Since June 30, most Western media coverage of Egypt has focused on dramatic events unfolding in some of Cairo’s best-known districts: sit-ins in Nasr City and near Cairo University; sporadic outbreaks of violence in Zamalek and Doqqi; and the closures of streets, squares, and metro stations in the city’s downtown area.

While foreign journalists are quick to admit that their Egypt coverage has been Cairo-centric, readers are often unaware that even this coverage rarely reaches beyond a few exceptional Cairene neighborhoods.

Thwarted by curfews, rising xenophobia, and an uncertain security environment, most foreign journalists neither live nor regularly work in shaabi (“popular” or “working class”) areas like Imbaba, Boulaq al-Dakrur, or Manshiyet Nasr.

This leaves some of Cairo’s least representative and most exclusive districts – such as Zamalek, downtown, and Maadi – to stand in for the rest of the city.

But how have events since June 30 played out in other parts of Cairo, and what can these stories tell us about the city as a whole?

An exploration of one under-reported neighborhood, the Medinat al-Taawon district of Shubra al-Kheima (home to the authors), suggests that the events of this summer are changing the city in ways more subtle – but potentially more far-reaching – than coverage of protests and crackdowns in well-known neighborhoods might suggest.

In particular, patterns of circulation that once brought diverse Egyptians into contact with one another are deteriorating in the face of rising security concerns and economic pressures.

The result has been a further erosion of the hope that the January 25 uprising would set Egypt on a path toward redressing, rather than ignoring, its staggering inequalities.

Shaabi and Raqi Neighborhoods

Though Cairo’s long and complex urban history defies the imposition of simple categories, there is a commonly-felt distinction between “raqi” (“upscale”) and “shaabi” neighborhoods.

This distinction maps loosely onto the scholarly division between formal and informal, or planned and unplanned, neighborhoods. It is, however, perhaps best understood as a difference in lived atmosphere.

Raqi areas tend to have wide streets, trees, public spaces like squares and gardens, and expensive cafes, clothing boutiques, and restaurants. They include some of Cairo’s most historic districts, as well as its newest desert settlements, such as the Tagammu al-Khamis area, which includes the American University in Cairo campus.

(Photo Credit: Mada Masr)

(Photo Credit: Mada Masr)

While shaabi areas may be relatively new, like Boulaq al-Dakrur, or centuries old, like Imbaba, they share a bustling, well-worn atmosphere on a more intimate scale.

Roads may not be paved, and alleyways between housing blocks may be only a few meters wide.

Most shaabi areas enjoy basic sewage and electricity services, although they may be disrupted more often than in the rest of the city.

Because many shaabi neighborhoods were originally built on agricultural land without central planning, public space is often in short supply.

(Photo Credit: Will Roth)

(Photo Credit: Will Roth)

While major thoroughfares are dotted with hospitals, schools, squares, and other public spaces, these places are often quite far from the residential areas they serve.

Shaabi areas are often portrayed in both English and Arabic-language media as slums, implying, in the words of economist David Sims, “poverty, backwardness, crime, misery, and all that is wrong with Cairo.”[1]

Yet in reality, as Sims goes on to argue, the category shaabi and its sister category aishwa’i (“unplanned”) encompass a range of areas that are home to nearly two-thirds of Cairo’s residents.[2]  These areas, he claims, are not unmitigated urban disasters but diverse neighborhoods that offer both benefits and challenges to their millions of residents.

Shubra al-Kheima

Shubra al-Kheima is one such area, a sprawling shaabi settlement located on Cairo’s northern edge. Home to around one million people, Shubra, taken alone, is Egypt’s fourth largest city.

Once heavily industrial and still pockmarked with working factories, much of the area was agricultural land only a few decades ago.

The rhythms of agricultural life still echo through the alleyways of the Medinat al-Taawon district, near the Shubra al-Kheima Metro station.

Despite the presence of small supermarkets, the best milk and vegetables are available only in the morning, borne in on donkey carts or the heads of elderly women.

A central shopping street, Sharia Nasr, draws residents from throughout Shubra al-Kheima to its densely-packed stalls.

The neon-colored scarves, shirts and dresses currently fashionable among young Egyptian women hang so low overhead that passersby have to duck their heads.

Much of Sharia Nasr was once paved, but the asphalt has long since given way to dust, faithfully watered down by shopkeepers throughout the day.

Like other shaabi areas, Shubra al-Kheima is economically diverse. While the richest Egyptians do not live in this or other shaabi areas, the range of income levels in Cairo’s informal areas mirrors Egypt’s urban average.[3] 

This economic diversity is visible on the street.  Girls in the latest Western fashions stroll past women dressed in the black galabeyya and tight headscarf of agricultural Egypt. Young men exchanging cell phone numbers might pull out a battered, simple handheld or the latest Samsung tablet.

Shubra al-Kheima is also politically diverse, neither a Brotherhood stronghold, nor a bastion of support for the army-backed transitional government.

