Not just branches – on the Syrian and Egyptian Brotherhoods

review cover, brotherhood

The irony of these parallel accounts is that, with Egypt’s current disorder and Lefèvre’s analysis, which privileges the Brotherhood’s early pragmatism and democratic participation over their violence in the 1970s and 1980s, the Syrian Brotherhood – long considered more radical – comes across as more of a political moderate than its Egyptian relative. Lefèvre insists that “today, there is little doubt left about the organisation’s commitment to ideas and concepts such as democracy and political pluralism,” even if it still remains doctrinally “embedded in the ideological substance of political Islam”. Its internal history is far more contentious, and reflective of the broad social and political wounds of decades of single Baath Party rule, than is often framed. In Egypt, meanwhile, where the Brotherhood’s history was never so violent, the group instead participated in what Wickham calls “a political process warped by authoritarian rule”. That didn’t liberalise the organisation so much as entrench hardliners who kept it as a closed coterie. Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood knew it couldn’t reasonably hold power, so it was free to advocate democracy while leaving major doctrines and policies vague. But political power changed all that, and exposed their doublespeak. It ran a presidential candidate after pledging it wouldn’t; it deflected criticisms with canards, and refused to admit mistakes.

Until the Syrian Brotherhood runs in elections and realises similar political aspirations, the organisation will be held up to its Egyptian counterparts and their penchant for saying one thing while pursuing only narrow group interests. The interviews Lefèvre cites give voice to his broad claims about the Syrian Brotherhood’s newfound restraint and accommodations. But if the Egyptian Brotherhood has proven anything after Mubarak, and after Morsi, it is that its words are hardly sacrosanct. Exiled Syrian Brothers such as Attar or Salem, whether they want to be, will be associated with Khairat Al Shater, the Egyptian Brotherhood’s senior strategist and chief financier, who told the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper last year: “There must be as much integration and cooperation as possible, with alliances and coalitions among the various political stakeholders … There is no possibility of a power monopoly. It simply is not part of our strategy or our culture.”

Read the whole story, on the cover of The Review, at The National.

Current Stories


The Nile has no shortage of stories or storytellers, which might discourage most writers from undertaking “a biography of the world’s greatest river”. Not British travel writer and self-described adventurer Robert Twigger, who at the outset of his lively, zigzagging, often oddball tome, Red Nile: The Biography of the World’s Greatest River, declares his goal “to uncover the best stories, in all their light and darkness, the stories red in tooth and claw, the more bizarre the better, the blood and the guts of this river which spills into history”. If you’re going to write another book about the Nile – a river whose chronicles begin with the Pharaohs and whose history, whether ancient or modern, is always being rehashed and reiterated – how else could you do it? To his credit, Twigger brings some self-restraint and humility to this epic, acknowledging he is less an original storyteller than a curator, collecting and rearranging tales and characters in order to say something new.

Twigger’s Red Nile refers, initially, to the moment in early summer when, north of Khartoum, the sediment-rich Blue Nile, at the height of its flood, flows into the White Nile and clogs its clear waters, turning them briefly red. But this is only the most literal version of the Red Nile. As Twigger writes, “the stories that remain are always the most highly coloured, the most passion-filled or the most blood curdling. Naturally, their colour is red.” Often he leans on the latter; among the most bloody stories retold is that of the Delta town of Mansoura, where in 1250, Baibars, Egypt’s future Mamluk Sultan, slaughtered French Crusaders led by Louis IX, and their blood was said to clog the Nile south to the Mediterranean.

Read more at The National.

Egypt’s Conscience: The Genius of Sonallah Ibrahim


From a prison camp in Egypt’s western desert in 1963, a young dissident, Sonallah Ibrahim, recorded in his diaries that he “must write about Cairo after studying her neighborhood by neighborhood, her classes, her evolution.” A year later he was out of prison, having served five years of a seven-year sentence for being a Communist. He smuggled his diaries back to Cairo by copying them onto cigarette rolling papers. But Egypt’s capital was its own kind of prison, as the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser kept him under house arrest from dusk until dawn. He tried working on a novel of his childhood, but focused instead on a bleak, honest record of his days in a city browbeaten by Nasser’s omnipresent police. “The new reality consumed me,” Ibrahim later wrote, and so his work had to engage “the struggle against imperialism, the effort to build socialism, and all the difficulties these efforts brought in their train: terror, torture, prison, death, personal misery.”

