Cities are very articulate. They talk, smile, frown, wail and jubilate, but their language can be only heard by those who care to listen. A city's architecture and art, planning and design, streets and traffic, houses and shacks, signs and billboards, advertisements and banners, all speak volumes about its identity, and its relationship with people and authority. A glimpse of a city's center is perhaps the quickest way to come face to face with this. The center of the city - nearly any city - is akin to the liver in the human body: it is a reflection of its overall health - or lack thereof.
Whereas Old Cairo became Egypt's capital city in the 10th century, the current Downtown area of Cairo is relatively new. It was built by the overambitious Khedive Ismail in the 19th century to become the 'Paris on the Nile', an embodiment and symbol of his grand plan to align Egypt with Europe and Western civilization. But waves of demographic and socioeconomic changes over the past 150 years or so turned the 1,000-year-old city instead into the 'Bombay on the Nile,' a metropolis weighed down by a large population, limited space, crumbling services and a great deal of unease and frustration.
Chaotic, overcrowded and frenzied, Downtown Cairo's effervescence verges on insanity. As if this was not enough, it has been compartmentalized in the past few years by various concrete, bereft-of-beauty security walls intended to keep protestors away from vital government buildings. The first of these walls was erected during the deadly 'Mohamed Mahmoud Street' clashes between protestors and security forces in November 2011. Some of them were later torn down; others remain intact, or have been replaced with metal gates that can be closed whenever social turmoil is anticipated. Ironically, the walls that were built under the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces as a temporary measure have mostly remained in place through the leadership of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, the technocratic, military-backed administration that toppled him last summer and the current regime headed by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. This owes to the fact that, beneath the veneer of the army cap, the Islamic beard and the Western hat, all these seemingly diverse regimes have a lot in common: scarcity of legitimacy, political fragility and the exclusive reliance on security approaches to solve their political problems.
Sheep Raids Speak to Revolution
In its pure, physical sense, a wall is nothing more than an orderly amassment of bricks and concrete, designed and measured by the rules of physics and engineering. It is soulless, a dull construction with a specific function - that and nothing more. Yet, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz observed, "small facts speak to larger issues" - winks speak to epistemology, sheep raids to revolution. Indeed, walls have massive psychological implications. We know with confidence that human beings, by instinct, desire liberty and eschew blockades and enclosures. Our eyes long for wide horizons, panoramic views and open skies, and become strained in their absence. Walls, fences and all sorts of barriers highlight differences, deepen divisions, impose an aura of segregation and instill a sense of suffocation. The need for open space and unrestrained movement cannot be more felt than in an overpopulated, tightly-packed and anarchic place like Cairo. The downtown security walls have turned streets into cul-de-sacs, making traffic congestion even worse and inhibiting commute by foot. Moreover, the compartmentalization of life in Cairo reflects the prevalence of political tension and conveys a sense of rigidness. "Even paradise," an author convincingly argued, "could become a prison if one had enough time to take notice of the walls."
Historical precedents of walls intended and built for the purpose of security are replete with doomed fates and looked back upon with negative connotations. Lofty, fortified walls are reminiscent of barbarous, mediaeval wars, waged before the advent of civilization. In modern times, the Berlin Wall and Israel's Separation Wall symbolized misguided policies. Their fates attest to the fallacy of the logic from which they were born. The former failed to preclude the flow of ideas into the walled-in communities in Eastern Europe, or the eventual downfall of communist regimes; the latter does not protect the Jewish state from terrorist attacks. Likewise, the Bantustans in South Africa, enclosed areas designated for the indigenous population, collapsed with the end of apartheid in the 1990s. These examples reveal an interesting conclusion: walls erected to perpetuate notorious policies only exacerbate the problem they were initially intended to fix. In a sense, the building of walls mirrors the shortsighted inclination of regimes to procure vast amounts of weapons that are unlikely to be used. Both acts tend to create a sense of security rather than achieve security per se.
