Poor urban residents in Egypt are constantly faced with having their districts and living quarters derided in news media and popular culture. However, this is not a phenomenon that is unique to Cairo or Egypt. Throughout the world, urban areas inhabited by the poor are often confronted with the language of colonization and military conflict: uncivilised, unsuitable, unclean, unorganized, uninhabitable. Few note or contemplate the multiple and complex reasons for the debilitation of urban environments, and even fewer, the retraction of investments by the state from these areas.
Nonetheless, Cairo’s urban poor have been particularly subjected to the grandiose visions of Egypt’s urban planners under the command of the country’s elite. The rich and powerful of Egypt in their production of space have framed the urban poor and their urban environments as unimportant, superfluous, in their visions of the city.
The Egyptian uprising has shifted the language between the state and the urban poor, slightly. The Tuk-Tuk driver, for example, the subject of much derision in Cairo and a symbol of urban youth and informality has previously been confined to a space of exception in the urban landscape. Never part of the city but also never banned, Tuk-Tuk drivers, and their habitations, have existed in a legal grey area.
Muhammed Morsi, however, in his first presidential speech recognised Tuk-Tuk drivers and by implication the demands and needs of Egypt’s urban poor. The recognition of Tuk-Tuk drivers is important because in official discourse such groups were always deemed too trivial, too invisible, to be referred to by the President.
The dramatic verbal transformation remains, however, verbal. Policy has not changed toward the urban poor who continue to be under siege. The informal area of Bulaq, for example, under the shadow of the Nile Towers is currently under the threat of erasure by the Sawiris and Shokshobi families, according to Egypt Independent.
Nevertheless, the change in the rhetoric by the new President and the political earthquake of the Egyptian revolution has resulted in crevices of opportunity in the socio-political scene. The rise of a new activist ethos and a drive for participation is one manifestation of this. The work of Omnia Khalil, an urban planner, researcher and activist, who started Egyptian Urban Action is emblematic of this new dynamic. “After the fall of Mubarak, my friends and I thought about the issues of Cairo and Egypt, and how we are going to achieve a better society here,” she said.
The answer was Egyptian Urban Action, a film and an exhibition that takes the viewer into informal areas and desert cities. The film is made up of a series of interviews with residents from informal areas that detail how the government is doing less than nothing to solve their urban problems. The viewer is then taken to the bleak desert city, where a resident details the multiple issues of transport, employment and isolation.
As an urban planner, Khalil was aware of the cynical attempts of the government to remove the urban poor from their urban social fabric to the desolation of desert cities. For her an improved Egypt was one in which the urban poor were able to participate in the decision-making process that concerned them and not one in which they were forcibly evicted to the outskirts of the city. To facilitate this process, she is promoting the concept of Community Action Planning through the Urban Action forum.
Community Action Planning, for Omnia Khalil, is framed by three main ideas: 1) work on the ground and listen to the residents; 2) Analyse the situation with the people and 3) Work in a triad: professionals (i.e. architects, planners, social scientists), the residents and the government to find solutions to urban problems.
Key, however, is to change the government’s mentality. “Not to destroy the urban fabric and the social fabric is critical and this is not new, everyone around the world knows this,” Khalil said. “We need to get over this idea of destruction of informal areas and forced eviction and I think Community Action Planning is a solution.”
Khalil, however, is not naïve as to the prospects of being able to change the government’s mind, neither are the residents that she filmed. “The government is always approaching the situation through a capitalist and imperialist mode of thinking. They are not listening on purpose.”
At the core of Khalil’s project is a drive to make the leap from being an object to a citizen. Democracy, more than anything else, is about citizenship and participation. Voting may get the medias and general publics attention but it is only the mechanics of democracy. The bricks and mortar, the foundations, of democracy is participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life.
Informal areas have never submitted to the state and, indeed, that is why many of Egypt’s desert cities remain largely empty. However, the urban poor have had to fight and in this battle huge amounts of resources and energy have been wasted. Subsequently, the urban conditions have continued to deteriorate. Omnia Khalil’s project and the many others that are emerging out of the revolutionary energy are projecting an image of a different path and a more progressive and harmonious Egypt. Discord, however, is ever present on the horizon.