The outcome was his first novel, That Smell, published and quickly banned in 1966. Its nameless narrator is a recently released political prisoner and writer living under house arrest. He roams Cairo when he’s not checking in with a police officer every night, visits old friends and family, smokes, spies on his neighbors, and otherwise fails at writing and sleeping with a prostitute. The book, devoid of much plot, captures the debilitating effects of police repression under Nasser, but also anticipates a mood of decline and looming disaster brought by Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, followed by Nasser’s death in 1970. State censors decried Ibrahim’s portrait of a listless Egyptian society, singling out its few brief sexual scenes. At a Ministry of Information interrogation, a zealous officer demanded to know why Ibrahim’s narrator fails to sleep with a prostitute. “Is the hero impotent?” he asked, taking more offense to the perceived insult to Egyptian masculinity and, it seems, national prowess, than to the book’s portrayal of torture.

Read the rest at The Daily Beast.

Distance Resistance


Arwa works out of a walk-up office in Heliopolis, near Cairo’s international airport, amid the din of low-flying passenger jets overhead. The 27-year-old former state television producer, who declined to give his last name, left Damascus in late 2011 to avoid being drafted into the army. After months of inactivity in Egypt, he and another Syrian friend founded SouriaLi, an internet radio station focused not on news of the brutal government crackdown and uprising devastating his country, but Syrians’ common history and culture (the name means “Syria is mine”.)

“We try to remind people of our connections,” said Arwa, his cigarette nearly done. “We’re speaking about how to build our society, how we can live together tomorrow. Like Mahmoud Darwish wrote, ‘we love life’.”

The opening lines of that Darwish poem – “And we love life if we find a way to it. We dance in between martyrs and raise a minaret for violet or palm trees” – is an unlikely elegy for Syria today, where the death toll, according to the United Nations, exceeds 70,000. One million Syrians have fled abroad, most to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, bringing the realities of war across a region that has known too many refugee crises.

The trauma of displacement is often captured in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to some 146,000 people, or similarly squalid camps in the mountains and valleys of Lebanon and Turkey. Cairo has no refugee camps. But new Syrian communities, displaced by war, have formed in its urban sprawl, from the city centre to the desert satellites, just like the Sudanese and Iraqi ones before them. For many young Syrians who joined the earliest protests against Assad and then were forced to flee, Egypt’s capital has become both an activist base and a refuge.

Read the rest at The National. To read the piece as it appeared in print in The Review, click here. And check out more of Bridgette Auger’s great photographs here.

The Revolution Added Two Years: On Cairo


I have a long reported essay in the new issue of The Nation on the neoliberal urban development schemes of the Mubarak regime, which have found new life under the government of Mohamed Morsi and the increased political role of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the magazine the story is running with two of my photos; I put some others in this post. Here is the opening:

In Cairo, there is a street named after the Arab League. It’s a grand boulevard that cuts through Mohandiseen, a neighborhood built in the 1950s to house engineers and other civil servants, whose ranks swelled during the 1960s with the guarantee of employment under the state socialism of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. These days, the boulevard is lined with luxury car showrooms, drab mid-rises and fast-food chains, all forming the commercial spine of an upscale area too expensive for most clerks and bureaucrats. Last December, on one of the quiet streets that radiates off the boulevard, I visited the office of an architect named Dina Shehayeb. A professor at the Housing and Building National Research Center in Cairo, Shehayeb also runs her own firm, which focuses on community-based development and the revitalization of historic areas. The deadly street battles of late November between the police and unarmed protesters on Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square had ended, and the attacks on protesters by military police outside the People’s Assembly near Tahrir were a week away. Cairo was relatively calm. But in her office, Shehayeb spoke heatedly of a city transformed during the reign of the recently deposed president, Hosni Mubarak.

