The Tahrir Square democracy protests that eventually brought down Hosni Mubarak in Egypt didn't spring up out of nowhere. They were built up like some of the unauthorized, makeshift dwellings around Cairo.
Neglected, mismanaged Cairo is also resourceful and forbearing
On the night of March 2, exactly three weeks after President Hosni Mubarak was pushed out of power by millions of Egyptian protesters, Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq found himself on a TV podium alongside the business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, the media figure Hamdi Qandeel and the novelist Alaa al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building.
The show, on the private channel OnTV (owned by Sawiris), was an impromptu affair. Shafiq had already been on air for a few hours, while al Aswany and Qandeel were meant to appear in a subsequent segment. But someone backstage floated the idea of combining the guests. Shafiq accepted - perhaps imprudently - and Egypt was treated to one of the most memorable and electric episodes of its newly liberated airwaves.
Shafiq, a former army general, was a close associate of Mubarak and had been appointed prime minister by the former president. He was - it was clear in his every gesture and word - not a supporter of the revolution; yet he was now the head of government in post-revolutionary Egypt. Al Aswany is Egypt's most famous contemporary novelist and was a persistent critic of the Mubarak regime. During the revolution, he had been a constant presence in Tahrir Square, often speaking from the makeshift podium there.
As soon as he got a chance, al Aswany wasted no time in making his point, saying to Shafiq: "You adopted the thought of the National Democratic Party [Mubarak's ruling party]. After the president - who you continued to defend to the last moment, who you continued to say did the Egyptian people no wrong - stepped down, you said: We are a National Democratic Party government … With all due respect, you belong politically to a regime that the Egyptian people revolted against, that they brought down with much blood. There's a terrifying contradiction, for you to be in the president's party, esteem the president, belong to the president's regime; then when Egyptians revolt against this regime, and pay with their blood for reforms and a new regime - you are the one who takes charge of these reforms! I was expecting and I still expect … that you will present your resignation."
It is no exaggeration to say that no one had spoken to a high Egyptian official on Egyptian television this way before. After al Aswany's opening salvo, the show went on, for several riveting hours: al Aswany overriding everyone with his steady, booming voice, polite but relentless; Shafiq uncomfortable and contemptuous, a blustering, fidgeting man whose entire life and political experience had left him constitutionally unprepared to answer such questions - to accept that such questions might be put to him in the first place.
The next day, Shafiq resigned. The prime minister who followed him, Essam Sharaf, was suggested by young activists in a meeting with the army, and on his first day in office went to Tahrir Square, to obtain the crowd's blessing. The televised confrontation between the prime minister and the novelist was a major and early sign that the Egyptian revolution was not over and not so easily co-opted. It was also a sign of one of the great cultural shifts (one that many Egyptians who judged al Aswany unforgivably "provocative" are uncomfortable with) underlying the revolution.
That shift, towards accountability and free speech, is one that the author himself has long championed. No one should have been surprised by al Aswany's steamrolling performance. For years now, the successful novelist and part-time dentist has been hammering away - whether in interviews with foreign journalists or syndicated columns in local newspapers - at the need for democracy in Egypt.
His new book, On the State of Egypt (Vintage Books, translated by Jonathan Wright), a collection of newspaper columns he wrote in the 18 months preceding the revolution, is a good example of this forceful, single-minded view - as well as a showcase of some of the author's other qualities as a columnist: humour, bluntness and optimism. Every entry, whatever the political scandal or social ill it may treat, ends with the declaration: "Democracy is the solution" - a riposte to the Muslim Brotherhood's well-known slogan, "Islam is the solution."
Many of the columns are concerned with connecting the dots between a change in governance and the direct alleviation of the many indignities and injustices Egyptians suffer, for example, explaining why, in a country where citizens have no rights, it is more likely that an engineer's plan to build affordable housing will be sabotaged and a poor woman will be left to die in a government hospital.
In one article, al Aswany compares the public apology that Gordon Brown, running for re-election as British prime minister, was compelled to offer Gillian Duffy (a voter he was accidentally caught on tape making a dismissive remark about during the campaign) to the indifference shown by Ahmed Nazif, the Egyptian prime minister for six years before the January protests, towards Egyptian families sleeping on the street outside parliament.
