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R. Stadnicki, Urban Activism in Egypt

OIS 3 (2015) – Divercities: Competing Narratives and Urban Practices in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran

Roman Stadnicki

Urban Activism in Egypt: Emergence and Trajectories after the 2011 Revolution1



In June 2013, a broad-based social movement broke out in Istanbul just after the announcement of the impending demolition of a public park located in Taksim Square, which was due to be replaced by a memorial and a shopping centre. Since the mid-2000s, Turkey has seen sizeable urban opposition movements denouncing the economic and social consequences of neoliberal urban transformation projects championed by the ruling circles.2 But for the first time in the Mediterranean region, urban planning served as a pretext for mass social mobilization – whose demands were later expanded to protests against political rigidity, conservatism, deprivation of liberties and increasing inequalities. In Egypt, the opposite occurred. The protests that broke out in 2011 to bring down President Hosni Mubarak and obtain more social justice had, in the months following the revolution, allowed a portion of the youth to engage in a struggle for urban planning reform and to ensure that their claims for justice were also spatial. In Cairo and several other Egyptian cities, we witnessed a rise in urban activism which considers that the revolution must also operate or be reflected across the city and its physical layout. If the 2011 revolution was favourable to this movement's growth, the movement itself is part of a long series of urban disputes (see below) that were already present on the Egyptian blogosphere prior to the revolution, as described by Wael Salah Fahmi.3


We can distinguish two main profiles of urban activists: first, urban professionals (architects, urban planners, students) who often hold several positions (universities, consulting firms, media); and second, politicized activists who regard urban issues as a cause of indignation and protest, but who are not urban planners or specialists by profession.


That said, I will not engage in a sociological study of the main players. Rather, I will examine the conditions of their emergence and the activist strategies of this particular social group, which has shifted a number of lines in Egypt and especially in Cairo.4 We may wonder, while looking at their "play"-grounds and battlegrounds, how Egyptian urban activists have turned the city into both a place for major urban evolution as well as a site for a possible continuation of the revolution. The strategies of militant urban actors in the transitional and post-revolutionary context in Egypt are here examined as an indicator of ongoing changes in Egyptian society.


Finally, it is important to mention that the phenomenon of the rise of urban activism is not, of course, limited to Egypt, but appears in an international context punctuated by the appropriation of urban issues by civil societies.5 Therefore, beyond the revolts that took place in the context of the "Arab Spring", urban activism is part of a global social movement that has led to a "return of critical urban development theories".6 These seem to have been assimilated by Egyptian activists, as evidenced by the reference some of them made to the "right to the city" as described by Henri Lefebvre. In the Middle East, urban activists are not only Egyptian, but also Turkish, Lebanese, Libyan, or Palestinian and Israeli. Local organizations have mushroomed since the 2000s, such as the NGO Bimkom, based in Jerusalem, which aims to counter certain aspects of Israeli planning policy, or the Turkish IMECE movement, which supports residents' demonstrations against Istanbul's major urban projects. If all these movements share common characteristics (such as a rather educated middle class, political leanings to the left, skills in architecture and urban planning), so far they have not been brought together into a common structure. Yet the vitality of their virtual social networks and their occasional presence at seminars and conferences devoted to urban dynamics (organized in Europe and in particular in the United States) increases the opportunities for exchange and interaction between these different actors, as well as the flow of their ideas in the region and beyond.


As Vincent Bourdeau wrote:

Housing, homelessness, squatter movements, reclaiming public space, sit-ins, local citizenship, such are the many struggles that seem to have taken to new measures for protesting (since 1980), not through overarching political demands but through a myriad of public space interventions. In the same way that the "new social movements" are said to have led to political polarisation in civil society, new urban movements are said to have sprung up, without necessarily having a global, collective, and unified policy vis-à-vis urban issues.7

No more unified in Egypt than elsewhere, these "new urban movements" still have some strong local individuals and actions that deserve our attention.

Conditions for the Emergence of Urban Activism in Egypt


The emergence of urban activists in Egypt is favoured by three factors derived directly from the 2011 revolution: a general opening up of the field of activism, a diversification and pluralization of civil society and the strong urban dimension of the revolution.


