Who Rules the Street in Cairo? The Residents Who Build It

CAIRO — The telltale signs in post-revolutionary Egypt are not just the riots and rapes, the mega-traffic snarls and sectarian battles. There is also the highway ramp in Ard El Lewa.

After the revolution two years ago, working-class residents of that vast informal neighborhood, tired of having no direct access to the 45-mile-long Ring Road, took matters into their own hands. In the absence of functioning government, they built ramps from dirt, sand and trash. Then they invited the police to open a kiosk at the interchange.

Even for Cairo, do-it-yourself infrastructure on this scale is unusual. For years, the government of Hosni Mubarak turned a blind eye as millions of poor Cairenes built homes without permission on private plots of agricultural land in places like Ard El Lewa, greasing the palms of bureaucrats for basic services.

But since the revolution, the pace of illegal construction has only exploded, like so much else here. Along with the spread of graffiti and of street vendors clogging the sidewalks downtown, this explosion is either a sign of post-revolutionary populist empowerment or of chaos, depending on one’s perspective. Egyptians seem to be wrestling over which every day.

A struggle — and also a race — pits the forces of collapse against the halting emergence of a new urban class, born in the aftermath of the revolution. Egyptians have long been experts at fending for themselves in a top-down system where the president ruled by fiat and the government was unaccountable. But now they must improvise as never before.

This means that Egyptians are figuring out anew how they relate to one another and to the city they have always occupied without quite fully owning — figuring out how to create that city for themselves, politically and socially, as well as with bricks and mortar. Headlines have naturally focused on the macro-battles, but the bird’s-eye view does not always reveal what is happening at street level, on corners and in neighborhoods, where daily life today means navigating new relationships with fellow citizens and the spaces they share.

As Omar Nagati, a young Egyptian architect and planner, put it the other day: “This was always a revolution about unjust urban conditions and about public space. The ramp is just one example. People now realize they have the right to determine what happens on their own streets, to their own neighborhoods. So there’s a battle of ownership throughout Egypt: over whose space this is, and who determines whose space it is.”

Egypt, it’s clear on the ground, is not just Tahrir Square. Cairo is not everywhere, all the time, in turmoil. The city can surprise you. I recently visited Darb al-Ahmar, where I had been told an outrage was playing out as ruthless developers illegally demolished old houses to throw up cookie-cutter apartment blocks.

“There’s no law enforcement, and there’s so much drama now just getting through the day here, that most people can’t worry about such things,” lamented Yasmine El Dorghamy, the exasperated editor of Al Rawi, Egypt’s heritage review.

With a colleague, Mona El-Naggar, I went to see for myself. We found Muhammad Said hanging out on a street corner. A skinny 19-year-old in a T-shirt and flip-flops, slouching on a red scooter, he volunteered to show us what had recently been built. The neighborhood is a rabbit warren of many blind, dirt alleys. Mr. Said led us down one alley after another, past mounds of rubble and collapsing wood-beam-and-brick houses, historic but decrepit. Some other young men appeared. They seemed to know Mr. Said. They began to follow us. There were no police around.

Mr. Said headed down a narrow passageway that dead-ended in the courtyard of an old house, a sunless air shaft strung with drying laundry. Why are we here? I demanded.

Many families live crammed together, Mr. Said answered. The people tearing down old places have been known to offer residents money to leave and new apartments, he said. “When you live together in a tiny room and someone offers you something better,” he wanted to tell us, “who would turn it down?” That was his point. This was not an outrage, but an opportunity — and a clash of interests among classes in a society being forced to legislate and reinvent itself.

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