en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 47, Number 2March/April 1996

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents


Inside the Megacity

Written and photographed by Dick Doughty

At twilight, a Nile-cooled breeze twists through a labyrinth of balconied apartment towers, some still cocooned in wooden scaffolding. It ruffles streetside rows of young trees and eddies dust on the sun-warmed asphalt that defines blocks of offices, shops, boutiques, apartment homes and mosques in Mohandiseen, Cairo's smart commercial center west of the Nile. An Egyptian pop cassette pumps rhythm from a waiting taxi while car horns bleat, atonal and plaintive. A drill whines somewhere above, and near the corner a pushcart vendor lauds his produce to passersby. Two young men in fluorescent sports outfits walk past, gesturing intently. Their white jogging shoes crunch softly in the street grit.

Two decades ago, when these young men were children learning to walk, there was no grit in this street. There was no street—and no apartment towers, no car horns. Mostly there was only dark Nile Valley soil, moist and fertile with cotton and vegetables. Above the green leaves you could watch the Great Pyramids shimmer in white haze.

But not now. Now 16 million people live in Greater Cairo. Some say there are fewer, some say more. There are no reliable statistics. But two things are certain: Cairo is very big—and it's getting bigger very quickly. Cairo is a megacity.

"For the first time, wherever you go, it seems that the city is still there," says Dr. Mohammed Taher al-Sadek, editor of Al Memar, the Egyptian Architectural Association's quarterly, and professor of city and regional planning at Cairo University. "Even I can't grasp it any more."

Like any great city, wrote anthropologist Janet Abu-Lughod, Cairo is "a mosaic of subcities," each the product of a different social order, a different technological era and a different economy. Cairo is thus much more than a "new city" added to an "old city."

Much of today's Cairo is of course a product of the industrial age, from neighborhoods of quotidian family-run shops all the way out to huge government or privately-owned factories on the city's outskirts. Almost eclipsed now are the old suqs and capillary alleys where shops are still organized in clusters by trade, just as they were in the Middle Ages. In Cairo's multiple commercial centers, franchise stores offer the abundance of the global consumer economy and the streets are peppered with corporate advertising, sometimes in Arabic, sometimes in English. And only a few kilometers away, there still lie quiet, ox-plowed fields edged by brick-house neighborhoods organized along village lines, the remains of Cairo's once-dominant agricultural economy.

Every one of these sub-cities has a square or a neighborhood or a mosque that is its hub, where the faces of Egypt mingle with those of other parts of the Arab world and Africa and those of the West. When plodding wooden carts, ingeniously repaired Fiats and tinted-window BMW's clog the streets, and when thick crowds of people—from poor to rich, illiterate to university-trained, wage laborers and civil servants, merchants and mothers, students and peddlers—fill the sidewalks and the squares, every morning and well on into the night, then Cairo pulses as the heady center of uncountable human universes. Intoxicating yet exhausting, it is this seemingly infinite human wealth that lends magnificence to Cairo's soul—and confronts it with its greatest paradox.

"No other Arab city is so alive," says a local expert who has studied Cairo's varying neighborhoods. A Cairo-based US advisor to the Government of Egypt observes that international news from Cairo frequently fails to communicate the "tremendous vibrancy here."

Cairo has earned an enviable reputation as one of the friendliest of the world's great cities. Relaxed attitudes, a tradition of hospitality and the renowned Egyptian sense of humor have smoothed daily troubles for centuries. But Cairo is also the heart of Egypt, where 60 million citizens today face the unprecedented challenge of housing, schooling and employing more than 1.3 million newborn compatriots every year. This must be done using little more than four percent of Egypt's territory, the ribbon of Nile-watered land whose total area is only two times that of tiny Kuwait. And of these new citizens, more than 350,000 are born each year in Cairo.

