Since the 1990s and the onset of the liberalization of Egypt’s economy, Cairo has experienced a major process of privatization of urban spaces with State and private developers forcibly removing residents of informal neighborhoods, often referred to as `Ashwa’iyat, from central Cairo to replace them with new developments destined for the “elites”. One of the neighborhoods that illustrates these dynamics is Ramlet Bulaq, a central area located on the eastern side of the Nile. Historically the area consisted of highly industrial plots and small crafts spaces. Starting in 1996, the state and wealthy private developers began displacing local residents and new buildings, such as the Nile City Towers, emerged in their stead.
Efforts to displace the local residents in Ramlet Bulaq met forms of resistance by the local community. These forms of resistance intensified after the 2011 revolution, when activists joined local residents in their efforts to oppose forced displacement and began proposing alternative development schemes. The struggle over the area magnified after 2012, when clashes occurred between the guards of the Nile City Towers and local residents.
In this paper, I narrate the process of mobilizing against forced eviction in Ramlet Bulaq from 2012 to 2015. I, alongside many others, tried to follow a model of participatory community design in order to upgrade the neighborhood that was classified as informal settlement by the Informal Settlement Development Fund since 2010. Despite years of mobilization, most of the families of Ramlet Bulaq ultimately ended up selling their plots to the developers of Nile City Towers exhausted by years of struggle. They have since moved elsewhere. I reflect on some of the reasons of this failure to counter the developments taking place and reflect on some of the limitations of participatory approaches when power dynamics are stacked against local communities.
Ramlet Bulaq: Struggling Over a Prized Location
Private interest in Ramlet Bulaq can be traced back to 1996 when the known businessman Naguib Sawiris, with Gamal Mubarak at his side, visited the working-class neighborhood which borders the Nile and decided to buy many parcels of lands that had factories and workshops on them in order to build a major new development which eventually came to be known as the Nile City Towers. He then demolished the many existing buildings on these parcels that were the working places for the local residents. By 2001, a new central business district had risen in the area with an office building, hotel, cinemas, mall, night club, and recreational facilities. Some of the residents who lost their work as a result of the demolition of the factories sought work at the construction site as workers, and later a few of them succeeded in getting jobs at the newly-built towers as security and/or cleaning staff. ,
In parallel, the administration of the Nile City Towers sought to expand and wanted to buy 4 acres of land around them, which represented nearly the same surface on which the towers were built. They started negotiating with some of the residents that lived just behind the towers to buy their houses. The negotiations started peacefully. However, the prices offered were very low, meaning that many of the residents who received money to leave the area often ran out of money renting in other places and ended up coming back to their old house, which made the Towers’ administration decide to condition any sale on the demolition of the house.
The demolition and “redevelopment” of informal neighborhoods in central Cairo, such as Ramlet Bulaq or the neighboring Maspero Triangle, was part of a larger mega-project in Egypt, announced in 2008 under the name of Cairo 2050. The project aimed to transform Cairo into a touristic, heritage, and commercial city. The plan included the demolition of most of the informal neighborhoods, or Ashwa’iyat, and their transformation for commercial and recreational uses. This project was developed by Mubarak’s government. In the same year, 2008, the government founded the Informal Settlement Development Fund (ISDF) after a rockslide occurred at el-Deweika, an informal settlement in the Manshiyat Naser neighborhood of east Cairo, destroying many houses and causing hundreds of deaths and injuries. ISDF classified more than 400 neighborhoods around Egypt as unsafe. Cairo 2050 aimed to evacuate the residents of these more than 400 neighborhoods, but the project was interrupted with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and the subsequent changes in the government. This being said, the current regime in place since 2014 has started a new development theme titled Egypt Sustainable Strategy 2030 (SDS 2030), which includes Cairo 2050 as one of its objectives.
There were key instances of violence over the redevelopment of Ramlet Bulaq that shocked the local residents. In 2008, Nessma, a young woman who had a kiosk located in the front of Ramlet Bulaq filed a complaint against the municipality and the Nile City Towers administration after the municipality decided to demolish her kiosk – which was her sole source of income -- accusing her of illegally occupying 6 meters of the street. Nessma argued that her kiosk was built much earlier than the towers and that it was the developers of the towers that were in fact violating public property as they had extended their plot 6 meters onto the street. Around 2008, Nessma died mysteriously in a car accident after a car that was coming out from the parking of the towers hit her. The death of Nessma was perceived by the local residents as a clear warning of the consequences of confronting the administration of the towers. In a 2013 survey conducted by Bulaq Abule’lla municipalities and Cairo Governorate with 600 families in the neighborhood, many indicated that they had become afraid after the death of Nessma.
The 2011 Egyptian revolution brought new tensions to the surface. On 28 January 2011, the Friday of Anger, the police withdrew from the streets due to the number of demonstrations. Angry rioters and some criminal elements profited from their withdrawal to break into and steal from malls and fancy shops, including Arcadia Mall – located on the same block as the Nile City Towers. Afterwards, the head of security at the Nile City Towers decided to hire many youths from the neighborhood in order to work as full-time security guards, as they would know the local criminals from the area.
