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The Capacity for a New Egypt

There have been countless discussions and analysis' in the last several days regarding the future of Egypt.  As I have a rather personal relationship with Egypt, I have paid great attentions to these discussions.  Most often, they have focused on the lackluster stance of the United States, the omnipresent power vacuum, and the pivital role of the military in securing the state on behalf of the people or on behalf of Mubarak.  Facebook, blogs, and twitter posts have also been quick to point out all the things not being discussed: the role of women in the protests, the socio-economic conditions that led to this uprising, and a discourse on what exactly is the identity of the Muslim Brotherhood within the political landscape.  While Al Jezeera has done an excellent job of providing constant coverage, it seems that most American media have spent their time focussing on hypotheticals.  Not to simply add another analysis to the already cluttered pool, but there is one startling observation that remains heavily undiscussed: what are the assets in place for a better Egypt?  

I'll never forget a couple years ago when I went for a job interview with a non-profit founded and operated by Egypt's former Minister of Culture.  He had many impressive credentials, a nice office in a wealthy neighborhood, and project committed to improving relations between Egypt and Sub-saharan Africa.  In short, I accepted an agreement to do a lot of work and in the end was left stranded with with a rather bad situation.  Ultimately I concluded that the agency was simply a corrupt operation for this guy to siphon funds from the government.   The first thing that tipped me off, however, was the fact that this guy had no understanding of the broad scale of non-government organizations situated in Cairo to assist the most vulnerable populations and facilitate capacity building.

A quick google search alone will show one the variety of NGOs that have been long established in Egypt.  Notable agencies include The Egyptian Center of Human Rights, the NGO Support Center, Caritas, and St. Andrews Refugee Services.  Egypt is likewise full of Universities training engineers, scholars, researchers, and technicians at places such as Cairo University, Ain Shams University, American University in Cairo, and the The Future School.   While there certainly tens of millions of Egyptians without adequate access to education or viable livelihood options, there are also millions of Egyptians who are talented, business savvy individuals who have sought opportunities for self advancement their whole lives.

I'm not going to pretend to know what will happen to Egypt - but the possibility is part of the excitement.  Whereas in the past extremist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood were the only viable alternative to Mubarak's government, there is now the means for many other players to enter the field.  In a country that restricted the movement and access to services of its own people, there is now the possibility that a new generation of Egyptians could engage ladders for social mobility.  In contrast to living beneath a 30 year suspended constitution on the grounds of a "State Emergency," the people may express their opinions in newspapers and media outlets - including the internet - without fear of the police taking them away in the middle of the night.  

In contrast to news reports, the people I personally know in Cairo right now explain that the protests have remained generally peaceful.  That many citizens have been actively removing trash from Tahir square and other parts of the city to show this is no longer the downtrodden Egypt of Mubarak. That the crowds are overwhelmingly shouting slogans of universalism to overcome perceived hostilities between Christians and Muslims or rich and poor.  

The struggle for Egypt will remain for sometime.  But I do not perceive this struggle to be frightening, rather it is simply an honest expression of its people, as founded by necessity.  And hopefully, soon, when the country is able to pass over the present precipice of tensions and protest, and move toward resolution in the form of a new government, there will be some recognition of an easily over-looked, yet pre-existing infrastructure.  An infrastructure of longstanding mosques, churches, business owners, academics and non-profits all equally committed to a better Egypt.  This commitment is not new, it has always been there, but  like a plant bursting through the soil to see the sun for the first time, this commitment has the space to live and grow.

Documentary on New Cairo

Incidently, after having written the other day about the urban phenomenea of New Cairo, a documentary was brought to my attention by the blog of a fellow student at the Center for Forced Migration and Refugee Studies, in AUC.  At this point, I have only watched 4 of the 8 minutes, but from what I saw, I believe that it does a fair job to capture the shifting dynamics of the contemporary urban landscape within metropolitan Egypt.  I encourage anyone with a general interest of understanding a little about the modern developments of the Middle East to watch it.  Enjoy.

