Urban Rights and Local Politics in Egypt: The Case of the Maspero Triangle
- Dina Wahba
- Content Type
- Research Paper
- Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
- In my visit to Egypt in late March 2018, two things were happening simultaneously: the demolition of Maspero Triangle, the neighbourhood I have been working on for my case study, and the re-election of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi for his second term. There was a big campaign banner, one of many engulfing Cairo, with El Sisi’s face and the slogan “You are the hope”. This banner on 6th of October bridge was overlooking the neighbourhood as the bulldozers were hard at work demolishing what was for years the homes of over 4000 families spanning generations. I was in a taxi trying inconspicuously to take pictures of the banner and wondering what my interlocutors would say when I ask them about how they view this promise of hope overlooking the destruction of their homes. I was also marvelling at the almost nonsensical sequence of events. In 2011 Maspero was one of the most militant neighbourhoods, among many in downtown and old Cairo (Ismail 2013), that defended the occupation of Tahrir Square. As it was adjacent to Tahrir, it played a crucial role in sustaining the square during the first 18 days of the uprising. Seven years after the revolution, the neighbourhood was faced with complete erasure. How did we get here? I argue for the productivity of looking at Egyptian politics through the lens of affect as a possible way to answer this question. As Laszczkowski and Reeves argue in their edited book Affective States (2017) “Affect is at the heart of those moments when the political catches us off guard or when it leaves us feeling catatonically suspended, wondering where we are, how we even go there, and when this became so ordinary”.
In this paper, I examine one such moment: the demolition of Maspero neighbourhood that coincided with the re-election of Abd El Fattah El Sisi in early 2018. I investigate state-society relations and the shifts throughout those moments by looking at how one neighbourhood negotiated their survival that culminated in their removal. Much like the wider socio-political context in Egypt and the story of the Egyptian revolution itself, Maspero is a story of a negotiated failure. A youth-led movement that demanded basic rights, exhausted various political tactics to lobby the government and failed the bigger fight, but scored some victories, such as the ability of some 900 families to come back to Maspero after the development project is over. I argue that Maspero can uncover much about the wider political tribulations since 2011. The case offers a lens through which we can see political openings and opportunities, clampdowns and closures as well as the current regime’s agenda for ensuring that what happened on 25 January 2011 does not happen again. I claim that one of the tactics of the regime is to systematically deconstruct the politics of the urban subaltern that played a major role in the revolution (Ismail 2013) through urban reconfiguration as well as new and old methods of affective co-optation and coercion.
In her analysis of state-society relations, Cilja Harders argues that “political science tends to privilege macro-level perspectives” rendering the urban subaltern as only passive subjects of political transformations (Harders 2003). I argue that this has not changed in analysing the aftermath of the revolution. Few studies discussed the role of the urban poor in the revolution; however, many scholars neglected the politicisation of the urban subaltern when analysing transformation (or lack thereof) in Egyptian politics in the last few years. After eight years, the situation seems bleak and the task futile. To argue for any kind of change, let alone transformation, one must be blind to the strong backlash against any attempt to capitalise on the temporary gains of the revolution. The only story left to be told seems to be one of failure. The utter failure of a reformist movement to impose even partially its agenda for change (Bayat 2017).
However, the case of Maspero neighbourhood and its youth alliance allow me to trace the revolution back into the everyday politics of citizens in a crushing struggle with the regime to examine whether the revolution disrupted informal traditional ways of doing politics. Rather than examine radical or even reformist regime or legal changes in national politics, I am interested in informal politics and its disruption. “It is in the local scale that power relations become tangible and abstract concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘politics’ observable” (Hoffmann, Bouziane & Harders 2013, 3). Building on the work of scholars of everyday politics, street politics and politics from below, I focus, therefore, on the street and, more specifically, Maspero, a neighbourhood adjacent to Tahrir Square that lived the revolution with all its tribulations, a neighbourhood that affected and was affected by the revolution.
I find Salwa Ismail’s work on the role of the urban subaltern in the revolution productive in unpacking and tracing the “everyday” in the Egyptian revolution. “The infrastructures of mobilisation and protest lay in the microprocesses of everyday life at the quarter level, in their forms of governance and in the structure of feelings that developed in relation to state government” (Ismail 2012, 450). Ismail’s argument highlights the quarters or neighbourhoods as spatial political laboratories where the urban subaltern, through rigorous negotiations and “every day” encounters with the different arms of the state, accumulates knowledge about modes of governance and how to resist them. This was obvious in the role that the urban subaltern played in the revolution and was reflected in the narratives of my interlocutors and highlighted in some of the scholar’s accounts of the revolution. In Ismail’s (2012) account of the “backstreets of Tahrir”, she narrates several important “battles” in informal neighbourhoods that she believes were vital to the success of the revolution. These “battles” manifest the moment of convergence between locally grounded grievances and national revolutionary politics. “The account of the battles serves to draw attention to the place of popular quarters in the geography of resistance, and to the spatial inscription of popular modes of activism”. (Ismail 2012, 446) The importance of Ismail’s account is in linking popular resistance to the spatial characteristics of the quarter, which brings up the question of what will happen to popular resistance when the neighbourhood is gone.