“We had thirty years of the government pushing us to informality,” she said, alluding to Cairo’s vast “informal” areas: dense urban districts built without official planning or permits, often in cheap red brick and concrete on agricultural land that once formed the Nile’s flood plain. Some two-thirds of Cairenes live in informal areas, the urban reality in a country where the government has never provided enough housing; during Mubarak’s three decades of power in Egypt, state assets and land were sold off in a costly dream of turning Cairo’s desert outskirts into satellite cities and gated suburbs. But Shehayeb was also talking about Mohandiseen, where someone with money and connections can skirt lax planning guidelines and build a tower on a street of low-rise buildings. “It was governance by informality, articulated and made ambiguous on purpose,” she said. “Things were always done with vagueness, uncertainty and contradiction.”


Read the rest at The Nation.

Revising the history of Egypt’s regime

I have a review in The National on Hazem Kandil’s new revisionist history of Egypt’s post-1952 regime, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt. The book explains Egypt’s evolution from a military to a police state from Nasser through Mubarak, and the internal rivalries over decades between the military, the various branches of police and security services, and the political apparatus. Kandil argues that this history explains the military’s quick support for the millions of Egyptians in the streets calling for Mubarak’s end and the fall of the regime (hardly realized yet). Here’s the opening:

In October 1972 Anwar Sadat met with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) to discuss plans to retake the Israeli-occupied Sinai. The generals suspected Sadat was planning a limited war – to cross the Suez Canal and then dig in – rather than advance to retake the strategic Gidi and Mitla passes. The deputy war minister objected; it would be a military disaster. When he pressed his point, Sadat erupted, according to the minutes cited by Hazem Kandil in Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt. “Make one more objection, and you will be asked to stay home,” Egypt’s president shouted. “Learn your place! You are a soldier, not a politician.”

Days later, Sadat dismissed those opposing Scaf members and purged a hundred other high-ranking officers. Sadat called the military council “a group of childish pupils, [composed of] a deceived leftist, an ailing psychopath, a mercenary, a traitor to Egypt, a conspirator.”

This is hardly the lofty rhetoric used to describe Egypt’s military, especially by a president who was among the Free Officers that seized power in 1952. But it illustrates the complexities and internal rivalries of the Egyptian regime that are the subject of Kandil’s bold, revisionist history, which disputes the “misguided belief that the Egyptian regime has maintained its military character.” To Kandil the regime is not a monolith but “an amalgam of institutions” – the military, the police and security services, and the political leadership – “each with its own power-maximising agendas”.

Read the rest here.

Egyptorama, or desert highways

“A lonely door built in the middle of the desert, a forest of lampposts, a mosque shaped like a spaceship; emptiness turns brutally into strangeness, creating a tension between people and their environment. This is Egyptorama—a road trip that leads nowhere.”

Stark photos by Julian Chatelin on Guernica that capture the Egyptian military’s role in the transformation of the country’s physical (and political) landscape. Abandoned tracts of desert are either unused military installations or, more often on the fringes of Cairo, state-military land sold to speculators close to the regime, to build an unsustainable and largely unrealized suburban dream in the desert. Via Arabist.

Waguih Ghali’s character, Ram, on old Cairo

“Font has two rooms behind the Citadel in old Cairo. His neighbors are barrow-keepers, servants, and sometimes beggars. It is the prettiest and most colorful part of Cairo and anywhere else the arties would have flocked to it, but not in Cairo. The Cairo arties, if not slumming in Europe, are driving their Jaguars in Zamalek. I would like to live in that part of Cairo; I genuinely would prefer to live there. But with me it would be gimmicky. There is a touch of gimmick in whatever I do.”

from Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, p. 31

Muizz Street Flood

The Egyptian antiquities authorities have long asserted ownership (or at least exclusive caretaker status) over historic “monuments” in Cairo, for their tourist value. But how does that square with everyday infrastructure? Yesterday Muizz Street flooded when sewage water overflowed — photos posted on Facebook show the historic architecture and urban fabric of Fatimid Cairo inundated with waste water. Apparently the flood was contained after six hours, as Ahram Online is reporting. Their story includes revealing quotes from Mohsen Sayed, head of the Islamic Antiquities Department, who blames the flood on a water pump operator. From the article:

“This is not the antiquities’ fault,” Sayed said, adding that according to the street’s development project, the Antiquities Department is paying an annual fee to operate a pumping machine that has been installed to prevent the leakage of water into the street and to pump it out if neccessary.

