Descriptions of Cairo are dominated typically by the stark imagery of an extremely concentrated population mass near asphyxiation. From this perspective, one need look no further than its inhabited rooftops, its streets choked with traffic and pollution and its crowded cemeteries, where the living reside with the dead — all confirm the most obvious symbols of overpopulation. Indeed, Cairo has a population concentration that makes it, along with Bombay, one of the densest metropolitan areas in the world. Despite the rapid modernization of urban infrastructure (subway, elevated highways, sewer and telephone systems), Cairo appears to be stricken by disorder and incoherence. To many, Cairo evokes all the dangers of urban excess, inextricable chaos and spiraling poverty.

This almost fixed portrait of urban chaos, however, should not obscure the existence of a complex and functioning urban order which nevertheless reflects the pressures and fractures of the broader social order. With 11 million inhabitants, Cairo is not a tentacled megalopolis, a “monster city,” so much as it is the capital of a highly centralized country of up to 60 million inhabitants and, in many respects, the political and cultural center of the Arab world. Moreover, its annual rate of growth is declining; it was 1.9 percent in 1994 as compared to 2.8 percent in 1986 and 3.9 percent in 1960. [1] Above all, Cairo is a mirror of Egyptian society, the product of the local management of powerful social contradictions and inequalities through the speculative real estate market, highly centralized authority, modem urban planning and a population that routinely resists official designs for the organization of the city. Yet while these factors provide order to an apparent chaos, they are also transforming the urban landscape by altering the compact social compositions that have, until recently, characterized urban order in Cairo.

In the past two decades, economic liberalization and structural adjustment have favored speculation, enriched property owners and accelerated impoverishment, reinforcing existing social fractures and inequalities. At the same time, the reduction of public spending has drastically reduced the availability of subsidized products. [2] In 1991, 35 percent of Cairenes lived beneath the poverty line, fixed at $1,114 per year for a family of 4.6 members. [3] More than 9 percent of Cairo’s families know situations of extreme poverty and malnutrition, earning less than $580 per year. Between 1991 and 1993, the share of total income of the poorest 20 percent of the population fell from 7.4 percent to 5.9 percent while that of the richest 20 percent increased 3 percent to 45.1 percent. [4]

Rampant speculation has played an important role in affirming these trends. In 1994, according to the Hermes Financial Index, the Cairo stock exchange ranked third in the world in terms of yield. [5] Financial turnover went from $150 million in 1992 to $630 million in 1994, while the sum total of investors’ stock increased from $3.6 billion to $5.1 billion. This bears witness to intense speculative activity which is out of step with a GNP growth rate languishing at around 2 percent annually.

Stock offerings by real estate firms and manufacturers of construction materials are the most attractive in the market. They reflect the fact that Cairo is witnessing a speculative market in luxury housing that absorbs a large portion of available capital while making no contribution to needed housing for ordinary people. As a result, the amount of unoccupied housing units has increased from the 250,000 counted in 1986. In 1987, the total value of vacant housing in Egypt was 40 billion Egyptian pounds, which is equal to the foreign debt. [6] Law Number Four of 1996, which liberalized rent controls, will not be able to reestablish the coherence of the market as long as housing construction remains primarily a speculative investment.

Centralized Power

This reinforcement of economic inequalities accompanies an official ordering of urban space which is supposed to foster peaceful coexistence and overall social and economic fluidity. Yet Cairo is the nerve center of a centralized state which evidences no desire for democratic decentralization. The administrative framework of Egyptian society, dominated by the military hierarchy since 1952, imposes strict control over its capital. Three governors, all “retired” senior officers nominated directly by presidential decree, divide among themselves control over the Cairo metropolitan area, including Cairo proper and its two modern extensions, Giza, on the western bank of the Nile, and Qalyoubiyya to the north. While the overall civic administration is provided ostensibly by the “Greater Cairo Authority,” it has no budget of its own and simply coordinates technical services which have been partitioned among the three governorates. On the governorate level, city residents elect district representatives nominated by the ruling National Democratic Party to assemblies playing only consultative roles. In short, urban planning and the development of infrastructure — control of the city — depends on centralized executive power. This power is based on a slew of administrative delegations responsible at different levels, including the neighborhood level, for the implementation of decisions. [7]

The application of centralized power, however, is mediated by the dense and compact nature of Cairo’s social order. Cairo is a congested city with rare uncrowded spaces. Even the newest suburbs have a density comparable to that of the city center. This lack of population diffusion distinguishes Cairo from numerous other cities in developing countries, which are surrounded by slums and seek to maximize the occupation of the city’s periphery. One simple comparison: The average population density of Mexico City is on the order of 30 inhabitants per hectare, whereas in Cairo there are more than 170 people per hectare.

