Cairo, a city on the brink of implosion

By Astrid Vanackere , MEDEA Institute 

With its approximately 18 million inhabitants, Cairo belongs to one of the biggest megacities in the world. Cairo suffers from the burden of a population growing faster than its ability to expand infrastructure and provide basic facilities. One of the most visible challenges of the rapid urbanization is the presence of informal areas. These areas are usually called ‘ashwa’iyat (random districts), referring to their illegal nature. Since many of the informal buildings are of high quality in terms of infrastructure, these areas are not necessarily defined slums. [1]

About half of the population of Cairo lives in areas that developed without any form of official urban planning. The inhabitants of these areas tackle social and economic exclusion. The needs of these people provided also the basis for the demand of social justice during the Egyptian Revolution. To understand to Egypt’s unrest we have to look at the organization of the public space. Informality is a result of corrupt neo-liberal policy conducted by the political and economic elite that sees a large part of the inhabitants of the city as an obstacle rather than an asset. [2] Long term visions to overcome the problem couldn’t survive. In fact, how to completely restructure a city that never stops to see its population grow? Keep in mind that a few centuries ago the famous Pyramids and Giza were still in the desert, far from Cairo. Today 25 km separates the center of the city from the pyramids, but the urban space is contiguous.

So far the state’s attempts to resolve the problem failed, just because of the segregating nature of its reform programs. A good example is the ‘New-Town program’ in the early 1980’s, when new cities were built in the desert. This so called ‘Desert Towns’ or satellite cities such as Rehab City were built to accommodate people of the lower social classes. The project mainly failed though because the promised transport network wasn’t implemented and the population who needed it could not afford a car to make use of the newly paved highways. The new projects that were meant for the lower social classes were substituted by exclusive projects for the rich. The social consequences of such a lack of urban policy are enormous and cause a growth of the poorest population, which results in explosive relations. Inhabitants of informal districts experience a sense of inferiority, whereas other residents of Cairo fear to go into those neighborhoods. Although the ‘ashwa’iyat are scattered throughout the city, they remain isolated.

Since the Revolution the economy has not improved given the still troubling situation. This also means that informal economy increased, as it is visible by the rising number of street venders, because of even higher unemployment. In addition there is another persistent problem, namely the limited attention to the issue by political parties. On top of that the political elite keeps building separate districts and cities for the rich. However since the Revolution there has been bottom-up organization in the communities through popular committees. No more waiting for help from the government, the community organizes itself to improve the living conditions by improving its income, providing better sanitation and organizing waste collection.
The Revolution made it clear that informal areas can be part of a united Cairo. Therefore the government has to integrate these neighborhoods in its urban policy. It cannot hide the real heart of Cairo, in order that it does not become again a ticking bomb for political, economical and social development in a country that can’t encounter any additional destabilization.

[1] UN-Habitat, Cities and Citizens series, bridging the urban divide. Cairo, a city in transition, The American University in Cairo, 2011

[2] Bayat, Asef. The politics of the ‘Informal people’. Third World Quarterly, Vol 18, 1997 p53-72