Is Gentrification Inevitable?

Panel Summary:

The first panel was moderated by Mona Abaza from the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, and Egyptology, School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the American University in Cairo (AUC), who introduced questions regarding the gentrification of downtown Cairo. She noted that it is important to include a discussion of the state’s growing attempts to gain control over the public sphere. These attempts have involved “cleaning up” Downtown, by means such as superficially beautifying select buildings and evicting the street vendors. This “beautification” has been undertaken by the state alongside an increased militarization of the area through the erection of walls and checkpoints. Referencing Galila El Kadi’s book on Downtown Le Caire: Centre en mouvement, Abaza questioned the links between the possible current gentrification of Downtown and the phenomenon of the nomadism of the rich, in particular toward Dubai-style gated communities and compounds in the desert satellite cities inspired by military models of urban planning. Citing El Kadi’s description of the old bourgeoisie’s prior departure from decaying Belle Époque residences like ‘Abdin, Qasr al-Nil, ‘Imad al-Din, and Hilmiya to move on toward new areas such as Zamalek, Muhandisin, Heliopolis and Duqqi, Abaza noted: “if we are speaking of Downtown we have to keep in mind that the dream of the new rich is not Downtown.” Raising the question of whether the gentrification of Downtown is inevitable, Abaza interrogated whether investing in public spaces for the arts could be a way of mitigating further urban violence, at the risk of erasing political memory, asking: “Has culture or rather revolutionary culture become the means per se to pacify the city and erase the memory of urban wars?”

The panel’s first speaker, historian Lucie Ryzova of Birmingham University, addressed downtown Cairo as a site of multiple claims: social, cultural, political, and economic. She explained the long-standing socially porous space of Downtown, with its flexible boundaries of class and gender, and celebratory or carnivalesque qualities in relation to Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia. Ryzova characterized Downtown’s diverse publics; including intellectuals and artists, expats and activists, old-timers, young men, and people from the lower middle class as enjoying “radical autonomy” and “relative freedom” in the area. She claimed these figures pass each other “like ships in the night,” presenting Downtown as “a space belonging to no one, but available to everyone.”

Describing Downtown as an upscale neighborhood of shopping and leisure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ryzova charted its eclipse as a hub of power and influence, and the rise of its bohemian, liminal character. She located this decline less in the years of President Gamal Abdel Nasser , and more in the “open door policy” years of President Anwar al-Sadat’s administration “which started a process of urban segregation that continues to this day.”

Ryzova claimed the growing interest in downtown Cairo on the part of government, capital, and sections of the educated Egyptian public should be understood within the broader context of neoliberalism and in relation to the urban flight by Egypt’s middle and upper middle class to newly built desert cities and gated communities. She pointed to Egyptian government agencies’ cultural habilitation of core parts of Downtown and “gentrification plans” by private companies such as Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment, whose model of urban regeneration she argued aims to encourage and exploit Downtown’s creative and artistic elements.

Ryzova postulated that the non-hegemonic quality of Downtown is not only a product of the 2011 revolution, but that its “heterotopic infrastructure” is a result of a culture that has persisted over more than a century and that she foresees being “more resilient than any of its enemies are able to imagine.”

Ryzova was followed by Akram Ismail who represented Misr Real Estate Assets, an insurance sector company responsible for many of the renovation projects taking place in Downtown. Ismail presented examples of the firm’s past and future renovation plans. He explained that the company owns 192 buildings in Egypt, of which 108 are located in Cairo alone, with 18-20 of these buildings to date refurbished to their original state.

Misr Real Estate Assets cooperates with the Cairo governorate and the National Organization for Urban Harmony (NOUH) and as such, the company prioritizes buildings that are of first interest to the governorate. They have developed plans to renovate the outer appearance of the buildings as well as the interiors, including plumbing and carpeting.

The final speaker was Ernesto López-Morales of the University of Chile’s Architecture and Urbanism Faculty. He gave a presentation on case studies of creative redevelopment in Latin American cities, addressing the shortcomings of state-led gentrification in Latin America as part of the post-industrial economic boom. López-Morales argued that neoliberal approaches to gentrification, involving the stigmatization of poverty in Latin America, the eviction of residents from “heritage protection zones,” and militarized police control over public space, have led to the creation of “spaces of exclusion” across the Latin American continent.

López-Morales referred to Richard Florida’s concept of the creative class, which posits that the movement of creative professionals to city centers fuels regeneration. He discussed its influence on development in Latin America, pointing to its impact on policies including the rescue program in Mexico City’s historical center, which marginalized “undesirable” social elements, resulting in the total displacement of street vendors in the area. López-Morales further presented the transformation of the district of Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires.

As a result of state-promoted local and foreign investment, the district was developed into one of the most sought-after residential districts for young creative professionals in the 1990s, the profits of which accrued to private forces. Likewise, he gave examples of neoliberal approaches that disempower local residents including the accelerated tourist-led gentrification of Panama City.

López-Morales gave numerous examples of policies that attempted, but failed to protect local residents. In Quito, Ecuador for example, government policies of de-gentrification sought to keep housing affordable for the public, but still regulated public spaces, relocating street vendors and sex workers. Another alternative he discussed, the Uruguayan Federation of Housing for Mutual-Support Cooperatives (FUCVAM), Uruguay’s oldest social movement, is a collective following principles of self-management and collective ownership. López-Morales argued their work on housing and development provides an example of responsible, non-gentrifying, non-oppressive urban development.

The ensuing discussion and interventions by the audience not only highlighted the complexity of the gentrification process, its multiple actors and their competing interests, but also revealed the nuances within the definition of the term itself. The discussion pointed to the gap between state-led policies and tools for urban renewal, addressing their critiques by scholars and activists as well as alternative approaches undertaken by civil society organizations.


Ernesto López-Morales: Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, Universdad de Chile. View Profile.