In Egypt’s 2011 parliamentary election, most of the city’s seats went to Islamists. But the governorate of which it is a part, Qalyubiyya, voted for Ahmed Shafiq – not Mohamed Morsi – in both the first and second rounds of the 2012 presidential contest.

Life in Shubra Since June 30

Foreign coverage of Egypt since June 30 has focused on dramatic changes to the city as experienced by foreigners and the political and media elite.

These changes include the curfew’s transformation of social schedules; the closure of Tahrir Square and the Sadat Metro station; the persistence and then dispersal of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins; the placement of military vehicles on major streets; and the disappearance of the rowdy demonstrations that had come to be a normal part of Cairo life.

Many articles mention the zealous displays of nationalism and support for General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi that have become commonplace in the city’s public spaces.

In a country once widely known for its friendly openness to outsiders, frightening accounts of xenophobia are increasingly common.

In short, the picture painted by these reports is of a city transformed.

In our corner of Shubra al-Kheima, however, these changes have been more muted, allowing other, more subtle alterations to come to light.

Because informally-built settlements and narrow alleyways are difficult to police, the curfew, even in its early days, did not prevent movement or commercial activity within the neighborhood itself.

The army is not visibly present, nor, apart from inside the metro station, are the police; plainclothes police officers are said to patrol the area.

After the January 25 uprising, street vendors and microbus drivers took over the streets leading to the metro station, creating a new, messier order that closed entire streets to drivers, and sometimes threatened to close them to pedestrians as well.

This barely controlled chaos continues unabated, at times directly in front of the local police branch office.

Visible markers of support for any political faction are limited, and those who do want to make statements on public surfaces seem to cancel each other out.

Yet here and there a poster of General al-Sisi has remained un-vandalized; here and there graffiti declaring him a killer has remained un-edited.

The faces of Mohamed Morsi, Hazem Abu Ismail, and occasionally Ahmed Shafiq also stare out from walls, homes, and shops, remnants of last year’s presidential election.

But, as time and dust wear old posters away, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate among their faces.

One local merchant, ‘Am Ahmed, displays a portrait of General al-Sisi in his shop. But he also kept a portrait of Mubarak before January 25, and even a portrait of Mohamed Morsi during the deposed president’s one-year term.

“It doesn’t matter who runs the country,” he says. “What matters is whether I can eat and drink.”

‘Am Ahmed is not the only resident focused on basic subsistence.

Indeed, the recent Eid al-Adha celebrations brought the area’s dire economic situation into sharp relief.

The Egyptian economy was weak before June 30, but for private – or informal-sector workers, whose income depends on the health of local markets and peoples’ willingness to spend, the months since Morsi’s ouster have been particularly difficult.

At Eid al-Adha, families who can afford to do so are supposed to slaughter an animal: a cow for ten thousand Egyptian pounds (LE) or more, or a sheep for a few thousand pounds.

After the ritual slaughter, family members sometimes dip their hands into the animal’s blood, leaving red handprints on the walls of their homes.

Last year, the handprints were common; this year, finding one felt like stumbling upon a relic from a lost era.

Al-Hagg Ibrahim, who owns a small factory in the area, used to slaughter multiple animals during Eid and donate the meat to his workers, who also received a small cash bonus.

This year, he could only afford to distribute the cash, 50 LE, for each worker. With that, workers could buy about a kilo of inexpensive beef, hardly enough to feed a family.

It is not just holiday budgets that are stretched, however. Everyday finances are strained as well.

Ahmed, a butcher, reports that customers who used to ask for a kilo of beef now ask for half a kilo; those who used to ask for half a kilo have stopped coming entirely.

He puts out some of his beef at 42 LE per kilo, the lowest locally available price. But the meat is bony and fatty, more adequate for making soup than for serving as the center of a meal.

Despite their material woes, however, area residents have not abandoned the social solidarity that is a hallmark of life in tightly packed, low-privacy shaabi areas.

An early morning stroll after Eid prayers found Christian residents seated outside, enjoying the festive air.

Ramon, a young Christian craftsman, explained that despite the political tension, his relationships with his neighbors have remained normal. They come together for weddings, funerals, and holidays as they always have, regardless of political affiliation.

Difficult conversations might take place, but they end in laughter, as local disputes often do.

In fact, Ramon was far more concerned about visiting the rest of Cairo than about his security within Shubra al-Kheima.

“It’s not safe there,” he said, explaining his reluctance to visit downtown Cairo with his wife, “there could be gunfire, or a demonstration.”

Indeed, the sense that spaces outside the neighborhood have become less safe is pervasive.

Increasing Isolation

The reluctance of Shubra residents to visit downtown Cairo, or other well-known districts, may at first seem insignificant. Yet it seems to reflect a broader trend, driven by multiple causes, toward a Cairo made of isolated neighborhoods rather than a circulating, breathing metropolis.