Like so many others before it, the current Egyptian regime has failed to realize these subtle truths. Indeed, if contrasted with the walls of Berlin and the West Bank, the connotation of building walls in Downtown Cairo would be extremely embarrassing for the regime. The walls built by East Germany and Israel were erected in the heat of a conflict, in order to thwart these two country's arch enemies. In contrast, the Egyptian regime has built walls and established buffer zones in the heart of its capital city, in order to deter or obstruct its own people, causing economic harm and undermining Cairo's quality of life. The forced separation between people and vital state institutions (the Cabinet, the People's Assembly, the Ministry of Interior) is, on the symbolical level, epitomic of the wide chasm between the ruler and the ruled, and indicative that people's tense relationship with power has undergone little change since the 2011 uprising against then President Hosni Mubarak.
Since states are usually more powerful in the center than in the far-flung territories, indications of fear in the center can be seen as an official admission of weakness and vulnerability. During the time of Mubarak, there were no walls in Downtown Cairo. Fear among the people reigned for decades, thanks to the brutality of Mubarak's gigantic security machine, and there were only a few, small-scale and intermittent demonstrations. The 2011 revolution tore down the barriers of fear, unleashing a popular movement unseen in decades. With the people protesting and the government taking one defensive measure after another, one is tempted to ask: Who is now more afraid? The guards, or those at whom the guards point their weapons?
Tahrir Square, the hub of Egypt's revolution, has been closed to anti-regime protestors since Morsi's ouster in 2013. That the area surrounding it is now zoned with barricades, roadblocks and barbed wire on days when protests are anticipated reveals what little remains of the hopes unleashed the day Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011. To be sure, any official talk about "democracy," "legitimacy" and the "will of people" becomes void when a military zone is created in Cairo's iconic 'square of liberation.' When thousands of protestors poured into Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, after they had managed to break through the multiple security cordons imposed by the riot police, they considered setting their foot on the square an opening—the inauguration of a new era, the restoration of a right long subjugated by the state. They hugged each other in ecstasy and settled down, establishing over the 18-day revolution what was dubbed the 'Republic of Tahrir.' This has been reversed since last summer: Tahrir is closed, protests are outlawed and security fences consolidated.
To add insult to injury, last February the authorities painted the gate of Qasr al-Aini Street - a major thoroughfare leading to Tahrir Square - in the colors of the Egyptian flag. We are faced here with a tragic irony, serving as a reminder that shameful deeds are often wrapped in the clothes of patriotism and nationalism. Without a doubt, renaming a thing does not alter its nature; a vulture remains a vulture even if it swears time and again that it is a peaceful dove. The truth is: nations accommodate, embrace and mend fences; dictatorships divide to rule, building barriers and then disguising them with a national flag and declarations of good intent.
This situation - barring demonstrators from the square of demonstrations - gives birth to a major paradox: if the policies of the current regime are supported by the majority of Egyptians, and if this majority perceives its rising leader (the military's strong man, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi) as "the savior of the nation," then why does the regime feel so insecure? Why is it so obsessed with closing the square and applying the strictest of security measures? The answer is simple: majority is different from unanimity. What the post-Morsi regime is apparently pursuing is the elimination of dissent, sowing the idea that there is only one voice; there is no opposition, no diversity. This is reminiscent of another country with many walls and no windows: North Korea.
Repression and Defiance
Cairo's walls are walls of mistrust and wariness. They reflect the absence of political consensus, and the failure of Egypt's transition to democracy. There are no divisive walls in inclusive systems. Security measures around the White House or London's Downing Street are perhaps less strict than those enforced around any local police station in Cairo. Legitimacy itself is surely the best wall of defense. Instead of building walls that will eventually be torn down, the focus of Egyptian policymakers should be on how to legitimize the regime, its institutions and the political process it espouses. In order to do that, the establishment of a true democratic system and the reform of decaying state institutions, particularly the security apparatus, are imperative steps.
