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Special Feature

The Violence of Memory and Movement: Reading Cairo from its Ring Road

La violence de la mémoire et du mouvement : lectures du Caire depuis son périphérique
عنف الذاكرة والحركة: نحو قراءة القاهرة من خلال الطريق الدائري
Ingy Higazy
p. 105-120

Résumés

Cet article explore la mémoire de la construction et de la destruction sur le périphérique du Grand Caire, une route de 106 km qui encercle le Caire et sa périphérie. En prenant comme interlocuteurs deux romans, East of the Ring Road et Fleeing the Ring Road, je pose la question suivante : comment les récits littéraires du périphérique complètent-ils une analyse macroéconomique du développement urbain, des infrastructures et de l'(im)mobilité au Caire ? Je soutiens que les romans reconstruisent les trajectoires du développement urbain en mettant l'accent sur des histoires de dépossession, de destruction et de violence souvent marginalisées et réduites au silence. Ils le font à travers une narration incarnée et une multitude de personnages qui interagissent avec la route en tant qu'espace de production et de négociation du pouvoir et de l'État. Ensemble, ils exposent comment la promesse d'une circulation rapide et libre sur la route est continuellement rendue possible en ralentissant et en immobilisant diverses autres formes de vie urbaine et sociale. L'article a deux objectifs. Premièrement, il contextualise l'(im)mobilité dans le discours politique et culturel égyptien. Ensuite, il attire l'attention sur la mémoire de la dépossession et de la violence quotidiennes qui produisent des régimes d'(im)mobilité urbaine en même temps que s’édifient des infrastructures à grande échelle au Caire et au-delà. Ce faisant, cet article contribue aux discussions sur la biopolitique des infrastructures, l'économie politique et les études sur la mobilité.

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Texte intégral

Concrete overruns everything…the fields, the small mud houses, our childhood playgrounds, the stables, the shops. All [our] memories turn into concrete. (Ahmed 2014, 37)

It is the whole problem, precisely of these vagrants, of people, moving around. (Foucault 2009, 336)

We see here not a portrait of Cairo or its buildings, it’s a portrait of what has no shape. It’s a portrait of that wound, that sadness, that indifference and that suppressed anger boiling deep inside. It’s a portrait of the impact of Cairo and its Ring Road on our souls. Nothing represents Cairo in the last twenty years, better than the Ring Road. (Naji 2020)

Introduction

1The Arabic novel East of the Ring Road (2014), by Khaled Ahmed, documents the slowly vanishing life of an unnamed village obstructing the construction of the Greater Cairo Ring Road. It tells of the material, social, and ecological transformations that Cairo’s predominantly agricultural periphery underwent with the transition to an open market economy beginning in the 1970s (Infitah) to the 1990s. It is fundamentally a story of how the process of road construction is that of the village’s destruction—of bringing the city together and simultaneously tearing it apart; of connecting and containing; mobilizing and immobilizing. Likewise, Fleeing the Ring Road: Dante’s Recordings (2019) by Karim Kilani is a dystopic novel that locates the Ring Road in a futuristic city, implicitly reflecting on the Road’s imposing spatial and affective presence in Cairo, and in Egyptian politics more broadly. It follows the wanderings of Dante, the main character, and his encounters with those who, like him, live on the margins of the city, “below the Ring Road,” and try to escape their own plight by venturing out onto the Road in search for freedom. Taking both novels as its interlocutors, I ask how the Ring Road’s literary narratives complement a macro-political economy analysis of urban development, infrastructure, and (im)mobility in Cairo. I argue that these literary narratives reconstruct trajectories of urban development by centering often marginalized and silenced stories of dispossession, destruction, and violence alongside official narratives of the Ring Road. They do so through a multitude of characters that interact with the Road as a space for the production and negotiation of power and the state. Together, they expose how the promise of fast and free movement on the Road—of goods and people—is continuously made possible by slowing, immobilizing, and containing various other forms of urban and social life. The paper has two main objectives. First, it locates (im)mobility in Egyptian political and cultural discourse. Second, it draws attention to the memory of everyday dispossession and violence underlying urban (im)mobility regimes and large-scale infrastructures in Cairo and beyond. In doing so, it contributes to discussions on the biopolitics of infrastructure, political economy, and mobility studies.