Lucie Ryzova: Department of History, University of Birmingham. View Profile.

Akram Ismail: Board Vice Chair for Technical Affairs, Misr Real Estate. View Profile.


Mona Abaza: Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, AUC. View Profile.

Panel Videos

Presentation by Lucie Ryzova

Presentation by Akram Ismail

Presentation by Ernesto Lopez Morales

Q & A

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Artists as Urban Catalysts

Panel Summary:

Moderated by Cairobserver’s Mohamed Elshahed, the second panel addressed the role of artists and art organizations as urban catalysts, and the effect they have on their local communities, as well as their battles for funds and working space.

Jane Hall of the London-based collective Assemble opened the panel by speaking about the interaction between design and making, and how to involve the public in the transformation of urban space. Assemble employs culture and creativity to “physically shape and change the city.” Their grassroots activity works in recognition that artists are not only drivers of the economy, but also often of gentrification.

Assemble’s interventions on the fringes of the London Olympic Games attempted to work against the tide of gentrification in the area by converting both a gas station and an overpass into movie theaters that could function as social and cinematic spaces.

In a radical bid to involve the community in Balmarnock, East Glasgow, Assemble developed the Baltic Street Adventure Playground where they encouraged children to engage in free play in the unstructured space of an unused plot of land, which evolved into the community articulating its vision for the development of the plot. Hall says that such initiatives show how Assemble try “to instigate the understanding of what space can be.”

Hall presented Assemble’s studio, the Sugarhouse, as an experiment in the creation of new space. The collective was designated by a London local council as a temporary “occupier” in an industrial neighborhood slated for redevelopment. In this role, Assemble designed and selfbuilt workspaces for makers and artists within their own studio as well as on adjacent industrial plots, creating a hub of shared activity. While the Sugarhouse was funded by the London Legacy Development Corporation, other projects of theirs need continuous funding through arts councils, which has been an ongoing issue. Hall argued that this speaks of the political will to gentrify through the arts, but not necessarily to support their costs.

Hall was followed by William Wells of Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in downtown Cairo, founded in 1998 and now an anchor of the independent contemporary arts scene. He recounted his experience setting up the gallery in an area of Downtown considered lower class, full of workshops and car mechanics. Wells spoke of the initial need to overcome a mutual mistrust between the artistic community and local residents. They eventually developed a symbiotic relationship, forming “geographically, a working community.”

Wells spearheaded these changes by fostering conversation, observation, and engagement, which brought all parties together. Activities with local children transferred artistic skills and created new horizons. He said, “if somebody enters into our space, we have to be thinking about who they will possibly interact with.” Traffic on the street increased due to Townhouse’s activities, bringing economic benefit to the tradespeople, while artists learned about materials, techniques, and ways of making from them. “Whether we like it or not, or whether we set out to do it or not, we do change the societies we live in,” said Wells.

Wells spoke of Townhouse’s struggle with dwindling funding for the arts, and the establishment of corporate sponsorship with real estate company SODIC, in return for creating a gallery in one of SODIC’s gated communities. “We are now faced with the challenge of trying to replicate the same symbiotic relationship in a very wealthy neighborhood,” said Wells.

While Hall and Wells focused on the interaction of community, space, and art from the bottom up, Karim Shafei of Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment provided a developer’s vision of community building through the renovation of Downtown’s dilapidated structures. When Al Ismaelia was established in 2008 and began purchasing buildings, Shafei estimates they found 30 percent of the apartments vacant, 20 percent locked, and most of the remaining apartments occupied by low employment businesses. They began to settle complex ownership disputes and purchased deteriorating buildings Downtown. Al Ismaelia’s spaces include Radio Theater, the Viennoise Hotel, and the famous al-Shurbagi building. Meanwhile, they took note of the area’s cultural activity, which Shafei credits as one catalyst of the 2011 revolution.

The company’s for-profit vision for a “Downtown for all” sought to capitalize on two trends that Shafei states Al Ismaelia identified as early as 2008: the “Egyptianization of Egypt, and a move by the contemporary art scene back into Downtown.” They were particularly interested in making disused buildings active, such as the conversion of the Radio Theater into the studio for Bassem Youssef’s TV show Al-Bernameg, and later Abla Fahita. They further sought to tap into the arts scene to attract people to Downtown, through the co-establishment with Studio Emad Eddin of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), and the renting of spaces to artists and art organizations.

Shafei stressed that Al Ismaelia is a profit-seeking company, but that they are committed to engaging with other stakeholders in the development of Downtown. He argued that a viable business model is the only way to preserve Downtown’s urban fabric, since the neighborhood cannot continue to rely on government renovation funds or personal individual donations. He put forward Al Ismaelia’s vision for the future: to encourage
the creation of a NGO or board of trustees that would oversee the responsible development of Downtown for all Egyptians.

Rounding off the discussion was Youssef Shazli of the relatively young alternative cinema venture, Zawya. Launched in March 2014 as a project under Misr International Films, the arthouse cinema set up shop in the smallest hall of Cinema Odeon, and has a separate entrance from the cinema’s back door in a Downtown alley. Originally, this secondary entrance to the building was thought to be undesirable, though the cinema’s patrons, who come in large numbers from all over Cairo, now make up a significant portion of customers at a local coffee shop situated in the passageway.

Shazli suggested that Zawya’s unexpected success at the box office has proven the commercial potential of arthouse movies, and has shown how creative activities can transform and sustain thriving urban environments. He said that even though their business model mainly focuses on box office revenues, Zawya still relies on a wide range of corporate sponsorships. Shazli said Zawya is considering expanding to another, larger location, and is currently searching for another Downtown venue.

The discussion highlighted the role of artistic and architectural interventions in the urban regeneration of decaying or underserved neighborhoods, critically examining the interests and positions of both real estate developers and civil society organizations. This set the stage for the conference panels that followed, which engaged the role of government and small businesses in Downtown’s development.


