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A Political Geography of Cairo’s Eastern Suburban Spaces

Une géographie politique des espaces de la banlieue Est du Caire
جغرافية سياسية لشوارع الضواحي الشرقية للقاهرة
Sara Tonsy
p. 187-195

Résumés

Les zones suburbaines égyptiennes ont connu de multiples développements depuis l’arrivée au pouvoir du président Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. En 2014, celui-ci a annoncé le projet de la Nouvelle Capitale administrative (NAC), qui prévoit le déménagement des administrations du centre-ville du Caire vers ce nouvel espace suburbain. L’importance symbolique de la création de la NAC réside dans son lien à l’essor d’une « nouvelle république » dans les discours du président. Toutefois, ce n’est pas la seule utilisation symbolique des nouveaux espaces suburbains à l’est du Caire. Les noms de rue du Nouveau Caire témoignent d’une instrumentalisation culturelle et politique de l’espace. En utilisant les noms des rues du Nouveau Caire, je montre comment un récit officiel spécifique – en tant que texte urbain – se construit autour du personnel de l’armée égyptienne et des acteurs politiques qui marquent les rues de cette zone suburbaine de leurs noms et leur signification symbolique. Comment le texte urbain des nouvelles zones suburbaines à l’est du Caire – la NAC et le Nouveau Caire – participe-t-il à véhiculer une hégémonie ? J’illustre dans cet essai comment ce texte urbain s’inscrit dans les appellations et toponymes de cette zone et comment il affirme le récit de l’État et la fondation d’une nouvelle société d’élite.

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Texte intégral

Introduction

1“A place cannot be understood without reconstructing it in time, without considering its evolution” (Fernandes and Carvalho 2016, 121). This essay examines the developments taking place in two areas East of Cairo, New Cairo, and the New Capital city project, underway since 2014 in Egypt, as part of a set of procedures to express and assert the regime’s power in various ways. The NAC occupies a suburban space considered administratively to be part of Greater Cairo, which has been developing rapidly into representing the vision of the current regime’s centralized hegemony over the state in Egypt. As part of the new capital project that lies on the Eastern border of Cairo with the Suez governorate, the NAC hosts the administrative capital, an economic hub, a social elite space and forms the state apparatus’ shield from the disruption by future uprisings. On the same side, closer to downtown Cairo, is New Cairo, which has been witnessing a rise in gated community projects and infrastructural developments since 2011-14 until today, based on field observations and exchanges with architects and construction engineers who worked in the area. In this essay, I trace the relations of power that come to the forefront when exploring the geographical, territorial (as related to security and population), cultural and social significance of the two Eastern suburbs of Cairo – New Cairo and the NAC. How is the current regime using the recent developments in these spaces to assert its hegemony in Egypt?

2In this essay, I put forward the idea that “the use of street names for commemorative purposes is instrumental in transforming the urban environment into a virtual political setting” (Azaryahu 1996, 313-4). In demonstrating the designated street names in New Cairo as a form of city-text, its instrumentalization as a procedural exercise of power becomes clear. Meanwhile, keeping in mind that the NAC and New Cairo are geographically close enough to each other for one to be considered an extension of the other, which explains my use of both spaces. The “reshaping of power structure” (Azaryahu 1997, 479-80) represents part of the political geography and centralization around the new capital in the making. This power structure includes not only economic power – which is provided through the infrastructure and the numerous projects (gated communities, commercial areas, etc...) being erected in and around this space – but also symbolic, and political power. Meanwhile, the original social or communal power derived from both the reconstruction of a new military society within this agglomeration and the securitization attached to it, revolves around being part of the military’s numerous recent projects. The idea of military society needs to be explained briefly to provide some contextualization to this society described by Anouar Abdel Malek in his book Egypt: Military Society. Abdel Malek explained how an elite military society was engineered and constructed in Egypt after the 1952 coup d’état by the Free Officers to replace the King’s elite out of the officers’ corps (Abdel Malek 1968). At the heart of Abdel Malek’s analysis is the idea that the military’s reforms represented a tool that enabled it to become an elite society and “a state within a state” which is a saying that was coined at the time in reference to the Egyptian army. I will question the application of Abdel Malek’s idea on today’s regime and through the occupation and designation of this new space.