2It is no secret that the Egyptian nation-state is at the grips of a strong infrastructural imaginary. Modern Egyptian historiography is bracketed by the construction of the colonial Suez Canal in 1869 and the anti-colonial Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. Yet, beyond the dominant histories and counter-histories of development and progress, we know little of how collective memory has grappled with the spaces and stories of everyday urban infrastructures. I stumbled upon each of the novels at different stages of my research on the spatial politics of the Greater Cairo Ring Road. Slowly, I found myself tapping into a rich literary narrative about this infrastructure of everyday use. It initially motivated me to try and understand why there was a narrative about the Ring Road and, specifically, how it reads against the backdrop of a dominant national historiography and state discourse of progress and development, especially in relation to infrastructure. In the absence of an official archive for the Ring Road, how can we fully tell its story—one mired in violence and erasure? This task takes on an added urgency as Cairo undergoes a new and violent phase of neoliberal urban development (2014-present) that has entailed the forced removal and displacement of thousands of the city’s residents (Khalil 2019; Tawakkol 2020). In this paper, I hope to analyze those processes of infrastructure construction and urban development through the intimate stories formed about them. I use the concept of (im)mobility, instead of simply mobility, to denote the always and intimately connected processes of connection and containment. In other words, I take as my starting point the argument that the movement of some is always predicated on the limited or non-movement of others. While the term does not feature in either of the novels, I demonstrate that both their narratives about the Ring Road, and Cairo at large, are best captured through its lens.

Placing the Ring Road: Historical Background and Literature Review

3On February 25, 1983, the Egyptian daily newspaper al-Ahram first reported on the construction “of a 72-km Ring Road around Cairo, with a cost of 240 million Egyptian pounds” (al-Ahram 1983). Construction work began roughly three years later, around 1986, and was completed around 2005. The Ring Road currently connects a patchwork of class and ecological geographies that together make up the metropolis of Greater Cairo: Cairo, Giza, and Qalyubiyya. Its master plan was conceived by the General Organization of Physical Planning (GOPP) in Egypt, formed in 1981, and the Regional Institute for Urban Planning and Economic Development of Île de France (IAU-IdF). The Ring Road’s construction contributed to the spatial and administrative remaking of Cairo that began in the 1970s to transform it into a ‘global city’ (Ghannam 2002). This remaking was a follow-up to former President Anwar Sadat’s project of political and economic liberalization, Infitah, officially inaugurated by the 1974 October Paper. The October Paper, which introduced new investment laws and free zones, and deregulated real estate markets in Egypt, paved the way for the turn to neo-liberalization and structural adjustment programs in the 1990s (Wahdan 2009, 35-37). The Ring Road’s construction followed the 1977 Bread Uprising in Egypt, which reoriented the state’s economic and political power after Infitah (Ikram 2018, 263-264). In a televised interview in August 2018, Hussein Sabbour, one of Egypt’s most prominent real estate developers, openly discussed how the Ring Road was planned as an infrastructure of spatial control and containment. He alleged that there were plans to relocate around two million poor and working-class residents (estimates in the late 1970s) from central Cairo to ten new settlements in the desert (Sabbour 2018). Although not confirmed by other sources, he explained that the expected relocations outside of the Ring Road were to prevent those displaced from “infiltrating Cairo in case they protest and would be easier to control through the Ring Road” (Sabbour 2018). In facilitating the removal of poor and working-class neighborhoods in central Cairo, the state sought to evacuate the land for real estate speculation. However, work on the Road was completed prior to finalizing the settlements, which later became prime real estate projects (Dorman 2007, 200).

