“In Egypt, provincial cities do not exist.” This statement by French geographer Eric Denis eloquently summarizes the relationship between Cairo—the capital city—and the rest of the country. Little seems to exist beyond Cairo, except perhaps Alexandria. In the late 1990s and during the 2000s, Egypt’s second largest city seemed to witness an effervescent moment. Large economic investments and beautification projects changed its urban features, new political groups emerged and the opening of new institutions, such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, changed the cultural landscape. By the late 2000s, a lot was happening in Alexandria. Nevertheless, almost a decade later, very little of this moment remains. Is Alexandria, once again, lost?
The history of Alexandria is often narrated by those disappointed with its fate. A vast literature advanced the image of Egypt’s “second capital” through a framework of loss, often relying on poetic imageries that reinforce a multitude of stereotypes. In a recent book paying tribute to one of Alexandria’s foremost historians, a renowned French scholar commented:
Today, if we want to see Alexandria, we must either turn the pages of the books that made it into a literary monument, from the comfort of an armchair, or turn our back to the walls of concrete, slide down to the beach, and watch the horizon. The sea is here, perfect.
In such accounts, contemporary Alexandria does not even exist, and where it does, it ideally ought not to be seen. The city exists largely as a memory, through ephemeral traces of a glorious cosmopolitan past, one of polyglot upper classes enjoying cultured lives. These tropes infuse the historiography and the literary productions on the city while simultaneously forgetting its Arab inhabitants, who constituted the vast majority of Alexandrians, dispossessing these citizens from their city; still rather common today.
Many writings on Alexandria portray the departure (and often expulsion) of its foreign communities in the late 1950s as the beginning of its demise. Following the tripartite aggression against Egypt, the regime expelled French and British nationals and embarked on an “Egyptianziation” policy in 1957. Combined with the internal demographic, social and economic dynamics of different foreign communities, the nationalist turn of the Egyptian regime led to a massive departure of foreigners.
While this process definitely changed the face of the city, these writings overlook a simultaneous dynamic taking its roots in the new republic established in 1953: The centralization of state power under President Gamal Abdel Nasser directly contributed to the deterioration of Alexandria’s municipal experience, particularly its autonomy. A year later, all of Egypt’s cities were incorporated into national development plans. No longer seen as living spaces for inhabitants with different needs, cities became the subject of Cairo’s gaze, with the sum of their uses and functions envisioned exclusively for the development of the nation.
The effects of these dynamics on the urban fabric and demographics were many. In an effort to further develop Alexandria as an industrial hub, the regime invested in cheaper housing for workers and redistributed buildings formerly owned by foreigners to Egyptians with lower revenues. These policies contributed to a relative social desegregation of the city. But as the city continued to grow in terms of both population and its geographic boundaries—and particularly given Egypt’s dire economic situation in the wake of the multiple military debacles of the 1960s—the central government struggled to advance Alexandria’s vision for the city. It slowly stopped intervening in its social and urban organization, leaving inhabitants to organize on their own. This disengagement from city planning became a common feature across Egypt.
With the changes in national economic policies put in motion by President Anwar Sadat in the mid–1970s, the differential treatment between the capital and the rest of the country became even more evident. In 1976, 37 percent of the public investment for all of Egypt were directed toward the Greater Cairo area. In the 1980s and 1990s, 78 percent of subsidized housing built in Egypt was in Cairo’s periphery (86 percent in the last three years of the 1990s).  Alexandria did benefit from some national investment, but those numbers confirm the government’s tendency to see the city’s value exclusively in terms of national development as Egypt’s main port, as its most industrial city, and as a central summer destination for domestic tourism. Most of the foreign aid received between 1976 and 1987, for example, was invested in the improvement of the industrial zones, the port and communication infrastructure, as well as the water evacuation system, sewage and electrical infrastructure.