Jane Hall: Assemble, UK. View Profile.

William Wells: Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art. View Profile.

Karim Shafei: Chairman, Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment. View Profile.

Youssef Shazli: Zawya. View Profile.


Mohamed Elshahed: Cairobserver. View Profile.

Panel Videos

Presentation by Jane Hall

Presentation by William Wells

Presentation by Karim Shafei

Presentation by Youssef Shazli


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Cultural Policies and Urban Governance

Panel Summary:

The Cultural Policies and Urban Governance panel was moderated by Khaled Abdelhalim, Professor of Public Policies at the American University in Cairo (AUC’s) School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, who pointed out the importance of clear, well-communicated public policies with regard to Khedival Cairo or Downtown, and sought to investigate what public policies of the state influence this important area of the city.

He asked how Downtown might be influenced by cultural policy and the preservation of its urban and architectural character, questioning the link between urban polices and cultural policy in general. Abdelhalim noted that there is a need for a clear framework for resource management, a clear public policy, a legal framework, an institutional framework, and a funding framework to implement policies in addition to an applied framework that makes clear how policies will work in practice. Abdelhalim emphasized that Cairo is still experiencing the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, raising the need for a clear legal framework upon which management and governance can be based.

The first presentation was by Emad Abou Ghazi from the Department of Libraries, Documents and Information at Cairo University, who was Minister of Culture between March 5 and November 20, 2011. He gave a brief history of cultural policy in Egypt prior to the establishment of the Ministry of Culture in 1958, from Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi, to Taha Hussein’s 1938 publication The Future of Culture in Egypt. He detailed how various cultural policies often suffered weak execution, presenting the example of President Husni Mubarak’s government having had the intention of protecting historically significant buildings in Cairo by registering them in cooperation with the National Organization for Urban Harmony (NOUH), founded in the early 2000s. NOUH, however, never had the executive power to protect the buildings, and often found its decisions overturned in court. This led Abou Ghazi to raise the question of what institutions do have the power to execute cultural policy.

Abou Ghazi also raised the issue of the relationship between the state and public space in the city. He spoke of the state controlling public space in the city through monumental architectural constructions, as a means to impose its authority. He provided the example of the Muhammad ‘Ali mosque, built on a high hill so it can be seen from around the city as a symbol of the authority of the modern state. He detailed the establishment of Khedival Cairo, and Khedive Ismail‘s installation of statues memorializing military and public officials. “In Cairo, it took two revolutions and 50 years for there to be representations of populist public figures installed in public spaces,” said Abou Ghazi. He described some of the history of populist statues in Downtown, including the example of Mahmud Mukhtar’s Nahdit Masr statue, which represents the 1919 Revolution, and adopted the symbol of the Egyptian farmer. He noted the statue represents popular revolution, and, in this way, both the people and national governments worked towards its completion: “When a constitutional coup carried through, the work on the statue stopped, and when a national government returned, the work resumed.”

He noted that cultural control in recent years has taken the form of restrictions to independent artistic practitioners, notably the prohibition of the El Fan Medan art festival that took place regularly in ‘Abdin Square and across the country until one and a half years ago. He concluded by noting that the utilization of public space for independent cultural activities has always faced opposition by the security apparatus, and the state continues to reject the expansion of independent cultural activity in public space in Cairo’s center.

In the second presentation Ahmed Ragheb from the National Community for Human Rights and Law introduced the issue of municipalities as they relate to decentralization, and the role they should play in urban planning. He stressed the potential of municipalities to democratize public space, if only the government were willing to decentralize and distribute executive, legislative and judicial power among them. Ragheb gave a brief history of municipalities in Egypt, from their creation by law in 1913 to their early manifestations as district councils, formed in the aftermath of the 1923 revolution. At the time they possessed a wide range of authority, with members both appointed and elected. In the era of President Anwar al-Sadat, these powers expanded, and a clear separation was made between the appointed members of the executive council and the elected members of the popular council. In Mubarak’s presidency, these advances were reversed.

Ragheb stressed that the core issue facing local municipalities is that they act as subordinates to the state. He noted the state has often sought to reserve the right to appoint the heads of local units, from the governor to the mayor, which limits their independence. However, the 2014 constitution grants the opportunity to elect the local council and governor.

Ragheb stated that having elected governors and councils would not only democratize the municipalities but also public space, and that it is in the interest of citizens, scholars, architects and urban planners to hold a clearer vision of local governance and advocate for strong local administrative councils, independent from the central government.

Finally, Galila El Kadi, Director of Research at the Institut de recherche pour le développement en Égypte (IRD) gave an overview of the cultural authorities’ three waves of restoration efforts over the past two decades, and discussed her participation in the third and most recent effort, begun in 2014. After the 1992 earthquake, which damaged many buildings in Cairo, the private sector selected 14 landmark buildings Downtown to rehabilitate, strengthening foundations, upgrading electrical and sewage systems, and removing groundwater. The governorate focused on the process of reducing vehicular traffic and increasing pedestrian traffic in the main walkways of al-Alfi Street, Zakariya Ahmad Street, and Saray al-Azbakiya. In al-Bursa area, the government cooperated with private investors who partially funded the rehabilitation of the area.

The second phase of rehabilitation efforts was dominated by beautification projects such as the painting of building façades, and was undertaken after the establishment of NOUH, in 2003-2004, in coordination with the Cairo Governorate.

El Kadi described numerous missed opportunities to learn from prior projects, characterizing a failure to take on board accumulated experience and knowledge as “starting from point zero and reinventing the wheel.” She referred to the European Union-funded Heritage Conservation and Management in Egypt and Syria (HERCOMANES) project between 2000–2006, which undertook research on the preservation of Cairo and Aleppo’s nineteenth and twentieth century heritage sites, as “the first real conservation plan for Downtown,” but said not all of its findings were implemented. She emphasized the need for a holistic regeneration plan for Downtown, highlighting the benefits to be gained from urban renewal.

