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I returned to Cairo in the summer of 2023, after 6 years. Naïvely, I expected to return to the Cairo of my childhood: to her sprawling streets, her dense traffic lanes and cacophony of car horns.

But almost immediately -on the drive from the airport, located on the outskirts of the city, moving towards downtown Cairo- I was struck by the wide, empty highways we were driving on, alerting me immediately to a vast amount of infrastructure development. For a country that was ranked second most at risk of a debt crisis after war-torn Ukraine, this seemed a pleasant surprise: an array of bridges, wide highways, all adorned with posters of President Abdel Fateh El Sisi’s face, and an array of Egyptian flags.

Utilising any opportunity to practise my now-broken Arabic, I haltingly asked our taxi driver -framing it in such a way that an ever-patriotic Egyptian would find flattering- waxing lyrical about how beautiful the new highways and bridges were. He was wholly unimpressed: muttering something about “There is a shortage of cigarettes and petrol, but they are building another city in the desert” likening it to the existing swathes of gated districts built in the desert, with names like Utopia, Dreamland, Belle Ville, Hyde Park etc. Billboards along the very roads we drove down illustrated this fact, depicting families enjoying suburban bliss amidst a sea of greenery— a world away from the reality of central Cairo.

He was similarly unimpressed when I pointed out a sign pointing towards ‘The New Capital’ -the first I had ever heard of this monumental effort- simply stating that “Cairo will always be the capital, no matter what the [he] builds in her place.” The reference to President Sisi meant that the conversation quickly dwindled after that, with politics (siyasa) now seen a risky topic of conversation in post-revolutionary Egypt.

Egypt’s New Administrative (Smart) Capital

A cursory google later, and to my embarrassment, I discovered that the creation of the New Administrative Capital (NAC) was announced in March 2015, at a time when I was still living in Cairo. I felt slightly better upon reading an assessment that ‘We, Cairenes and Egyptians, were not informed, let alone consulted about this move’, explaining why this massive project had never come up during discussions with friends or family.

But I digress; more research showed that not only is the NAC yet another gated district, but it promises to be an ultra-modern, smart city (with a projected completion cost of £47 billion), replacing Cairo as Egypt’s capital.

The European Comission defines a smart city as: ‘a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of data and digital solutions for the benefit of its inhabitants’

And the digital solutions promised is a world away from the Cairo I knew: a single app for paying utility bills, accessing local services and reporting complaints and problems. Residents will use smart cards and apps to unlock doors and make payments. They will surf the web on public WiFi beamed from lampposts. Advanced technology systems will help reduce waste by detecting leaks or faults, as well as increasing sustainability through by allowing residents to measure their consumption.

There are no details on how these systems will be built or maintained, but they echo the Egyptian government’s assertion that this city will be a ‘model of inclusive and sustainable urban development in the Middle East’, a promise of ‘seamless, smooth, integrated and intelligent urbanisation’.

This statement is reminiscent of visions of smart cities as apolitical ‘techno-utopian’ solutions, where it is assumed that smart technologies alone will lead to better urban futures.

And yet, critiques of this sentiment assert that smart city technologies inherently involve value judgments and power dynamics. Decisions about what data to collect, how to analyze it, and how to utilize the insights gained -all which will be taken without citizen inclusion- ultimately reflect specific political priorities and agendas.

And in fact, something more familiar about this new city was the assertion that a network of at least 6,000 cameras will monitor activity on every street, tracking pedestrians and vehicles to regulate traffic and report suspicious activity.

When viewed in isolation, this is a testament to the ability of this smart city to promote safety and efficiency, but in a country with a noted history of systematic political repression and tight control over public space, it gives many cause for concern.

“Planting surveillance cameras across the city gives authorities an unparalleled ability to police public spaces and crack down on citizens who wish to protest or exercise their right to peaceful assembly,” said Marwa Fatafta, a policy manager at digital rights group Access Now.

A Citizens Right to a Smart City

A brief reminder of the sociopolitical situation in Egypt currently: President Sisi has ruled the country since 2014, when he led a coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsi, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood who was elected after a Jan 2011 uprising that ended the 30-year reign of Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak.

If we return to 2011, Egyptians learnt, as Mohamed Elshahed wrote in the midst of that revolution that “[the] fight for democracy [was] inseparably linked to their ability to assemble in urban space.”

This was termed as Caireans reclaiming their ‘right to the city’; a way of enhancing democratic empowerment through occupying space in novel ways, as a right of participation and its appropriation, as a way to answer existing ‘problems of disenfranchisement’.

But the powers that be learnt from the mistakes of their predecessors. In 2015, Sisi’s regime effectively eliminated the right to peaceful assembly or demonstration. Today, the government has erected a large metal gate to prevent marches towards Tahrir Square; the epicenter of the 2011 revolution. In an act of irony so stark it is almost cruel, this gate is painted with the Egyptian flag.

Within this context, the smart city of the NAC, framed within the lens of improved efficiency, sustainability, and citizen engagement, can be viewed as just another opportunity engineer and manage urban space. The smart technologies proposed may yet be used for civic participation, protection of civil liberties or crime prevention. And yet, this is doubtful, as evidenced by the lack of civic participation in the planning of the city itself. Instead, they lend themselves towards data-driven policing and deep control.

In Egypt’s case, the smart technologies of the NAC can work as an instrument to engineer Egyptian society to create a ‘new state’, echoing assertions of the smart city as a disciplinary strategy. The NAC has become a vehicle for the amplification of existing social, political, and economic inequalities with the added bonus of serving as a propaganda tool for the regieme.

Conclusion

The main thing I took away from my -too brief- return to Cairo was bread. Nearly every person I spoke to was concerned about the price of bread, of petrol, of cigarettes. Any talk of infrastructural development, or the proposed new capital city was met with the Egyptian equivalent of an eye roll, an assertion that despite its shiny veneer, this project was simply more of the same.

With more than three dozen SCs projected to be constructed in Egypt, and a target population of more than 15 million, every tenth inhabitant will potentially live in a smart city by 2030, when Egypt’s population is estimated to reach 130 million people.

And this smart city projects encapsulates everything about the post-2011 Egyptian state: There is to be no politics in the city. Whatever the outcome of the plan to move the capital, it has already revealed the government’s twisted vision of the ideal city: minutely planned, shiny, ordered, self-contained, and insulated from the population. An anti-Cairo.

And in fact, those new highways I was so impressed by were simply part of a larger vision of “transforming the old city into one big flyover heading towards the new administrative capital”, at the expense of historic districts and public transport initiatives.

The Egypt I remembered was crowded, yes, but it was diverse and beautiful. The Egypt I returned to was a stark reminder of an ongoing power struggle, a President haunted by the mass mobilisation against oppression seen in 2011, and the toppling of a dictator. Far from techno-utopian, this smart city seems to be yet another vehicle of political repression.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Ammara

Quelle/Source: Medium, 18.01.2024

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