The recent rise in terrorist attacks being carried out in Egypt does not validate the blind substitution of comprehensive political blueprints with marginal security plans. On the contrary, terrorist bombs are tantamount to alarm bells, raised to remind policymakers of just how much the old problems have been exacerbated, and old solutions have failed. Men do not go on killing sprees out of lust or boredom, but out of anger and frustration. But self-delusion can be comforting, especially for a regime searching for pretexts. It is tempting to divorce terrorism from its causes, to think that some people are innately evil. It is a convenient way to close any discussion about cause and responsibility. As Terry Eagleton explains, "we have thrown out a determinism of environment only to replace it with one of character. It is now your character, not your social conditions, which drives you to unspeakable deeds." Clearly, thinking it is faced with evil and psychopathic terrorists, the Egyptian regime has resorted to an all-out, life-or-death war with its nemeses.
This is a flawed logic. Men with arms might be defeated with arms, but if the underlying reasons that impelled them to use deadly violence against the state are not addressed, then more men will be prompted to take up arms, escalating the conflict and undermining efforts to contain it. The new generations of terrorists will, moreover, be fueled by an insatiable urge for vengeance and destruction. Seasons of migration to the battlefield will continue unabated, and the normalization of war will ensue. The ways of Egyptian politics, which dominated - and impaired - the country for decades, and which habitually looks at complex political problems through a narrow security prism, must therefore finally change.
Alas, autocrats think in terms of control and coercion, not partnership and engagement. They build more walls than bridges. They constantly ask themselves one question: why should I bother with the constraints of democracy when I can impose my will and get away with it? Although they are far from being perceptive, they can infer how little legitimacy they have, how much contempt they attract, and, accordingly, how mush force they need to use to stay the course. Living in a world of threats, real and perceived, the dynamics of panic guide their behavior. Their physical energy is consumed by defensive acts: erecting high walls, buying new weapons, hiring more guards, fastening extra chains, and building more prisons; their mental energy is mesmerized by the delusion that these measures would secure them. History tells us that those who rely on the stick for survival never know when to stop, never get out of their cocoons. Psychologists have a name for this mindset: "the fortress mentality," prisons of one's own making.
There are, nevertheless, two shining facts about the story of repression. The first is that repression begets resistance; in fact, an extra dose of it usually invites extra spurts of defiance. The second is that the oppressed almost always outwit and outmaneuver their oppressors. It seems as though dictatorship is destined to marry stupidity, and then fall at its altar. In the Egyptian context, the undignified endings of Mubarak's and Morsi's journeys of power provide two vivid cases in point. Egyptians' response to the notorious walls came in the form of graffiti - marvelous, creative wall paintings that merge art and skill with intelligence and humor. The colorful murals expose the tyrants, commemorate the martyrs, and vow continued persistence. "The walls are the publishers of the poor," said the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. The street of Mohamed Mahmoud turned during and after the 2011 monumental clashes into an open-air art gallery. The sense of contrast could not be more intense; the faces of oppression and recalcitrance, coercion and artistry, hideousness and beauty, juxtaposed in one spot, along the shores of one battle. It looked as if the brave protestors were shouting at their hunters: you shoot, we draw; you put to death, we bring to life.
If Cairo has not changed much on the political level since the early 1950s, its urban landscape has changed on a massive scale since then. Cairo used to attract immigrants from other Egyptian regions for many decades, but in recent times it has seen its own people (those with the financial means, of course) retreat from the city, escaping to its outskirts and the new urban communities that mushroomed around its borders. While the trend was partly driven by the desire to remain within the metropolis but break away from its plagues - the pollution, congestion and crowdedness - it was also triggered by multiple social values, such as the pursuit of isolation, yearning for distinction and suspicion of the social 'other.'
