Revolutionizing Cairo

by Nicolas Kemper:

Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir square, hurling stones and braving tear gas, as they called for the end of the 30 year reign of President Hosni Mubarak. Cairo was in revolt. And as the residents of the city that defines Egypt’s national identity shed the shackles of authoritarianism, they may be in the process of reshaping not only politics but also the city of Cairo itself.

Talaat Harb, a square near central Cairo. A few of the buildings were being restored by the government to their former splendor. (Kemper/TYG)

Prior to the demonstrations, a small clique of government builders and private companies had drafted grand plans to revolutionize Cairo. The city was in need of repair. But they did not foresee the grass-roots revolution that has rocked the country. The end of the political monopoly could transform urban planning in Cairo, a process that has lacked transparency and citizen-involvement for centuries. If the revitalization is ever to be realized, it will require a different approach to match the demands of a new Egypt.


The downtown area—the backdrop of the protests—sits along the Nile, removed from the old city in the east. This deliberate separation is the work of the Egyptian leader Isma’il Pasha, who ascended to the country’s throne in 1863. Isma’il, called the Magnificent for his focus on the modernization of the country, wanted to westernize Cairo and make it a great capital on the global stage.

He sent Egyptian architects to study in Paris, where they met Haussmann—Napoleon III’s urban planner and the builder of modern Paris—learned his techniques, and brought them back to Cairo. Straight streets, expansive central squares, and tastefully ornate Belle Époque apartment blocks rose next to the old city.

Today those streets are crammed with cars and vendors, strewn with trash, and overshadowed by a lumbering patchwork of overfly highways. The beautiful old buildings of Isma’il’s time crumble under the weight of new floors that have been sloppily added to their tops and exhibit the bleak adornment of 40 years of neglect. The presence of a few restored buildings on a central square, Talaat Harb, only accentuates the decrepitude of their neighbors, contrasting faded fascias with brilliant white facades and jet-black wrought iron.

Cairo desperately needs improvement on every level. Take parks: International urban planning standards say a city should have between 12 and 18 square meters of green space for each resident. Vienna has 120. Cairo has 0.3. It has become clear to many that this style of urban growth cannot be sustained.


In the last few years, several private sector projects have emerged with the promise of reinvigorating downtown Cairo. They plan to restore the century-old buildings to their former splendor, refurbish central Cairo by installing posh cafes and retail stores, open up parks and boulevards, and build office skyscrapers. Al Ismaelia, a real estate consortium whose investors include members of Egypt’s new entrepreneurial elite, sits at the forefront of these projects.

Spurred in large part by a more dynamic regulatory environment, Al Ismaelia began to invest in downtown Cairo. A more developed financial sector allowed for the expansion of the loan and mortgage market, displacing what had been a cash economy and feeding a prolonged real estate boom. According to Karim Shafei, CEO of Al Ismaelia, “The existence of a solid stock exchange, the changes in the incorporation laws, tax laws…have all contributed to a financial boom that has created a much higher disposable income in the middle and upper markets. This has resulted in a boom in real estate demand.”

Al Ismaelia counts on that boom to sell downtown apartments. Having already raised U.S. $67 million in capital, the consortium now owns 20 downtown buildings. Should it fulfill its plans of doubling its ownership, the conglomerate will own 10 percent of all downtown buildings—over a million square meters of real estate. The government owns another 50 percent and, for better or worse, has played a critical role in shaping the city that has come to define modern Egypt.

It is actually a loosening of previous government urban policy and rent control laws that stimulated the current downtown real estate renaissance. Enacted under President Gamal Nasser in the 1940s, the laws prevented landlords from raising rents by more than one percent a year. This was Nasser’s attempt to make good on his promise of equality and to provide Egyptians with affordable housing. By 2010, apartments under the rent control laws were priced at approximately five percent of the market rate for similar units. Shafei noted that “most residential apartments pay between one and five U.S. dollars per month as rent. We’re talking 1,500 to 5,000 square feet apartments at those rents.”

