[in-enaction] Revolting Architecture: From Tahrir Square to Emaar Square: Cairo's private road to a private city
Commentary — www.theguardian.com sent on 14th April 2014 by
The chants for bread and freedom which rang around Tahrir Square will never be heard in the exclusive shopping mall, luxury apartments and golf course of Uptown Cairo and Emaar Square
In mid-February, the developer behind the worlds tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, signed a deal with the Egyptian defence ministry. The agreement clears the way for the construction of Emaar Square, the centrepiece of a mixed-use development exclusive residential units, a golf course, open-air shopping for international luxury brands that is part of UAE-based Emaars exclusive Uptown Cairocomplex.
The defence ministry, which owns the massive tract of land where Uptown Cairo will be built, is Egypts largest landowner and manager. In 1997, a presidential decree gave the military the right to manage all undeveloped non-agricultural land 87% of the country, by one estimate. In the city of Cairo, this translates to massive, walled plots of land in lucrative locations, monitored from watchtowers. Signs forbid photography and identify them as military zones, but no military activity takes place here. They are vacant, awaiting their turn to be transformed into hotels, housing for military officers or upmarket malls.
Those who celebrate Dubai's urban model and wish for its expansion across the region make the unethical choice of ignoring the fact that the Gulf cities emerge out of a very specific relation between political power and capital: namely, that they are usually one and the same. The expansion of this model into cities such as Cairo, where the military has unchallenged access both to politics and capital (land, resources, construction), would have a disastrous impact on the urban majority – who will be marginalised, moved out of the way when necessary and put to work under unacceptable conditions, with no power to mobilise and with little pay.
So why is this interesting? First, when the military, the biggest land owner and free from civilian oversight, makes a direct deal with a developer to build an exclusive and gated community in the heart of the capital, this is not a free market. It may be framed by the government as part of “building Egypt” and attracting investment, but it merely creates more opportunity for buyers to be locked into gated developments with no access to democratic municipal management: the residents of Emaar Square won’t pressure the government for services, they will deal with the company instead. (Such deals also give the growing “republic of retired generals” cushy jobs.)
Second, this is not a democracy, and certainly not revolutionary. The Emaar Square deal included the ministries of housing, local development, investment and the Cairo authorities. This co-operation is what will allow Emaar to build its private road. And yet these state institutions are failing to solve Egypt’s mounting urban problems, many of which are directly caused by the lack of accountability and the incompetence of these very institutions. Since the 1970s, the state has fallen short of providing services, of creating effective systems of urban management, and of producing expansion plans that allow local private capital to grow while protecting the sanctity of the common – the public sphere, and its manifestation in shared public spaces.