Regretfully, Sayed continued, sometimes the person who is in charge of the machine has left it without supervision. “This is the third time in a year that drainage water leaked into the street due to the irresponsibility of the person in charge of the machine,” Sayed told Ahram Online.

There is so little transparency and so much bureaucratic obscurity that it’s almost impossible to understand who is responsible for maintaining Muizz Street — which was “restored” in a very costly intervention by the Egyptian government, led by the Ministry of Culture with the Ministry of Housing and the Cairo Governorate, that was basically street-level beautification. The antiquities head Mohsen Sayed is from a government institution that in matters of tourist promotion, ticket sales, and restoration (for the sake of tourism), asserts control over the historic buildings on Muizz. But when sewage water overflows around those 700-year old buildings… blame the pumping machine operator.

Management and upkeep is as important to preservation and restoration as the physical projects themselves — and here the antiquities authorities have failed.

Anniversary in the city

Wednesday was the anniversary of Egypt’s January 25th uprising. Today is the anniversary of the Day of Rage, January 28th, when the people beat back the police and state security forces who had for so long cracked down on dissent and gathering in Cairo’s streets. The continued ability of Egyptians to mass mobilize, and to transform urban space into expressions of popular will and determination, is remarkable. This is my favorite photo from the revolution’s first anniversary:

Larbi Sadiki’s recent op-ed on al-Jazeera English on “January 25th and the republic of Tahrir,” captures the centrality of space and urban control in Egypt’s uprising and ongoing revolution. And images like the one above demonstrate the persistence of public gatherings and of an altered urban environment in Egypt. The city as the arena for mass protest, the millioniyyah (the millions’ march), reflects a new popular, political and social order. Gone, hopefully, is the era of authoritarian urban planning and rule.

Agency was displayed in multiple colours, prayers, words, shapes, cries, songs, dances and slogans. Perhaps, nothing equals the beauty of such creativity than Egyptians taking over the public square to make it their own and taking charge of time. That is when 31 years of dictatorial urban planning and of regimented timing ceased to have an effect.

When they re-fashioned time and space to suit the moment of liberation, the state was thrown into complete disarray. Never before in the history of humankind was there a Friday of anger. Every Friday, there were the security forces lining up the streets leading up to Al-Azhar mosque and other places where the state kept a watchful eye on citizens it distrusted and controlled via fear. Time was designed to worry about livelihood and the rest of it was apportioned between commuting, working and looking for ways to escape thinking about the things that mattered most at the subliminal level: tahrir from hunger and from tyranny, from Mubarak and from the expanding Gamal club and co.

When Egyptians, like other Arabs, discovered that to topple a state required wresting time and space from the state, they realised they found the antidote to misrule. It was licence for liberators and for liberation, inverting authoritarian orders, resisting in rebellious terms, and in ways no police force in the world was ever trained to sabotage much less handle.

Zamalek 1896

The island of Zamalek in earlier days, before it was Cairo’s leafy enclave on the Nile. Both photos read, “The quarter (district, neighborhood) of Zamalek, 1896.”

I’m posting these photos partly in reply to Mohamed’s new blog, Vintage Egypt: a visual history of mid-twentieth century Egypt (more or less?) in old advertisements. For a later but still historical image of Zamalek, here is one he found:

Letter from Cairo – LARB

“Why are we destroying our own city with our own hands?” the architect Nairy Hampikian asked last month in Magaz, an Egyptian design magazine. She was speaking of the decades of poor planning and infrastructure in Cairo under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In the same publication, architect May al-Ibrashy wrote, “Cairo, always fast, has now become furious. Stadiums as battlegrounds… buildings as burning effigies (the list is endless but the unrivaled favorite seems to be Ministry of Interior buildings)…” Both writers may have been anticipating the urban conflict to come: in the battle for Egypt between protestors determined to be heard and a military determined to silence them, space, and who controls it, is as much the focus of the contest as anything else.