El Kadi spoke of the sometimes limited role that consultants to the Governor are able to play in urban renewal, but on a positive note suggested that there is an improved level of transparency and willingness to cooperate among government entities. Over the course of the three presentations, speakers gave a comprehensive overview of the historical and contemporary factors affecting cultural policy and urban governance in Cairo. A common thread, as Khaled Abdelhalim noted in closing, was the state’s interest in imposing its presence at the heart of those policies by representing its authority and control over public space and urban management in general. This is reflected in the limited devolution of executive, judicial and legislative power from the center, which according to Ahmed Ragheb is crucial for more productive urban planning and preservation. Despite increased cooperation between government departments, the projects related by Galila El Kadi also told of some resistance to outside experience and visions. Greater consultation—with as many specialists, non-specialists, and community stakeholders as possible—arose as a key concern with regard to a future vision for cultural policy and urban governance in Cairo.


Emad Abu Ghazi: Department of Libraries, Documents and Information, Faculty of Arts, Cairo University. View Profile.

Ahmed Ragheb: National Organization for Human and Legal Rights. View Profile.

Galila El Kadi: Director of Research, Institut de recherche pour le développement en Égypte. View Profile.


Khaled Abdelhalim: School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, American University in Cairo. View Profile.

Panel Videos

Presentation by Emad Abou Ghazi

Presentation by Ahmed Ragheb

Presentation by Galila El Kadi


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Whose Public Space? Security and access

Panel Summary:

This panel addressed issues concerning public space, its ownership and the right to the city. Raising the question of increasing securitization, which imposes new limits on the public’s imagination and use of public space, the panel brought together planners, sociologists, academics and experts in law and rights. Moderator Lina Attalah, Director of Mada Masr, opened the conversation by posing a series of questions regarding the shifting nature of public space. Noting that city management is an element of public policy, she asked how the government deals with public space as a social space. Given that a social space has requirements related to day-to-day activities, such as the ease of circulation, mobility and accessibility; and at the same time may have unexpected movements and energy: How to balance between the needs of everyday activities and the political potential of public space?

Sahar Attia of Associated Consultants reflected on how to create a better relationship between citizen and space. Attia’s firm was the winner of a 2010 government competition to propose a comprehensive revitalization plan for Downtown. Through an overview of this project she addressed the need to develop the public realm through safe, social and green spaces. Her renovation plan included connecting Downtown to the waterfront on one side, and to Islamic Cairo on the other, through a green public corridor that envisioned improving pedestrian mobility and circulation around the city.

A key concept was creating “livable neighborhoods” to attract residents back to Downtown. Attia claimed that the broken connection between citizens and space is evident in the lack of respect towards the city environment, which results in people throwing trash and wastewater in the River Nile and elsewhere. Attia pointed out that the solution must be found in the willingness to prioritize public space and create a city that citizens would love and take care of.

Attia concluded that the solutions are not only in the hands of the government and the designers but also in the public whose interests should be heard and addressed. She proposed the creation of collective solutions to how unused public spaces can be used, and cited good governance and a strong monitoring authority as the necessary preconditions for the implementation of any Downtown revival project.

Amr Abdelrahman of the Law and Society Research Unit at AUC and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) discussed the roots of increasing security policies in Cairo. He argued that discussions are typically limited to only two aspects of the security issue; that of the prohibition of peaceful gatherings and demonstrations in the public sphere, and that of neoliberal economic policies leading to the eviction of street vendors, street children and residents of certain neighborhoods.

Abdelrahman discussed the state’s mechanisms for controlling public spaces using legal means (the protest law of 2013, and the older assembly law of 1914), as well as security and economic controls. He noted the emergence of a new aspect of moral control over public space, with claims to preserve both public health and ethics. Abdelrahman argued that with the pretext of moral authority, the state has targeted both religious and sexual minorities. He reported that public holidays of religious minorities have been called off, specifically Shi‘a Muslims, in past years, and through a systematic campaign guided by the investigation of public morals, there have been crack downs on gatherings of homosexuals in the city. This campaign included the 2014 case of the Bab al-Bahr bathhouse Downtown, in which dozens of men were charged with practicing fornication in the public sphere, and later acquitted.

Abdelrahman argued that the concept of the public sphere itself needs to be reconsidered. He noted that the idea of public space in the Egyptian context is used in correlation to civil society, civility and secularity, remarking: “The idea of civil life states that rational people who go out from the private sphere to the public sphere leave behind, in the private sphere, all that is related to affection, feelings and passion that can be sub-categorized to include religion, sexual identity, etc.” He suggested that rather than talking about the concept of a single public space, we ought to accept the existence of several “publics.” Following this logic, Shi‘ites and homosexuals would be free to express their religious and sexual identities as they transverse public and private boundaries. Abdelrahman championed the idea of “civicity” over “civility,” conceiving of a public realm that invites everyone from different backgrounds and with different identities to use public space as they wish.

Abdelrahman concluded by stating that security policies may be viewed as a reaction to the failed neoliberal policies of the 1990s. Instead of creating the utopia the Egyptian elite dreamt of, they paved the way for a city out of control, resulting in increasing security efforts to maintain the neoliberal order. He argued against the trend of subjugating civic life to economics, and the neoliberal strategy of stirring moral panic against segments of society who threaten the neoliberal development plan, e.g. street children, pointing to the urgent need to “desecuritize public space.”

Professor Jerold S. Kayden from the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University argued that public space will always be contested because it raises questions of what rights individual groups may have with regard to its use. What complicates the matter further is the fact that ownership of public space is not necessarily linked to accessibility. This particular ambiguity is manifested in the case of privately owned public spaces (POPs), a worldwide phenomenon prevalent in New York City, which grant provisions for privately owned companies to erect larger buildings in return for
opening a portion of the space to the public.

