[This article is a part of Jadaliyya's Summer of Coups Series.]
On 9 April 2018 Video Youm 7 released footage of Cairo Governor Atef Abdel Hamid, an ex-army officer and former transportation minister, touring the ongoing destruction and rubble of Maspero Triangle, a centrally-located “informal” neighborhood in Downtown Cairo. The camera pans the rubble of the former neighborhood and workers destroying it, as furious evicted residents are pushed away by a mob of bodyguards. While residents received eviction notices as early as the late 2000s, no previous Egyptian regime had the political will—or arguably, the power—to evict Maspero Triangle residents due to the likelihood of a highly-visible confrontation. Nevertheless, the al-Sisi regime not only had the full-backing of the military apparatus, but also flashy renderings for an “investment and residential hub” designed by one of the most prominent global architecture/planning firms, Foster + Partners, with the economic backing of private investors. Yet the transformation of Maspero Triangle into scattered dystopian rubble was merely the latest expression of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s post-coup transformation of Cairo that I argue should be thought of as regime-security urbanism.
Regime-security urbanism in Cairo is the reorganization of space to limit the potential for mass mobilization. The al-Sisi regime leverages flashy renderings by world-renowned firms and shores up greater economic and diplomatic support from China in the transformation of urban space in Cairo. This essay not only highlights the power the al-Sisi administration wields in the reorganization of Greater Cairo, but in the utter fear, insecurity, and anxiety that motivates this regime-security urbanism.
Priming the Terrain for Regime-Security Urbanism
Abdul Fatteh al-Sisi won ninety-seven percent of the votes in a March 2018 election that was contested by one opposition candidate who was also a al-Sisi supporter. In his inauguration speech, al-Sisi called for “consensus” and unity, because “only those who have opted for violence, terrorism, and extremism will be excluded from common spaces” (France 24, 2018). This inclusion and exclusion strategy played out in the transformation of Greater Cairo since he took power in 2013.
Al-Sisi came to power in a military coup overthrowing the democratically-elected Mohammed Morsi administration on 3 July 2013 after the Tamarod Movement garnered what they claimed was over twenty million signatures supporting the coup. Al-Sisi—and the Egyptian military—brutally clamped down on protests and rounded up members of the Morsi administration and supporters. The final blow to the opposition was dealt on 14 August 2013, when the security forces massacred over eight hundred pro-Morsi protesters camped at Rabaa’ al-Adawiya, the site of the Ministry of Defense building in Nasr City. This ruthless crackdown marked a searing conclusion to the recurring popular mobilizations from the time of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
The foundations for regime-security urbanism were first articulated in the Mubarak era through strict laws to criminalize protest. The immediate priority in the al-Sisi regime’s post-coup milieu, particularly in the aftermath of the Rabaa’ massacre in August 2013, was to maintain authority to disperse protests and eliminate opposition. A state of emergency was immediately enacted in August 2013, then replaced by a law that outlawed protests without government approval in November 2013—a law that some rights activists indicate is stricter than those under Mubarak (Kirkpatrick, 2013). In the same month, the regime effectively ended organized opposition in the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party hailed, a “terrorist” organization that was banned from participating in national politics (Fick and Saleh, 2013). The lack of opposition meant the al-Sisi regime and the military broadly, could pursue an agenda to thwart mass mobilization through the spatial reorganization of Cairo.
One of the first initiatives was to regulate population flows to some of the ministries and buildings that drew the most ire, such as the Ministry of Interior. In February 2014, the military traded out some Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF)-era concrete barriers with iron gates to better regulate foot traffic on Qasr al-Aini Street that fed into the Shura Council, a few blocks from Tahrir Square. In April 2016, the regime also moved the Ministry of Interior, then-located downtown near Tahrir Square, to the 5th Settlement in New Cairo, an affluent neighborhood located twenty-five kilometers east of Tahrir Square. The former downtown Interior Ministry location was a lightning rod for protests in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and was, in fact, set alight by protesters in response to a SCAF security clampdown in March 2011, a month after the ouster of Mubarak. The distance of the new location from the center of the city and distance from the nearest form of public transit would make it difficult to mount mass mobilizations at the site.
Cairo 2050: Borrowed Blueprint for Regime-Security Urbanism
The transfer of ministries to the periphery was an idea borrowed from a Mubarak-era masterplan, Cairo 2050. Cairo 2050 was released as a slideshow by the General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP) in 2008. The masterplan explicitly called for the “relocation of ministries and public institutions outside the core of the city” (GOPP, 36). The Mubarak regime never relocated ministries and key buildings to the periphery to its own detriment with the 25 January popular mobilization that would leave centrally located buildings, such as the National Democratic Party (NDP) Headquarters near Tahrir Square, engulfed in flames in January 2011. The al-Sisi regime eventually demolished the smoke-stained concrete shell of the NDP headquarters building in May 2015.