This density and compactness have long characterized social proximity in Cairo, where inequalities are managed without distance or any real segregation. In the historic heart of the city, social connections are negotiated on a street level through a mixture of mediation and community interests often centered on familial solidarity and regional allegiances of the older generation. In this sense, the city does not act as a destroyer of communities, but rather is composed of compact islands of social interaction. These social proximities also foster an effective, localized social control where each individual plays a role in group morale and can relay public authority. In other words, the Cairene people, many of whom are minor civil servants, have fashioned informal institutions to obtain political space otherwise denied them and to humanize links with the government. [8]

Urban Planning

While this localization remains an informal instrument of elite control over Egyptian society, the authorities have nevertheless called upon the science of urban planning to formalize urban order in order to more easily distinguish and separate its social components and affirm a modern centrality. This implies, in effect, a break with the compact city. Three overarching principles have guided the development of contemporary urban planning: first, delineating the external borders of the city; second, asserting a centrality to the city and making the center more accessible; and third, establishing a new society in new cities on the terrain of the surrounding desert.

The first principle responds to the anxiety generated by uncontrolled expansion, to a perceived need for walls and doors marking the entrance to the city. It has resulted in the construction of a highway belt 90 kilometers in circumference, perched on an embankment overlooking the neighborhoods whose expansion it is supposed to limit (not without massive expulsions and forced relocations to neighboring towns by the authorities).

Institutionalizing the second principle has led to the development of elevated highways and bridges in the city center, which guarantee the rapid connection between the new residential neighborhoods on the city’s periphery and the banks, offices and ministries of the economic center. These highways have improved the flow of traffic, but they have also reinforced the segmentation of urban society. It is now possible to bypass and ignore old neighborhoods, leaving them below as isolated points along the elevated axis. In this sense, “modem” Cairo seems as much a stratum superimposed on the old city as a group of new neighborhoods juxtaposed to older ones. These highways are designed to service the city center and the east-west axis that links the airport to the pyramids of Giza. From one end of this axis to another the elite reside in privileged abodes. At the north end lies the presidential palace as well as a vast residential quarter built in the 1970s and 1980s, Madinat Nasr, where more than 50 percent of the occupants are high-ranking diplomats.

The old city center, overcrowded, in decline and ill suited to modem auto traffic, remains on the margins of these developments. The historic neighborhoods of Cairo lost some 500,000 inhabitants between 1976 and 1986, and not less than 300,000 in the preceding decade. The earthquake of October 1994 intensified this migration, as did official restoration policies in the areas of Islamic tourist sites. The old center ages with its inhabitants, while younger families, seeking to avoid familial cohabitation, move out, feeding the demographic boom of the peripheral neighborhoods. In 1986, only 13 percent of the inhabitants of Cairo had not been born there. This figure was 20 percent in 1976, 30 percent in 1980 and 37 percent in 1907. Thus, Cairo is no longer a city afflicted by immigration and still less by an influx of peasants. Nearly 80 percent of migrants now come from other cities in Egypt.

Desert Cities

The third principle — the establishment of a new society in new cities in the surrounding desert — counters the unplanned expansion on the periphery, which is seen as anarchic. The authorities have established a network of new cities in the desert surrounding Cairo, at distances of 30 to 70 kilometers from the city center. The primary objective is to shift the dynamic of construction and urban growth far outside the city and its agricultural periphery, creating an easily controlled second residential zone offering in theory more satisfying living conditions. This construction reflects a desire for order and social control. These cities are designed in pure modernist style, with neighborhoods perfectly differentiated and separated, each to house a target population. Although new industrial zones have generated some growth, the majority of these towns remain empty, bereft of even the most meager infrastructure: water, electricity and transportation. A significant portion of the residential developments in the new cities, after changing hands a few times, rejoins the supply of empty housing held as long-term speculative investment.

