City, or “priority care” homes in 6 October City. However, in several cases these resettlement plans failed because of the absence of social services in the new areas. The displaced were given an apartment in a barren desert with no work, schools, or markets to meet their basic needs. Such services are available in all middle-class neighborhoods in Cairo, whose residents can satisfy all their shopping needs – daily food and drink, winter clothing, clothing for special occasions – without leaving their areas.

In 2012, I conducted several extended interviews with residents of Masaken Osman (which consists of “priority care” homes) in 6 October City. Reaching the buildings was difficult as it required asking passers-by how to get there. However, I was lucky as a friend took me in his car. We left the inhabited world and began advancing into a barren desert with dunes stretching to the horizon. The trip was like a long journey, not like going to a residential neighborhood inside Greater Cairo. Suddenly, several similar residential buildings appeared in front of us, some with conspicuous colors and others blending into the sand dunes. We then took a narrower service road branching off the highway. We disembarked from the car and continued on foot under the burning hot summer sun with no protection. I walked until I reached the buildings, trying to find a person to talk to. The first thing that caught my attention was that on the pavement outside the ground floor of many buildings lay residential furniture such as closets, beds, mattresses, couches, and wooden kitchen cabinets, as though their owners had abandoned them and would perhaps return for them later. The furniture was neither dusty nor broken, and it did not appear as though its owners had decided to dispose of it. However, it was left alone in the open air.

In a passageway between two residential buildings, two women and a man sat on colored plastic chairs. I greeted them and explained that I was trying to meet the residents of these buildings to talk to them about the utility of the residential units and the circumstances under which they had been relocated to them. One of the women, Hanem, was enthusiastic and led me to her unit. She was a ground-floor resident, so we did not climb the stairs. Upon entering the unit, I found it to be extremely cramped, with furniture packed together as though it had no room to breathe. The woman had to take me to her bedroom because it was the only place where we could sit with a meter and a half between us. There, I could operate the digital camera and talk to her about her situation.

Hanem complained about three specific problems. Firstly, she had to ride a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled car) for five pounds every day in order to take her daughter to school, and because she could not wait for her daughter in front of the school under the sun, she had to return home. Later, she ended up waiting under the scorching sun anyway because she could not afford to pay 20 pounds to make two trips to and from the school every day. She said that many children had been cut off from their education, not because they had study issues but because their families could not afford transport to and from the school and could not wait for them in front of it. Secondly, she was initially unemployed. After leaving Old Cairo, Hanem had been unable to find work in her new neighborhood. She had applied for a job as a cleaner in the nearby government building and hospital but received no responses whatsoever. She therefore sometimes has to sell vegetables in front of her building to its few residents for a pittance in order to earn some money. Thirdly, she had begun going to her old area to work, which meant that her children had stopped going to school. The commute alone cost her 20 pounds, and she could not afford to pay any more. I asked her about the furniture outside the buildings, and she explained that it belonged to the residents. The residential units were too small to accommodate their furniture. It thus remains outside waiting until a carpenter can come help cut it down to size.

Eight years after my visit to Masaken Osman, I sit and speak to the residents of a residential unit in the Asmarat neighborhood in Mokattam, eastern Cairo, where the inhabitants of one area of Old Cairo were recently relocated. The mother, the father, one of their daughters, and I are crowded into the small living room. The unit is extremely small and is equipped with furniture provided by the state. The lucky residents who obtained a residential unit in these buildings were only allowed to bring their clothes. This condition made them feel worthless, as though their belongings are not honored or respected in this new housing. The furniture of the new units is enormous despite the small space. The mother shouts at her seven-year-old daughter not to come into the kitchen with her because it is barely big enough to fit just her. She is afraid that her daughter will get burned by the hot water. 

The young girl has not enrolled in school in the new neighborhood because there is only one school and it has no spot for her in the required grade. “She’ll waste a year of her life,” says the mother. The parents are terrified by their daughter’s absence from school for a whole year during her primary education because she might become used to sitting at home. The young girl loves reading. She brings me her notebooks from last year. She proudly shows me that she can write some words and my name. I encourage her because both her parents are illiterate. Unlike many others, the mother managed to obtain work as a cleaner at a site located 45 minutes away and requires commuting via public transport. The father, on the other hand, has not found work. He was previously employed in al-Madabegh, the commute to which would take more than an hour and a half every day. The father stays home with his daughter while the mother goes to work. As for the older sisters, they decided to finish the school year in their old area because they cannot ride public transport alone. This costs the family more money.

The young daughter cannot read the notices that the family receives from neighborhood management. These endless instructions and warnings related to cleanliness, the elevator, or where to throw rubbish constantly make them feel alienated, as though they are unfit to live in these units. They are very worried about being unable to pay the expenses associated with electricity, gas, any infractions they might commit, study, and transport. They are especially concerned about defaulting on rent, in which case they will be evicted. They must also make monthly payments on a loan that they took out to cover the costs of securing their home and bribing the neighborhood official not to delete their right to it from the record books, even though they possess all the required papers to prove that they are entitled to it.