4This neat story elides the Ring Road’s memory of construction and destruction, especially as it was experienced by the communities it connected and those it tore apart. The Ring Road’s construction threatened hundreds of families and villages on Cairo’s outskirts, mostly in the predominantly agricultural governorate of Giza (al-Dib 1998; Saad 1998). At one point, it even threatened the ancient Giza Pyramids and riled up local and international opposition (Rose 2007). Today, hundreds of apartment blocks overlooking the Ring Road are being forcibly removed to make way for new lane extensions (Egypt Today 2021). David Harvey reminds us that as this rush to build cities anew “leaves behind a great deal of human wreckage,” the lives uprooted in its wake “cannot be ignored” (Harvey 2003, 16). Studying the literary narratives of the Ring Road is thus both a theoretical and methodological move. By providing a sustained analysis of these two novels as equal and critical interlocutors of a political economy analysis of infrastructure and urban development, I draw attention to new sources that uncover the intimacies and politics of large-scale structural processes. I specifically identify and draw on the novels’ vocabularies and literary worlds to further a theoretical understanding of urban development, infrastructure construction, and (im)mobility in post-1970s Egypt and beyond.

5The reconfiguration of spatial relations in post-1970s Cairo has been thoroughly documented and analyzed. The change in urban space, class relations, land tenure and laws, population density, labor, and housing have separately received rigorous and sustained scholarly attention (Nassar 2019; Piffero 2017; Shawkat 2020; Sims 2014). In contrast, relations of mobility in metropolitan Cairo remain understudied. Except for a few ethnographic accounts of physical and gendered movement in the city (Elyachar 2011; Ghannam 2011), studies that explore mobility as a political technology of rule that structures urban power relations are limited (Deboulet 2010; Wahdan 2012; Rowell 2018; Barak 2019; Ashoub and ElKhateeb 2021). Meanwhile, the study of roads, railways, and transportation systems in Cairo remain largely within the purview of national and international development agencies. While the anthropology of roads is an established field of study elsewhere (Harvey and Knox 2015), difficulty accessing archival sources and navigating a heavily securitized research field considerably limits studies of roads and mobility infrastructure in Egypt. This partly explains why, in contrast, accounts of the construction and development of tramways and agricultural roads in colonial Egypt are abundant (Ben Prestel 2015). The centrality of agricultural roads to the British colonial economy, by facilitating the extraction of cotton and its exchange on global markets, lends them considerable scholarly attention (Jakes 2014). This literature highlights Egypt’s role in the development of global colonial capitalism, and the material and immaterial connections its agricultural roads have with similar infrastructures in India and North America (Brown 1990; Goswami 2004). While I address a later historical juncture, I draw inspiration from this literature and extend its core questions and insights to both the literature on urban development in post-1970s Cairo and to our present moment.

6Finally, while Cairo’s Ring Road is a product of specific historical relations and trajectories in Egypt, the ring road is fundamentally a global urban form. Cities across the Global North and South, from Birmingham and Beirut to Lahore and Dublin, all have their ring roads (Gunn 2018; Haidar 2016; Schorske 1981). Ring roads serve as material and cultural infrastructures of everyday urban life and public use, as well as tools of coercion and social pacification. Cairo’s Ring Road—a space for the mobility of capital, goods, and people—is a fixture of its built environment. It connects the old bustling city center to its more remote agricultural peripheries and facilitates urban expansion in the desert. For this reason, it highlights and embodies the unevenness of Cairo’s urban geography. Thus, in Cairo and elsewhere, the study of ring roads provides a compelling lens into processes of infrastructure construction and their attendant modes of violence and dispossession.

Re-membering the Ring Road: Memory and the Trajectories of Urban Development

7The Ring Road’s cultural narrative paints a dystopic urban future, born out of and rooted in a bleak and uneven urban present. East of the Ring Road unearths the Road’s past and present of construction and destruction, while Fleeing the Ring Road projects its dark and destructive future. In this section, I explore how the two novels reconstruct trajectories of urban development in Cairo through the object of the Ring Road and by centering stories of dispossession, destruction, and violence. I pay specific attention to how they invoke memory, and, in doing so, are an effort to remember/re-member the Ring Road.