Unable to recoup any investments, landlords neglected basic repairs and letthe buildings go to waste. To further complicatethe situation, rates were hereditary: An apartment and its discounted rent would be passed down from generation to generation. Afraid of losing their special rents, tenants held onto apartments even if they moved elsewhere or abroad. Thus, despite chronic housingshortages in Cairo, 25 to 30 percent of the rent-controlled apartments have no inhabitants.

Progress has been slow. A law in 1996 and a subsequent 2001 constitutionalcourt ruling nominally repealed rent-control but allowed current beneficiariesto pass on their privileges to one finalgeneration. Today, though, just 10 to 15 percent of rent-controlled apartmentshave been privatized.

Talaat Harb, a square near central Cairo. A few of the buildings were being restored by the government to their former splendor. (Kemper/TYG)

Al Ismaelia, however, has capitalized on a provision in the law that allows landlords to buy out tenants and bring apartments onto the market before the end ofthe rental period. Shafei claimed that the company has been able to clear out 47 percent of its units and expects to reach 60 percent vacancy soon, significantly opening up the market.

The government, Cairo’s primary real estate owner, has an even more ambitious vision for downtown Cairo. A plan called Cairo 2050 aims to establish 53,800 acres of green space, 15 new metro lines, and two new railway centers, in addition to other drastic improvements to the city core, by that date.

One aspect of the design includes moving the Corniche, a highway that hugs the banks of the Nile, underground, creating room for sweeping parks, promenades, marinas, and restaurants.


All of these projects, however, run the risk of gentrification—or, as the Cairenes call it, “Zamalekisation.” Zamalek, a large island in the Nile near the center of Cairo, is also composed primarily of old Belle Époque and Art deco buildings but is inhabited entirely by upper class Egyptians and westerners. Its coffee is overpriced, its restaurants are overly chic, and it boasts multiple supermarkets and a sports bar.

People downtown would like to avoid the fate of Zamalek and continue striving for Nasser’s promise of equality. The faded splendor of the downtown area today accommodates the poor and rich alike. Its cafes host Egypt’s intellectuals, and it retains an organic spontaneity; a dirty mechanic’s shop peacefully coexists on the same street as the corporate headquarters of a national bank. 80 percent of Cairo’s businesses are downtown. While Shafei has promised to introduce subsidies for artists and other cultural attractions, it is clear that the Al Ismaelia company and others that dominate the real estate market will be the ones to define what constitutes culture in the Cairo of tomorrow.

“We believe that some activities need not be located in downtown, such as small factories, workshops, warehouses, car repair… and we hope that such businesses can be relocated to areas that are more suitable for the nature of their businesses,” said Shafei.

Then again, the sheer disrepair of downtown Cairo has eroded its status as the home of middle class Egypt. Diane Singerman, a professor at American University in Washington D.C. and the editor of a series of books about urban issues in Cairo, argued that downtown, “was the heart of Nasserist Egypt. It was the middle class hub,” but that now, “a lot people are abandoning that part of the city.”

Shafei admitted that in his 20 buildings downtown he has only 30 residents. However he sees a dearth of affordable housing as natural, and his vision for urban planning diverges from that of the Nasser days: “I believe that formally planned Cairo is not the right location for affordable housing. Moreover, city centers in most developed cities hold the most expensive real estate; there is no reason why Cairo should be any different.”

All of these new developments, especially larger scale government sponsored projects, almost inevitably cause considerable hardship for the poorer citizens of central Cairo. In an article published by Executive Magazine, rabie Wahba, the Middle East-North Africa program director of Habitat International Coalition, said the Cairo 2050 plan could lead to the forced eviction of over 2 million lower-income residents.

Downtown Cairo resident and Oxford University research fellow Lucie Ryzova is concerned about who exactly these projects are intended to benefit. “The mega project of ‘Cairo 2050’ makes it look like quite a few inner city, low-income areas are meant to ‘disappear’ and give space to nice clean parks of entirely new upscale neighborhoods,” she said.