Between 2012 and 2020, something changed in the residential units built by the Egyptian government. This change is not related to the scarcity or even absence of services and jobs available to their residents. Rather, the new factor is the constant denigration suffered by the new residents relocated to these units without their belongings and without documents to prove their entitlement to them. Their new residential complexes contain fenced-in gardens that they are prohibited from entering, elevators that they are not allowed to use, and common spaces that they are collectively punished for not keeping clean.

“Cautions”, “instructions”, and “punishment” are the words that summarize the life of the residents in these new buildings.


Removing Urban Agency

The families housed in these residential units are lucky compared to other residents of their old vacated neighborhoods. Only about one third of the residents obtain such units. A survey of a number of families in the al-Madabegh area of Old Cairo that I conducted in 2019 indicated that for every twelve families, only three obtain a residential unit.


If this phenomenon has been prevalent since the days of Mubarak, then what is new today?

The new factor is the ferocity and speed of the forced evictions in Greater Cairo. In 2011, Cairo Governorate announced that 13,500 families – or approximately 67,500 individuals – would be relocated to new areas. These forced evictions involve many varied violations against the residents. Such violations include the way residents are informed of the eviction decision, the way the eviction is carried out, residents being left to live in the streets with no shelter, residents being expelled from the area after their homes are demolished, and residents being informed that they are not entitled to any residential unit among those that have been allocated to them.


How did this phenomenon expand, and what is the extent of it?

The following table reveals the number of families that have been evicted from their areas:


Neighborhood Number of residential units
Cairo – 54 Areas
el-Salam 6,078
el-Marg 248
el-Matareya 513
Nasr City 1 and 2 2,770
Manshiyat Naser 13,608
Hadaek al-Qubbah 1,945
al-Sharabiya 1,714
al-Sahel 300
Boulaq Abo al-Ela 1,198
al-Khalifa 1,179
Old Cairo 12,909
Sayeda Zeinab 983
Rod al-Farag 400
Helwan 5,679
al-Tabin 570
Total 50,094
Total number of residents Approximately 2,504,700 individuals, assuming an average of 50 individuals per housing unit


Neighborhood Number of residential units
Giza – 31 Areas
el-Dokki 1,169
al-Agouza 769
al-Haram 735
al-Warraq 654
Boulaq al-Dakrour 466
South Giza 1,120
North Giza 651
Awsim 200
al-Hawamdeya 250
al-Badrashin 85
Abu al-Numrus 800
al-Ayyat 350
Total 7,249
Total number of residents Approximately 362,450 individuals, assuming an average of 50 individuals per housing unit


Hence, in the Cairo and Giza governorates, 57,343 residential units (apartments) have been demolished. Therefore, approximately 2,867,150 individuals have been evicted from their original areas. Given that the population of the two governorates was estimated to be 20 million, this means that 10% have been evicted from their homes.

In other words, more than two million citizens have been dislodged and evicted from their homes and areas, alienated, and forced to face an unknown fate. Despite the creation of social housing units, which were supposed to constitute compensation for all the residents of the areas cleared, not all these people were rehoused in these new buildings. Conversely, a clear message has been sent to 20 million citizens in Cairo and Giza, namely that they have no urban agency or freedom to choose their house, residence, or area, and their urban life and connection to the city and housing is restricted.

I believe that an obvious part of the state’s determination to deprive the people of their urban agency, will, and choices is its desire to discipline them. The state’s message is clear: the people do not have the right to determine their own existence in Egypt’s urban sphere. This also means getting rid of Greater Cairo’s image as a nurturing city: a city of “early mornings, beans, and falafel”, and a city of nightlife and constant loitering in its streets and on the banks of the Nile. The goal is to replace it with a new image of a city of fear, anxiety, and wariness of things to come and of surveillance for the purpose of evictions. The red “removal” sign has become well known, fearfully observed by passers-by and residents across Cairo. This sign is placed on the entrances of residential units as a means of communication between the demolition committees and the bulldozers coming to carry out the demolitions.

El-Sisi’s government has sent a clear message to the residents of Cairo. They now sleep at night terrified that when they wake up in the morning, they will find the architecture and geographical features of their areas changed. I think that this message is directed at the millions of people who, between January 2011 and June 2013, rose up and occupied Cairo’s streets in opposition to unjust policies and in search of a better life and freer future. Messages are sent daily, one of them via urban life and contending that no justice will be achieved in that sphere. Rather, even physical features and the geography of residential areas can be erased overnight while we sleep, and we have no ability to object. The people can be controlled and disciplined via control over urban life.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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