By the end of the century, the government was facing several crises in resources that significantly diminished public investments overall. Alexandria, like many of Egypt’s cities, was forced to “diversify” its revenue sources. During this period, a new governor, hailed by the official press as a savior of the “Bride of the Mediterranean,” transformed Alexandria into a neoliberal laboratory. Mohamed Abdel Salam El-Mahgoub, a former intelligence officer who headed the governorate from 1997 to 2006, advanced a large-scale beautification project for the city. In the face of declining state revenues, he pioneered partnerships with the private sector and businessmen, which largely favored the boom of construction (and accompanying destruction) with little regard for the existing urban features of the city or the needs or desires of its inhabitants. But this period was also witness to another series of changes.
An Odyssey of Changes
Scholarly literature widely treats the 1990s as a period of political and cultural stagnation for Egypt. Marked by intense state repression, very little seemed to be happening during this decade outside of “Islamist violence.” By comparison, the year 2000 is generally seen as a turning point in the country’s trajectory, separating the dullness of the 1990s from the roaring 2000s. This narrative emphasizes changes in the political sphere, most notably the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada. Indeed, many observers credited the rise of pro–Palestinian protests in Egypt with a fundamental transformation in politics that ultimately paved the way for the January Revolution a decade later.
In Alexandria, thousands of students protested weekly in solidarity with the Palestinians inside the Alexandria University campus and in some instances took to the streets. On more than one occasion, the move off campus resulted in violent confrontations with police forces, including the shooting death of student protester Mohammad Ali al-Saqqa. Yet while the pro–Palestinian movement was as strong in Alexandria as it was in Cairo, Egypt’s second city did not see the emergence of a local protest milieu. With far more outlets for political activism in Cairo, those Alexandrians interested in politics—whether as an activist, a civil servant, a journalist, or an academic—mostly made their way to Cairo to pursue these interests. For many years, young Alexandrians filled the ranks of Cairo’s cultural and political spaces.
In the 2000s, however, new spaces catering to the needs and desires of younger generations gradually emerged across Alexandria. Whereas leisure activities in the city were for decades largely organized along class divisions, the economic changes of the 2000s brought such new leisure sites as shopping malls, which altered the class segregation of leisure practices. Alexandria’s first mall opened in 1997, more than a decade after the first major mall opened in Cairo (also illustrating how investment patterns prioritized Cairo). As many more malls opened their (automated) doors to the public over the next decade, they became central to youth leisure practices across class lines, alternatives for gathering outside of the controlled and normed spaces like the street or the university campus. Malls also became central spaces for flirting and mingling between the genders.
The 2000s also saw the rise of a vibrant cultural scene in Alexandria, of which the movie Microphone (2011) gave a glimpse. In that film, youth are seen playing music in alternative venues as well as painting graffiti on the city’s walls. Many of the actors were members of Alexandria’s cultural milieus, playing themselves in a sense. New institutions such as the Garage Jesuits Cultural Center (2000) and Gudran Center for Arts and Development (2000) gave middle-class youth (but not only them) access to new, non-consumption oriented leisure spaces and practices. The inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in 2002 was also paramount in the reshaping of local cultural milieus. While still a state-controlled institution, the new library built upon these local milieus to attract (and constitute) a public. More young Alexandrians were able to find diverse social and political outlets (including through employment, leisure activities and art courses) without having to move to Cairo. This dynamic greatly contributed to the emergence of a local Alexandrian political and cultural sphere, which played a central role in the 2011 January Revolution.
From Revolution to Devolution
During the 18-day uprising of January–February 2011, Alexandria witnessed violent clashes with the police, and protesters burned down most police stations. The city was also the first in which protesters, a few weeks later, raided the State Security Investigations’ headquarters, initiating a wave of similar actions all across the country. When the first free and democratic presidential elections were held in mid–2012, the candidates of both the Muslim Brotherhood (Mohamed Mursi) and the old regime (Ahmed Shafik) were first and second nationwide. In Alexandria, the most popular candidates hailed from the “revolutionary camp” (Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Moneim Abu Al-Futuh, first and second, respectively). In these first years following the uprising, a local political sphere thus emerged in Alexandria, with groups representing diverse political tendencies debating and engaging in street protest, organizing workers and advocating for diverse causes. In arts and culture, too, the city witnessed a blossoming of activities. Performances took to the streets, and cultural spaces swarmed with youth. Alexandrians even engaged in heated debates about the identity of the city, performing new forms of “Alexandrinity.” For example, some began to rediscover the Alexandrian accent and perform it constantly, whether by using certain intonations or idiomatic words and expressions. They were, in effect, reinventing Alexandria.