Kayden used the example of Occupy Wall Street to “demonstrate how diverse ownerships, city governance structures, civil society participation and typologies of public space all can lead to diverse outcomes anywhere in the world.” Occupy Wall Street as a group took over Zuccotti Park, a POP in New York, and in Kayden’s words: “at least for a while enjoyed greater rights in that privately owned public space than it would have enjoyed in a publicly owned city park right next to the city hall several blocks away. How can private property provide greater rights than a public property? Who and what determines the nature of rights to public space?”

Kayden included Occupy Wall Street in the category of increasingly popular “guerrilla” urban movements noting that “the most popular movement today is thinking about urbanity in terms of temporality in addition to permanent structures.” Kayden indicated such thinking would have important implications for design, asking: “Should rules for public space demand spatial pluralism?” He enquired whether, as the occupation of Zuccotti Park extended for weeks, the right to political protest began to give way to the broader public’s right to access and enjoy the space. He noted in closing that “there is no such a thing as a non-political public space,” because politics are pervasive, and this is what makes our public spaces so vibrant.

Mona Abaza from AUC’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology began her presentation by quoting Janet Abu Lughod on the phenomenon of the rebirth of two cities in the center of Cairo: what she called the militarized city versus the gentrified city. She spoke of the concept of walls in Downtown and in the city of Cairo generally, as an outcome of an increasing securatization, dividing the city and hindering free movement. The walls, she said, ought to be seen in the light of security policies that aim at controlling the streets as a part of the global “war on terror.”

Parallel to this, Abaza noted, the expansion of gated communities in satellite desert cities, and the billboards advertising them, created an exclusionary urban visual imaginary fuelled by neoliberalism. “Satellite gated communities become the havens of peace and isolation,” she said, referencing the “Cairo 2050” plan involving a Dubai-style modernization. Abaza continued to argue that the chaos before and after the 2011 revolution, surprisingly, did not cause a collapse in the real estate market. Instead it created a massive flood of gated communities that came to stand for a peaceful alternative to the crowded and chaotic streets of Downtown. Once again, new walls had been created to exclude others and maintain order.

In this context Abaza called attention to the graffitied walls Downtown as what she termed a true battleground between the revolutionaries and neoliberal agendas. She addressed the rupture between preserving the memory and experience of urban spaces, such as the graffiti imagery in Muhammad Mahmud Street, and the neoliberal agenda that is concerned with erasing traces of struggle and urban guerrilla warfare.

Throughout the four presentations and ensuing discussion, the panel raised questions about securitization and control, through both tangible and intangible means, walls and laws, in the context of increasing global trends toward securatization and neoliberal policies. The examples from downtown Cairo and New York, juxtaposed with suburban gated communities, highlighted the need to reconsider the notion of a monolithic public, towards/in favor of multiple and competing publics.


Sahar Attia: Head, Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering, Cairo University, MD at Associated Consultants Egypt. View Profile.

Amr Abd al-Rahman: Law and Society Research Unit, American University in Cairo. View Profile.

Jerold Kayden: Department of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard University Graduate School of Design. View Profile.

Mona Abaza: Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, American University in Cairo. View Profile.


Lina Attalah: Chief Editor, Mada Masr. View Profile.

Panel Videos

Presentation by by Sahar Attia

Presentation by Amr Abdelrahman

Presentation by Jerold Kayden

Presentation by Mona Abaza


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Heritage and Urban Culture

Panel Summary:

Session five was moderated by May Al-Ibrashy from Megawra, who opened the discussion with a brief overview of the various complications facing the preservation of urban heritage in city centers such as Downtown, in particular as relates to the preservation of living heritage. She spoke of the problematics of both moral and legal ownership, noting the conflicts that arise as a result of multiple constituencies’ stakes in Downtown. She gave the example of Downtown representing the cultural façade of the government at the same time as it is viewed as representing the spirit of the 2011 revolution. She also asked who inherits Downtown, given the gap between previous upper middle class residents and the current residents. Finally she emphasized the need to preserve not only the tangible elements of Downtown, but also the intangible elements, including its political and social histories.

The first presentation was given by Soheir Hawas from the Ministry of Culture. Cairo’s heritage is unique, Hawas argued, because its evolution can be seen from district to district, unlike many cities where periods of development are buried layer by layer in the ground.

Hawas described how she spent six years surveying and documenting the façades of Downtown for her book Khedival Cairo.

She noted that while Downtown was a symbol of Modernity when it was founded, evincing architectural comparisons with Paris, later often illegal additions led to a deterioration of its heritage. Hawas emphasized the need for a system of heritage management with clear values. She reported that recent laws protecting heritage represent a step forward, enabling the preservation of buildings as heritage structures as well as the registration of entire districts as historic, such as Islamic Cairo, Zamalek, Garden City, Ma‘adi, and Heliopolis.

The first law issued to protect heritage was Law 144 of 2006, which has been responsible for the preservation of multiple buildings, however she noted the law has been vulnerable to circumvention, resulting in the demolition of some of its protected buildings.

Making use of the existing legal framework and with investment from the government, donations, private companies, and banks, Hawas and her team have undertaken restoration work Downtown. She noted how renovating a space can change the tone of its use, as in al-Alfi Bey Street, which has been transformed from an undesirable alleyway into a pleasant pedestrian area.

Hawas spoke of the challenges that Downtown preservation projects have faced, including the lack of historical references for buildings’ original incarnations, as well as legal obstacles to restoration efforts. She noted that the Cairo Government is currently prohibited from undertaking interior renovations, which is leading to a state of decay in many buildings Downtown, and emphasized the need for the reactivation of the Occupants Federation Law to promote the maintenance of buildings from the inside. She encouraged young architects to come together to undertake this much needed maintenance of Downtown building infrastructure.

