A Divided City: Suburban Cairo Before the Egyptian Revolution

News reports on the Egyptian Revolution have rightfully focused on former President Hosni Mubarak and, to a lesser extent, Tahrir Square—considered a major flash point for unrest. The immediate causes, including scenes of crowded city streets and riots, have been highlighted in great detail. The role of Cairo’s suburbs has received far less attention.

Suburban Cairo includes one upscale community known as Beverly Hills. While Egypt’s version will never be mistaken for its counterpart in Los Angeles County, both landscapes are a great showcase for luxury homes and palm trees. Cairo is home to dozens of upscale suburban communities just like Beverly Hills, many of which are up to an hour’s drive from the city center.

The Suburb of Beverly Hills, Cairo

Egypt has always been a land of class divisions, but wealthy citizens used to live among the lower classes—choosing to upgrade childhood homes instead of relocating to less crowded hinterlands. Times have changed. Behind the scenes of Egypt’s unrest, the growth of isolated suburban communities has magnified the social divisions in Cairo.

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Planned suburban communities in Cairo date back to the early 20th century. Heliopolis—created in 1905 by the Heliopolis Oasis Company—served as a luxurious oasis for the upper class. The planned community, just 10km northeast of the city center, installed a robust infrastructure that included electricity, sewage, and running water. Initial construction projects focused on upscale residential neighborhoods and grand avenues that soon featured luxury hotels and entertainment venues. The growth of Cairo has since turned the once isolated suburb into a bustling district of the city itself, yet Heliopolis remains a community of middle and upper-class residents.

The Early Years of Heliopolis

More widespread examples of suburban planning began in the 1970s. Then President Anwar Sadat implemented a policy to create satellite communities and shed much of Cairo’s bloated population. The plan experienced mixed results, as many areas simply became marginalized factory towns. By the mid-1990s, suburban development became the responsibility of private corporations. A housing boom quickly followed that helped stimulate the growth of upscale suburbs. As Ashraf Kahlil observed in the Los Angeles Times:

“Houses in some new communities combine red Mediterranean tile roofs, splashed pastel colors, Roman columns, and sheets of shimmering glass, like grafts taken from random pages of Architectural Digest.  Future University, one of the dozens of private schools dotting the suburbs, looks like a spaceship meshed with a half-scale model of the Roman Colosseum.” 

At present, Cairo’s peripheral housing developments are largely middle and upper-class. Many remain so isolated that trips to a café or grocery store take an hour in midday traffic. Yet most residents find these inconveniences to be a small price to pay for a life outside of the crowded urban core.

Interestingly, Cairo’s official poverty rate is only 6 percent. A 2010 study by University of London Professor Sarah Sabry suggests that “the incidence of poverty is severely underestimated in Greater Cairo… poverty lines are set too low in relation to the costs of the most basic of needs.” While official poverty statistics are up for debate, signs of pervasive pollution and overcrowding are not. The city’s population density exceeds 2,000 inhabitants per hectare, second to only Lagos on the entire African continent.

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Before the revolution, Egypt undertook a project to build two cities on the periphery—New Cairo to the east and 6 October City to the west. The latter has already reached a population of 1 million, while urban planners expect both cities to reach 3-4 million by 2020. The government spent millions of dollars on roads and infrastructural improvements. This time around the urban poor were included, but not willingly. Thousands, forced out of illegal slums, moved into government-built row houses on the periphery. As unskilled laborers, many of these new tenants made long commutes to work—often times at costs equal to a day’s worth of pay.

Upscale Apartments in 6 October City

At the same time, the private sector constructed upscale housing in New Cairo and 6 October City. Gated compounds and golf courses sprang up around housing projects, as the contrasts between rich and poor were now in plain view.  Five months before the revolution began; a New York Times article illuminated a Cairo architect’s growing apprehension:

“The juxtaposition of rich and poor highlights one of Mr. Abdelhalim’s greatest concerns. The new cities, he says, tend to highlight Egypt’s already striking imbalance between rich and poor, and could sow the seeds for future troubles.”   

The future troubles arrived. What remains to be seen is how the different social classes of Cairo and throughout Egypt can cope with a transitional government and the challenges that lay ahead.

-Matt Milloway

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2 Comments on “A Divided City: Suburban Cairo Before the Egyptian Revolution”

  1. Jen
    September 2, 2011 at 6:02 am #

    Great article! I hadn’t really considered that aspect of the problems in Egypt. Other articles had touched on the subject but didn’t provide a history. Keep up the good work!

  2. Enrique
    September 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

    I think there are a lot of similarities with other countries across that region. Any info on some of the other major cities involved in the “Arab Spring”?

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