For a few years, the city was effervescent. Every day saw a protest, an artistic performance, a campaign, a lecture or a debate. One example came from the mobilization of many Alexandrians to defend the city’s historical heritage. In the name of the revolution, many protested to defend (or invent?) a specific identity for the city. After having taken the streets and public spaces back from the authoritarian policing practices that dominated the 1990s and 2000s, they were reclaiming the city’s buildings against Cairo as well as crony developers.
That effervescence now seems like a distant past. While spending the spring of 2017 in Alexandria, I joked with an artist and friend—paraphrasing the 1996 novel No One Sleeps in Alexandria by local writer Ibrahim Abdel Meguid—noting that no one lived in Alexandria anymore. The few activists and artists who remained now avoided the streets and public spaces. Many more left for Cairo or, if they had the opportunity, abroad. Of the new cultural institutions, many had closed or were offering only minimal services due to frozen funds and the general crackdown on literal and metaphorical spaces of expression. One of the most immediate consequences of the 2011 uprising was the general sentiment of pride that many Egyptians felt, and which translated, in practice, into reclaiming their country. Many youth who had previously sought to leave Egypt were suddenly cancelling these plans and reinvesting their energy in their cities. Alexandrians, like many other Egyptians, were (re)discovering their homes. But now, many youth seemed disillusioned with change and retreated from public engagement, and the accompanying commitment and feeling of belonging.
In short, Alexandria seems to have suffered the fate of Egypt. Social, political and even leisure spaces have been closed down or strictly monitored, activists and non-activists alike have been sent to prison and most of what the revolutionary moment had birthed has been suffocated. Much like in the late 1990s, investors and developers again hold the power in determining the shape and future of the city. Old buildings are demolished and new ones constructed in their place, catering to an ever-growing population and ever-shrinking spaces for building. More than ever, citizens’ experiences of their city are again mediated by class differences and social segregation. Authoritarian governance and the reign of private developers has contributed a dynamic of “uncontrolled expansion and limitless dreams,” dispossessing once again—and after a fleeting window of hope—the citizens from their city. If Alexandria is again becoming Egypt’s second capital, as Alexandrians like to call it, it is partly because it is looking more and more similar to Cairo.
1. Lucette Valensi, “Alexandrie? Non,” in Leyla Dakhli and Vincent Lemire, eds., Etudier en liberté les mondes méditerranéens. Mélanges offerts à Robert Ilbert (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2016), pp. 307–308.
2. Ahmed M. Soliman, “Housing Consolidation and the Urban Poor: The Case of Hagar El Nawateyah, Alexandria,” Environment and Urbanization 4/2 (1992).
3. Eric Denis, “Du village au Caire, au village comme au Caire. Vers la métropole-état,” Égypte/Monde Arabe 4–5 (2001).
4. M.F. Awad and R.S. Youakim, “Nouvel ordre urbain et nouvelles dynamiques (1958–2005),” Revue de l’Occident Musulman et de la Méditerranée 46/1 (1987).
5. Samer Soliman, The Autumn of Dictatorship: Fiscal Crisis and Political Change in Egypt under Mubarak (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011); Youssef El Chazli, “Devenir révolutionnaire à Alexandrie. Contribution à une sociologie historique du surgissement révolutionnaire en Egypte,” PhD dissertation (Université de Lausanne, 2018).
6. Paul Schemm, “Sparks of Activist Spirit in Egypt,” Middle East Report Online, April 13, 2002.
7. Indeed, until very recently, studying political science was only possible at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo.
8. Marika Snider, “Entropy and Exclusivity: Gender and Change in the Retail Environment, Alexandria, Egypt (1970–2011),” PhD dissertation (University of Utah, 2012).
9. Timothy Mitchell, “Dreamland: The Neoliberalism of Your Desires,” Middle East Report 210 (Spring 1999).