Unlike the neighborhoods of old Cairo which in earlier centuries accommodated, in harmony and peace, the castles of Pashas, the houses of middle class merchants and state clerks and the ‘Takaya’ (hospices) of Sufi orders, the new Cairo imposes segregation, limited interaction and shallow mutual knowledge. This had inspired the late Egyptian vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929-2013) to write: “long live my countrymen; there is no acquaintance amongst them that makes the alliance lives on.” Ironically, while the walls and gates of the old Cairo (built by the Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties from the 10th to the 12th century) were there to protect the whole city from outside aggressors, today's walls protect the elites from other social classes, the 'other' Egyptians.
The new compounds and semi-resort housing projects that popped up around Cairo, in the suburbs of New Cairo and the 6th of October City and along the Cairo-Alexandria and Cairo-Suez roads, are mostly gated and heavily-protected, looking from afar like formidable strongholds scanning for intruders. These gated communities reinforce the boundaries between social classes in a highly unequal society that already suffers from a huge (and expanding) gap between the haves and the have-nots. A recent government report stated that poverty in Egypt has increased over the past few years: 26.3 percent for the year 2012/13 compared with 25.2 percent in 2010/11 and 21.6 percent in 2008/9. Meanwhile, five businessmen from two families dominated the 2014 Forbes list of Egypt's wealthiest people, with a combined total wealth of $17 billion (around 4.2 percent of Egypt's total wealth). In other words, Egypt's wealth is concentrated in a small social segment, and this segment's wealth is in turn concentrated in the pockets of a few individuals.
Inadequacy is a powerful motivator. The mere sight of the walls and guards of Cairo's desert colonies could instill outsiders with a burning desire. As the old Arabic idiom goes, "what is forbidden is desired most." Walls by definition indicate that there is something precious beyond them that needs protection. There is a general feeling in Egypt that if an "uprising of the hungry" ever erupts in Cairo, then its first targets would be the living compounds of the rich. Indeed, various 5-star hotels and nightclubs were ransacked and set ablaze during the riots of the Central Security forces' conscripts in 1986. These were then the outlets and getaways of the rich; there were no social enclaves in the Cairo of the 1970s and 1980s.
Gated communities are one of the many manifestations of neoliberalism, whose whirlwinds have in recent times swept across Egypt's middle and lower classes. Egypt's political and economic power is quickly moving to the suburbs of Cairo, putting down the roots of a new center and leaving behind the wounded and lost city. Scores of politicians live in the suburb of New Cairo, including former President Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, the runner-up in the 2012 presidential election. The headquarters of the presidential campaign of Field Marshall Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was also located there. It's interesting to note that a newly-opened commercial and corporate center in New Cairo carries the title "Downtown." The meanings conveyed by the names are clear: a "new" Cairo has emerged with a "downtown" of its own. Indeed, in the making are two Cairos, divided across social and financial frontiers; one is inhabited by the exuberant few who indulge in a joie de vivre attitude, the other by sullen crowds struggling to make ends meet. This is a reflection of social fragmentation, not urban development. The impoverished Egyptians are living on the margins of this new city - in the deprived belts of misery that surfaced since the 1970s - just as they have always been living on the margins of the country's non-egalitarian economy.
Egypt's political walls will come down, stone by stone, when a new dawn breaks over Egypt and a new political order is born. But the problem with social walls is that they are more entrenched. The Germans use the expression Mauer im Kopf (the wall in the head) to indicate that the psychological divide between East and West Berlin is still alive despite the reunification of Germany in 1990. There's something similar to that in Egypt: overwhelming feelings of division, segregation, rupture and distrust - the set of poisonous ingredients that make nations falter.
Undoubtedly, a city without political walls is more confident in itself, and a city without social walls is more at peace with itself. Cairo - the city 'victorious' in Arabic - is a weary city, fraught with tension, weighed down by the number of its inhabitants, suffering from decades of negligence and torn by social tension. Cairo is today more defeated than victorious, more fragmented than united and more exasperated than content. Its walls epitomize the massive political and social tensions that engulf Egypt as a whole. If only the walls could talk.
Nael M. Shama
* A shorter version of this essay appeared first in the September 2014 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique (English).