  • 1 All Arabic-to-English translation is my own unless otherwise noted.

8East of the Ring Road traces the transformation of a peripheral village from a predominantly agricultural economy to an impoverished peri-urban town rife with violence and massacres. While the novel tells an increasingly familiar story of a capitalist city’s underworld of poverty and crime, it also recounts the slow and violent process of rural dispossession as it historically unfolded on Cairo’s periphery. The novel follows Ahmed al-Naggar, Zargīna, Adil, Shaykh Sabrī, Fatma, Abīr, and Ragab as their world is transformed from agricultural subsistence to petty trade and redundant labor following the Ring Road’s construction through their village. It describes vivid scenes of engineers, construction workers, and bulldozers as they descend upon the village to work on the Road, often described as that “thing that passes above us” (Ahmed 2014, 176).1 Construction work on the Road began by cementing the village canal, confiscating Haj Misilḥi’s (the wealthiest villager) land, and housing heavy machinery “of various shapes and colors” in the village (Ahmed 2014, 44). In intimate detail, the novel follows the buzzing sounds and tracks of the microbuses and tuk-tuks—the new ‘informal’ modes of transportation—as they traverse the village and connect it to the outside world. And, in evocative language, it describes that where the village’s canal once flowed, heaps of construction waste, dirt, and garbage now stand. In minute and careful detail, the novel’s unnamed narrator describes the anxieties surrounding this transformation, which eventually led to the total loss of agricultural livelihood and knowhow. “We repeatedly destroyed it [agriculture], but the thought of losing it forever is frightening,” the narrator explains (Ahmed 2014, 55). Romanticizing neither the village nor the road, he describes the Ring Road as “the last nail in the village’s coffin” (Ahmed 2014, 44). The loss of land, agriculture, and water led the villagers to ponder armed rebellion to stop the Road’s construction, a form of political action that never fully materializes.

9The villagers intimately experience the Ring Road as a top-down, state project. Through a trinity of state actors—engineers, bureaucrats, and security forces—the villagers witness firsthand the violent side to infrastructure construction. As the Road was completed, they contend with what those encounters mean for their future and visibility to the state. The Ring Road and visibility to the state initially represented a promise for wealth and prosperity. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator recounts how:

A lot was said about this road. We would even see its pictures on the news every Friday on Channel One’s afternoon show. They mention the road among names that our ears cannot dare to ignore; no matter how ignorant we were, we still got surprised. Once again, we were confident that the thing that passes above us carries abundant goodness. Because—as they said—it carries goodness for Egypt, and while it carries goodness for the entire nation, how can our households be spared, while we are the ones living below it? (Ahmed 2014, 176)

10The passage demonstrates how the villagers saw the Road as an extension of the state and the nation, with an unfulfilled promise of inclusion and a reality of exclusion. Thus, their anxieties and material conditions illuminate the spatially, economically, and nationally marginal status the Road’s construction has collectively relegated them to.

11Alternatively, Fleeing the Ring Road follows one character, Dante, a former circus performer who traverses a futuristic and dystopic city on foot, distributing newspapers and abusing drugs. Dante’s unnamed city is a disfigured city ruled by a series of monitors known as the Absolute Wisdom (al-ikma al-mutlaqa) (Kilani 2019, 15). It is marked by the Ring Road and its estate, whose inhabitants await the military jets that are expected to drop prizes of unknown proportions on the city any day. Like the village in East of the Ring Road, the estate is not visible from the space of the Road but reaches anywhere in the city (Kilani 2019, 100). Its inhabitants, banished after a failed immigration attempt at sea, are described as those who come from “below the Ring Road” (Kilani 2019, 23 and 73). In rich visual language, Dante describes the map of the Ring Road and its environs “as dark holes within vast spaces of emptiness” and reflects on how it aggressively cuts through fruit fields (Kilani 2019, 41). The novel’s fictional world unfolds entirely on the Ring Road, which it takes as the main stage for the unraveling of an urban dystopia it predicts for the Road’s city. A space rife with sexual tension and violence, the Road is described as both outside the old city and simultaneously its underworld, even if it is never explicitly clear that the story is set in Cairo. It is where those who refuse to live “below the Ring Road or in the estate like those [who came] before them” wreak havoc, dance, and escape the future “distributed to the people” (Kilani 2019, 180 and 215).

