In Cairo, there is a street named after the Arab League. It’s a grand boulevard that cuts through Mohandiseen, a neighborhood built in the 1950s to house engineers and other civil servants, whose ranks swelled during the 1960s with the guarantee of employment under the state socialism of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. These days, the boulevard is lined with luxury car showrooms, drab mid-rises and fast-food chains, all forming the commercial spine of an upscale area too expensive for most clerks and bureaucrats. Last December, on one of the quiet streets that radiates off the boulevard, I visited the office of an architect named Dina Shehayeb. A professor at the Housing and Building National Research Center in Cairo, Shehayeb also runs her own firm, which focuses on community-based development and the revitalization of historic areas. The deadly street battles of late November between the police and unarmed protesters on Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square had ended, and the attacks on protesters by military police outside the People’s Assembly near Tahrir were a week away. Cairo was relatively calm. But in her office, Shehayeb spoke heatedly of a city transformed during the reign of the recently deposed president, Hosni Mubarak.
“We had thirty years of the government pushing us to informality,” she said, alluding to Cairo’s vast “informal” areas: dense urban districts built without official planning or permits, often in cheap red brick and concrete on agricultural land that once formed the Nile’s flood plain. Some two-thirds of Cairenes live in informal areas, the urban reality in a country where the government has never provided enough housing; during Mubarak’s three decades of power in Egypt, state assets and land were sold off in a costly dream of turning Cairo’s desert outskirts into satellite cities and gated suburbs. But Shehayeb was also talking about Mohandiseen, where someone with money and connections can skirt lax planning guidelines and build a tower on a street of low-rise buildings. “It was governance by informality, articulated and made ambiguous on purpose,” she said. “Things were always done with vagueness, uncertainty and contradiction.”
Shehayeb then lashed out at the latest master plan for the city, “Cairo Vision 2050,” which imagines Egypt’s capital as a high-rise delirium modeled on Dubai, with crowded informal areas and neglected Nile-side neighborhoods replaced by glass towers and an abundance of green space. As for the city’s “heritage” areas, from its belle époque downtown to its medieval core, home to an unrivaled concentration of historic Islamic architecture, they would become a vast “open-air museum.” Drawn up by the General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP), part of the Ministry of Housing under Mubarak, Cairo 2050 (as it’s also known) was promoted as the “strategic urban development plan” for Greater Cairo, the sprawling urban area that includes three governorates, some 17 million to 20 million people and no mayor. Urban management falls instead to governors, often retired generals appointed directly by the president and given the rank of minister. Never made public, Cairo 2050 was presented at conferences starting in 2008, to consultants and advisers like the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat), and to investors in an Egyptian real estate market dominated by Gulf petrodollars.
The plan called for the massive decentral-ization of the capital, one of the densest cities on earth. Ministries and state institutions would move to the desert near New Cairo, one of the satellite cities to the east built under Mubarak, while millions of poor residents living in informal areas would be relocated to housing in an ever more distant stretch of desert. Snippets of the plan soon emerged in the local press. Bird’s-eye-view renderings of Khufu Avenue—a runway-size boulevard with dedicated bus lanes running in a line from the heart of Mohandiseen to the base of the Giza Pyramids—convey nothing of contemporary Cairo, a hectic modern capital with major infrastructure, housing and planning needs that is nevertheless depicted by the Egyptian and Western media as a traffic-snarled, smog-choked jumble of slums.