Cairo 2050 was intended to address the issues that plagued Cairo in 2008. The Greater Cairo region, home to over twenty-million residents, is gripped by “high population density, traffic congestion, continuous increase of unplanned and unsafe areas [informal settlements], high air pollution rates and other environmental problems” (MHUC & UN Habitat, 2012). Cairo 2050 envisioned the remedy to these issues through urban sprawl into desert satellite cities.
Cairo 2050 advocated the spatial redistribution through “decentralization” and “de-densification” of the greater Cairo region. The plan focused on populations in “unsecure” and “unplanned” areas to be addressed either through construction anew or redistribution to outlying areas in order to “upgrade” unplanned areas (GOPP, 50-52). The masterplan stipulated the objective to clear and redistribute residents of “thirty-three ‘shack areas’ in Cairo and Giza” to outlying settlements (Amnesty, 2011). Under Mubarak, there were no large-scale clearings carried out, despite constant threats to areas like Maspero Triangle in the heart of the city.[i]
The al-Sisi regime embarked on an aggressive effort to redistribute populations from centrally-located informal areas to the periphery. In May 2016, al-Sisi vowed to end the informal housing within two years, when he announced a plan to move around 850,000 residents currently living in the informal neighborhoods deemed “unsafe” to new developments in the periphery, in a move borrowed from Cairo 2050 (Farahat, 2018). This marked the beginning of a series of campaigns to forcibly evict centrally-located areas, such as al-Warraq Island. In July 2017, clashes between al-Warraq Island residents and security forces left one resident dead, several wounded, and seventeen arrested (Mosad, 2018). Then al-Sisi called on Cairo 2050’s rationale to “utilize” government-owned land upon which the informal settlement was built. Dubai-based architecture firm, RSP, translated these Cairo 2050 ideas into a never-realized masterplan with upscale shopping, apartment blocks, parks, and hotels that effectively erased the existing informal settlement on the island as early as 2010, although an updated 2017 plan showed similar high-end amenities with public parks and private residential and commercial spaces in place of the existing urban fabric. Residents on government-owned land on al-Warraq were deemed illegal squatters, and therefore were not given advance notice, alternative housing, monetary compensation, or even time to remove belongings (Mosad, 2018). The displaced al-Warraq residents were excluded from the regime’s claim that 135,000 citizens received social housing on the periphery since July 2014. Moreover, these residents were also written out of the most ambitious peripheral project to date: Cairo New Capital City.
Regime-Security Urbanism Vision: Cairo New Capital City
The al-Sisi regime has prioritized what Cairo 2050 defines as mega-projects, “priority projects due to their regional and national importance” (GOPP, 36). One massive al-Sisi regime megaproject was the creation of a second lane in sections of the Suez Canal in 2016, yet the most significant megaproject is a new capital: Cairo Capital City.
The al-Sisi regime’s 2015 announcement to construct Cairo Capital City, a seven hundred square kilometer city to be built twenty-eight miles east of downtown represents the largest megaproject to date. This new administrative capital—and future site for all of the ministries—is intended to be drawn entirely from private investment for the forty-five billion dollar price tag through the vehicle, Capital City Partners, a company founded by Emirati billionaire Mohamed Alabbar who spearheaded the Dubai Burj Khalifa with Emaar Properties (Kirk, 2016). The al-Sisi regime enlisted the global architecture and design firm, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM) to craft a slick masterplan laden with buzzword-filled captions, such as “City of the Future” and “Hub for Innovation,” with flashy renderings reminiscent of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious but yet-to-be-realized “sustainable” Masdar City designed by Foster + Partners. The Cairo Capital City website focuses on alluring facets of the city, such as a ninety-one square kilometer energy farms, four square kilometer theme park, and seven hundred kindergartens, without reference to connections to strained existing infrastructure, given the desert location well beyond the Nile River Valley.
Yet the focus on the logistical elements of the city misses the wider geopolitical significance. The Cairo Capital City solidified economic—and arguably diplomatic—networks with China, currently Egypt’s largest importer (over ten billion dollars) by more than double that from Germany (five billion dollars), the next largest importer in 2016 (OEC, 2018). The Chinese government and state-backed companies have a central role in the new Capital City. China’s state-owned construction company pledged fifteen billion dollars, and China Fortune Land Development Company pledged twenty billion dollars, meaning the Egyptian government needs to raise ten billion dollars (Kirk, 2016). Construction is underway with the existing dedicated funds as of October 2017.
A separate thread in regime-security urbanism is the gentrification of downtown Cairo. The Egyptian company al-Ismaelia slowly accrued twenty-one properties around downtown with the hopes for what it refers to as “cultural gentrification” in a process that adds stress on the demand for low-cost housing in the periphery due to real estate prices in the urban core (Berger, 2014). This brings together the potential for expansion and strengthening of foreign investment from international companies, while at the same time adding anxiety for residents of centrally-located informal settlements. Moreover, the changing character of these areas serves as a pretext for a heavier security presence with CCTV cameras, police informants, and visible presence security forces to “maintain order” (Naceur, 2016). The gentrification of downtown reorients spaces toward an increasingly strained middle and upper classes due to the imposed austerity measures from the three-year twelve billion dollar International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan coupled with rampant inflation that has affected all segments of Egypt since 2016. The combination of inflation and uncertainty in the economic and political future in Egypt creates the conditions for further foreign investment in downtown real estate.