"Why do the authorities in Britain treat their citizens with such respect while the authorities in Egypt treat people as though they are criminals and animals?" he asks. It's not a rhetorical question. Al Aswany answers: "The difference here is not ethical; it is political. There's no evidence that Gordon Brown is more moral than Ahmed Nazif, but Brown is an elected prime minister in a democratic system, so he knows that he is the servant of the people, who are the source of all power … Ahmed Nazif, on the other hand, is not elected in the first place but appointed by President Mubarak, so what matters to him is not the people's confidence but the approval of the president."
Al Aswany pushes his comparison to its logical conclusion, arguing that "if Gordon Brown ruled Britain by fraud and by emergency law, he would not have apologised to Gillian Duffy. In fact, he would probably have had her arrested and sent to the nearest State Security office, where she would have been beaten, strung up by her legs, and electrocuted in sensitive parts of her body. Maybe Duffy would be tried in a State Security emergency court on charges of causing trouble, insulting a symbol of state, and endangering social peace in Britain."
Al Aswany also shows particular verve when dissecting the way in which despotism buries talent, rewarding only sycophants and loyalists. "We Egyptians are like a group of soccer players who are talented but whom the coach does not like, does not respect, and does not want to give a chance," he writes. "Instead, he uses a team of losers and degenerates who always bring the team to defeat... All of Egypt has been sitting on the substitutes' bench for 30 years, watching defeats and disasters and unable to intervene."
His columns - much like his best-selling novel - take a panoramic view of Egyptian society, looking in turn at all that ails it. The arguments are not subtle or, indeed, complex, but they are often striking and persuasive.
A great country such as Egypt shouldn't be passed from a dictator to his son "like a poultry farm". The harassment women face in the streets of Cairo is the result of a dehumanising, regressive view that defines them only "as bodies desired by men".
Many Egyptians, under the nefarious influence of Saudi money and religious propaganda, have embraced a new religiosity that is superficial if not downright hypocritical, bereft of real moral values and antithetical to political consciousness, he says. "Societies fall sick in the same way as people and our society is now suffering from a disconnect between belief and conduct, a disconnect between piety and ethics." He contrasts these social maladies with what he sees as Egypt's heritage of religious tolerance and cultural openness.
All these are familiar arguments to those who know Egypt well. But for those who don't, the book functions as an engaging introduction to the tenor and the topics of the most heated debates here.
And it shows that the Egyptian revolution, which was so stunning, didn't come out of nowhere. Al Aswany never doubts the ability or even the likelihood of Egyptians to rebel. "Egypt is now at a real turning point and more ripe for change than at any time in the past," he predicts. "It's no longer any use begging for our rights by appealing to the regime because it will not listen. But if a million Egyptians went out into the streets in protest or announced a general strike, if that happened, even once, the regime would immediately heed the people's demands. Change, as far as it goes, is possible and imminent, but there is a price we have to pay for it."
That price has been paid, in at least 846 lives lost, and continues to be paid, in the unrest and economic troubles the country faces. To get a sense of the magnitude of the challenge and of the inequalities the Mubarak regime fostered, one need look no further than David Sims's book Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control (AUC Press).
From it we learn that 16 million people (more than a fifth of the country's population) live in Greater Cairo. The median household income, in 2004, was 992 Egyptian pounds per month (Dh613), which works out to US$1.10 (Dh4) a day per family member. Unemployment, especially among the young and the college educated, is many times higher than the official 10 per cent. At least 200,000 people enter the city's labour force every year, competing for scarce, if not non-existent, jobs. And well over half of the city's residents live in "informal" areas, neighbourhoods that have sprung up in the past 50 years, without planning, permissionor oversight, on the agricultural land surrounding the capital.
Sims has lived in Cairo for more than three decades and led numerous studies about urban development and housing. His book is a wonderful new reference, packed with statistics, maps and aerial photographs, which tries to explain how the overcrowded, underemployed Egyptian capital just barely functions. And since Cairo represents and dominates the rest of Egypt, attracting a disproportionate share of investment and services, talent and hopes, this book also explains much about how Egypt under Mubarak worked.
Sims has a particular interest in the informal areas of Cairo (he was one of the first to study them seriously), and an awed respect for their efficiency. These are not necessarily "slums", he explains. They are home to many middle-class Egyptians; the houses, built by the residents themselves, are generally of solid construction; and over time the areas get connected to electricity, water and sewerage networks. But it is hard to overstate the shocking density of these neighbourhoods, where residents maximise precious space by building to the very edge of thin agricultural parcels, leaving only enough room for narrow, dirt-paved lanes between buildings.