First, the revolution of 25 January 2011 gave freedom to public speaking while contributing to the development of political activism in Egypt. For some, the "Arab Springs" reveal how, on the one hand, large-scale social movements and a culture of protest is no longer the privilege of the "North" and on the other hand, that this experience has transformed ordinary individuals into political players whose activist repertoire has considerably expanded.8 Francesco Cavatorta adds that the formation of "new spaces of activism" is a remarkable consequence of the Arab uprisings of 2011.9 This activism takes on many forms. Equally diverse are the means of expression and communication used to give it substance. In addition to protests – commonplace in Cairo between 2011 and 2013 – the body of tactics used by activists grew considerably in those two years: sit-ins, election boycotts, petitions, or calls for civil disobedience (including in Port Said in 2013, which was the first experiment of its kind).10 At the same time, activism has gained visibility. Without returning to the controversial debate on the digital origins of the Arab revolutions,11 we may no longer doubt the importance of the role of new media and digital social networks in organizing activism and the diffusion of revolutionary ideology. Similarly, the development of independent media through the creation of new newspapers and television channels marks an important stepping-stone for social struggles and mobilization. On a more basic level, art (performances, street art, graffiti) offers an opportunity for individuals to broaden their spectrum of activism, diversify the focus of protests and reach a wider audience.12 Thus, until the return to military authoritarianism at the end of 2013, we witnessed many variations of activism, regardless of the particular issue sparking the protest: political opposition, anti-militarism, the feminist cause, youth demands, soccer or urban planning, as well as land settlement policies.


Second, the militant dynamic that affects the key urban players in Egypt cannot be dissociated from the changes taking place in civil society at large. These changes are defined primarily by a rise in the influence of civil society at the outset of the revolution, and later, by deep structural and organizational changes. Several observers have endorsed the theory of "the civil nature of the Egyptian revolution"13 insofar as it is indeed the people – with no political or ideological leadership and with no real desire to gain power – who sought and obtained the fall of Mubarak. However, this argument assumes the adoption of a broad definition of the term "civil society" – no longer limited to registered NGOs, but involving all social movements carried out by individuals who at any given time are engaged in political and civic activities.14 The first signs of transformation of Egyptian civil society occurred in the mid-2000s, when it managed to become empowered vis-à-vis the state through the rise of social protests (strikes by textile workers and the press in particular) and by the end of monopoly in the media.15 Nonetheless, it is indeed the 2011 revolution that marks a formal and conceptual rupture. It revealed the profound gap that existed before the revolution between human rights organizations – such as the ones El Naggar classifies as "elitist activism", which played a minor role in the revolutionary process – and social players with backgrounds in informal "street activism",16 who were the originators of the popular uprising. Thus, the 2011 revolution somehow marks the transition between a civil society traditionally composed of NGOs that made their debut in the authoritarian context of the Mubarak regime, and in most cases received technical, financial, and ideological support from international donors, and a new civil sector made up of pluralistic and diverse organizations, less formalized, and comprised of individuals who acquired their legitimacy from the streets, the Internet and social networks.17 It is within this process of change or mutation of Egyptian civil society that the urban activist movement was founded during the two years following the revolution.


Third, it has been shown that the Arab revolts in general, and the Egyptian revolution in particular, have deep-seated urban origins.18 Occurring in a region with urbanization rates of more than 70 per cent, the revolutionary episodes can be seen as purely urban occurrences. These revolutions use cities as their theatres; their motivation can be attributed to a lack of access to housing and urban services, among other deprivations; their methods consist of the reappropriation or reinvention of urban public space – confiscated by decades of authoritarianism. It should be added, in the case of Egypt, that urbanization embodies the now widely discredited neoliberal practices of the Mubarak regime (privatization of urban operations, real estate speculation, a laissez-faire policy of informal urbanization). But even so, a stream of resistance movements appeared before the 2011 revolution: rallying of residents in neighbourhoods against forced evictions in the late 2000s; farmers on the islands of Cairo protesting against the real estate projects; zabaleen (garbage collectors/recyclers) protesting against the privatization of waste collection.19 These elements can be understood retrospectively as harbingers of the 2011 uprising, giving it a very strong territorial and urban dimension. These circumstances as a whole explain why, nearly four years after the revolution, urban planning has remained a matter of major social concern. However, in each of the key areas of urban development (such as housing, transport, local democracy) decisive action has been scarce.20 Admittedly, the proliferation of advertisements for flagship measures, including low-income housing projects, shows that urban planning ultimately began to find its place in the Muslim Brotherhood discourse (they were in power until July 2013).21 This also spawned a new set of issues: criticism of government inaction is replaced by criticism of the orientation of urban policies considered too reminiscent of the Mubarak regime. The issues that consume the urban activist community show that political changes in Egypt demonstrate the "revolutionary potential of urban space".22

Typology of Urban Activists in Cairo


In 2013 in Cairo there were over a hundred registered organizations addressing manifold urban issues, against only 20 organisations immediately following the revolution. In addition, at the time of investigation, there were many unregistered and spontaneous organizations. Without claiming to be exhaustive, it is possible to distinguish between three broad categories of urban activists in the Egyptian capital.

Mainstream and "human rights" organizations whose actions are only partly based on improving living conditions in the city


In this first category we mainly find human rights organizations that existed before the 2011 revolution. Nonetheless, it is useful to distinguish between those that had an urban component in their original remit and those that were not initially dedicated to urban struggles, but became so post-2011.