The face of "modern" Cairo began to appear in the late 1860's. Only 300,000 people lived in the city then, half as many as in the 14th century, when it was the most populous capital in all of Europe and the Middle East—until the plague of 1326. In the 1860's and early 1870's, the new Suez Canal and the Cairo- lexandria railroad reinforced Cairo's role as an East-West trade center of the early industrial age. Civil war in the us drove a surge in world demand for cotton, already Egypt's top export.

Flush with this trade, Khedive Ismail, ruler of Egypt, decided in 1867 that Cairo deserved the same wide, radial boulevards that had just reshaped and modernized Paris. Ismail drained the shallow lakes that separated Cairo from the Nile, tore through a jumble of traffic-clogged streets and laid down the network of boulevards and maydans—small, circular plazas—that are modern Cairo's geometry.

The expansion of Cairo's population, however, did not begin in earnest until nearly half a century later. Underground sewers, installed in 1915, brought dramatic improvements in public health that nosed the birth rate above the death rate for the first time. By 1930, Cairo's population passed the one-million mark. A wartime manufacturing boom brought a wave of migration that nearly doubled this figure by 1945.

But nothing has been like the last two decades. In the early 1970's, climbing oil prices brought an indirect windfall to the economy. At the same time, farms throughout Egypt were becoming too subdivided to satisfy family needs as they had for centuries. As a result, men sought opportunities in the Arabian Gulf in record numbers. The wages they wired home allowed families once accustomed to subsistence living to step into a nascent consumer economy, buying televisions, home appliances and the like. Many also forsook the village for the city, carrying with them the dreams of education and prosperity that would reshape Cairo.

In 1974 the late President Anwar Sadat's infitah, or "open door" policy, allowed foreign investment in Egypt—largely banned since the country's 1952 socialist revolution—and ushered in what city planner al-Sadek calls "a new philosophical era." It was a turning point. The boom was on.

Over the next 20 years, more than seven million people poured into Cairo. They filled the Nile valley to overflowing and spilled out into the desert, settling in a few years more than twice as much land as Cairo had covered in all its thousand previous years of history.

Now, in the Middle East, Istanbul and Tehran are each only half of Cairo's size. If Cairo were sovereign, it would be the fifth-largest Arab country. Even some Cairo neighborhoods have nation-sized populations: Shubra, north of the city center, houses three million people, comparable to the population of Lebanon.

Cairo is also in every respect the center of Egypt, as it has been almost since its founding in 969. One quarter of all Egyptians live there. The majority of the nation's commerce is generated there, or passes through the city. The great majority of publishing houses and media outlets and nearly all film studios are there, as are half of the nation's hospital beds and university desks. The population density of Cairo is exceeded only by the cities of India. And just how new is Cairo? Look out a window: Stone-crafted minarets still grace the sky—here and there—but one building in five is less than 15 years old. And now, fewer than one in eight Cairenes goes to sleep each night in the historic quarters that knew the ways of the city's Fatimid founders.

This astonishing growth until recently surged well ahead of city services. Homes, roads, electricity, telephones and sewer services were all suddenly in short supply. Analysts trying to grasp the magnitude of the change coined terms like "hyper-urbanization." On the ground, planners struggled: Only bits of the Cairo Master Plan of 1970 and the Greater Cairo Master Scheme of 1982 were ever implemented.

"Planning has not coped with the migrations. How could it have?" says Abdel Rahim Shehata, governor of Giza, which encompasses all of Greater Cairo west of the Nile. "We are busy providing the minimum services. It is a race against time."

And what a race it is. In a 1990 report, the United Nations called the city's response "one of the most ambitious physical planning efforts in the developing world." As a result, Cairo is catching up with itself.

A drive around the city can be as impressive as the figures. Seven bridges now span the Nile. Downtown expressways and lesser flyovers bypass coagulated traffic circles. New roads knit outlying suburbs into the urban fabric. A 100-kilometer (62-mile) ring-road expressway is largely complete. Donkey carts are banned from the city center, and traffic police keep everyone moving. Trips that used to be measured in whole hours are now, on good days, a matter of minutes, even as the number of cars in the city threatens to triple, since 1980, to nearly one million.

