By Carrie Chomuik – President Obama selected Cairo as the location of his speech to the Muslim world because of its historical importance in the region and close ties to the United States. Despite this underlying symbolism, Egypt is struggling to remain a relevant power in the Arab world. The country is not only competing with its neighbors for influence and economic opportunity, but also fighting an internal battle for political legitimacy among its growing population. With increasing political unrest, fueled by an autocratic and aging Mubarak and the government’s unpopular response to the recent war in Gaza, Egypt is approaching a crossroads. At this pivotal time in the nation’s history, no place represents the struggles of Egypt more clearly than its capital city: Cairo.
Cairo has held a position of prestige for thousands of years. Home to Al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world, it has served as a historic seat of culture, knowledge, art, and commerce. In more recent years, important religious and social transformations have taken place in the city, and it once again serves as the seat of the Arab League.
Today Cairo is one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world, housing 22% of Egypt’s total population. Like other mega cities such as Tokyo and New York, Cairo functions as a main source of economic activity in the country. Mega cities world wide share common development and administrative challenges, but Cairo is an acute case of social unrest and unregulated growth.
The Greater Cairo Region (GCR), which includes the Governorates of Cairo, Giza, Qalyubiyah, and the major surrounding urban areas, is a microcosm of Egypt’s political and security challenges. Population and poverty are both on the rise. Demand for development is straining resources and the existing infrastructure. Political unrest is simmering, and informal settlements around the capital continue to grow rapidly. Refugees from Africa and the Arab world blend into the chaos, becoming underserved and dangerously marginalized from society. How Cairo responds to these challenges will directly influence the country’s position in the world.
Cairo has grown exponentially in the past 30 years, increasing by nearly ten million residents since 1979. Urban growth in Cairo is divided evenly between natural population growth, which has held steady at 4%, and internal migration from other areas of Egypt. With seventeen million residents and counting, rapid population growth has placed stress on infrastructure and pressured the local government to provide housing and employment for city dwellers in the GCR.
The GCR encompasses a rapidly expanding land area. Four different local authorities govern the region, each with its own mandate and definition of GCR borders. The central government adds an additional layer of concentrated power and bureaucracy, resulting in unclear jurisdictional authorities. In addition, there is little involvement of local stakeholders in the urban planning process. This reality mirrors that of the disenfranchised general population. This governmental structure has ultimately proved to be inefficient in its attempts to address the population’s development needs.
Speculation of both public and private land in Cairo has caused government housing prices to increase beyond the reach of the residents they were constructed to serve. Government subsidized housing has largely failed. As a result, 70-80% of Cairo’s new residents are living in “informal” squatter settlements in and around the GCR.
Cairo is a haven for refugees from neighboring African and Arab countries. A majority of the country’s 165,000 registered refugees live in Cairo, and include Somalis, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Eritreans, Iraqis and Palestinians. Given the limited capabilities of aid agencies in the country and restrictiveness of an official status, the population of unregistered refugees is likely to be much greater. The majority of these vulnerable populations flock to the capital in search of shelter and livelihoods, further swelling informal settlements. It is notable that these refugees are often fleeing violent conflict or a loss of land, and as such it is uncertain whether they will be able to return home or somehow integrate into the mega city.
Why are the problems of Cairo indicative of Egypt’s future? The challenges of urban development, informal housing, and irregular migration highlight the shortcomings of the local and national governments. As a result of inadequate development policies, marginalized refugee populations, and stress on resources and infrastructure, social unrest will likely increase in Cairo. This conflict could prevent Egypt from reclaiming its place as a regional and Arab power. As Cairo goes, so goes the country.