George Arbid of the Arab Center for Architecture (ACA) in Beirut spoke of “Modern heritage” in Lebanon being regarded as a contradiction or an oxymoron; an assumption he considered to be connected to a certain lack of recognition for Arab modern architecture. He argued that in order to comprehend the importance of modernist architectural heritage, identity must be perceived as something dynamic. In line with this, it must be acknowledged that the Arab world has produced Modernism and continues to do so. He presented the modernist design of the Dar Assayad publishing house, a work by the Polish architect Karol Schayer, Lebanese architect Wassek Adib, and Lebanese structural engineer Bahij Makdisi as an important example of local heritage, rather than an imperialist infraction on identity. He noted that this and other examples of Modern building in Lebanon were produced through local building regulations, and in relation to local needs and requirements.

From this perspective, Arbid argued that original Modernism in the Middle East deserves the status of heritage, and gave an illustrated narration of its development. He described state-sponsored public buildings, factories, and utilities, such as the electricity company building in Beirut, whose original design featured an accessible public space.

Arbid went on to speak of the building design of certain reconstruction efforts that followed the cessation of hostilities in the 1990s, and were, in Arbid’s opinion, catastrophic for Lebanese architecture. “The buildings that were reconstructed after the war have usually followed one of two directions: first are the glass boxes, as if Modernism could be reduced to that form. Second is the pastiche replication of heritage.” Furthermore, pro forma public spaces were created that were made inaccessible due to excessive securitization.

Arbid pointed his finger particularly at real estate company SOLIDERE for encroaching on the public space of downtown Beirut in the name of restoration. He showed how many historic buildings have been replaced by exaggerated replicas or disappeared altogether. “The war ruined a lot of the country, but the reconstruction ruined more,” he said.

Arbid ended his talk by describing the NGO he founded, the ACA, which aims at preserving modern heritage and maintaining an online archive. The ACA focuses on architecture as “a cultural product and not only a technical one,” and tries to “develop the contemporary image of architecture, and to provide a platform for meetings and discussions.” They are looking forward to collaborating with CLUSTER in sharing and connecting the contents of their archive with other like-minded, regional organizations. The ACA is also addressing ongoing issues of heritage in Beirut, including the proposed plan to develop Dalieh, which is a historic public area on Beirut’s coast.

Choucri Asmar from the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative recounted his experience organizing local community members into a grassroots initiative to preserve the architectural nature of the district, which was founded in 1905 and is built mostly in the Baroque-Islamic style on Cairo’s desert fringe. Heliopolis was constructed as both a residential and industrial neighborhood by the Khedive Isma‘il, who worked together with the investors Baron Empain and Boghos Nubar Pasha. A tramway from both ‘Abbassiyya and ‘Ataba connecting the neighborhood to the rest of the city were established, along with a local tram, and recreational spaces such as the Heliopolis Sports Club, Heliopolis Palace Hotel and Merryland were built to attract residents and investors to the area.

The Heliopolis Heritage Initiative began in the months following the revolution, in part as a response to the increased pace of demolition and neglect as a result of lax government enforcement in protecting heritage during that tumultuous period. For example, six villas from the wide Zifti Street were replaced with a concrete building, and a garden was demolished to make space for a 12-story building. Objecting to these and other demolitions, a group of Heliopolitans realized they did not have any legislative tools or knowledge to do so effectively. This led to the creation of the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative, guided by the idea that “there shouldn’t be a complete disconnection between policymaking and quality of life,” in Egypt, said Asmar.

The Initiative was granted legal status in October 2015, and works on several fronts, including heritage sites, public green spaces, public transportation, awareness raising, and public cleanliness. They raise awareness through photography competitions, organize meetings with stakeholders, and defend against the destruction of unlisted, but historically relevant buildings, as well as organize walking tours “to introduce residents to the living heritage that surrounds them.”

The Initiative is now running the project “Heliopolis Eyes” which aims to register all buildings built in Heliopolis from 1910 to the present. They are also in discussion with the Federation of Banks to reactivate the real estate funding law, which would allow investment in rehabilitating the interior of historic buildings. While the Initiative is concerned with the preservation of historic buildings, it also has activities in other realms including waste management, public space, and transportation; the governorate has been removing stretches of old tramway in Heliopolis, which the Initiative argues should be renovated and saved.

Having started out as a non-political group, they soon realized that political connections would be necessary to make change. As such, they managed to meet with the governor and the head of Heliopolis district to make progress on the legislative front. They have worked with other groups to lobby for Article 50 in the constitution, which explicitly protects heritage, since current laws regulating heritage protection (Laws 144 and 119) are ineffective and filled with loopholes, according to Asmar.

Asmar said they are working on a project to develop the tram lines, parts of which have already been removed by the government due to their dilapidation. The government has received pledges of EU 750 million from the International Monetary Fund, he said, but there is no clear plan or dialogue about it with the government as yet.

Asmar was followed by Takween’s Kareem Ibrahim, who broadened the discussion of heritage, arguing that its preservation is often treated in isolation from the city as a whole. This began in the nineteenth century, with the introduction of a mechanism to define certain buildings as having heritage value, which led to policies that separated the buildings from their contexts, such as the buffer zones that were introduced to protect monuments. Moreover, he argued that the process of selecting what qualifies as heritage is political, often based on institutional or individual conceptions of what elements in the city are valuable and what are not. One of the driving forces for preservation Downtown has been nostalgia, with a view towards reviving the Belle Époque aspects of Khedival Cairo. Yet he argued that heritage should also consider the importance of modern as well as contemporary heritage. He said that public space and public memory are especially important Downtown given the deep contestation of these notions during and after the revolution.

