“Cairo Past Futures” consists of twenty-four photographs, each combined with a headline extracted from the Egyptian press of the 1950s and 60s. Headlines like “This is Tomorrow’s Cairo” and “Urban Planning in the Era of Revolution” are superimposed on images of contemporary Cairo depicting scenes such as speculative informal housing properties on the edge of Giza and dilapidated social housing blocks in Bulaq. These two-layer montages combining text and image put to the test past promises about the city’s future pronounced in state-censored magazines and newspapers during the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime.
After the 1952 coup d’état in Egypt by Nasser and other Free Officers, the new military regime sought to establish revolutionary legitimacy by implementing political and economic reforms and by expanding the state’s role in building and development. Large-scale projects such as the Aswan High Dam were promoted in the press alongside state-built modern housing and new infrastructure and services. Planning in the age of revolution promised to achieve social justice, one of the stated goals of the revolution as defined by the Free Officers. At the same time, the Egyptian press was a platform for the mediation of architectural visions drawn up by architects and bureaucrats seeking state patronage. Daily newspapers and weekly magazines were vehicles for the circulation and dissemination of political, cultural, and architectural ideas necessary in the process of shaping the built environment.
Members of the Free Officers, namely Nasser and Abdellatif al-Baghdady, made the endeavor of building architecture a metaphor for nation building. In 1953 the well-established and widely read al-Musawwar magazine quoted Nasser as saying, “Let us join hands and build” at the inauguration of a small self-funded community center in the Cairo neighborhood of Gammaliya. Attending such events was one way for the officers to introduce themselves to local communities in their efforts to build a popular base.
In the August 1963 issue of Binaʾ al-Watan (Building the Nation), which ran from 1958 to 1966, al-Baghdady published a column titled “Planning in the era of revolution.” He wrote, “Since the revolution of 23 July 1952 Arab society has undergone immense transformations in all aspects of life.” He then added, “In order to achieve the goals of the revolution it was necessary to plan the necessary steps including planning our economy, planning our society, internal politics and external affairs.” The public discourse around state planning proliferated in the 1960s as Egypt adopted the Soviet five-year economic plan and sponsored large-scale urban planning projects such as Nasr City northeast of central Cairo.
Decades later, after the initial euphoric days of the January 2011 revolt, government officials and military officers often use the phrase “Let us build Egypt.” Such statements about building and planning fail to articulate fundamental details such as: Build what? Build for whom and by whom? Build according to what plans and designs?
In matters related to urban development and municipal affairs, the press during the Nasser years performed the palliative task of creating false hope for a better urban future. While the regime undertook many significant development projects it failed to create economically and socially sustainable urban development and to establish effective municipal management systems.
Today, not unlike the 1960s, the Egyptian press is saturated with uncritical pronouncements of large-scale development projects such as the building of one million affordable housing units. In order to expose the fallacy of slogans such as “Planning in the era of revolution” and “Let us join hands and build” I have placed them directly in confrontation with some of the government’s contemporary building interventions in Cairo. For example, Nasser’s quote from al-Musawwar in 1953, “Let us join hands and build,” is superimposed on an image of the concrete separation wall recently built around the pyramids of Giza to keep out the residents of Nazlet al-Simman who have lived in the area for generations. In another example, al-Baghdady’s 1963 proclamation for “planning in the era of revolution” is superimposed on the concrete wall that since 2012 has blocked Falaki Street in downtown Cairo to protect the Interior Ministry.
The postcard-like images of “Cairo Past Futures” present a double-edged critique: on the one hand the images critique the contemporary condition of Cairo through juxtaposition with the overly optimistic headlines from a previous era of revolution. On the other hand the images also question the heroic language of the press in all revolutionary times and its continued promotion of regime promises for a better urban future that rarely materializes.
[“Cairo Past Futures” is on exhibit at Kafein, a café in downtown Cairo, at 28 Sharif Street (in the pedestrian alley). It runs from 21 December until 31 January 2015. Proceeds from the exhibition go toward funding the printing of Cairobserver, an independent publication on architecture and urbanism in Egypt with a focus on Cairo, in 2015. In addition, there is a crowd funding campaign continuing until 2 January to support the production of the Cairobserver magazines.]