12The tension between either submitting to life below the Ring Road and in the estate or plotting to flee comes to life through Dante’s encounters with his friends: Mansī, Nadia, B, Sayed Mabrouk, Samīra, and Farīd. Through those encounters and Dante’s own streams of consciousness, the novel centers the feelings and inner world(s) that the Ring Road evokes in its users and residents. Through his nights out strolling the Ring Road, we slowly learn of Dante’s disillusionment with life and hope following an accident at the circus. This leads him to the realization that the city, any city, is a mirror of individual feelings (Kilani 2019, 75). For Dante, working through his feelings of failure and loss is also coming to terms with the Ring Road and its dystopic city. Thus, what begins as a loose narrative of despair quickly evolves into an adventure to escape the Ring Road. Despite his conclusion that “there is no escape from the Ring Road, and there won’t be,” Dante maintains in the second half of the novel that everyone has the right to escape the Ring Road—or at least the right to try (Kilani 2019, 76 and 193). At the end, it is not clear if Dante manages to fully escape the Road. Yet, he remains trying.

13The two novels combine different spaces and temporalities to launch a critique of Cairo’s urban conditions from its Ring Road. Like any astute observer of Cairo, the writers contend with a city whose present is visibly engulfed by the Ring Road, and they both foretell that so is its future. As Dante realizes one night while observing the Ring Road, it is “as if yesterday and today are not part of its [the city’s] memory” (Kilani 2019, 15). Like Dante’s realization, the narrator in East of the Ring Road also tries to come to terms with the loss of yesterday, a complicated past that is no longer there. As he observes the Ring Road taking shape, he laments how “concrete overruns everything,” even his childhood memories (Ahmed 2014, 37). While the novels capture the Road at different stages of its life, and are eventually separate literary projects, they both invoke the language of memory in narrating the Ring Road and the future world(s) it promises. Walter Benjamin explains that “memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium” (Benjamin 2005, 576). In this case, it is a medium for historicizing and politically engaging the present and coming to terms with a not-so-promising future. Andreas Huyssen (2003) elaborates on this by defining “the act of remembering” as “always in and of the present” (3). He explains how we have come to use “both past and future to articulate our political, social, and cultural dissatisfactions with the present state of the world” (Huyssen 2003, 6). The urban imaginaries drawn up by the novels are thus both an exercise in social and political critique and a work of collective memory.

  • 2 In 2019, the Egyptian president issued an executive order to paint bare redbrick building façades (...)

14This is also evident in Egyptian visual art, which has explored the life and legacy of the Ring Road. A recent exhibition by Egyptian visual artist Amr ElKafrawy, titled “The Ring Road” (2020), explores the Road’s aesthetics. The exhibition is a series of haunted portraits of uninhabited concrete buildings, a representation of the Road’s panorama of tall red-brick buildings (Figure 1). At first glance, the portraits’ disembodied buildings stand in stark contrast to the novels’ peopled narratives. However, the paintings are not life-less. Entirely in shades of grey, the portraits show the trees, shrubs, and sky in faint purple and green hues surrounding the buildings. By muting the human elements in the portraits, ElKafrawy gives life to the red-brick buildings that are politically and socially contentious in contemporary Cairo.2 Through themes of order/disorder, beauty/ugliness, and symmetry/asymmetry, the exhibition critically explores the Ring Road and its representations. An artist known for his work on urban memory, ElKafrawy departs from his earlier, human-centered projects on central Cairo and instead observes the symmetries of urban disorder at its periphery in the latest exhibition. His paintings are meditations on a past and future that culminate in the Ring Road’s tall redbrick buildings. In this way, the exhibition, like both novels, is part of a literary and visual repertoire increasingly coalescing around the object of the Ring Road and intimately critical of its city.