Unpacking Regime-Security Urbanism: Infrastructure Reimagined
The increased cooperation between Egypt and China and the intensification under the al-Sisi regime’s economic development agenda speaks to the higher profile and economic weight carried by China in bilateral relationships. This relationship is instrumental in the al-Sisi regime’s urbanism that complicates mass mobilization by shifting ministries to the exterior with the intent to create an entirely separate enclave far from the large, highly visible protest spaces, such as Tahrir Square.
However, China’s support for Cairo Capital City opens up space to consider the full range of implications of regime-security urbanism pursued by the al-Sisi regime. In what ways do such investments in this new capital city in the desert benefit China? Are the efforts about influence related to the strategic access to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, as shown on maps of the massive “Belt and Road Initiative”? Are they about securing influence with the Egyptian military?
The al-Sisi regime’s reliance on foreign investment with minimal Egyptian participation suggests potential domestic problems in the future. Indeed, the May 2018 protests of the fare hikes on the Cairo Metro—necessitated by austerity policies imposed by the 2016 twelve billion dollar IMF loan—were limited to metro stations rather than central public squares, such as Tahrir, due to heavy security presence (Reuters, 2018). The question is what form of protest or challenges can occur in light of these transformations of the reorganization of the urban fabric in Cairo.
Regime-security urbanism demonstrates that spatial interventions not only reorient spaces of Cairo, but transform bilateral relations and perpetuate spatial, economic, and political control. The al-Sisi regime’s post-coup transformation of Cairo in a time of increased austerity creates the conditions for a fraught illusion of stability. Yet if the uprisings that overthrew Mubarak in February 2011 revealed anything, it is the potential for mass mobilization to unravel this illusion of an iron grip on power. Indeed, mass mobilizations in 2011, 2012, and 2013 demonstrated that urbanism is always contested, and therefore, the question remains how the spatial negotiations between regime-security urbanism and residents will proceed.
Amnesty International “Egypt: Stop Forced Eviction and Consult Slum-Dwellers to Resolve Housing Crisis,” Amnesty International (11 August 2011). Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2011/08/egypt-stop-forced-evictions-and-consult-slum-dwellers-resolve-housing-crisi/
Marie-Jeanne Berger “Cultural Enlightenment for Cairo’s Downtown Futures,” MadaMasr (17 July 2014). Available at:https://www.madamasr.com/en/2014/07/17/feature/culture/cultural-enlightenment-for-cairos-downtown-futures/
Tamer Farahat, “Slums Development: Putting Humans First,” (11 March 2018). Available at: https://www.pressreader.com/egypt/the-daily-news-egypt/20180311/281779924641005
Maggie Fick and Yasmine Saleh “Egypt’s Government Bans Protests without Police Approval,” Reuters (24 November 2013). Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-protests/egypts-government-bans-protests-without-police-approval-idUSBRE9AN09C20131124
Hassan Mosad, “The Forced Evacuation of Egypt’s Ashwa’iyyat,” The Legal Agenda (26 January 2018). Available at: http://legal-agenda.com/en/article.php?id=4103
General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP) Cairo 2050 Vision, (2008).
Mimi Kirk, “Egypt’s Government Wants Out of its Ancient Capital,” CityLab – The Atlantic (13 October 2016). Available at: http://www.citylab.com/politics/2016/10/egypt-cairo-capital-city-move/503924/
David D. Kirkpatrick, “New Law in Egypt Effectively Bans Street Protests, New York Times (25 November 2013). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/world/middleeast/egypt-law-street-protests.html
Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities (MHUC) & UN Habitat “Greater Cairo Urban Development Strategy” (2012). Available at: http://gopp.gov.eg/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/1CFV-EN.pdf
Sofian Phillip Naceur, (Trans. Jennifer Taylor) “Urban Counter- Revolution in Cairo,” Qantara.de (27 January 2016). Available at: https://en.qantara.de/content/gentrification-in-egypt-urban-counter-revolution-in-cairo
France 24, “Egypt’s al-Sisi Sworn in for Second Term Amid Unrest,” France 24 (2 June 2018). Available at: http://www.france24.com/en/20180602-egypt-al-sisi-sworn-second-term-amid-unrest
The Capital: Cairo (2015). Available at: http://thecapitalcairo.com/
The Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC) “Egypt.” Available at: https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/egy/
Video Youm 7, “تعرف على آخر تطورات أعمال الهدم فى مثلث ماسبيرو“ Learn about the Latest Developments in Maspero Triangle. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRGIht_lLAU
[i] The Mubarak administration enlisted male ashwayyat dwellers as plain clothes bultigaya to enforce order and disperse protests, particularly in late 2010 and early 2011. The current al-Sisi regime no longer needs bultigaya from unplanned areas due to the military apparatus and the attempt to create “stability.”