- Life Style
We live in Cairo. We live Cairo. We walk it, drive it, breathe it, choke on it. Sometimes if we can, we run away from it, only to enable a return to it. We inhabit Cairo and Cairo inhabits us. We hate it because we love it and know it could be better. At times we curse it. We dream it, and we dream for this city.
Cairo Observer, a blog founded in April of last year by Mohamed Elshahed, is about all of this and more. Fundamentally, it is about the dreams we have for Cairo. It is about talking about the city, critically, participating in it and transforming it.
And so a group of Cairo residents find themselves in downtown’s Rawabet Theater, taking a break from the noise of Egypt’s presidential election just days before the polls, to take part in a discussion on the occasion of the first printed publication of Cairo Observer. Funded by the British Council, the initiative of printed hard copies is crucially about translating the articles on the blog from English into Arabic. In the format of a newspaper and beautifully designed by Amro Thabet, the print copy also has some additional articles in both English and Arabic.
The idea of the blog, and of the initiative of taking it from a virtual space into the city, as it were, is conversation. Rather than closed conversations among ministers, or experts, or bureaucrats, if the people who live in and breathe the city participate in discussions about Cairo, the blog's creator hopes this will be part of the solution for the city’s future.
Having complaint sessions — conversations that are also, in a sense, closed — among friends go nowhere. Elshahed believes that making them public might lead them somewhere. Officials have no incentive to be accountable at this point, but if there were real, open and involved public conversations, this might change.
The discussion at Rawabet is facilitated by Elshahed, a student of architecture and urban planning who runs the blog and is also a contributor to Egypt Independent, and in conversation with him are two architects and urban planners, Yahia Shawkat and Karim Ibrahim.
One of the main themes of conversation, unsurprisingly, was participation.
“There aren’t local discussions involving residents in the changes to their areas. Rather you just wake up to find the street dug up,” said Shawkat.
And it’s not just residents who are left out; it’s the ‘experts’ too. Ibrahim saw the plans for the controversial Cairo 2050 project for the first time not in Cairo, but in Germany.
“Often you don’t see the plans,” he said, “until the land has already been sold to crony capitalists.”
For Shawkat, the solution — or solutions — includes mainstreaming community participation, highly representative and accountable local councils, and equitable distribution of resources. But of course none of us, whether urban planners or residents, have a blueprint to achieve those ambitious goals.
As Shawkat pointed out, it is not a question simply of undoing the security paradigm approach to urban planning that characterized the Mubarak years. The issue is deeper and goes further back than that.
“We have been a police state since the early 19th century. Rather than the police protecting the people, they became an arm of the state,” Shawkat said.
For all this talk of participation, participation in what? It is not simply that the authorities are busy getting things done, while the residents are passive recipients. Of course not. The thing about cities like Cairo — and Cairo is not unique in this sense — is that residents are compelled to act, to make up for the failure of the state. And this is particularly the case in informal areas, where services and utilities are mostly self-provided.
And this is a conundrum that recurs in the literature again and again. Are we to applaud people for taking matters into their own hands? Should we hold this up as some kind of model that encapsulates ownership and empowerment? In transforming it into a model, we obfuscate the dire necessity that made this kind of participation necessary, and by implication we let the state off the hook. We give a little push to a rising neo-liberalism that divests the state of its responsibilities to its citizens. So part of the conversation has to be holding the state, and its representatives, accountable, not doing their job for them.
If citizens are already active in making their city, the question becomes — the panelists seemed to agree on this to different degrees — not about getting people to participate in the plans of architects and urban planners, but the other way around.
And how to do that? Well, perhaps not at the Townhouse art gallery and not in English. Not that there is anything wrong with a conversation in a downtown gallery, in English — because, as it happened, pretty much everyone there was proficient in English — but so long as we don’t delude ourselves that this is the conversation we should be having.
That the conversation was in English points to the challenges. And it is not just a question of language. If it is to be a public conversation, then let it be public. And this is much harder than it sounds. It’s not simply by declaring something open that it becomes open. In catering to the same bits of that public — most of those present at Rawabet probably already follow the blog and its Twitter feed — the conversation remains closed. It may be useful to think of one public, or maybe even many publics.
If there are local struggles in different informal and poorer areas for investment in utilities, ownership of land and access to services, why not go to them? And if we really want them to be in this conversation, not on the periphery but driving it forward, then perhaps a print medium is not the best means by which to achieve this. Another question: Is it even us who should be having the conversations? Would our contribution to the city be greater by facilitating conversation between the residents of informal spaces? I am not sure, but it is certainly a question worth asking.
Where does the conversation go from here?