This month’s battles between military police and protesters outside the cabinet and parliament buildings, just south of Tahrir Square, are a prime example. In the early morning on Friday, December 16th, regime thugs and military police threw furniture, plates, bricks, and cement blocks onto a few hundred protesters who for three weeks had been sitting-in peacefully outside the cabinet building. The ensuing street battles were contests of space. At least thirteen people died and hundreds more were injured over the first three days, as they fought to control Qasr al-Ainy Street, a central boulevard that houses many government buildings and connects to Tahrir from the south. Like the violence of late November, when over forty protesters died fighting the Central Security Forces for control of Mohamed Mahmoud Street (one of the main arteries leading out of Tahrir Square), this latest spasm of violence was not just about freedom or human rights: it was about urban control.

In the battle of Qasr al-Ainy Street, the fight was directed against specific buildings, most of all the cabinet building from which uniformed soldiers and military police attacked protesters (one, caught on camera, even urinated on them). The buildings became symbols as well as tools of oppression, with the military attacking civilians from the rooftops. Detained protesters were dragged into the parliament, known as the People’s Assembly, where they were beaten. Rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown both at and from the cabinet building, an adjacent government office, and the Ministry of Transportation, just up the street. Regime toughs and military police attacked from the roof of the Institut d’Égypte, a valuable national archive built after Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.

Molotovs hit the institute — exactly who threw them is not clear — and the military allowed the building to burn, along with its vast collection of two-hundred year old books and manuscripts. Soldiers didn’t try to save the volumes of national heritage housed inside; protesters did. A photo quickly spread on Twitter of a man cradling a stack of old books rescued from the burning building, his head covered with a plastic chair to protect him from rocks thrown and bullets fired by military police. The Big Pharaoh, an Egyptian blogger, posted the photo with the message: “I just want u to look at this pic closely. Look & contemplate. Look & feel proud.” According to al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s largest independent daily, young men who ran into the still-burning building on Saturday to save the books were shot at and hit with rocks. “They fired at us with shotguns,” a man named Ahmed told the newspaper. “A little kid was hit with 11 pellets in the neck.” Al-Masry al-Youm reported that a man carrying books from the smoldering institute had his back broken by a rock on his way out.

A salvage operation began days later outside a state archive building along the Nile, where academics, specialists, and other volunteers sifted through the charred remains of the institute’s 192,000-volume collection. “When the government wants to protect something, they do,” Ahmed el-Bindari, one of the volunteers, told the Associated Press. “Try to reach the Interior Ministry or Defense Ministry buildings. You won’t be able to.”

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Shelf Life

I have a piece in the current issue of The Nation, reviewing two recent Middle East books by American think-tank analysts: Andrew Tabler’s In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria and Steven A. Cook’s The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. I was critical of Tabler’s book. While billing itself as part memoir, it neglects much discussion of the author’s own shifting views and politics about Syria. As a journalist in Damascus who founded the English-language magazine Syria Today, Tabler technically worked as a consultant under first lady Asma al-Assad; now he advocates what American sanctions “can teach Assad” from a job at a think-tank that was founded to be Israel’s lobbyist in the foreign policy circles of DC. He used to advocate the benefits of engagement; now he talks about America’s ability to change regime behavior and domestic affairs in Damascus simply through sanctions and tough talk — a foreign policy view shaped by conservative think-tanks and Congressmen in the capital who have little experience and knowledge of Syrian, let alone broader regional history and politics.

The two books make for an interesting pair for how the authors see America’s role in a changing Middle East. Tabler writes of his time in Syria, and the current crackdown and threat of civil war there, from his perch at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think-tank whose Middle East analysis hinges on how things in the region affect Israel, particularly Israel’s security, and the American-dictated status-quo. Cook, meanwhile, ends his book on a surprising, refreshing note, that “The United States should greatly lower its expectations of what is possible in the post-Mubarak era and come to terms with the end of the strategic relationship.” While US pressure on the ruling Scaf is needed — especially in light of rising military crackdowns in the street, and the recent raid of NGOs in Cairo — Cook says that to “salvage its position in Egypt,” the Obama administration should say the right things about “democracy, tolerance, pluralism, accountability, and nonviolence—and then take a hands-off approach as Egyptians build a new political system on their own terms.” Cheers to that.