Figure 1. Amr ElKafrawy, “The Ring Road”.

Figure 1. Amr ElKafrawy, “The Ring Road”.

Source: the artist

‘Below the Ring Road’: Space, (Im)mobility, and the Violence of Infrastructure

15During its construction, the Ring Road traversed and connected communities of farmers toiling agricultural fields, nomads roaming deserts, and workers laboring new industrial towns. Today, some of them are the communities spatially excluded by the Ring Road and the ever-growing metropolis it serves. The novels follow these communities connected and displaced by the Road and explore how they interact with it as a space for the production and negotiation of power, the state, and its biopolitical regimes. The coherence or authenticity of the novels’ plotlines is not my primary concern. Rather, I am interested in how they both represent the violent processes of capitalist restructuring and dispossession. I explore how, as stories, they expose political intimacies and nuances that, given the object of study and difficulty accessing archival and ethnographic sources, more historical and theoretical analyses have not fully captured. I read those stories as accounts that provide us with a better understanding of how the promise of fast and free movement is only made possible by slowing and immobilizing various forms of urban and social life. It is the promise punctuated by the folding of intimate memories and livelihoods into concrete spaces of public utility and economic circulation. In doing so, the two novels draw our attention to the intimacies and politics of urban space, (im)mobility, and infrastructure construction in post-1970s Cairo.

16It is difficult to quantitatively measure the scale or magnitude of dispossession and ecological destruction caused by the Ring Road alone. The extent of its impact, however, prompted Timothy Mitchell (2002) to exclaim that “Egypt was to prosper by selling fruits and vegetables to Europe and the Gulf, not paving over its fields to build ring roads” (275). The Ring Road’s construction unfolded in parallel with the acceleration of a process of agrarian restructuring in Egypt, which was formalized with the introduction of Law 96 in 1992. The law, a hallmark of deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s (1981-2011) neo-liberal economic agenda, led to the mass eviction of peasants from agricultural lands and its transfer to private families and owners (Abul-Magd 2013, 2). Around one million people immediately lost their access and rights to farming, “a figure that represented one-third of all Egyptian rural families” (Hanieh 2018, 135). The law represented a departure from the land redistribution schemes of the 1950s that were central to the social contract of the Egyptian Republic at its founding (1954-present). Beginning in the 1970s and intensifying in the 1990s, the Egyptian state gradually removed subsidies, liquidated public companies, and geared agricultural production towards export (Hanieh 2018, 135). The latter was accompanied by a long and drawn-out process of the ecological destruction of agricultural land, which was also tied to the expansion of local markets catering to building and construction. For example, in exchange for meager sums of money, state brick factories systematically incentivized small-scale peasants to scrap their land’s fertile layer to then use in manufacturing redbrick, effectively leaving the land infertile (Ramadan 2020). It is thus no coincidence that redbrick is the material most visibly associated with the Ring Road’s urban sprawl and is commonly contrasted to the lush green fields it once passed through (Salah al-Din 2019).

17The account of the village’s slow disappearance in East of the Ring Road elucidates how this process of rural dispossession also unfolded through space and infrastructure. It specifically demonstrates how the Ring Road’s construction was part of a larger “process of spatially orchestrated dispossession” of land and agriculture in Egypt, first introduced by the law and upheld by infrastructure (Sevilla-Buitrago 2015, 1002). This complicates the state’s claim—its metanarrative—that constructing more ring roads further protects agricultural land from urban encroachment, a process ongoing until today (Egypt Today 2018). It also shows how those formerly rural populations were “demobilized and remobilized across many different scales”—urban, national, and global (Sheller 2011, 2). For example, the loss of agricultural land accelerated the migration of many of the village’s able-bodied sons in search of work opportunities in the Arab Gulf.