Ibrahim addressed the issue through two Downtown examples of the battle for contemporary memorialization: the governorate’s erasure of the graffiti-covered wall on Muhammad Mahmud Street; compared to the official monument erected in honor of the revolution in Tahrir Square. While the graffiti wall can be read as an informal monument to the revolution, it was later partly demolished by the AUC in early 2016; while the Tahrir Square monument only bore the names of government officials, and was vandalized by outraged youth within hours of its erection.

In another example, Ibrahim described the eviction of the popular El Fan Medan festival from ‘Abdin Square. He spoke of the demand for public space for cultural activities, and questioned whether these needs were being taken into account in the current plans for ‘Abdin Square, which have not been open for public discussion.

Ibrahim also discussed the influence of ownership on the preservation of the urban fabric, namely the purchase, development, and subsequent abandonment of some large buildings, which has hurt the city as a whole, most notable the quality of life of its residents. The importance residents place on quality of life within the general framework of heritage preservation and public self-realization has given birth to a number of heritage movements such as the Save Alex group (Alexandria) and Athar Lina (Cairo), which aim at preserving heritage defined as both physical structures, public space, and general quality of life.

Ibrahim ended his discussion by asking, “What is the vision for Downtown?” He argued this vision should not be limited to the preservation of façades and their documentation, though this may be a valuable effort. He argued in favor of a political project to deal with Downtown. He defined “political,” not as a state project, but as a cultural project, which is put forth by the people, and which the people may debate. He stated, “I think one important aspect of our conference is to bring these issues up for discussion. I don’t think that we can make any real progress unless this type of discourse is brought to the table and broader segments of society are invited to the table.”


Soheir Hawas: Ministry of Culture / Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering, Cairo University. View Profile.

George Arbid: Arab Center for Architecture, Beirut. View Profile.

Choucri Asmar: Heliopolis Heritage Initiative. View Profile.

Kareem Ibrahim: Takween Integrated Community Development/TADAMUN: The Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative. View Profile.


May Al-Ibrashy: Megawra. View Profile.

Panel Videos

Presentation by Soheir Hawas

Presentation by George Arbid

Presentation by Choucri Asmar and Ahmed Mansour

Presentation by Kareem Ibrahim


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Re-Framing Downtown: Alternative approaches

Panel Summary:

Tarek Atia, publisher of Mantiqti Wasat al-Balad newspaper, chaired the final panel consisting of local stakeholders, including urbanists, academics, entrepreneurs, and preservationists, exploring alternative approaches to the redevelopment of Downtown. Atia began the panel by relaying his own experience as the founder of Mantiqti (“My Neighborhood”), a hyper-local newspaper on Downtown.

Atia spoke of how one morning, almost two years ago, he and his partner arrived at their office in the small pedestrian ‘Ulwi Street, to find white boxes painted to indicate the spaces into which the government intended to move the street vendors, who at that time had overtaken the main streets of Downtown. The local residents and businesses, like Atia, were frustrated not to have been informed of the decision or even to know who was responsible for it. Recognizing people’s desire to play a role in the decisions that impact their neighborhood, Atia and his partner were inspired to establish a newspaper under the name of Mantiqti al-Bursa, providing locals with news about al-Bursa as well as maps, infographics and practical information. Later their coverage was expanded to the entire Downtown area and the newspaper became Mantiqti Wasat al-Balad. They print 10,000 copies of the paper, and use a distribution strategy that allows several people to share one copy, further promoting a sense of community. Reflecting on this experience, Atia noted the common goal of the conference and of Mantiqti: to address a lack of information about Downtown, and to provide a platform for discussion.

The session continued with Omar Nagati and Beth Stryker, co-founders of CLUSTER and conference co-organizers, who spoke about CLUSTER’s Cairo Downtown Passageways project, which focuses on Downtown’s passageways and back alleys “as a framework for reimagining and re-envisioning Downtown.” Nagati spoke of CLUSTER’s approach to passageways not only as an interesting urban typology, but also as an in-between space that offers the potential for intervention.

“[The passageway] is a space of mediation and negotiation between … the public realm and the private realm,” said Nagati. “[It exists] between formal capital architectural design, vernacular architecture, street vendors, and what is happening on the street … More metaphorically, the passageway is truly a transitional space or a liminal space between two different orders.” Nagati noted that at a time when Cairo is undergoing a process of transition politically and on an urban level, CLUSTER seeks to use this metaphor to test “how can we as citizens of the city engage in a small scale exercise, to see how can we renegotiate our position vis-à-vis different stakeholders … the owners, the shop keepers, the vendors, the residents and so on.”

Nagati and Stryker discussed CLUSTER’s working model of taking a hypothesis that is later tested on a small-scale urban project. In this case, their aim was to explore the role that art and culture may play as a catalyst for revitalization in the “Kodak” and “Philips” passageways, neighboring but different types of passageways Downtown. In the first phase of the project CLUSTER undertook the refurbishment of the Kodak passageway’s storefronts to accommodate a solo exhibition of Egyptian artist Hassan Khan, his first in Egypt in ten years, curated by Stryker as part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF).

In a second phase of development CLUSTER, in cooperation with the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute (DEDI) and the Centre for Culture and Development in Copenhagen (CKU), undertook a workshop with Danish and Egyptian designers and artists to explore the redevelopment of the public spaces of the “Kodak” and “Philips” passageways. The outcome of the workshop was two concepts for the two passageways, a “Green Oasis” and a “Light Oasis” respectively. The design development and implementation of the two passageways were then undertaken by CLUSTER in dialogue with local stakeholders. This was an important aspect of the process, involving decision-making around design elements such as trees, flowers, tiles, benches and lighting. Nagati presented these pilot cases as experiments in urban diplomacy, that offer alternative ways both to experience, but also to develop Downtown.