Thus, a number of fairly broad-based developmental and human rights organizations engage in providing social services, home improvement and street maintenance (Resala, Habitat for Humanity, Misr al kheir). Others fight against evictions, forced relocations, corruption and illegal rental contracts (Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, Housing and Land Rights Network, Amnesty International). Most of these kept a low profile during and after the revolution.23 Mohamed Hussein El Naggar reminds us that their mission is less concerned with revolutionary activism than with aiming to bring about far-reaching reform of the tools and policy strategies used to promote human rights.24 Their track record in each of the above areas of intervention, however, is often considered by a number of new activists to be lacking. They often blame them for proximity to the Mubarak regime, the lack of focus of their fields of action, their disconnect from the people, or their reliance on foreign funding and agendas.25


Is it to deter and/or prevent such criticism that some human rights organizations engaged in urban struggles in 2012 and 2013? We have seen the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (http://eipr.org/en), and the No Military Trials for Civilians group (the first to challenge military tribunals for civilians) get involved in the struggle between the army and the people of Qursaya Island, located in the centre of Cairo, when the army tried to dislodge them by force in November 2012. As such, these organizations provide residents with legal support, media coverage and revolutionary legitimacy. The April 2013 acquittal of a few dozen of the island's inhabitants is a likely consequence of such support. For these militant organizations, which are not specifically devoted to urban issues, the participation in this struggle for the right to occupy inhabited land, as well as their involvement in other conflicts that opposed the state (or the army), on behalf of the residents of informal areas (e.g. in Bulaq-Maspero, see below) represented an opportunity to reconnect with post-revolutionary political struggles.

Individuals and/or organizations whose actions can be likened to a more or less long-term fight for their "right to the city"


The second category of players is comprised of those focused only on urban campaigning for urban rights to the city in a Marxist dimension. This can be understood as a right to challenge urban policies, the right of access to land, housing, key urban services, and the right to citizen participation.26 Here again, a subdivision is needed between activists who engage in immediate struggles and resistance through often coercive direct action, and those considering more indirect and longer-term action.


The pioneering organization in this field, both in the short and long term and direct and indirect action, is the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights. It was founded in the mid-1990s, when the Bulac-Maspero district in central Cairo was the focus of mass evictions. As explained in her interview with Agnès Deboulet, Manal al-Tibi, the founder, became engaged in housing rights when the concept was not yet in use in Egypt.27 In addition to the demonstrations against evictions in the 2000s, the Centre claims to have led the call to include in the 2008 urban planning law the right to alternative accommodation in case of eviction. In this organization's footsteps, similar organizations appeared: the Right to Housing Initiative launched in 2012 by Yahia Shawkat (author of the blog The Shadow Ministry of Housing), and Egyptian Urban Action, founded by architect Omnia Khalil, both seeking to show that evictions still continue in informal neighbourhoods. Yet the methods for expressing dissent have evolved since the revolution. For example, photographic exhibitions and documentaries aim to valorize self-constructed housing in poor neighbourhoods, and in doing so, to change the way authorities perceive this phenomenon.


Housing activism was also marked in October 2011, by members of a group called New Urban Communities Youth Alliance. For several days, they occupied dozens of vacant homes in 6th of October City, a new town located on the outskirts of Cairo, before being ousted by the army. The squatters accused the New Urban Communities Authority – a public body responsible for new cities – of assigning these housing units (presented as "social" by the government) according to "subjective and non-transparent criteria" and seeking to make a profit by renting them out at above-market prices.28 Independent press coverage of this operation revealed the dysfunction of this social housing project – already observed by Bénédicte Florin.29 More generally, coverage also shed light on the arbitrary management of new cities by the New Urban Communities Authority, a product of the previous administration, which to this day has yet to be put under scrutiny.


Thus, urban policies and management in general have prompted activists' concerns. This is evidenced by the development of organizations and collectives to defend the interests of the Qursaya inhabitants,30 or of Bulaq-Maspero. In Bulaq-Maspero, a collusion of interests between the government and real-estate developers is blamed, as well as the forces of gentrification that produced the construction of high-rises on the Nile, resulting in the gradual destruction of the existing structures in informal areas. Moreover, the specialized blogosphere showed great concern with the iconography surrounding the Cairo 2050 project. Conceived during the Mubarak era with international competitiveness and the conquest of the desert in mind, this project has now been more or less abandoned for lack of funding. Images of the Nile banks lined with glass towers – largely inspired by the urban model in force in the Gulf – are targeted and challenged online by highly engaged activists. Beyond looking to criticize existing planning documents, the collaborative blogs Drawing Parallels (http://drawingparallels.blogspot.com), Cairo from Below (http://cairofrombelow.org), Cairo: the Multi-schizophrenic City (http://cairomsc.blogspot.com) and The Shadow Ministry of Housing (http://blog.shadowministryofhousing.org) seek to influence national planning policy. Today such blogs and their proposals constitute real alternatives. Other organizations advocate sharing of experiences and expertise as crucial solutions to putting an end to top-down urban policies. This is the case with Badilab (http://baladilab.com) , founded by a team of architects, and Megawra (http://megawra.com), administered by the Egyptian NGO Built Environment Collective, which aims to organize workshops and seminars, and to design activities to promote collaboration among users, professionals and students in the building sector.