18Further, the promise of the Ring Road was twofold. On the part of the state and capital, the Ring Road promised to generate more capital, and both facilitate “the movement of labor to the market” and change “land values around new stations” (Enright 2013, 798). For the villagers in East of the Ring Road, this meant dreams of a more profitable real estate market where their land would sell for more and eventually secure their escape from poverty. The promise of free and fast movement on the Road was also translated into hopes for an influx of travelers. By selling their goods at higher prices to the travelers, the villagers hoped that the Road would bring about this new and constant source of income. In vivid scenes, the novel portrays the Road as the stage for the villagers’ dreams of wealth and speedy commercial success, both later crushed under the weight of rushing heavy vehicles traveling on the road. As it facilitated the expansion of the larger national and global markets it serves, the Road stifled the village’s market and impoverished the villagers even further. It also brought state power and violence directly into their homes (Ahmed 2014, 256-257; see Abdelrahman 2017, 188). Instead of opening the villagers up to the “rest of the world,” the Road shut them off from the remainder of the city and its resources. This narrative helps us understand how the very concrete space that sought to contain and pacify rural populations, displacing their anticipated mass upheavals away from the city center, folded them even further into urban logics and spaces of circulation and mobility. In other words, it shows whose movement the Ring Road made faster, freer, and more efficient and who and what it slowed down or immobilized.

  • 3 Egypt has been in an almost-constant state of emergency since 1958. The Ring Road’s construction, (...)

19The Ring Road does not operate merely as a technical system; it is also part of biopolitical regimes that distribute life and death. A central pillar of those biopolitical regimes is the state. The modern state has historically monopolized the means through which “the spatial and strategic arrangement of things and humans and the ordered possibilities of their movement [within] a particular territory” are produced and regulated (Dean 1999, 105). In Egypt, mobility infrastructures historically made possible nationalist imaginaries of the nation-state as a contiguous and unified territory and space. Unlike other infrastructures in Cairo and Egypt, mobility infrastructures are thus more visibly enmeshed in the making of state space and territory. Within this historical trajectory, however, the Ring Road has been neither a national border, a war zone, nor a geopolitically contested space. On most days, it is a mundane infrastructure of transport, clogged with lines of cars and sometimes fatal accidents. However, according to Egyptian law, the Road has a special legal status and is ordained by presidential decree as “an infrastructure of special nature” (Decrees 379/1998 and 115/2006).3 This places the Ring Road directly under the purview of the General Authority for Roads, Bridges, and Land Transport, and gives the Egyptian Public Treasury full financial responsibility for its construction and maintenance. In other words, it directly embeds the Road within the state’s strategic arrangement of its territory. The Road is also occasionally a stage for expressions of popular discontent with the state and protest (see al-Watan 2015; Arefin 2019; Rose 2007). It is therefore both a symbolic and material space where the contradictions of the Egyptian social and political formation play out and become visible.