These positions as security guards for the towers were well paid, with the youth were earning thousands of Egyptian pounds. Many of the young men had no contracts or uniforms. Many did not even work inside the towers, but rather acted as a shadow security network for the towers in the neighborhood, particularly at night. The arrangement worked well until June 2012, when pay checks started being late. On 2 August, Amr El-Boni, one of the young men from Ramlet Bulaq who worked as a security guard decided to try to meet with the head of the security at the Towers. Amr was told by the tourism police posted at the entrance of the towers that he was not allowed to enter or meet the head of the security located on the 16th floor. After a short argument erupted with the tourism police officer, the officer shot Amr, who died at once. Amr’s death led to clashes between local residents from Ramlet Bulaq and the security guards and police at the Nile City Towers. The media labeled the residents as thugs (Baltagiyya) and criminals that are attacking the Nile City Towers’ private security and police. According to information which I collected myself during fieldwork in the area between 2012 until 2015, young men from the area ran to the Towers to find Amr dead, and while carrying him out thinking that he was alive and could be saved, they were shot at again and injured. Later 52 men from the neighborhood were arrested accused of damages and hurting police officers and soldiers.
Mobilization against the Urban Redevelopment:
After the 2012 clashes, I visited Ramlet Bulaq to meet with one of the residents, who presented himself as a member of the neighborhood committee. He asked me if, as an architect, I can design a vision of how the neighborhood could look after a process of urban upgrading. For some weeks, I met different residents at the neighborhood, and they wanted to focus on getting their children and husbands out of the prison. Some others wanted to focus on the efforts to prevent the forced eviction that had been announced in the official gazette two months earlier.
After Amr was killed, many human rights organizations became involved to help the families of Ramlet Bulaq who were dealing with two different court cases. First was the ongoing detention of the 52 men accused of involvement in the clashes. Second was a case in the administrative court to appeal a decision by the Cairo Governorate to expropriate the lands of Ramlet Bulaq, where 600 families lived. The decree to expropriate the plots was taken without specifying any basis – something allowed by Egyptian law - and was published in the Egyptian Gazette in June 2012. The lawyers discovered this decree just after the clashes of 2 August.
These cases were occurring during a highly politized revolutionary moment in Egypt. This atmosphere allowed the residents, the lawyers, and activists, like me, to be able to mobilize without threat or fear of the security forces. The government issued in March 2013 an upgrading vision to the neighborhood, including a relocation of all the residents to 4 towers to be built in the same neighborhood. The residents objected, as their demands were to urbanely upgrade the neighborhood, not to be relocated to towers as planned by the government. Moreover, for residents, accepting relocation meant for them that Sawiris and the towers would have won the fight and, back then, they did not want this to happen. They mobilized to march on the Television headquarters to get media attention and deliver a message to the Cairo governorate as the responsible entity for the plans. Their mobilization led the Cairo governorate to ask the residents for a meeting. After a series of meetings, the Bulaq municipalities responded to some requests from the residents such as cleaning some vacant plots, as they were full of garbage, which was harming the living conditions of the families. Moreover, they asked for a full survey of the families living in the area, as the government had earlier announced that there were only 150 families in the area, which was false. But the local authorities would not consider the urban upgrading as the political environment was changing a lot.
In June 2015, a new ministry of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlement (MURIS) was created. The appointed minister, Laila Iskandar, came from a non-governmental organization background. She was different in her approach as she was the first minister to decide to visit the neighborhoods herself and hold meetings with the families to see the opportunities of upgrading these urban poor communities. In July 2015, I accompanied the families to meet with the new minister and study the alternatives together. The initial discussion was about how important it is to conduct an urban upgrading of the neighborhood with neither relocation nor eviction of any of the families.
In the second meeting, the minister looked at me and said: “you need to bring some other residents than the ones in here.” I was not sure of what she meant. The third meeting was in the presence of the Nile City Towers administration, along with the minister, and without the families, when the towers’ administration showed the architectural plans for the two towers they are planning to build once the families are evicted. Additionally, they had a map of their own plots in the neighborhood. The representatives of the Towers completely refused the upgrading and wanted the parcel of land to do their own project. For them, the residents could be relocated to another parcel that would be equivalent to what they owned in the neighborhood.
In the fourth meeting, one of the main representatives of the neighborhood residents asked the government officials how much they are willing to pay in terms of compensation. This was a surprise as, thus far, the idea of compensation or relocation had been rejected by the residents. Other neighborhood representatives objected to his question. This was the last meeting with the Ministry as the ministry was shut down a few months later in a government reshuffle and the issue of informal settlements was transferred back to the Ministry of Housing.
In summer 2018, an official from the Ministry of Housing arranged a meeting with some residents in the neighborhood, and told them that they would be compensated, either by receiving an apartment in al-Asmarat, a social housing project, or with money. Just after his visit, the towers administration decided to negotiate again with the residents in order to buy the houses, after the process of negotiation had been frozen since the killing of Amr el-Boni in 2012. In a few months, most of the residents decided to sell their houses to the Towers administration as opposed to get a lower compensation from the government, and the neighborhood completely changed, as the towers administration decided to surround all their plot with concrete walls.