These endless, staggering reservoirs of humanity - the best housing solution that Egyptians, thrown on to their own resources, have been able to develop - have proliferated in the face of official neglect or wishful thinking. It took decades for the government to recognise, and then deplore, their existence (despite the fact these areas could not have come into being without bribery and the collusion of its own officials).
Instead, the authorities have focused single-mindedly on expanding into the desert, dreaming of utopian planned cities that today still stand mostly vacant; building low-income public housing in impractical desert locations, far from all jobs and transportation, and, most recently, embarking on frenzied real estate speculation in high-end suburban developments.
Since the 1990s, huge parcels of state-owned desert land have been transferred through the intermediaries of government ministries, the army and the police to private developers, who have overwhelmingly focused on building luxury gated communities, complete with the requisite golf courses and swimming pools. Quite a few of these deals are now coming under judicial scrutiny.
These picture-postcard communities attract upper-class Egyptians, enticing them with visions of a thoroughly globalised and secluded lifestyle. And whether they intend to move or not, many Egyptians with the means to do so buy property simply as an investment, sinking huge amounts of capital (which could go into more productive activities) into half-built, empty villas.
In fact, the economic gains to be made on the city's "speculative frontier" explain government policy better than anything else, Sims writes. He wonders whether the desert housing boom may be anything more than "one huge investment bubble and patronage vehicle".
The blind enthusiasm for desert expansion - despite the evident transportation, environmental and infrastructure costs - also exemplifies the way in which, in an authoritarian system with no accountability, policy is set by a few narrow interests and not challenged by serious debate, questions of equality - or even reality.
Indeed, as Sims notes: "It is symptomatic of where government priorities lie in Cairo that one can search high and wide and never find any calculation of per-capita investment allocations by geographic area of the city", that is, an account of how public resources are actually distributed among citizens. "Informal areas of greater Cairo, with almost two-thirds of the total population today, do not capture even a very tiny fraction of the city's investment in basic services."
Under Mubarak, Cairo became a city where a majority of the population lives in semi-legality, skirting government regulations and begging for government services, its very existence stigmatised; where public land and government resources have been squandered in the interest of upper-class fantasies and murky rentier networks. The city faces daunting problems, from increased traffic congestion to unrelieved unemployment.
In his columns, al Aswany argues that a transition to democracy will solve many of these difficulties by rewarding merit and ushering in accountability. That claim will be put to the test in years to come. Although Mubarak may be gone, what Sims calls "an encrusted bureaucratic and rent-seeking culture" remains. Running the city better requires not just free elections at the top but a series of smaller, but no less radical, changes, the length and width of the administrative spectrum: turning traffic management over to experts rather than police generals; giving municipal authorities some actual power; thinning the ranks of underpaid, unqualified and unmotivated government officials.
For more than half a century, Cairo has been marked by a combination of neglect, mismanagement, denial and nepotism. But the city has also been shaped by the resourcefulness and forbearance of millions of Egyptians, who manage to scrape together a living and find a place to sleep against all odds. Sims calls it a "minimalist city", in which government just provides the basic necessities, and citizens muddle along largely on their own. And the key to its survival - even success, Sims judges, among the capitals of the developing world - is its density and its informality, the complex network of personal relations, small business ventures, under-the-counter jobs and word-of-mouth news with which it buzzes all day and night.
The city's interconnectedness may have been integral to other successes as well. It's hard to imagine Egypt's revolution taking place in a gleaming, far-flung city of the future eagerly dreamt of by government bureaucrats and business elites. The uprising was shaped and aided by historic Cairo's contours: the densely populated neighbourhoods along which marching protesters, yelling "Come on down!" could pick up thousands more; the short distances within the city core; the central, intuitive meeting point of Tahrir Square.
And during the revolution, that famous square was very deliberately turned into an ideal polis, full of the civic spirit whose absence is so often lamented here. Other qualities that have been in short supply will also be needed, if Egypt and its capital city are to meet the challenges of the future even halfway: vision, co-operation, a modicum of fairness and the courage to look attentively and speak plainly - as both al Aswany and Sims do - of Egypt's realities.
Ursula Lindsey, a regular contributor to The Review, lives in Cairo.