Political geography and not commemoration

  • 1 Hisham Barakat was the Prosecutor General who sentenced and made decisions regarding many Muslim B (...)

3The political geography involved in New Cairo and street naming goes beyond the politics of commemoration that involved changes in street names, like after the fall of the Soviet Union; or the change of the Rabʻa Square in Heliopolis, Cairo to Hisham Barakat Square in 20151. New Cairo as a territory, society and organization is a vivid representation of Abdel Malek’s notion, and especially with regards to Abdel Malek’s argument on the construction of a new bourgeoisie in post-1952 Egypt.

4First, New Cairo is set approximately 27 kilometers from downtown Cairo and is bordered with axes (similar to highways but with a lower speed limit), ring roads and military zones, so does the NAC as could be seen in figure 1 below. This attempt to situate the social and economic elite away from central Cairo’s congestion is complimented by the availability of (pre-existing) international schools in the surrounding areas, which cater to the aforementioned elite, including the military personnel. Second, the non-inclusivity of the space is in the social, economic, and political factors that unite the new inhabitants. “The regime securitizes itself by becoming physically distanced and shielded from the public” (Khalil 2019, 85). The numerous gated communities within New Cairo are meant to provide its inhabitants, and the NAC’s administrative buildings close by, with further security while setting them apart from other communities – gated or not. “There is a certain citizen who is imagined to live in those spaces” stated Omnia Khalil with regards to neoliberal urban projects developed from 1981 until 2014 (Khalil 2014, 23; 2019). Her statement summarizes the idea presented here and I add to it the creation of the new military society and its representation and hegemony over this new space. Finally, the Eastern suburban area of Cairo – NAC or New Cairo –represents an extended securitization of public space, for national and ring roads surrounding them, extending to the boundary between the Cairo and Suez Governorates. The numerous gated communities are monitored by specific security companies, especially with regards to entry or exit to any of these areas. This security guarantees refuge from other future uprisings; with all administrative buildings, embassies, etc... moved there it would be unlikely that a march from Tahrir Square in downtown or an uprising would disturb this coffre fort.

Figure 1. This map shows the distance from downtown Cairo to New Cairo and the NAC.

Figure 1. This map shows the distance from downtown Cairo to New Cairo and the NAC.

Source: Bayoumi 2020, 81

  • 2 The use of the hashtag was observed for several consecutive months after the president’s speech in (...)

5Why make this argument based on street names in newly found spaces? As mentioned earlier, al-Sisi referred on several occasions – like during the speech on the recent Martyr Day in March 2021 – that the NAC represents the rise of the “new republic.” Also, all Egyptian television channels marked the corner of their screens with the hashtag: #new_republic;2 or similar versions announcing the founding of the new republic based on the new July state and the New Capital. Hence showing the significance of this project to the state, its administration, core foundation and contemporary narrative. The NAC follows in line to numerous projects of new cities by state rulers in Egypt that date back far in history. “Each ruler has instigated a new Egypt by building a new city to prove their power and existence” (Khalil 2019, 119).

Kammil ‘alâ tûl . . . huwa ’âllak fîn?”3

  • 3 Go straight ahead . . . where did he say it was?

6In what follows, I will walk you – or take you on a drive – through New Cairo while answering the above-mentioned question. How might a new military society assert its power through the symbolic use of street names? If you are on your way to New Cairo from downtown Cairo, the recommended route is taking the Marshal (mushîr) Tantâwî Axis, you pass by the Military Cemetery followed by the Marshal Tantâwî Mosque to reach the area indicated on the map in figure 1 above as New Cairo. Marshal Tantâwî was the last Minister of Defense and head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) of the Hosni Mubarak regime. Tantâwî continued in office under Muslim Brotherhood (MB) affiliated president, Mohamed Morsi; and was forced into retirement by the latter in 2012. Tantâwî was replaced by, at the time, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who then became Egyptian President in 2014.

