Cities talk, smile, frown, wail and rejoice, but their language can be only heard by those who care to listen. A city’s architecture and art, planning and design, streets and traffic, houses and shacks, signs and billboards, advertisements and banners, all speak about its identity.
Old Cairo became Egypt’s capital city in the 10th century, though the current downtown area was built in the 19th century by the overambitious Khedive as a Paris on the Nile, a symbol of his grand plan to align Egypt with Europe and western civilisation. Demographic and socioeconomic changes over the past 150 years have turned it into a Bombay on the Nile, a metropolis with a large population, limited space and crumbling services, uneasy and frustrated.
Downtown Cairo’s effervescence verges on insanity. Worse, it has been compartmentalised in the past few years by concrete security walls to keep protestors away from government buildings. Some walls have been torn down; others remain intact or have been replaced with metal gates that can be closed whenever social turmoil is anticipated. The walls that were built as a temporary measure under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have mostly remained in place, throughout the leadership of the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and the military-backed administration that toppled him last summer. Beneath the army cap or Islamic beard, these regimes have in common lack of legitimacy, political fragility and reliance on security to solve political problems.
Sheep raids speak to revolution
A wall is no more than a dull construction with a specific function. Yet, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz observes, “small facts speak to larger issues” and walls have massive psychological implications. We know that human beings, by instinct, avoid blockades and enclosures. Walls, fences and barriers highlight differences, deepen divisions, impose segregation and suffocate. The Berlin Wall and Israel’s Separation Wall symbolise misguided policies; their fates attest to the fallacy of the logic from which they sprang. The Berlin Wall failed to stop the flow of ideas into eastern Europe or prevent the eventual downfall of Communist regimes; the Separation Wall does not protect Israel from terrorist attacks.
Nowhere is the need for open space and unrestrained movement felt more than in an overpopulated, packed and anarchic place like Cairo. Since states are usually more powerful at their core than their edges, signs of fear in the centre can be seen as an official admission of weakness and vulnerability. Under Mubarak, there were no walls in Downtown Cairo, although people did live in fear, for decades, thanks to the regime’s gigantic, brutal security machine; demonstrations were few, small-scale and intermittent. The 2011 revolution unleashed a popular movement unseen in decades, and as the people protested and the government took defensive measures, the question became who was more afraid — the guards or those at whom they pointed their weapons?
Tahrir Square, the hub of Egypt’s revolution, has been closed to anti-regime protestors since Morsi was ousted in 2013. The area around it is now zoned with barricades, roadblocks and barbed wire on days when protests are anticipated — which shows how little hope remains from the day Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011. Any official talk of democracy, legitimacy and the will of people is voided by a military zone in the square of liberation. When thousands of protestors broke through the riot police’s multiple security cordons and poured into Tahrir on 25 January 2011, they saw it as the inauguration of a new era, the restoration of a right long subjugated by the state. They hugged each other and established, over the 18-day revolution, the “Republic of Tahrir”. Since last summer the square has been closed, protests are banned and security fences have been consolidated.
In February the authorities painted the gate of Qasr al-Aini Street — a major thoroughfare leading to Tahrir — in the colours of the Egyptian flag, a reminder that shameful deeds are often wrapped in patriotism; dictatorships divide to rule, building barriers and disguising them with a national flag and declarations of good intent.
If the policies of the current regime are supported by the majority of Egyptians, and if this majority perceives its current president (and the military’s strongman) Abdel Fattah Sissi as the “saviour of the nation”, why does the regime feel so insecure? Why is it obsessed with imposing such strict security? The answer is that majority is not unanimity. What the post-Morsi regime wants is to eliminate dissent, it wants one voice, no opposition, no diversity — like another country with many walls, North Korea.
Repression and defiance
Cairo’s real walls are mistrust and wariness, which reflect the absence of political consensus, and the failure of Egypt’s transition to democracy; legitimacy is the best defence.
The recent rise in terrorist attacks in Egypt does not validate the substitution of marginal security plans for comprehensive political blueprints: terrorist bombs are an alarm to remind policymakers just how much the old problems have been exacerbated and the old solutions have failed. Men do not kill out of lust or boredom, but anger and frustration. But for a regime searching for pretext, self-delusion can be a comfort, especially the delusion that terrorists are innately evil. As Terry Eagleton writes, “we have thrown out a determinism of environment only to replace it with one of character; it is now your character, not your social conditions, which drives you to unspeakable deeds” (1).