At the end of their presentation Nagati and Stryker announced the launch of CLUSTER’s new website (, which aims to map Cairo’s downtown passageways, exploring cultural and entertainment highlights, spaces of memory and heritage sites alongside downtown’s back alleys. The website provides a database on Downtown passageways and in-between spaces that CLUSTER has mapped over three years: including activities, patterns of use, typology and genealogy, materiality and texture, circulation and access, roofing and proportion, in addition to territoriality and tools of demarcation, and other spatial and visual documentation and analysis. The website also features interviews with local community members and stakeholders, and seeks to offer the opportunity to
re-envision Downtown through its back alleys, as an alternative framework for the development and revitalization of Downtown.

The session proceeded to speakers Nadia Dropkin and Dina Abouelsoud, who are the entrepreneurs behind Dina’s Hostel, the café Kafein and the restaurant Eish + Malh. Central to their discussion was the emphasis on their personal contribution to the neighborhood, and the creation of alternative spaces. Dina’s Hostel, which was started by Abouelsoud as a clean and safe alternative for tourists, developed into a space that local residents also visited for film screenings, exhibitions and workshops.

Dropkin described the community efforts that helped her and Abouelsoud renovate the space for Kafein. Relying on a combination of loans, savings, and support from friends, the café opened its doors in 2014, and hosts regular art exhibitions in the K Project Space which emphasizes interdisciplinary artworks. Similarly, the restaurant Eish + Malh also hosts music evenings, food markets, and film screenings, organized with local makers.

Dropkin acknowledged that the question of gentrification is a challenging one for them as entrepreneurs, but noted that as residents of Downtown, their businesses are personal investments in their own neighborhood, not only of money but of time, energy and creativity. She further noted that they did not force people out of the places where they have established their businesses. She said that they are cautious to do business in a way that avoids replicating class structures in relation to consumption. Additionally, questions of cosmopolitanism come into the reading of these enterprises, run by Dropkin, an American, and Abouelsoud, an Egyptian. Dropkin recalled a review of Kafein characterizing the café as a “Berlin-like hipster place.” In this way, she posed the question of whether the global/local dichotomy is the only framework within which we can understand Downtown.

Next, Tariq Zulficar and Emad Farid of the private company Environment Quality International (EQI) described their project, begun in 2012, to restore the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, (commonly known as the Egyptian Museum). With funding from the German Foreign Office Zulficar and his colleagues undertook a study of the building, a national monument in the Beaux-Arts style. They compared the present-day museum with illustrations of when it was newly finished in 1902, and spoke of an ambition to return the museum to its original state.

EQI’s pilot projects were the architectural restoration of the Tutankhamun Gallery and other halls, as well as a bomb shelter on the gallery’s roof. Reflecting the wishes of donors and supporting companies, they also attempted to cultivate a relationship between the museum and the community surrounding it, particularly schoolchildren. Their initial research found that most stakeholders in the area had a rather negative perception of the museum, which was connected to the fact that the museum staff did not have strong experience in dealing with visitors. Farid said: “Those [members of the public] outside don’t enter, and those inside don’t know how to deal with the public.” So the company initiated several programs to engage the local community and schools, showing them the customs and traditions of the ancient Egyptians. These were well received.

EQI was also surprised to discover the connection between the museum and the river Nile that had existed in the museum’s early years. Many of the artifacts had been transported to the museum on the Nile, and the land stretching down to the Corniche historically belonged to the museum. Based on this knowledge the company designed a plan to re-establish this connection by proposing an extension of the museum and an expanded botanical garden on the land linking the museum to the Nile.

The last speaker was political scientist Heba Raouf Ezzat, from the Faculty of Political Science and Economics at Cairo University, who gave a personal testimony as a long-time resident of Tahrir Square, describing her relationship to the neighborhood, and the “different layers of culture and memories” it comprises.

Raouf Ezzat explained how the area around the square was difficult to perceive as an actual neighborhood because nonresidents claim ownership of it, which was most evident in the uprisings of 2011. She recalled coming home one day to find that protesters had mounted a massive banner covering the entire windowed façade of her building in the name of the revolution. Asking “Who owns Downtown?” Raouf Ezzat used this example to stress that when one occupies an area, even in claiming it for the people, there is the potential to take away rights from other citizens.

Expanding on these tensions, she discussed how certain cultural boundaries used to divide the area when she was a child. She also spoke about how what she perceives as the spiritual aspect of Downtown, is being neglected in favor of a secular Modernist vision.

Raouf Ezzat warned that we are “moving from the iron and glass vision of Walter Banjamin to be more like Paris, to the iron and glass vision of Dubai.” Thus, the public has been fragmented into several publics and the question is how they can be united. Raouf Ezzat finished with the question: how can one reconcile these two visions, the traditional and the Modernist, the religious and the civic, when imagining the future of downtown Cairo?

The question and answer session emphasized the ways in which there need to be more opportunities for the public to engage and have a say in the development of their neighborhoods. Tarek Atia reflected that perhaps Downtown could offer a test case for a different form of constituency building, as well as a demand for the representatives of Downtown, both on the local councils as well as on governorate level, to be by election.


Omar Nagati (View Profile) and Beth Stryker (View Profile): CLUSTER.

Emad Farid (View Profile) and Tariq Zulficar (View Profile): Environment Quality International.

Nadia Dropkin (View Profile) and Dina Abou El Soud (View Profile): Dina’s Hostel / Eish + Malh / Kafein.

Heba Raouf Ezzat: Faculty of Economy and Political Science, Cairo University .View Profile.


Tarek Atia: Publisher, Mantiqti Wasat al-Balad newspaper. View Profile.

Panel Videos

Presentation by Omar Nagati and Beth Stryker

Presentation by Nadia Dropkin and Dina Abuelsoud

Presentation by Tariq Zulficar and Emad Farid

Presentation by Heba Raouf Ezzat


Visit our Youtube Channel