7The first square you would reach is ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Riyâd Square in New Cairo, replicating or mirroring that of downtown Cairo, which was in proximity to Tahrir Square, the token of the 25th of January 2011 revolution. The mirroring of many names of other Cairene streets is countless like those carrying the names of intellectual and artistic figures such as Umm Kulthûm, ‘Abbâs al-‘Aqqâd, Farîd al-Atrash, etc. The same goes for religious figures as the famous Quran reciters Shaykh al-Husarî and Shaykh ‘Abd al-Bâsit ‘Abd al-Samad.

8However, if you pass by the al-Shahîd Corridor (Martyr Corridor), you could take the Sa‘ad Zaghlûl Axis as could be seen on the map in figure 2 below. Coming from Nasr City the Martyr Corridor route is more convenient. However, you have a second option by taking al-Mithâq and al-Gaysh Roads (the Charter and the Army Roads) then the Sa‘ad Zaghlûl Axis. Once you are on the latter, you are in New Cairo already. Heading towards al-Wahda Square (Unity Square), until you cut al-Shabâb Street (Youth Street), you are at the crossroads with Mohamed Naguib Street, standing on the Martyr Mohamed Hassan Shalabî Square (Figure 3). Captain Mohamed Hassan Shalabî of the Police forces was killed in Shaykh Zuwayd in North Sinai governorate by a suicide bomber in April 2019, among four other Police personnel and three civilians. There are numerous streets that carry names preceded by the title: Martyr. Upon trying to identify some of the names, I was unable to find pertinent and credible information on the people behind most of the names. Thus, meaning that there is a narration that is yet to be made regarding those figures after which the streets are named; and that a historiography is being formulated.

Figure 2. This map shows the three main roads to access New Cairo from, which would be coming from the left side towards the right.

Figure 2. This map shows the three main roads to access New Cairo from, which would be coming from the left side towards the right.

Source: Open Street Maps 2021 (scale: 1cm:500 m)

Figure 3. This map shows al-Wahda Square and al-Shalabî Square.

Figure 3. This map shows al-Wahda Square and al-Shalabî Square.

Source: Open Street Maps 2021 (scale: 1cm:200 m)

9To reach the New Cairo Government Office, you continue on Mohamed Naguib and at the place where it merges with Gamal Abdel Nasser Street, you have reached your destination, and ahead of you there is Mohamed Farîd Street, one of the founders of Egyptian nationalism along with Mostafa Kamel. Gamal Abdel Nasser Street extends all the way to al-Nasr Street (Victory Street) cutting both Tal‘at Harb Axis – founder of Banque Misr – and, again, another axis named after Mohamed Naguib. On al-Nasr Street, you eventually merge into al-Sadat Axis. Geographically in New Cairo, al-Sadat Axis is cut by al-Tahrir Axis (Liberation Axis). The organization of street names as such outlines the narrative formulated by the current regime in accentuating the role of the military’s historical and political significance in Egypt.

  • 4 The topic was covered extensively by many scholars; especially over the significance of Tahrir Squ (...)
  • 5 Notably in Samir 2014.

10Naguib, Nasser and Sadat were all Free Officers and presidents since the coup of 1952. The Free Officers’ military regime did not only use street and square names in downtown Cairo to commemorate its victory over the monarchy – regarded and portrayed as a corrupt British ally working against the benefit of the Egyptian people4. However many cultural productions and films put forward the representation of the “corrupt monarchy” versus the “nationalist patriotic army” that saved the Egyptian people from the exploitation taking place under the monarchy. One prominent example is the film Rudd qalbî (Return My Heart, 1957), written by Yûsuf al-Sibâ‘î, Egyptian writer and Military Academy graduate. This film is the source of the prominent line: “the son of the gardener became an officer, Ingy,” and which kept reappearing after the 2011 and 2013 events5. Al-Sibâ‘î occupies the name of one of the main streets that reaches from al-Tis‘în al-Shamâlî Street (Eastern Road 90), crosses Ahmed ‘Urâbî Square then al-Sadat Square to join ‘Abbâs al-‘Aqqâd Corridor.