New Cairo

Yesterday was my refugee psychology class where we usually sit around, hold hands and talk about our feelings.  Every once in awhile, people mention the word refugee, but for the most part the class discussion seems to meander into every direction except refugee psychology.  I don't really mind the class so much, except it is located at the new campus, about an 1 hour bus ride outside of Cairo within the sprawling urban development, New Cairo.

The campus is absolutely beautiful, yet the poor generalplanning of the entire New Cairo development seems to undermine thesatisfaction that one would otherwise derive from the setting.  For the time being, going to school at AUC in New Cairo is disaster.  With no public transportation system in place, the schoolshuttles buses from the old campus gates to the new campus, every dayof the week.  With only 2 or 3 departments still located at the oldcampus, the entire downtown facilities remain empty while the expenseto maintain them remains in place.  In New Cairo, all aspects of dailylife had to be determined and constructed in advance of the residentpopulation, so it is only natural that certain details are lacking orare insufficient.  From technical concerns, such as anticipating theappropriate sewer size for the projected future population, to simplerdetails such as appropriate business hours.  

New Cairo is a rather bizarre place, a big goofy suburb of rich people in big houses out in the desert.  It has many of the characteristics of of new American suburbs, with rows of identical houses, tree lined streets, and convenient shopping centers dotting the periphery, but it also has an array of unique characteristics.  Palm trees dot the medians, giant fountains of water are spread around to showoff the luxury of the neighborhood, and crazy glass office buildings are randomly distributed.  The buildings are generally positioned within a high density, and with nearly zero setbacks, the facades are frequently immediately perpendicular to the street edge.  I can't recall if there are any sidewalks, but I have the impression that the interest of cars dominate the street design far more than pedestrians.

The strange thing about New Cairo is that EVERYTHING is presently under construction.  While normal communities evolve slowly over time, this whole city is planned from top to bottom by urban designers, architects, and real estate companies.  The whole city is being constructed all at once, as all housing, business, utilities, and shopping have suddenly popped up within the Sahara like an oasis of modern commerce.  It makes the area sorta creepy really, to see unfinished concrete buildings buried in the sand, as far as you can see.  An apocalyptic allure hangs over the buildings, especially as I cannot look at them and detach my thoughts from the current economic crisis.  It is difficult to measure or understand the economic downturn from where I stand, as the distinction between rich and poor is so massive within this country, that even with serious detriment to the Egyptian economy, one can barely see a difference.  Yet as New Cairo rises from the desert, I wonder if it will ever accomplish the vision that was set out for this place many years ago.

When I went to school for city planning, many of my more traditional instructors would profoundly echo to the students that the most important characteristic for any planner to contain is to have a strong sense of vision.  To have vision for the future, an ideal to work toward for the greater good of the community, and a specific sense of how this vision can be created in material form.  As I look at New Cairo, I reflect on this sens of vision, contemplating the vision of those who initiated this plan, and yet to see their intentions undermined by greater forces.  Certainly vision matters, but another lesson I had learned while studying planning was the value of metrics.  How much did these planners study and measure the forces that shape communities, that shape the creation of their vision, and ultimately determine the success of this new settlement?  Planning is of course, not a pure science, or at least is often not pursued in that manner as Community Planning is an interdisciplinary discourse.

While personal vision and precise measurements are certainly needed, I would argue that New Cairo reveals a common shortfall among planners, the element of community.  As a completely designed new settlement out on the urban periphery, there was no preexisting community to serve as a foundation for growth.  Communities evolve over time and cannot be magically called into existence.  Yet without a community in place, how does one truly ever know what to plan for?  Maybe in the future, New Cairo will stand as the feature destination for tourists and and successful businesses within Egypt.  Perhaps it will be the glamorous counterpart to Cairo, or maybe it will become assimilated into the general sprawl of Cairo, so that these two different cities will merge into one single massive settlement.  For the moment, New Cairo remains a disconcerting venture as it seems to have everything except for the most crucial ingredient.  People.