Beginning in the early 1990s, with the failure of the “all public” enterprise system and the new imperative of deficit reduction, the state handed the future of these new cities over to private promoters. Thereafter, on land prepared by the state, villa complexes flourished, “compounds” with golf, fishing and even artificial lakes. The promoters characterize these developments as a renaissance of urban society (nahda ‘umraniyya). Those who have the means — private transportation and telecommunications equipment — can now escape from the urban racket while retaining access to urban opportunities. This development in particular highlights a growing rupture in the Cairene way of life.

Until now, the city remained compact, and social distinctions did not coincide with pronounced forms of segregation. Cairo lacked the form of urban apartheid found in cities as different as Los Angeles, Johannesburg and Rio de Janeiro, where the elite in their private neighborhoods pursue their designs sheltered and aloof from urban misery. [9] This kind of social segregation is now becoming a distinct possibility. In Cairo, the social mixture of the 1960s and 1970s has disappeared. It is no longer a city, as was claimed after the 1952 revolution, that has “become geographically democratic and massively plebeian” in which there are no restricted zones. [10] In this sense, Cairo’s new liberal age in the 1990s echoes pre-1952 tendencies when chic and exclusive suburbs, such as Heliopolis, developed on new terrain away from a city which was too common and too difficult to reform. [11]

Significantly, popular society in Cairo has not taken up the call to move to the new cities. Rather, a dynamic of skirting the law has arisen among those on the margins, resulting in the consolidation of vast popular neighborhoods through illegal squatting. The authorities have remained focused on the big axes, leaving the peripheral developments largely unregulated. These neighborhoods suffer from a lack of equipment and public services, but they are also veritable cities, popular districts with commerce, markets and a multitude of private services that make up for the absence of the state and its schools, clinics and bus lines. It is here that one now finds the people of Cairo. [12]

These new suburbs grafted onto the borders of the city are the product of a desire to live in the city near the benefits of work while enjoying the solidarity networks which the city fosters. These neighborhoods resist the modernist politics of order and distance. They maintain links with the older quarters of the city. They stand out not as places of extreme poverty and uniform exclusion but rather as relatively mixed, compact, dense neighborhoods. Here the population is very diverse. Some are becoming richer, some poorer. Residents include civil servants, workers, doctors, small business owners, artisans, day workers and many unemployed or underemployed university graduates. It is not the terms of socio-professional segregation that distinguish these illegal suburbs from the rest of the city. The socio-spatial fracture is more a generational one between a center that is aging and a periphery which is classified as illegal and whose youth are disassociated from their social class.

According to the press, the authorities view these suburbs as a uniform belt of poverty, menacing and foreign. Their fate is no longer a matter of city planning as they have become a central political and economic question. [13] In fact, these neighborhoods are being gradually connected to sewer, electric and gas lines because the city, as a system, would rather tum squatters illegally connected to such services into customers than forgo payment for services provided. This is partly a recognition that these second class citizens, if they can pay, can transform themselves into stockholders of the urban networks. But having ignored these neighborhoods for too long, the state and its police lack the ability to tightly monitor them. Because of their density, policing has been difficult, and police intervention can escalate into military intervention involving thousands of armed men. Awareness of the menace posed by these neighborhoods takes into account the fact that they are supported by remittances from migrant workers in the Gulf monarchies. In other words, these neighborhoods are not passive receptacles for poverty. Rather, they offer an alternative to official designs on the organization of the city aimed at categorizing and controlling the masses. They propose a reformulation of the popular city, recovering the social role of the street.

The anxiety created by these neighborhoods is reflected in the completely unoriginal and simplistic official analysis, offered by the government, according to which these suburbs are the result of a rural exodus of peasants, particularly from Upper Egypt, without education, without qualifications or capital and naturally without political awareness. This lumpen proletariat accused of ruralizing the city then fails to adapt to urban life and is driven immediately into the talons of Islamism. The promotion of this view allows the authorities to define and localize the evils in Egyptian society while creating a target and offering a course of action. For the government, there now is a territory of terrorism which consists of poor immigrants, uprooted from the south, or the Sa‘id, which, as everyone knows, is stereotyped as the land of incessant confrontations between the police and an armed opposition grouped under the banner of radical Islam. This interpretation of the urban dynamic ignores social cleavages and robs these illegal suburbs of their nuances, turning these ‘ashwa’iyyat — synonymous with terrorism — into potential centers of violence at the gates of the city. Significantly, this view constructs the sociocultural frontiers which mark the borders of the city through the discourse of ethnicity. [14] When social connections become ethnic ones, the issue is no longer one of youth born in Cairo, rejected and living on the unassimilated fringes of the city, but of peasants who come from elsewhere and are very different, Sa‘idis who are unable to urbanize.