Other initiatives focus more on the medium to long term than on immediate results. We must therefore address the rise of organizations defending corporatist interests, modelled on unions. For example, on 26 September 2012, Cairene street vendors created an independent union to ensure continuation of the rights they had acquired after the revolution, particularly in terms of presence in public spaces. Meanwhile, the zabaleen already had an equivalent organization since 2004, called Spirit of Youth. After the revolution its leader, Izzat Naim, did not hide his political ambitions and his desire to transform the organization into an official union.31


Citizen participation in urban planning was another increasingly popular theme with urban activists in Egypt, who wished to join in the "collaborative urban turning point" that had been taking place on the international scene for a few years.32 In Cairo, Takween (http://takween-eg.com) is at the forefront of this issue. Originally specialized in the restoration of informal settlements, its members led a double political battle in 2013: inclusion of the concept of the right to housing in the new Egyptian constitution, and, through the Tadamun programme, to have the new urban community-based organizations (CBOs) recognized by the government as "community representatives" capable of carrying out strong initiatives in the absence of local governance.33 Other organizations even design participatory urban planning projects, such as the NGO Remal – creator of the leading model, the Egypt 712 – or the Cairo from Below collective, which launched a call for projects titled Our Urban Futures (figure 1). More generally, the creation of websites and newspapers (Cairobserver, Cairo Resilience) has produced new spaces that give a voice to citizens, criticize government projects and encourage a rethinking of urban planning practices. Cairobserver (http://cairobserver.com) is a pioneer website run by Mohamed Elshahed, which publishes a number of interviews with people in different neighbourhoods of Cairo (figure 2). The interviews are highly critical on topics such as access to services and mobility; however, they also reveal the willingness of those interviewed to participate in debates on urban planning in Egypt.

Figure 1 – An example of a reply to the call for bids by "Our Urban Futures", published on the blog Cairofrombelow.org

Figure 2 – Screenshot of the Cairobserver.com blog, August 2013

Individuals and/or organisations whose actions are related to the protection of the urban environment and the common good


The third category in this typology is the defenders of the common good and quality of life, whose actions are mainly directed towards the preservation of heritage, environmental protection and the development of public spaces. The degradation or even destruction of some architectural landmarks of Cairo (the Institute of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pavilion in Shubra, Ispenian and Casdagli villas) – as part of the revolution's collateral damage – led some architects to alert and mobilize the authorities and the population via newspaper articles, Facebook pages, or newsletters (see io weekly by the architect Shaimaa Ashour). Campaigns to rescue the architectural heritage of particularly vulnerable cities, such as Port Said and Alexandria, have also been launched, notably by the Megawra and Heritage Egypt organizations. In the domain of heritage, civil society activism is relatively old, with the 1992 earthquake having sparked a general awareness. Since 2011 we have seen the creation of new collectives, their rejuvenation, as well as a renewal of forms of dissent expressed in demonstrations, human chains, and trials.


Samuël Poisson observes the same trends among environmental activists.34 Among the new players is Greenarm. In addition to promoting modes of sustainable transportation, it seeks to unify environmental activism in Cairo. Collectives promoting permaculture and vegetable gardens on rooftops have also increased, although they remain low profile. Meanwhile, the Habi Centre for Environmental Rights, which has existed in Egypt since 2001, contributed to promoting the concept of environmental rights when attempting to stop the construction of a polluting fertilizer plant in Damietta in 2011.


Finally, many players argue for the free usage and sharing of urban public spaces. As such, urban planners aspire to participate in the regeneration of the city centre by "de-privatizing"35 it and increasing publicity (through conferences, meetings) to sway the powers that be. The Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) (http://d-caf.org), launched in 2012, sets up events, with help from other artist groups, in interstitial places downtown (old buildings, rooftops, storefronts, alleyways) and month-long public performances, by organizing plays, concerts and other types of performance. Finally, activist art is also practised through graffiti on the walls built by the army around Tahrir Square between 2012 and 2013 to prevent gatherings.36 The group No Walls, formed in March 2012, aims to transform the walls – veritable urban boundaries – into "virtually opened spaces" through trompe l'oeil paintings, thus transforming them into idealized public spaces (figure 3).