20As a material and symbolic space, the Ring Road is also stage for different scales of direct and structural violence. These scales range from the spectacular (displacement, demolition, and destruction) to the minute and every day, and are deployed in the management and control of movement on the Road. The estate in Fleeing the Ring Road was founded as a space of exile, where the inhabitants are banned from travel, their freedom of movement restricted. Their mobility in and around the city is also controlled by a series of checkpoints, dotted by rings of fire, and surrounded by the Absolute Wisdom (Kilani 2019, 49 and 118). While this is a fictional exaggeration of how (im)mobility unfolds on the Road, there are various ways that the Ring Road restricts the movement of some in Cairo. This restriction takes place through the physical spaces of the Road and the criminalization of various mobilities in the city (see Wahdan 2012). For example, many of the towns and neighborhoods that the Road passes through do not have physical access to the Road in the form of ramps and staircases, which they have self-built over time (Patelli 2014). Coupled with forms of direct violence, like the state-orchestrated raids on the village in East of the Ring Road, these minute restrictions of everyday movement place the Road within an apparatus through which the movement and circulation of bodies and goods, and their visibility, are managed in Cairo (Azoulay and Ophir 2009, 105; Kotef 2015, 15). The space of the road is ordered in a way that controls the visibility and invisibility of populations, with some moving above the Road and others living below it. As Laleh Khalili (2010) argues, “the power to make visible also comes with the ability to silence, or to judge, or to transform what is being seen” (139). Thus, the spaces the novels locate as ‘below the Ring Road’ and ‘beyond the Ring Road’ are spatial identifiers of the invisible regimes of (im)mobility created by the Ring Road. Both an urban metaphor and a real place, ‘beyond the Ring Road’ also features in other accounts of the Ring Road. Like the representations of (im)mobility in the novels, it compares the Road to natural and geographic barriers, such as rivers and mountains (see Omran 2020). These spatial identifiers are an important element of the novels’ literary worlds that draw our attention to the intimacies and politics of infrastructure construction and its connection to different scales of violence, space, and (im)mobility. The intersections of these different scales both directly and indirectly shape urban and social life in Cairo and its periphery.

Conclusion

21Telling Cairo’s story from the vantage point of its Ring Road—metaphoric border and physical barrier—blurs the city’s inside and outside. The Road is the space and infrastructure that sought to demarcate the city’s limits, but ended up folding spaces, social formations, and ecologies further into its regimes of (im)mobility, public utility, and economic circulation. This was not a smooth and non-violent process, however. Its intimacies are captured by literary narratives that explore the Road’s memory of construction and destruction; narratives that are especially significant given the dominance of state discourses around the Road and the almost complete absence of alternative narratives. In this paper, I explored how such narratives complement a macro-political economy analysis of urban development, infrastructure, and (im)mobility. I analyzed two novels, which take the Road as their central focus, as equal and critical interlocutors of political economy and theory, and as sources that uncover the intimacies and politics of large-scale structural processes. Together, these two novels reveal how the promise of fast and free movement on the Ring Road, and mobility infrastructure more broadly, is continuously made possible by slowing and immobilizing various forms of urban and social life. They expose the many ways through which the arc of Cairo’s story—of its extreme poverty, inequality, and regimes of (im)mobility—begins and ends with the Ring Road.

Acknowledgments
I would like to extend my gratitude to my advisor, Matthew Sparke, for his support in exploring and writing this article. I am also grateful to Karim Kilani and Amr ElKafrawy for their time discussing their work. Countless thanks to Yosra Hussein, Lama Tawakkol, and my friends and colleagues at the UC Santa Cruz Politics Graduate Workshop for generously reading and commenting on several drafts, and Yasmine Hafez for kindly sharing the call for papers with me. Finally, I am thankful to the two anonymous reviewers who provided me with extensive and helpful feedback. All shortcomings are my own.

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Notes

1 All Arabic-to-English translation is my own unless otherwise noted.

2 In 2019, the Egyptian president issued an executive order to paint bare redbrick building façades across Cairo.

3 Egypt has been in an almost-constant state of emergency since 1958. The Ring Road’s construction, and the Greater Cairo Master Plan, were rolled out during a renewed phase of the state’s Emergency Law (Law 162/1958) after the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Amr ElKafrawy, “The Ring Road”.
Crédits Source: the artist
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14759/img-1.jpg
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Ingy Higazy, « The Violence of Memory and Movement: Reading Cairo from its Ring Road »Égypte/Monde arabe, 23 | 2021, 105-120.

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Ingy Higazy, « The Violence of Memory and Movement: Reading Cairo from its Ring Road »Égypte/Monde arabe [En ligne], 23 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ema/14759 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ema.14759

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Auteur

Ingy Higazy

Ingy Higazy is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). Her work sits at the intersection of political theory, global political economy, and urban studies. Her dissertation project studies how and why the material spaces and infrastructures that facilitate movement for some, systematically preclude it for others.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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