Like vertebrae along Cairo's riverine spine, 33 stations now articulate the first of three planned Metro rail lines, open since 1988; the second line is slated to open next year. The trains run on time. Along well-swept platforms in downtown stations, locally produced music videos—and advertising—play on television monitors. For thousands of factory workers who live in the north of the city and work in the south, the Metro has sliced commuting time in half.

The number of telephones has more than quintupled since the early 1980's, years that Cairenes recall with wry comments about the legions of couriers who threaded the gridlock afoot and on bicycles to deliver business messages, because telephones were so scarce. Now, businesses and homes often have lines fo» voice, fax and modem, and cellular phones are expected to be introduced soon.

The scarcity of land with access to water has historically favored apartment-style housing. For the middle and upper classes, private developers and land speculators—who have sought to capitalize on a tenfold rise in land values since 1970—have built a surplus of comfortable housing. For the majority of Cairenes, however, demand for modest, low-cost housing has run well ahead of the massive, government-sponsored construction programs. This has led to the third—and ultimately most traditional—type of Cairene construction: the owner-built, brick-and-concrete houses of one to five stories that now shelter more than four million people, or one fourth of the city. One Cairo-based us development specialist calls this wave of "informal" housing "the most unique phenomenon of modern Cairo."

Many of these nearly 100 unplatted neighborhoods, now sub-cities in their own right, have their origins in the wages sent home from the Arabian Gulf countries before the 1990 Gulf crisis. Without that flow of money into the economy, experts say, Cairo might have been ringed by shantytowns, a fate that—nearly alone among the developing world's megacities—it has avoided.

"Informal housing is not a 'problem.' It's a creative response," says anthropologist Linda Oldham, co-author of a 1985 study of these communities and a resident of Cairo since 1976. She points out that even though such a home often lacks utilities for a number of years after it is built, it is nearly always structurally sound. The owners usually supervise the construction, and because the home is often built piecemeal as the family acquires cash, contractors, too, have clear incentives to do good work in order to be hired to put up the next story. "It's a very solid social process," Oldham says.

But Sahal Abou Ezz, undersecretary in the Ministry of Development, New Lands, Housing and Public Utilities, believes that instead of building informally, most people should apply for government-built apartments that—unlike many informal buildings and communities—are supported with needed utilities and services. Since 1977, he points out, the government has built nearly a million apartment units throughout Greater Cairo. Some of the greatest concentrations lie in the deserts northeast and west of the city, where hundreds of buildings in styled clusters of a dozen or more rise in unbroken, serried ranks, bristling with matchbox balconies.

Many Cairenes, however, hold different views. "People stay in [downtown] Cairo because it has spirit. Thousands of years of dwelling has created a pattern of relationships that is very valuable," says architect Abdel Halim Ibrahim Abdel Halim, whose recent work has been aimed at restoring key points in Cairo's urban core. The families of many of the city's unskilled and semiskilled workers, he explains, often come either from the old parts of Cairo or from villages. "In their presence and their culture the people embody the geometry of the old city," he says. This can make a move to what planners call a "modern" housing complex a culturally difficult experience.

For example, points out sociologist Nawal Hassan, head of the Center for the Study of Egyptian Civilization, laws barring market stands on the streets of public housing areas—enacted to keep streets free of congestion—often impose an unfamiliar pattern of neighborhood organization on residents who are accustomed to purchasing modest food needs from in front of their homes, or at most within several blocks of home. Accordingly, "people have to adapt to the plan, rather than vice versa," she says, adding that the same situation occurs frequently in public housing projects the world over.

But for "Chef" Gamal, who commutes from an "informal" community west of the Nile to supervise two cooks at a sandwich stand along a canyon-like street lined with apartments near the city center, such mass-produced housing is simply practical. "These towers take in the rising population," he says glancing upward. "How else are we supposed to do that here?"