Yet if the regime fights terrorism under that delusion, it will lose. Men with arms might be defeated with arms, but if the underlying reasons that impelled them to use violence against the state are not addressed, then more will take up arms, escalating the conflict. The new generations of terrorists will have an insatiable urge for vengeance and destruction, and war will be normalised. Egyptian politics, which habitually look at complex political problems through a narrow security viewpoint, must finally change.
But autocrats think of control and coercion, not partnership and engagement. They build more walls than bridges. They ask themselves why should I bother with the constraints of democracy when I can impose my will and get away with it? They may not be perceptive, but they can still infer how little legitimacy they have, how much contempt they attract, and how much force they need to use to stay in power. As they live in a world of threats, real and imagined, the dynamics of panic guide their behaviour. Their physical energy is consumed by defence — erecting high walls, buying new weapons, hiring more guards, and building more prisons; they believe these measures will secure them. Psychologists call it a fortress mentality.
There are two hopes — that repression begets resistance, and worse repression invites extra defiance; and that the oppressed almost always outwit and outmanoeuvre their oppressors: dictatorship will always align itself to stupidity, and then fall. The undignified ends of Mubarak and Morsi are vivid cases of this. Egypt responded to the notorious walls by covering them with graffiti — marvellous, creative wall paintings that merge art with intelligence and humour, to expose the tyrants, commemorate the martyrs, and vow determination. (As Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano says, “walls are the publishers of the poor”.) Mohamed Mahmoud Street turned into an open-air art gallery during and after the 2011 clashes; oppression and recalcitrance, coercion and artistry, hideousness and beauty in one place.
Cairo used once to attract immigrants from elsewhere in Egypt, but recently those with the financial means escape to the new suburban communities that have mushroomed around its borders. They have been driven by the desire to remain within the metropolis but away from pollution, congestion and crowds; also by the pursuit of isolation, distinction and suspicion of the social “other”.
Unlike Old Cairo which once accommodated, in harmony and peace, the mansions of pashas, the houses of middle class merchants and state clerks, and the takaya (hospices) of Sufi orders, the new Cairo imposes segregation and limited interaction. This inspired the Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929-2013) to write: “Long live my countrymen; there is no acquaintance among them that makes the alliance live on.” While the walls and gates of Old Cairo, built by the Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties from the 10th to the 12th century, were there to protect the whole city from outside aggressors, today’s walls protect the elite from other social classes, the “other” Egyptians.
The new compounds and semi-resort housing projects around Cairo, in the suburbs of New Cairo and 6th of October City, and along the Cairo-Alexandria and Cairo-Suez roads, are mostly gated and heavily protected. These communities reinforce the boundaries between social classes in a society that already suffers from a huge and expanding gap between the haves and the have-nots. A recent government report stated that Egypt’s poverty rate had increased to 26% in 2012/13, compared with 25% in 2010/11 and 22% in 2008/09. Five businessmen from two families dominated the 2014 Forbes rich list for Egypt, with a combined total wealth of $17bn, around 4% of Egypt’s total wealth.
Just the sight of the walls and guards of Cairo’s desert colonies makes outsiders desire — as the Arabic saying goes, “what is forbidden is desired most” — and imagine there is something precious inside the walls. There is a feeling in Egypt that if an uprising of the hungry ever erupts in Cairo, then its first targets will be the compounds of the rich.
The gated communities are also a sign of neoliberalism, which has swept across Egypt’s middle and lower classes. Political and economic power is moving fast to the suburbs of Cairo, leaving the old wounded city for this new centre. Many politicians live in the suburb of New Cairo, including Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq (runner-up in the 2012 presidential election), and the headquarters of Sissi’s presidential campaign was also there. A commercial and corporate centre just launched there is called Downtown, suggesting that the parallel capital has a downtown of its own. Impoverished Egyptians live on the margins of this new city, in the deprived belts of misery first seen in the 1970s; they have always lived on the margins of an unequal economy.
Egypt’s political walls will come down when a new order is born. But social walls are more entrenched, with their division, segregation, rupture and distrust; these feelings make nations falter. And Cairo — in Arabic, the city victorious — is today more defeated than victorious, more fragmented than united, and more exasperated than content. Its walls epitomise the massive political and social tensions that engulf Egypt. If they could only speak.
Nael Shama is a political researcher and writer. He is the author of Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi, Routledge, 2013.
(1) Terry Eagleton, On Evil, Yale University Press, London, 2011, p 4.