The piece is behind the subscriber wall, so here is the beginning. To read the PDF as it appeared in print, click here.

In 2003 Andrew Tabler met Asma al-Assad, the young, glamorous wife of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. A black Honda whisked him away from his apartment in Damascus to the hills above the city, and then to a secret location guarded by sweeping low branches, an iron gate and men cradling machine guns. He remembers the visit as being surprisingly casual. Nobody bothered to check his ID before he entered Asma’s office. When he left, he almost called Syria’s first lady, a former hedge-fund analyst and investment banker in London, by her first name. Then one remembers what he says her secretary had told him: “We know where you live, Mr. Tabler.”

From 2001 to 2008 Tabler was the only Western journalist permanently based in Damascus, partly because of the rarest of things: a multiple-entry press visa. In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria (Lawrence Hill; $16.95) is his account of that time, but it neglects to answer some obvious questions. Why was Tabler granted such access? And what of his career change, from observer and consultant in Damascus—he worked for Asma as media adviser for a quasi NGO that she patronized and through which he founded Syria’s first English-language magazine, Syria Today—to his present post at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? The narrative is a maze of opaque remarks, like this one about a colleague from Damascus: “While Leila didn’t like the Washington Institute’s position on Syria and was critical of my work, she understood that I was leaving Syria behind.”

2050 or Bust

This past August in Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb built over desert by a Belgian industrialist in 1905, I sat in an architect’s office, a place called Cube Architectural Consultants, and heard a glowing, impromptu presentation on “Cairo 2050.” Cairo 2050 is a series of outlandish master plans and megaprojects for Egypt’s capital that the regime of Hosni Mubarak began promoting in 2008, with the help of the United Nations and the Japanese government. Its future, an earnest architect informed me gently, was “uncertain in the new Egypt.”

Imagine Dubai in the Nile Valley, if instead of building it on empty sand, futurist skyscrapers and business parks rose over what are now the packed, informal neighborhoods that today house the majority of Cairo’s estimated 17 million people. This authoritarian, outsized development “vision” would involve relocating millions to the furthest edges of the desert — areas banally termed “new housing extensions” — to make way for “10 star” hotels, huge parks, “residential touristic compounds,” and landing-strip-sized boulevards lined with a monotony of towers. It’s unlikely to happen in an Egypt after Mubarak — if it was ever possible at all, given budgets and popular resistance. Still, Cairo 2050 offers a glimpse at the Egyptian government’s approach to urban planning and policy. As David Sims, an economist and consultant who has worked in Cairo since 1974, writes in Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, the Cairo 2050 project represents “a continued penchant for the manufacture of unrealistic dreams” on the part of “government planners and their consultants.”

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Sharia al Muizz Li Din Allah in Cairo, from the Sabil-Kuttab of ‘Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda, August 2011.

On Cairo: Histories of a City

Histories of a City: the many hands that shaped today’s Cairo

Frederick Deknatel, The National, September 16, 2011

One of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s most famous Orientalist paintings, Prayer on the Rooftops of Cairo, is backwards. The men in the scene are facing north in prayer, not south-east towards Mecca. Under the shadow of two Mamluk minarets with the mosque of Mohammed Ali in the distance, perched atop the Citadel, the Cairenes on the canvas pray just after sunset, with a sliver of the moon in the sky. It’s an idyllic, invented scene that Gérôme, one of the most accomplished Orientalists of his day, painted in his studio in France, embellishing it to suit his viewers’ desire for the exotic. Its inaccuracy was beside the point. This painting, like so many that Gérôme made in the late 19th century, captivated its European audience.