Sixty-five percent of Cairenes live in informal or illegally erected housing, such as the precast concrete tenements in the foreground. (Kemper/TYG)

Part of the Cairo 2050 plan calls for creating a 15,000 acre park in the four-mile long Arafa Cemetery, also known as the City of the Dead. Its countless corpses and the hundreds of thousands of squatters who live among the tombs would be moved into new developments in the desert, leaving only the most historic and architecturally significant tombs.

The City of the Dead’s residents share their plight with the 65 percent of Cairenes who live in informal housing—crude, illegally built apartment blocks that lack basic utilities and infrastructure and are left vulnerable to demolition because of their tenuous legal status.

It is clear that while both the Egyptian government and companies like Al Ismaelia have grand visions for Cairo, neither have consulted the Cairenes about the future of their city.


National politics and ambitions rather than local needs and interests have come to dictate urban planning in Egypt. “There are a lot of things that go on that are supposedly for the public interest but don’t include public participation,” said Singerman.

The scope of the new plans does not come as much of a surprise. Progress in Cairo tends to happen in reckless leaps and subsequent stumbles. The sheer centrality and density of modern Cairo inflates urban planning projects. The Greater Cairo area constitutes 43 percent of Egypt’s population, and almost every government ministry is headquartered in central Cairo. The city has almost no local government to speak of; the President appoints even the governor of the Cairo Governate.

Egypt’s resources have rarely matched the grand visions of its urban planners; Isma’il’s edifices were indicative of a loose purse that left Egypt so bankrupt that its British creditors subsequently impounded the government, violently seizing power in 1882. The current plans could force the country into further economic privation. According to Eric denis, a senior researcher at Paris Diderot University, in the last 20 years, Cairo has seen the construction or commencement of construction of 600,000 residential units for a middle class no larger than 315,000 families.

Special interests have also interfered in the revival of Cairo. A study conducted by urban planner David Sims found that funding for the new cities erected around Cairo—cities built by well-connected real estate developers—accounted for 22 per-cent of the city’s housing budget, though only 2 percent of Cairenes live there.

For Al Ismaelia, the sheer immensity of downtown Cairo might prove most problematic. Ryzova expressed her skepticism: “Ismaelia might be dreaming of turning downtown into an elite enclave, but I don’t think that they can succeed.” She points out that the company owns only a fraction of total real estate and still has to contend with dozens of conflicting ownership claims.

The rise of capitalism in Cairo has brought the building boom full circle. Rows of cranes tend to the blocks of new villas, universities, and golf courses that stretch deep into the desert on the East and West sides of the city as Cairo’s new bourgeoisie attempts to capture and replicate Western suburbia. Sleek skyscrapers haphazardly spring up as new tycoons assert their affluence in a skyline that still counts the great pyramids of Giza among its members.

Some believe, however, that the best solutions already exist. “It’s much better to improve communities that already have their social capital and organization than create brand new things from the imagination,” said Singerman.

In Townhouse Gallery, a downtown institution for art and culture, one project called “Model Citizens” attempts to see just what such a plan would look like. After hearing in 2009 that there were plans to convert their neighborhood Antikhana into a tourist hub, they built a scale model of the surrounding buildings. Over the next few months, they interviewed 140 local residents, asking what kind of improvements they wanted to see, and then updated the model to reflect those suggestions.

In light of recent developments in Egypt, the residents of Antikhana and all Egyptians may soon find themselves with more power to shape the future of their capital and their country. There is no question that the political transition in 2011 and the reforms to come will provide new avenues for popular participation in shaping the future of the nation. Newly empowered, the residents of Cairo must demand that their needs be met by the planners and businessmen responsible for the redevelopment of the Egyptian capital.

Nicolas Kemper ’11 is a Humanities and International Studies double major in Pierson College. Contact him at