The curfew has kept many Cairenes in their neighborhoods, if not in their houses, during hours of the night usually reserved for socializing – especially on Fridays, when family visits often take residents outside their immediate neighborhood.

Fears about the security situation keep many people away from downtown Cairo, the heart of which – Tahrir Square – is often closed to preempt demonstrations.

Economic pressures further privilege close-to-home entertainment over expensive outings, especially as microbus and even tuktuk (rickshaw) fares creep up.

For residents of raqi neighborhoods, who have never been regular visitors to shaabi areas, this is a relatively minor change. Many residents of Zamalek or Maadi rarely venture outside their own neighborhoods even under normal circumstances.

It is the movement of residents of shaabi neighborhoods into raqi neighborhoods, whether for work, politics, or entertainment, that continually brings the city into contact with itself.

According to political scientist Salwa Ismail, the very idea of circulation is built into the economic raison d’etre of newer shaabi areas, which sprung up alongside raqi neighborhoods to provide inexpensive services and labor from a comfortable but still convenient distance.

“The auto repair, welding, and carpentry services and the like,” she writes in her study of the Boulaq al-Dakrur district, “produce too much noise to be tolerated by the residents of [the raqi neighborhoods of] Zamalek and Muhandissin. Yet, they need the services to be located nearby.”[4] 

Service employees, maids, and craftsmen living in shaabi areas make possible the calm, tree-lined streets and well-staffed cafes of their raqi counterparts.

Tahrir’s Fading Legacy?

Though work relationships have always facilitated contact between diverse Cairenes, these relationships’ ill-concealed power dynamics often prevent them from developing into real friendships.

But the January 2011 revolution and its aftermath provided another significantly more promising opportunity for such interactions.

Tahrir Square truly did bring Egyptians from all walks of life – and all parts of the city – together, on the basis of a shared identity as citizens rather than as members of distinct socioeconomic classes or residents of diverse neighborhoods.

Friendships were formed among people who might never otherwise have come across one another. After the eighteen days, the public spaces of downtown, heavy with memories, became spaces in which those friendships could continue.

In the best of cases, these cross-neighborhood relationships served as windows onto other experiences, and as checks on misinformation.

Suddenly a resident of Shubra knew someone in Warraq, and someone in Maadi was friendly with someone in Kerdassa.

When media reports told a particular story about a distant neighborhood, friends could call and hear another version of events from someone with the local knowledge to put new developments into context.

In a city that does not circulate, in which citizens from different areas have few opportunities to form lasting friendships, consumers of media will not have the knowledge to contextualize or amend what they read or hear.

Such local context is desperately needed precisely because journalists, and especially foreign journalists, are often unable to spend significant time in shaabi areas. While stories on raqi areas benefit from journalists’ day-to-day knowledge, stories from shaabi Cairo lack a sense of place.

On August 5, for example, the Ministry of the Interior reported that bombs had been found outside Shubra al-Kheima’s Nasr Public Hospital.

Independent news site Mada Masr reported the incident in the context of worsening sectarian relations, going on to mention a number of attacks on Christians across Egypt.

By way of explanation, the article describes Shubra as having “the highest concentration of Christians in the capital.”

For a Cairene or a foreigner who has never been to Shubra and does not know anyone from the area, it is easy to confuse Shubra al-Kheima with Shubra Masr, a neighboring district inside Cairo governorate which is, in fact, home to the highest concentration of Christians in the capital.

But Shubra al-Kheima also has many Christian residents. Might the assumption that the bomb scare was related to sectarian tension still be a fair one?

A resident would probably answer in the negative. Nasr Hospital, as anyone who lives in the area could attest, is not near a church or any other Christian landmark. A public hospital, its clientele are mostly Muslim.

When placed in local context, the bomb scare no longer seems connected to sectarian motivations.

But in the absence of local knowledge, the national master narrative of worsening sectarian relations dictated the meaning of this local event.

Conclusion

When journalism fails, whether because of a prohibitive security situation, censorship, or ignorance, personal connections and diverse perspectives can help provide a fuller picture.

Yet, at this moment, when reliable information is more valuable than ever, the social spaces that maintained old inter-class relationships and made new ones possible are disappearing.

Tahrir Square is increasingly depoliticized, no longer the epicenter of dissent, creativity, or change.

Even during the hours when inter-neighborhood movement is permitted, people are often too scared or under too much economic pressure to leave their local areas unless absolutely necessary.

In this atmosphere, individual experiences of this dizzyingly heterogeneous city become more homogenous.

And so the hope of the January revolution – that someday a business tycoon and a peasant could come together to build a country for all Egyptians, in which all were treated as equals – drifts further and further from Cairo’s grasp.

 


[1] David Sims, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City out of Control (AUC Press, 2012), p. 92.

[2] Ibid., p. 83

[3] Ibid., p. 111.

[4] Salwa Ismail, Political Life in Cairo’s New Quarters: Encountering the Everyday State (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p. 29.

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