Nezar AlSayyad includes a large detail of this painting spread over two pages in Cairo: Histories of a City. AlSayyad’s book, a colourful sweep of over 3,000 years of urban and architectural history, is as much a short genealogy of Cairo’s many commentators and portraitists as it is of its buildings. He narrates a broad history of urban development from the Pharaonic capital of Memphis, “the first Cairo”, on the Nile’s west bank, to the Ptolemaic, Roman-Byzantine and Arab-Islamic cities that developed on top of and adjacent to each other on the river’s east bank. Each chapter begins at an iconic Cairo landmark and tells a history of the building’s era, bringing in both neighbouring architecture and contemporary voices. Gérôme’s work is among those accumulated impressions of the city, from ancient scribes and medieval chroniclers to colonial-era artists and modern historians. But in reversing the direction of the men in prayer, Gérôme’s painting suggests the role of imagination and misunderstanding not only in explaining and portraying Cairo, but in planning and developing it too.

Read the rest at The National.

The politics of restoration on Sharia al-Mu’izz

All of the buildings refurbished by the government’s Historic Cairo Restoration Project around Sharia al-Mu’izz have a marble plaque to commemorate their reopening after restoration. This is expressed, of course, in gaudy script that honors the patronage and support of the president, Hosni Mubarak, his wife Suzanne, the culture minister, Farouk Hosny, and Abdel Azeem Wazeer, governor of Cairo. This plaque, commemorating the reopening in February 2010 of the complex of Sultan Barquq on Sharia al-Mui’zz, has been defaced since the January 25 revolution.The government’s Historic Cairo project was solely economic development through heritage tourism, which is their only strategy and motivation for architectural restoration and preservation. The area aimed to turn the historic spine of medieval Cairo into a controlled pedestrian zone; cars would only be allowed in the evenings, with traffic heavily controlled or restricted during the day. The new promenade, lined with antique and shisha shops, glows in the evening thanks to professional lighting from Italy. A travel writer for the New York Times basked in “A Cairo Street Free from Traffic and Haggling.” Not surprisingly, the refurbishment of al-Mu’izz was and continues to be criticized as a beautification of the facades on al-Muizz only, or a Disney-fication of the historic heart of Fatimid Cairo. The alleys extending off the main street in either direction in Gamaliyya are home to scrap metal shops that the previous regime wanted to expel. Residents applaud the infrastructure improvements, like the new sewage system and street paving. But the HCRP’s creation of a plaza outside al-Hakim required removing the busy lemon, onion and garlic markets — banished to al-Obour off the highway to Ismailiya on the fringes of Cairo, according to people I talked to there. Tourists want open space with row upon row of shisha shops, according to the government’s plan; they don’t want the shaabi activities of vegetable markets for the people who actually live there.

The HCRP was not urban renewal but heritage tourism in the busy, medieval center of Cairo. The Ministry of Culture’s dream of turning al-Muizz and the rest of Fatimid Cairo into an “open-air museum,” however, is on hold, and hopefully has been dashed. Since January, al-Muizz is full of cars and motorcycles and micro-trucks again — since the revolution, there has been no enforcement of al-Mui’zz as a pedestrian zone. Police are few. The realities of the city, and its place as a bustling commercial area, have overtaken the government’s plan in the absence of enforcement.

Bonfils photo of Barquq from Archnet.

How does the architecture and its management and restoration impact the relationships with residents in the area and the state? The Ministry of Culture, and the Supreme Council of Antiquities, approach historic buildings as lifeless and without context, designating them as monuments with little connection or vitality for the people living next door. They have to be treated exclusively as visitors’ sites, a place for a tourist to see. The complexes of Qalawun and Barquq, of course, are sites of major religious, historical and architectural importance in Cairo — and yet their restoration has removed them from street-level activities and made them only a backdrop for tourists, with professional lighting at night. Qalawun is no longer a congregational mosque. Both it and Barquq are only open until the early afternoon, though people on al-Muizz say this is for security reasons in the absence of police and the threat of looters.

For many Egyptians, restoration and the Historic Cairo project on al-Mui’zz evoke the fraud and vanities of former culture minister Farouk Hosny. His former deputy Ayman Abdel Moneim directed the project until he went to jail for corruption in 2007. As Moneim told Ahram Weekly earlier that year:

“This two-year long survey will result in integrated socio-economic revitalisation plan linking the urban and the socio-cultural fabric of the city’s core,” Abdel-Moneim confidently predicted, adding that its provisions would be enshrined in legislation to preserve monuments and protect the area from further encroachment.

