Cultural enlightenment for Cairo’s downtown futures
Courtesy: Al-Ismaelia

After January 2011, a lack of police presence altered the power balance between downtown Cairo’s residents and the government.

Residents reclaimed public space, the neighborhood’s “popular” nature was reframed as a positive attribute, and street cafes and other ventures proliferated to accommodate the droves of young people participating in protests.

But prior to 2011, two plans were already under way to rejuvenate downtown Cairo.

In 2008, Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment was established, buying up the grandest Belle Epoque buildings in downtown to rent out. The company’s vision centered on cultural gentrification — it hoped that developing the arts scene in the area would invigorate interest in its properties.

Around the same time, government plans were unveiled. The most prominent was Cairo Vision 2050, a US$3.5 million plan described as a cooperative effort between the Ministry of Housing, another state body called the General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Human Settlements Program (UNHSP), the World Bank, the German Society for International Cooperation and the Japanese government. It has since been renamed by the UNDP as the Strategic Development Plan for Greater Cairo Region 2050.

Ismaelia and the much-criticized Cairo Vision 2050 plan interpret development the same way: As neoliberal growth abetted by a kind of “culture” not currently present in an area, and the industry that follows in its wake. Both are based on appropriated types of urban modernity that have little to do with what Cairo currently looks like, or how it operates.

While the 2050 plan is fixated on a Dubai-like negotiation of space, tourism, luxury and neoliberal modernity, Ismaelia’s vision draws from transnational, multicultural nostalgia and heritage cosmopolitanism derived from a romanticized view of Egypt’s colonial past.

“Our vision is to revive downtown Cairo and create a destination for all Egyptians to live, work, shop and socialize,” says Ismaelia’s “Mission and Vision” page. “The project is designed to revitalize the center of the capital city through preserving the architectural grandeur of downtown while celebrating Cairo’s dynamic urban fabric.”

Having purchased 21 buildings in the downtown core so far, Ismaelia aims to own around 10 percent of all downtown properties, CEO Kareem Shafei tells me. The website presents each building with a short history of its (foreign) design, construction, ownership and identity as a space of social or political happenings.

For Ismaelia, it helps that many landlords are happy to be bought out and leave because they are letting their buildings through rent-controlled contracts from the 1950s.

As per the company’s celebration of urban fabric, Shafei tells me they endeavor to maintain the original usage of buildings after purchase, mentioning that the company has taken on a pilot project to preserve and enhance local garment workshops. But he also says that many of the small workshops currently occupying buildings in downtown are no longer efficient. The demand for tailors has been supplanted by access to cheap, factory-made garments, he says, adding that a lack of residents in the area also means a lack of customers.

Like all gentrification projects, relocating these smaller businesses, most of which have informal agreements with landlords rather than contracts, could effectively push out the working class.

“Cafés or bars or libraries — we think they belong downtown,” says Shafei. “Some other activities, like metalworking — we don’t think they should be downtown. We offer them key money to relocate.”

This fits with the Cairo Vision 2050 plan, which involved a series of mega-projects to “modernize” Egypt by decentralizing densely populated neighborhoods in Cairo and relocating them to new suburban desert cities.

The Cairo Vision 2050 PowerPoint presented at the World Urban Forum 5 in 2010 — then posted on the GOPP website, taken down, and later reposted by the blog Cairo From Below — was an “international experience” of urban visioning. Photos of Singapore, Paris, London, Shanghai and Abu Dhabi show how Cairo could be radically changed, with illustrations of 600 meter-wide boulevards, complete with trees and cafes (as well as a picture of a UFO with the title, “In 2050 Egypt would become an advanced country”).

Neighborhoods like Ramlet Boulaq, Ain Shams and Matareya were marked for “rarefaction.” For downtown Cairo, the plan called for the demolition of neighborhoods and construction of skyscrapers along the Nile, as well as large gardens, “open-air museums” and recreational parks. The presentation’s audience was an international community of potential investors, including property developers from the Gulf.

After the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, and even during the one-year presidency of Mohamed Morsi, an updated version — Cairo 2052 — continued to circulate among housing specialists and government officials.