Since the 1970"s, the government has taken the idea of public housing a step further and built half a dozen "satellite cities" or "new towns" in the deserts surrounding Cairo. The one named Fifteenth of May, to the south, began in 1979 as a commuter city serving nearby factories. Of the six new cities, it is now the closest to being successful, and the key, says Hosni Abu Elenin, chairman of the Fifteenth of May Authority, was that the 80,000 residents didn't have to change jobs when they moved.

Other new cities, however, remain sparsely inhabited. A 1989 government report estimated the population in all the satellite cities around Cairo at one-fifth of that called for in the original plans. But this is changing: Tax incentives have prompted a slow but promising migration of private industry, and Cairo's steady expansion may yet weave all into a single cosmopolitan carpet. "As soon as a major international hotel gets built [in Tenth of Ramadan city]," says a German owner of a diaper factory in that new city, "business will really take off. When that happens, people will flock to where the jobs are. I think it is inevitable."

Demographer Hoda Rashad, director of the Social Research Institute at the American University in Cairo, lives in Madinat Nasr, "Victory City," one of the largest and earliest of the desert development areas of the 1970's. Back then, she says, Madinat Nasr was just as bare as the new satellite cities are now, and people spoke of it just as disdainfully. But today, it is a part of Greater Cairo—and one with status, to boot. "I was walking home the other night along one of the main streets, with all the shops and lights and cars, and I found myself wondering, 'Am I really still in Egypt?' The change has been so astonishing. [Madinat Nasr] is one of the most popular places now!

"People's feelings about the desert are changing," she adds. "Sometime in the last five years it became a less frightening or lonely place. We Egyptians are people of the river, you know, historically. But now people are more willing to invest [in the new cities]."

Salah Al-Shakhs, who headed the government's Division of General Planning in the late 1960's, maintains that despite the overly optimistic early projections, the new cities are bound to fill up. He points out that it took more than 20 years for Brasilia, Brazil's new capitial city, to become popular. "Now it has twice as many people as it was supposed to," he says. "It just takes time."

One of Cairo's most urgent—and newly j acknowledged—tasks is to reverse growth- related environmental degradation. Until recently, pollution, from litter to choking smog, had been largely tolerated as a cost of economic growth. But this attitude too is changing.

"We now view pollution as a cost to Egypt," says Salah Hafez, director of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. "Our main mission is to institutionalize this new way [of thinking]."

In 1994, Egypt's legislature passed the Law on the Protection of the Environment, which is, according to Hafez, "unprecedented and very promising." He points out that, for the first time, air- and water-quality standards are set under one law. Automobile emissions testing will be enforced gradually over the next three years and, by 2000, Cairo's standards will be based on those commonly used in European cities. Efforts to reduce lead in gasoline have already cut airborne lead emissions by 24 percent. All industries will be held to emissions standards for both air and water. "Enforcement is a matter of education, and of building alliances," Hafez explains.

Cleanup is also going on underground, as the first segments of the world's largest sewage engineering feat opened their sluice-gates in 1994. The $4-billion Greater Cairo Wastewater Project is moling tunnels—some wide enough to drive a bus through—under nearly every section of central Cairo. This spells relief for the pre-World War II sewer system, which, according to Talat Abu Seida, vice-chairman of the project, used to leave up to half the city's daily output untreated.

Few in Cairo speak ill of these physical improvements, or even take them for granted. But opinions and hopes for the future time and again turn on the more personal axis of economics. "The roads, the new highways, the telephones, these are very nice," says one public-sector architect who moonlights as a taxi driver. "But the standard of living has not kept up." Since 1982, inflation has gnawed away 40 percent of the purchasing power of wages.