Moneim was sent to prison, convicted of taking money from the contractors doing the restoration work, in addition to other charges of bribery. There is nothing to suggest in the HCRP a social development or integrated revitalization project. One architect I spoke to cynically said that the impetus and goal of the project was to add a day to the tourists’ itinerary of Cairo — after the Pyramids, and the Museum, the government hoped, visitors could wander al-Muizz and the sanitized alleys of Fatimid Cairo beyond Khan al-Khalili.

If people are isolated from their own architectural heritage, which is seen to be used and protected only to serve regime corruption and neoliberal economic policies, what is left? What is the local, lived impact of restorations carried out for narrow economic interests under urban authoritarianism?

For one, it starts with defacing the marble plaque that commemorates the restoration project of the Barquq complex. The plaque does not acknowledge the building’s history or architecture, but instead the patronage of the regime that insisted on owning culture and urban heritage.

Bayn al-Qasrayn, refurbished

“The Minister of Culture sees heritage tourism as ‘the ultimate panacea for the
Islamic monuments in Cairo.’ Others see the government’s plan not as preserving
that heritage for Egypt and the world, but of selling it to tourists and of turning
medieval Cairo into a sanitized tourist district featuring inauthentic but atmospheric
monuments deprived of their living character. The Minister of Culture’s vision of this
area as an open-air museum and an important tourist destination is one that calls for a
delicate and sensitive balance between the forces of preservation and those of renewal.
When tourism, rather than history, becomes the prime motive in restoring
buildings restraint is negated and authenticity goes out the window.”

This is Caroline Williams’s harsh assessment of the Ministry of Culture’s Historic Cairo Restoration Project, in the Middle East Journal (2002). They didn’t line Sharia al-Mui’zz with trees (yet). And the buildings do glow at night — right across from the unvisited shops selling yet more shishas. As an architect working in preservation told me in a recent conversation, about the government’s “rehabilitation” on Sharia al-Mui’zz, particularly the northern section near al-Hakim, which was once home to bustling lemon and onion markets: “The entire street is a shisha market! The entire medieval Cairo of our times is a shish market!”

The two photos show Bayn al-Qasrayn, or “between the two palaces”, the central, ceremonial plaza of Fatimid Cairo on Sharia al-Mui’zz lil-Din Allah, so named because it sat between the eastern and western palaces built by the Fatimid caliphs. Well-crafted woodwork on display in the Museum of Islamic Art are all that remain of these palaces, but the name has stayed. The Mamelukes asserted their power and architectural might here, in complex of Sultan Qalawun (built in just 13 months in 1284-1285!) and the Madrasa-Khanqah of Sultan Barquq.

“By the end of the month Al-Muizz will have regained its mediaeval allure,” Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly in 2008. “”Workers whose small enterprises adversely affect the monuments will be transferred elsewhere unless they change their activities.” The Mameluks definitely illuminated their monumental architectural with sunken floor lighting, and surrounded themselves with water pipes.

More on Flickr.

Tahrir clashes, people vs. police

Tonight for the first time since late January, when Egyptians overwhelmed the police and began their revolution, protestors battled the Central Security Forces in central Cairo. Tear gas was fired dozens of times, loud, low booms echoing in and around Tahrir. Blocks away things seem normal enough; I was walking back to my apartment near the Interior Ministry, having heard that protestors were squaring off with the CSF with stones and courage. For hours now I’ve been following Jazeera and Twitter, and closing windows against the waft of tear gas. Protestors fought their way up Mohamed Mahmoud St., in front of the AUC, building barricades. The smell of burning rubber was in the air, and clouds of smoke and gas. And behind it, chants. Where is the otherwise ever-present military? As of now, the clashes have been going on for nearly 6 hours.

Jack Shenker has an early report on the clashes in the Guardian. So does Abdel Rahman-Hussein at Al Masry Al Youm.