Questioning Participation: The Role of Activists in Community Mobilizing
I started this journey with the people of Ramlet Bulaq as an activist, amidst the 2011 Egyptian revolution. In 2014, part of the story became my MA thesis research as an engaged scholar. My role kept being an engaged scholar until most of the families decided to sell their plots and leave. Until 2020, just before the pandemic, only around 30 families remained in Ramlet Bulaq. To explain my positionality, it is important to understand my subjectivity. I come from a communist family, with most of its members involved in public life and holding a firm belief that they have a role towards change. I received a public education and was privileged enough to be obtain a bachelor’s degree in architecture, followed by a fellowship at the American University in Cairo to study anthropology.
When I started to be involved, as a Marxist, feminist, and an activist, I put all the people of the neighborhood in a victimized position, though I was aware that I am against charity, development, and awareness campaigns that take the agency of the people away and objectify them as victims who need help. But also, the Marxist analysis made me take the side of the residents without sufficient understanding of the dynamics between different groups of residents. Additionally, I was not sufficiently aware of the different roles that some of the residents played. For example, the first person I met in the neighborhood was actually playing a double role between the police and the neighborhood, meaning that he was giving information to the police. The more I spent time with the residents, the more I understood of their lives, their own choices, and the social class they belong to, as well as their own dreams and aspirations, all of which was essential in order to imagine a future for the neighborhood itself.
The participatory process which I, with many other activists and comrades, tried to follow definitely did not work out. The reasons for this are many, including the history of violence in the neighborhood and how the residents were traumatized from the structural, physical, and psychological forms of violence to which they had been exposed since the late 1990s. These different forms of violence made the residents willing to leave the area if an acceptable offer was made.
From my own positionally, if I may describe what happened as a strategy of participatory urban upgrading carried out in partnership with the residents, I find that there are many problematic issues with what happened. One of the most important issues is the absence of knowledge about the power relations within the neighborhood regarding who was collaborating with the police station, who sided with the towers’ administration for some benefits, and who was playing a game of “resistance” in order to get a higher offer for their house from the towers. This does not deny the fact that there were many residents who were totally fighting against forced evictions and wanted to upgrade the neighborhood. While the momentum of mobilization after 2011 helped the residents develop allies and have exposure for their cause, it did not necessarily help activists like myself understand the history and the power relations in the neighborhood.
Another issue, linked to the above, is the history of violence in the neighborhood, which caused people to change their opinions all the time, as they were not sure what would be better: selling their houses and leaving and/or fighting, resisting, and trying to hold the neighborhood. This violence was not only a matter of history, as it kept occurring while I worked with them. Many young men were arrested by the Bulaq Abule’lla police station, as the police accused them of dealing in drugs. The young men, and sometimes teenagers, were imprisoned in the police station for weeks, and after their release they informed me that the whole time the police officers would tell them to leave the neighborhood. They were continuously threatened with losing their lives and being in prison for years, simply for taking part in mobilizing and resisting the redevelopment plans, and were often asked to give information about the mobilization and who was involved. These forms of violence and constant threats negatively affected the process of participation and my work with them, as everyone was traumatized, and the residents needed promises or guarantees that their children and future were going to be okay.
The coup of 2013, and its consequences in terms of violence, arrests, and backlash on all activists’ lives, also played an important role. The local residents realized that no further support could be offered by human rights organizations or activists, which were themselves under attack. Additionally, the residents in 2015 realized that there were no likely options to upgrade the neighborhood, and that both private owners like Sawiris and the government would not ever allow them to urbanely upgrade the neighborhood.
What has happened in Egypt over the last 11 years needs a lot of political reflection. An ideological stand that I still hold firmly is “Power to the People”, and that people should always have the right to change their own world. I believe that participatory urban projects need a strong basis of earlier sociological and anthropological research. This research and fieldwork would enhance the process of participatory planning by producing the knowledge needed to understand the socioeconomic, political, and environmental aspects that all intersect in producing a community. Additionally, from a cultural perspective, the norms and rituals of communities should not be taken for granted, nor should the relation between built environments and work/labor. Engaged scholars and activists should be careful about assuming that, if they ask people directly what they want, their answers automatically reflect the community’s demands, because any engaged scholar and ethnographer knows that people sometimes lose their words in elaborating their demands, and often residents would ask for things, thinking it is the “right” request or appropriate for society, but not necessarily for their own lives. Signifiers and signs are important in these processes to understand and explain without interpretations, i.e., when a resident says that they want a decent home, we cannot assume the definition of their decent home: is it an apartment, or a house, or maybe some other form of housing? This is why ethnographic observations of the residents’ lives and details of their living spaces and mobility within the neighborhood are highly recommended.
Despite strong ideological stances and beliefs, anyone who would intervene from outside the community needs to be careful. Engaged scholars, activists, and/or human rights activists should not impose their own beliefs of forms of resistance on the community. Moreover, outsiders should not romanticize the actions of the residents. Using the word resistance is something associated with revolutionary spirits and using it without deep understanding of the positionality of the residents and their own choices would be dangerous in terms of wrong framing and understanding the future of the neighborhood and the communities.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.