"Unless the economy is sufficiently activated to provide one-half million new jobs each year for the next 10 years," observes Governor Shehata of Giza candidly, "this country will be in trouble. And we must do this at a time when the role of government is shrinking" through privatization. To this end, many of Egypt's 400 state-owned companies are in the process of being sold to private investors, and the government is working to smooth a variety of legal and regulatory paths for entrepreneurs (See Aramco World, January-February 1996). This process of privatization, which now largely dominates economic philosophy in Egypt, both drives and reflects a cultural shift in attitudes toward work in Cairo: Today, a job is often viewed less as a social right—as it was in the 1950's and 1960's—and more as a reward for individual achievement.

"Government jobs are not the status symbols they once were," says Abdel Salam Hasan, who came to Cairo with his parents 20 years ago from a Delta village and now is a business administrator with a Swedish-owned firm. "Even public sector employees work after hours [in private businesses]. People have more initiative these days."

Until the Gulf crisis, one popular field of employment lay in the oil-producing countries of the Arabian Gulf. When those jobs temporarily dried up, increasing competition in the streets of Cairo led many to look west instead of east for jobs outside Egypt. But in Europe, Canada and the us, languages other than Arabic are spoken, Islam is a minority faith, the skills required tend to be high, and uprooting oneself—even temporarily—is rarely a simple matter, either practically or emotionally. "The West has a reputation for being cold," says Nazli Islam, a recent graduate of the American University in Cairo. "Of my [English-speaking] friends, about half of them want to go and half of them don't." There can be a lot of opportunity, she adds, "but we are very aware of what we would be leaving: our families and the warmth of our culture here."

Among Cairo's most cherished characteristics, many put this ineffable sense of warmth high on today's endangered list. "There is a growing feeling that people are fending for themselves," says demographer Rashad, who says she notices this tendency particularly among young people, who worry about future job prospects.

"It seems that people dealt with each other more like family before," says a 21-year-old medical student at Cairo University, when asked how her city is changing. "Now people deal with more their own problems. Sometimes everybody seems only to care for money."

These concerns lie at the heart of long-running controversy over what "modernization"—al-tahdith in Arabic—means on the streets of Cairo. For years, as in many other non-Western cities, it has been understood, too simply, as "old" giving way to "new"—terms that are often used to refer, on the one hand, to all that is traditional, based on religion and centered on the extended family, or, on the other hand, to things that are commercial, secular and centered on the individual. The result is a mosaic of frequently competing values. "There used to be a sharp line between wrong and right," says planner al-Sadek. "Now it's mixing up."

"This 'modernization' is a problematic term," says business administrator Abdel Salam Hasan, who is taking a break from work to relax on a newly installed bench alongside a busy street. "'To become modern/ to me, doesn't mean machines or computers but more that, say, someone like me can sit here in a public place and care about it, feel some investment in it. We have to modernize ourselves before we modernize our machines. Real modernization is a human affair."

One who recognizes this daily is Magdy Fahim Aly, md, who is, outside his medical practice, a community organizer in government-built housing in the northern district of Shubra. He witnessed a breakdown of community when apartments in his housing project were assigned randomly, rather than according to residents' pre-existing family and social affiliations. As in many such new complexes, "people didn't know each other anymore. You didn't know your neighbor in the same building," he says.

For 12 years Aly worked with a local committee to build cooperation in what became one of Cairo's most effective citizen groups. According to Dr. Wafa'a Abdullah, director of the Social and Cultural Center of the National Institute for Planning, Aly and the 1000 families of the Khalafawi public housing complex—now affectionately called "Khalafawi Gardens"—show that Cairenes can live and even thrive within an often-criticized housing system.

Garbage, Aly says, filled the areas between buildings for years after the complex was built in 1969. But it was when leaky sewer pipes contaminated the drinking water that Aly, then a medical student, joined with six others whe decided that something had to change.

