Deen Sharp
Last updated: 24 April, 2012

The Cities of the Middle East, Part 1: Cairo – Al-Qahira

This post is the first in a series of three that provides an overview of the urban physiognomy of the Middle East in the age of the uprisings.

Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is the giant of the urban scene in the Middle East and the place where any overview of the region’s metropolises must start. The Arabic name for Cairo is al-Qāhira and it’s root qahr means to overwhelm, to overpower or to conquer. From the same root, qāhir is to be irresistible, a vanqisher and victor. Al-Qāhir is the planet Mars and al-Qahhār is one of the 99 names of God and means the Subduer. Al-Qāhira can be translated as both the victorious and the oppressor.

Cairo is overwhelming, confusing and often incomprehensible. A megacity of over 20 million people, Cairo has a population larger than the vast majority of the other countries in the region. Baghdad, the second largest city in the region, has a little over seven million people.

Cairo is a geographically unified city with an amalgamation of multiple centres: Zamalek, Helipolis, Maadi, Mohandeseen, Duqqi, Nasr City and the numerous desert cities that have expanded further into the desert. Cairo is a city of cities. Most of the population in Cairo lives in informal housing that has poor or non-existent infrastructure, the pollution is murderous and the traffic maddening.

Over the past thirty years the city, known to its residence as the Mother of the World (Umm al-Dunya), has been in decline and its footprint in the region much reduced. The days of Nassertie Egypt when rallies and speeches from Cairo could unify the Arab political space has disappeared. But the authorities’ failure to decentralize the city, despite frequent attempts, combined with one of the highest densities of people in the world of an estimated 35,000 per km2 enabled a remarkable return for Cairo and Egypt.

The January 25 revolution in Tahrir Square placed the city once more at the pivot of regional socio-political currents. Much attention has been played to the role of social media in the formation of Tahrir Square. But it was the utilization of density, hand in hand with social media, that enabled the people to rise up in Tahrir Square against the state. The revolution reignited the urban cultural and social scene in Cairo. The reactivation of Tahrir Square as a political public space has propelled the city and the country to the forefront of the political scene in the region after a long hiatus.

Urban space and density is now packed with revolutionary political potency. Public squares across the region are now pregnant with revolutionary potential. Activists in cities across the Middle East, and the world, have tried to emulate the scenes in Tahrir Square, as the aspirations for good governance grow more confident. Tahrir Square however, is not only a tale of victory. Since, the victorious day on January 25, the Square has increasingly become a site of oppression. On the 14 December, thousands were poisoned in an attempt to clear the square, on the16 December, soldiers entered the Square and killed 14 people and dragged and stripped a woman. The ruling military has blocked around six city-center streets that has resulted in an economic depression to hang over the center. Cairo’s urban fabric is now a metonym for empowerment in Tahrir Square and simultaneously oppression embodied in Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Al-Qahira – the victorious and the oppressor.