A Mirror Image for Power

11Most of the main streets and avenues carry names of streets that exist in Cairo. Using the same names is not surprising, as they are also recurrent in other governorates. However, creating new streets with the same names so close to their counterparts in Cairo indicates indicates the creation of an autonomous settlement from the city of Cairo. The other aspect is the creation of a new historiography of a city without history; the creation of a narrative on a blank part of the desert. Many street names remain without proper documentation or are known as such to passersby in Cairo (Davies and Lababidi 2018).

12When the street names are examined closely in relation to their geographic location, there is a story being told in the way the streets were named that resonates with: on the one hand, the military society’s representation of its heroes and personnel. On the other hand, the current regime’s narrative is elaborated through what could be referred to as “city-text” (Azaryahu 1996, 324). City-text involves the narration of a historical narrative through the city, which is often “without real history . . . only annals, lists of rulers, chronicles of events” (Ibid.). Without Tantâwî’s non-alignment with Mubarak in 2011, al-Sisi would not have come to power, which makes the naming – of a flyover or bridge after the former – even more symbolically significant. Nasser is followed by al-nasr, victory, then merges into al-Sadat that gets you to tahrir, liberation. These are symbolic signposts on the way from Cairo to New Cairo and within its borders.

13There is a clear tendency towards using not just any of the military personnel’s prominent figures, but the ones that “should” be remembered as part of Egypt’s history and the state narrative. Putting Hosni Mubarak’s name on a street would be too early, for example. However, it is no coincidence that the mosque from where all Calls for Prayers (adhân) are to be aired, with the project of the unification of this ritual, should be al-Fattâh al-‘Alîm Mosque inaugurated by the president in January 2019 in the NAC. The name is based on two of the 99 names of God (al-Fattâh, al-‘Alîm) and the president’s own name. Many new smaller mosques are being creating after this name in other parts of Egypt.

14Using Police personnel’s names for street names – marginal streets – provides recognition and a compromise amidst all the military men. This further asserts a relation of power between both actors who were part of the political field in 2011 at the time of the uprising. Upon the arrival of the army on Tahrir Square on the 28th of January 2011, the Police abandoned their posts and their battle against protesters, while the military occupied the center stage. The marginality of streets carrying Police personnel’s names reflect on their reduced roles in the political (and economic) power and hegemony accentuated by the narrative of New Cairo’s streets.

Conclusion

15Moving in from the old to the new capital city in Egypt and its surroundings is puzzling. The subtle difficulty in writing this piece is in trying to clearly refer to Cairo, New Cairo, and the New Administrative Capital (NAC). Further duplication of street names can be expected once the NAC will be finally equipped as the centralized iron fist of the regime in replacement of the Mugamma‘ complex in Tahrir Square and other ministries’ buildings in downtown Cairo. The changing of the capital and state’s core represents more than a change of space but also of a narrative and the creation of a whole “new republic.” Space contributes to the formation of a new “legacy.” Abdel Malek’s illustration of the founding and engineering of a military-elite is vivid in the example of New Cairo. On the one hand, the Eastern suburban areas create a secured territorial and administratively centralized conglomerate that is instrumental in further securitizing the regime’s hegemony over the state apparatus. On the other hand, New Cairo’s city-text is a formulation of the state’s narrative – as coinciding with the army’s – and assertion of its power. While similar processes have taken place in other countries, it would be interesting to examine other cases in comparison to Egypt’s in order to understand and reveal even further other power dynamics.