Ismaelia’s portfolio of Khedival Cairo monumental buildings was an important part of the 2050 plan, and details of feasibility studies conducted on these buildings by the UNDP as part of the plan are mentioned on the UNDP website.

Ismaelia is a consortium of Egyptian and Saudi investors, made up of Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris (with a 35 percent share), Saudi private equity firm Amwal al-Khaleej, Saudi investor Sherif Suleiman, Beltone Private Equities and Egyptian investors Ahmed Khaled Mostafa and Shahira Mahmoud. Sawiris is also one of Beltone Financial’s directors, and one of its board members, Ammar al-Khudairy, is the founder of Amwal al-Khaleej.

Sawiris controls the immense Orascom Group with his brothers, Naguib and Nassef Sawiris, who are board members of Nile City Towers, a complex including a mall, cinema, offices and the Fairmont hotel that overlooks the Nile from downtown. The brothers were set to expand Nile City Towers into a long chain of similar high-rises as part of the Cairo Vision 2050, displacing Ramlet Boulaq, an impoverished informal neighborhood without basic infrastructure that has been fighting threats of eviction for decades as part of the struggle for land.

When I speak with street café owners around Townhouse, a non-profit contemporary art space in downtown, none are unfamiliar with Ismaelia. Some people tell me that property sales happened through “Sawiris.”

Following criticism of the development plan, the GOPP and UNDP have tried to bring greater transparency and community representation to their project. UN-Habitat commissioned an Egyptian consultancy firm, Environment and Development Group (EDG), to conduct a socioeconomic impact assessment. But the GOPP has no obligation to take into account its findings. What’s more, Orascom Hotels and Development and the Sawiris Foundation are EDG clients, as is Beltone Private Equity.

Thus it seems that private and public, local and international parties are colluding in a development plan that doesn’t facilitate the participation of many of those using the area.

In these grand plans, “culture” has become a weapon to be inflicted by developers on a community that will be transformed to appreciate it. Ismaelia owns the buildings that house the art spaces Townhouse and Contemporary Image Collective, and also hires out the Hotel Viennoise, and occasionally other spaces, to local artists and curators for exhibitions and events. The Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), an annual three-week event launched in 2012, benefits from Ismaelia’s sponsorship and the use of its properties as festival venues, including the old cabaret Shehrezade. According to Shafei, this year Ismaelia provided around 10 percent of the festival’s funding; foreign embassies, councils and arts bodies covered the rest.

“There was no interest in downtown throughout the revolution,” claims Shafei. “So I decided to start an arts festival. Arts already existed in downtown.”

“I believe that Egypt was lacking enlightenment. It was in the dark ages,” he adds.

For both Cairo Vision 2050 and Ismaelia, “cultural enlightenment” has become an alibi to impose a neoliberal restructuring on a vital community, and D-CAF is one tool that helps them do that.

Shafei discusses cosmopolitanism, favoring the Paris on the Nile version of early twentieth century downtown. While the symbolism of Ismaelia’s appropriation of the name of the Khedive Ismail — who initiated the building of downtown in the image of Baron Haussmann’s Paris in the late 19th century — is indicative of such historic positioning, it is not what the Khedive intended. His own use of the Ismail name for the current Tahrir Square came from a discourse of transcending historical Egypt to achieve a modern, European city. Now the modern is historical, and the downtown ideal is being refashioned to recreate an era that existed nearly a century ago.

The restoration of these century-old buildings symbolizes the attraction to a way of life that exists in a modern imagination. Despite attempts to implement this vision, the reality that remains — and will always remain — is a hybridization, or glocalization of such models. The Haussmann architecture of grand buildings and city squares is peppered with air-conditioning units, filled with street vendors and hidden by gaudy storefronts.

While Cairo’s urbanism-focused non-profits, such as Megawra, Tadamun and CLUSTER (this latter group also works with Ismaelia, as in the recent D-CAF visual arts program), quietly go about research, education and small-scale interventions, Ismaelia and Cairo Vision 2050 seek to patinate nostalgia with modernity, intertwine them as a dream of a future and past Cairo and promote a nostalgia for the present.

Marie-Jeanne Berger 

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