In 1979, the group collected donations and laid new sewer lines to their own building. They hauled off the garbage themselves and began planting shrubs and trees. Within two months, 14 other buildings in the complex had followed suit. Five years later, "Khalafawi Gardens" had been transformed by more than a dozen islands of trees, a mosque, a volunteer health clinic, a weekly cinema, a sewing center and a playground that now is packed with several hundred kids every evening.

"At first it was very hard to change people's minds," Aly says. "But conditions forced us to change." "It was not just a physical change, but a social change," adds Abdullah. Now, under Abdullah's guidance, Khalafawi residents are helping train similar groups in eight other government-built housing complexes.

Architect Abdel Halim is similarly committed to nourishing the best in Cairo's urban character by preserving and upgrading its public places. Because land is so scarce, he points out, the city has historically offered little common recreational space.

"Common land is the most vital part of any city. People need a place where they can be aware of their common bonds," he says.

His most recent project is a children's park tucked into a bit more than a hectare (about three acres) of the historic district of Al-Saiyydah Zaynab, just south of the modern city center. Its several plazas, small amphitheater and craft shops offer "a setting to open up activities," he says. His success led the Aga Khan Commission to assign him to develop a 30 hectare (75-acre) park, which will become the city's largest when it is completed in 1999. Set on a small hill overlooking Al-Azhar university and the oldest part of Cairo, it will provide "a point from which the city can look at itself," he says. It will feature a promenade atop Cairo's restored city wall, an amusement park, an Islamic garden, an outdoor amphitheater and spacious lawns. One section is being designed exclusively by residents of the neighborhood it adjoins.

Efforts such as Aly's and Abdel Halim's are increasingly reflected in official programs. Neighborhood self-help associations are more common than ever, and often work in tandem with government and international agencies. There is "real effort," Abdel Halim says, to nurture cultural institutions, including theater, film and literature.

Now that the boom-town growth has slackened and Cairenes have grown increasingly acclimated to an accelerated pace of change, he says, there is more talk, in political and intellectual circles, of the years to come. "The question of sustainabil-ity is now being discussed widely," he says. "We have to understand how to get and manage resources as government shrinks."

According to Governor Shehata of Giza, one of the city's most innovative programs, "The Educated Village," has employed 3000 university graduates—who otherwise had no work—to teach evening classes in adult literacy that will help people find—and create—jobs. "And we are opening one new school every three days, on the average," he adds. "Not every Egyptian is going to have a yacht on the sea, but it is possible for the majority of people to have basic services, keeping in mind that our resource base is very fragile."

Encouraged by this rise in official support, Abdel Halim remains doggedly hopeful about Cairo's future. "Cairo is on a threshold. It will cost a lot to clean the air and the water, and to provide people with jobs and places to live."

But Cairo's effort to address unprecedented challenges by drawing on its vast cultural wellsprings, he says, is ultimately a creative process. "The old city is an endless reservoir of culture. Something is going to come out of Cairo that is really revealing, that will produce beauty of a different order altogether. Then we can share it with other cities."

But in the remote Tenth District of Madinat Nasr, which presses against open desert far from Cairo's center, Sherif Shehata Muhammad, an honors graduate in transportation engineering from Cairo University, finds that such vision demands a daunting leap of faith. Newly married and 27, he faces hard, practical choices. His eyes widen as he sketches his ambitions—for himself and his city. But a moment later, he concedes these may prove beyond reach due to scarcity of resources, and the overabundance of talent for too few jobs. When asked if he might consider applying his own talents outside Egypt, his answer comes as slowly as the evening's desert breeze curling among the ranks of apartment towers.

"My friends and I all work hard. I want to help," he says. "I want this place to be good for my children, too. We are like a fire. But if something throws water on us, then what?"

But if he stays in Egypt, then perhaps Abdel Halim can be right after all.

Dick Doughty is Assistant Editor ofAramco World and author of Gaza: Legacy of Occupation—A Photographer's Journey.

This article appeared on pages 2-12 of the March/April 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1996 images.