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Bibliographie

Abdel Malek, Anouar and Charles Lam Markmann. 1968. Egypt: Military Society, the Army Regime, the Left, and Social Change under Nasser. New York: Random House.

Abul-Magd, Zeinab. 2012. “Occupying Tahrir Square: The Myths and the Realities of the Egyptian Revolution.” South Atlantic Quarterly 111 (3): 565-572.

Azaryahu, Maoz. 1996. “The power of commemorative street names.” Environment and planning D: Society and Space 14 (3): 311-330.

Azaryahu, Maoz. 1997. “German reunification and the politics of street names: the case of East Berlin.” Political geography 16 (6): 479-493.

Bayoumi, Hala. 2020. “La nouvelle capitale administrative : un projet ambitieux.” In Atlas de l’Égypte contemporaine, edited by Karine Bennafla and Hala Bayoumi, 80-81. Paris: CNRS Éditions.

Davies, Humphrey T., and Leslie K. Lababidi. 2018. A Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

Fernandes, João Luís Jesus, and Paulo Carvalho. 2016. “Military Heritage, Identity and Development: A Case Study of Elvas, Portugal.” In Heritage, Memory and the Politics of Identity, edited by Yvonne Whelan and Niamh Moore. London: Routledge.

Khalil, Omnia. 2014. The People of the City: Space, Laboring and Power in Quest of Unraveling the How in Ramlet Bulaq. Master Thesis, American University in Cairo.

Khalil, Omnia. 2019. “The State as an Urban Broker: Subjectivity Formation, Securitization, and Place-Making in Post-Revolutionary Cairo.” Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development 48 (1): 85-128.

Samir, Ahmed. 2014. Bushrat khayr… Ibn el-ganâynî ba’â zâbet yâ Ingy (Good omen… The son of the gardener became an officer, Ingy). Al-Shorouk, May 23, 2014. https://www.shorouknews.com/columns/view.aspx?cdate=23052014&id=694e32d5-2b9e-4f46-b5b1-12c2d001bc72&fb_comment_id=776580122387289_776596805718954.

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Notes

1 Hisham Barakat was the Prosecutor General who sentenced and made decisions regarding many Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members’ incarceration or death penalty after the 2013 coup d’état carried out by, at the time, General al-Sisi against president and MB Guidance Bureau member, Mohamed Morsi. He was assassinated on the 29th of June 2015.

2 The use of the hashtag was observed for several consecutive months after the president’s speech in March-August.

3 Go straight ahead . . . where did he say it was?

4 The topic was covered extensively by many scholars; especially over the significance of Tahrir Square between 1952 and 2011. See, for example, Aboelezz 2012 and Abul-Magd 2012.

5 Notably in Samir 2014.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. This map shows the distance from downtown Cairo to New Cairo and the NAC.
Crédits Source: Bayoumi 2020, 81
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14799/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,4M
Titre Figure 2. This map shows the three main roads to access New Cairo from, which would be coming from the left side towards the right.
Crédits Source: Open Street Maps 2021 (scale: 1cm:500 m)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14799/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 997k
Titre Figure 3. This map shows al-Wahda Square and al-Shalabî Square.
Crédits Source: Open Street Maps 2021 (scale: 1cm:200 m)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14799/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 901k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Sara Tonsy, « A Political Geography of Cairo’s Eastern Suburban Spaces »Égypte/Monde arabe, 23 | 2021, 187-195.

Référence électronique

Sara Tonsy, « A Political Geography of Cairo’s Eastern Suburban Spaces »Égypte/Monde arabe [En ligne], 23 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 12 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ema/14799 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ema.14799

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Auteur

Sara Tonsy

Sara Tonsy has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Institut d’Études Politiques, Aix-en-Provence, France. She defended her thesis in November 2019. Her book, based on the doctoral thesis, will be published at the end of 2021. Tonsy is currently an associate researcher at the IREMAM and Mesopolhis, Sciences Po Aix, France.

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