The chronic absence of the state only contributes to the development of Islamic foundations in these illegal suburbs, foundations which have a long tradition of providing various forms of assistance accompanied by a political and moral framework. Outside of gifts to the poor and creating notability for a person or institution, the majority of these Islamic establishments, schools or clinics, are, above all, market enterprises. [15] In the context of a general lack of public services, the activity of these foundations is not limited to unassimilated neighborhoods. Moreover, the ceaseless branding of the residents of the illegal suburbs as strangers to the urban matrix creates an internalization of difference and contributes to the construction of menacing barriers and rigidity.

These illegal suburbs represent the uncertainty of future development in Cairo. It is precisely the connections that link a society with its margins that indicate its fissures, its malaise and its fantasies. For the present, outside of the efforts at expanding urban services, the social and cultural exclusion of the most dynamic youthful fringes of society is aimed more at the purification and consolidation of the existing social order than at addressing the broader fractures and inequalities that afflict urban society.

Translated from French by Jon Van Camp


[1] These figures are based on the census of Egypt in 1960 and 1986, and estimations for 1994.
[2] They represented only 7 percent of public expenditures in 1993-1994 as opposed to nearly 33 percent in 1981-1982.
[3] In the northern periphery of Qalyoubiyya, nearly 70 percent of families survive below this threshold, and 47 percent on the western bank of the Nile in Giza.
[4] Egypt Human Development Report 1995 (Cairo, 1996); Karima Korayem, Poverty and Income Distribution in Egypt (Cairo: Third World Forum, 1994).
[5] The average return on investment per year in 1993 was more than 37.7 percent, and more than 157.9 percent in 1994, as opposed to more than 24 percent and less than 8.4 percent in France, in Great Britain more than 17.2 percent and less than 6.4 percent, in Mexico more than 46.1 percent and less than 22.9 percent and in Brazil more than 155.9 percent and 77.7 percent. In Egypt, these performances still benefit from a weak rate of inflation for an emerging market (countries whose GDP per capita is between $500 and $15,000 per year). Business Monthly (February 1995).
[6] Milad Hanna, al-Iskan wa al-Masyada (Cairo: Dar al-Mustaqbal al-‘Arabi, 1987). The author emphasizes the paradox of housing without inhabitants and inhabitants without housing.
[7] Metropolitan Planning and Management in the Developing World: Spatial Decentralization Policy in Bombay and Cairo (Nairobi: UN Center for Human Settlements, 1993); James B. Mayfield, Local Government in Egypt (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1996).
[8] Diane Singerman, Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).
[9] Robert Lopez, “Hautes murailles pour villes de riches,” Le Monde Diplomatique (March 1996).
[10] John Waterbury, Take the Bus and Leave the Driving to Us, Northeast Africa Series 21/2 (1976).
[11] Alain Roussilon, Comme si la ville Etait divisee en deux: un regard reformiste sur l’urbain en Egypte au tournant des annees 1940, (Paris, 1996).
[12][12] Milad Hanna, al-Iskan wa al-Siyasa (Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1996). Not all the hazardous zones have the same social and architectural characteristics. There is, in reality, housing that is normal and healthy in spite of the fact that it is neither planned nor legal. Some of it is in completely good condition and it should be recognized that, without it, several thousand families could not have integrated, married and found employment (p. 183).
[13] Al-Taqrir al-Istratiji al-‘Arabi 1995 (Cairo: Al-Ahram, 1996). The report devotes more than 20 pages to the political question of the informal neighborhoods.
[14] Immanuel Wallerstein, “Heritage of Myrdal: The Dilemma of Racism and Under-Development” in Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).
[15] Iman Farag, “L’enseignement en Egypte, economie politique d’une liberalisation annoncee in Age liberal et neo liberalisme (Cairo: CEDEJ, 1996).

How to cite this article:

Eric Denis "Urban Planning and Growth in Cairo," Middle East Report 202 (Spring 1997).

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