I argue that the removal of entire neighbourhoods has a political purpose, that of dismantling the political laboratories and crushing street politics. In discussing the battles in Tahrir, Bulaq Abu Al-Ila features prominently in sheltering activists, defending the occupation of the square and engaging in prolonged street fights that exhausted the police and kept it from reclaiming the square. Ismail (2012, 448) links the neighbourhood’s repertoire of contention to a history of patriotism that goes back to the resistance of the French colonial conquest, again highlighting a spatially bounded accumulation of generational knowledge and affective register of popular resistance. The aim of my endeavour is not just to highlight the role of the urban subaltern in the revolution and the subsequent politicisation and depoliticization and what one may learn from it. It is also to link this to what the state has been learning about countering any possible future mobilisation in order to foresee state strategies of radically altering the “every day” modes of governance and with it modes of resistance and to connect this to the urgency of urban restructuring processes happening in Cairo on an unprecedented scale since the 1990s.
Asef Bayat (2012) explores the politics of the urban subaltern in “neoliberal cities” in an authoritarian regime. Bayat offers the concept of “social non-movements” to analyse street politics (2012, 119). According to him, the streets are vital to the urban subaltern: he writes that “[t]he centrality of streets goes beyond merely the expression of contention. Rather, streets may actually serve as an indispensable asset/capital for them to subsist and reproduce economic as well as cultural life” (2012, 119). Bayat describes the ongoing conflict over the public space between the state and the urban subaltern as “street politics” (Bayat 2009). These ongoing processes consequently create the “political street”, hence, politicising ordinary citizens through their struggles over urban space. Some of the questions that arise here and reflect the limitations of Bayat’s arguments in this point of history relate to what happens to “street politics” when the urban subaltern loses the “political street”. Reflecting on the case of Maspero neighbourhood, what happens to the politicisation and cultural and economic appropriation when they are relocated to Asmarat, a far-off gated community out of central Cairo? What happens to the politics of the urban poor when they lose their “capital”? And, what kind of political and spatial affects are tied to this dispossession?
One of the challenges of studying Maspero was to understand the affective attachments that people had to the neighbourhood. Drawing from the literature on street politics and Asef Bayat’s notion of encroachment (2009), I could understand materially the reasons why forcefully displacing people from their homes could be traumatic. However, as I witnessed them mourn the neighbourhood it became clear to me that there are reasons beyond what this literature can offer. Here, affect theories can be helpful. Yael Navaro Yashin calls for “a reconceptualization of the relation between human beings and space” (2012, 16). Yashin critiques what she calls “the social-constructionist imagination” in its focus on conceptualising space only through what humans project on it. Building on Teresa Brennan’s work on the transmission of affect, Yashin argues for affective relationality between humans and their environment. However, she does not take an object-centred approach but combines the human subjective approach with one that explores that “excess” in the environment that she studies through the lens of affect. Yashin’s work on the collision of the phantasmatic and the material is essential in understanding the “affect” of the neighbourhood. According to Yashin, “the make-believe is real” (2012, 10). Reflecting on the case of Maspero, the affective attachments that the inhabitants of the neighbourhood developed was built around the material, the encroachment, and the social networks but moved beyond this. To them, Maspero is their country and their home. Below one of my research interlocutors, a male resident of Maspero in his 30s explains to me the attachment of the people to Maspero Triangle.
“We belong to this place; it is part of us, and we are a part of it. This place holds our memories and childhood. This is something that officials never understood. But we felt it. In this place I used to play, when I am upset, I like to sit in this place and talk to my friends. We are attached to this place not just because it is close to our work. We are linked spiritually to this place; our hearts are attached to this place. I do not want to go out. I do not want to live even in Zamalek, which is very close to us. I do not want to live there. We are attached to this place.”
Nigel Thrift (2007) argues that for the political importance of studying affect in cities and affective cities to trace how affect and cities interact to produce politics. The interactions between space, bodies and affect are linked to political consequences. Thrift goes further to point to the political engineering of affect in urban everyday life and what might seem to us as aesthetic is politically instrumentalised. This engineering of affect can have various political aims. To erase emotional histories, create new affective registers or mobilise old ones in urban settings through urban restructuring (Thrift 2007, 172). Thus, it is not farfetched to argue that the urban restructuring of cities is linked to eliciting or inhibiting political responses. The massive plan of the Egyptian government to drastically change downtown Cairo, a space that witnessed a revolution has interlinked political and affective goals. It aims at erasing the affective register of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and inhibits the politics of the urban poor.
- Human Rights, United Nations, Revolution, Urban, Youth Movement
- Political Geography
- Africa, North Africa, Egypt, Maspero