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The Zamalek uprising

Two weeks ago dozens of Zamalek residents organised a protest to denounce the district’s deteriorating conditions. For over five years an infestation of new cafes and restaurants spread like wildfire in the Zamalek area. With no urban planning in mind nor care for the old island’s infrastructure, people dubbing themselves small and medium sized business …

Sara Abou Bakr
Sara Abou Bakr

Two weeks ago dozens of Zamalek residents organised a protest to denounce the district’s deteriorating conditions.

For over five years an infestation of new cafes and restaurants spread like wildfire in the Zamalek area. With no urban planning in mind nor care for the old island’s infrastructure, people dubbing themselves small and medium sized business entrepreneurs turned the once calm island into a giant food court.

To top things off, a new infestation started three years ago: illegal restaurants. Anyone who wanted to start a business would take a corner off any street, put a shawerma/falafel stand and dub himself an entrepreneur. No permits were required; just rent a place and that’s it. With the head of the Zamalek neighbourhood turning a conveniently blind eye to these illegal practices, the island turned into a disorganised, traffic-congested area where few over the age of 50 can walk since all the sidewalks have been occupied by the so-called cafes.

In response to the repeated complaints by the residents, especially the older ones, Cairo Governor Galal Al-Saeed started a security campaign to rid the island of its illegal cafes as well as legal ones which occupy sidewalks. The campaign was considered the beginning of a reorganization of the island. Traffic police vehicles toured the neighbourhood, closing down illegal cafes; people who were dining at such cafes were told by their owners to leave as “the police are coming”. Imagine being in the middle of dinner with your significant other, only to find the manager saying, “Really sorry sir, we have a raid coming. Kindly leave!” I kid you not, this happened.

The campaign was beginning to show results, which prompted the business mongrels to come up with an ingenious idea; a protest to protest security campaigns against their illegal status. Yes, this truly happened.  A couple of days ago, an illegal restaurant owner hired a couple of well-known personalities to lead a protest by the workers, dubbing it a “demonstration to make a living”. The protest was demanding legalised status for their businesses; no feasibility study done to gauge if this is correct for the island, no urban designer to decide if this will harm the infrastructure, no one to check that the residents are agreeable to their businesses becoming a fact of life, just an attempt to extort sympathy for the poor workers. These same workers are under-paid by the business mongrels, very few given any kind of insurance and are mostly paid from the tips left by customers. You see, the “food” business – for it cannot be called a culinary experience due to its mediocre quality – is a very lucrative one. Many of the residents were flabbergasted by the audacity of these people, using their employees for extortion.  The need to make a living, while respectable, should not override the will of the people living in the area, nor jeopardise and mutilate the island.

Having lived on the island that occupies the north of the Nile all my life, I have witnessed firsthand its deterioration and downward spiral into this mess.

Schools were established on the small island, both public and private. Anyone who could afford to buy a villa in Zamalek was allowed to set up a school.  Buses parked on the streets leading to even more traffic and much worse, several schoolchildren got run over by cars. Twenty years ago, when I was still a child, our school did not allow any children to go out on the streets, buses had to park in the playgrounds to ensure the safety of the young ones. But the goal nowadays it is not about quality education and building the new generations, it is about making money.

Then Saqia Al-Sawy was set up. It was welcomed by many as a beacon for knowledge; a garbage dump turned into a place where people can meet, read and attend cultural seminars. But then, it was not lucrative enough, so concerts were introduced. Rock, pop, Arabic and metal concerts plagued the small self-proclaimed beacon resulting in horrendous levels of noise well into midnight, especially on summer nights. To put this into perspective, I live near the Saqia on the 11th floor and I forcibly attend every concert; noise pollution in its finest form. But then, it was never about education, but as usual, about making money.

Then came the small changes, the shops opening on every other street, little cafes followed by bigger restaurants, which at first were manageable despite not being planned for, like any other endeavour in Egypt. Planning is never on the top of our priorities.

Green areas which were once the landmark of Zamalek started to disappear, ancient trees cut down to make more room for the concrete jungle and the once beautiful green neighbourhood started to disappear.  Sewage puddles became the norm on any day because of the increased use of the areas facility with limited maintenance. Water shortage became an everyday problem.

Right now, Zamalek which connects downtown to the west of Cairo is a traffic plague simply because of the haphazard way it has “developed”.

The main problem in Zamalek lies within two factors: the head of the Zamalek neighbourhood, who should be fired and at least tried for negligence; and the lack of planning.

The head of the neighbourhood and those working in the West Cairo municipality have to be held responsible for what they have allowed this neighbourhood, among others, to become. They have shown a clear lack of efficiency and an insurmountable lack of care for the responsibility they have been given. But then the Mubarak municipalities are still up and running in full force. For real change to happen, they have to be made an example of. Also, the head of any neighbourhood should be elected and not appointed by the state. Residents should be allowed to elect whoever they find fitting to serve them best, instead of being forced to deal with a state-employed individual who does not know the first thing about where they live.

Zamalek residents have to start planning for their neighbourhood; all schools should be transferred to areas outside of Cairo. Public schools are under the domain of the government.

Thus pressure on the state is needed to supply these children with better educational facilities; classes, playground, labs etc. As for private schools, a rule should be set where if you do not have a playground, you have to move or else face heavy fines and closure. Since the main concern is the money, then it is also the solution. Meetings should be held to explain to parents the merits of such action which, understandably, will take time.

Heavy fines are the solution for food joints which occupy sidewalks, streets and cause traffic congestion. People have a right to walk safely in their neighbourhood. As for illegal restaurants, they have to be shut down to send a clear message that the rule of law, for once in this country, will be abided and respected. Thuggery and extortion will not work.

In addition, an urban plan is needed for Zamalek, thus no shop or food joint will be allowed unless it has a study showing the effect of this establishment on the area; flow of people, effect on traffic and even quality of the service provided. Enough with the haphazard decisions.

The loss of green areas is among the most disheartening by-blows of haphazard development. As a solution, many residents are willing to begin a tree-planting campaign with the help of the Cairo governorate.

While visiting young people seem to enjoy the hustle and bustle of Zamalek, noise pollution has reached an intolerable level. In Egypt, there are laws that do not allow this level to be over 80 decibels, but of course one needs the police to implement the law, which means the need for a strong municipality and governor. In this cycle, the municipality is the problem.

Some told me that this is happening all over Cairo; so why expect something different in Zamalek? Simply because I, as well as other many disgruntled residents live there and will not allow it to sink any lower. Law will be applied despite business mongrels who flaunt their money left and right, corrupt officials who enable them,  and those who tout “making a living” as an excuse for almost anything, similar to the much-used Egyptian word “ma’lesh” loosely translated into “it’s okay, don’t worry about it”.

Well, ma’lesh, our neighbourhood is fighting back.

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  • Noha Sayedalahl

    Commendable. I suggest you formalize your action plan in the form of an NGO it helps to be a legal entity. I have a great book on urban planning, very progressive, research from California. Would love to help you, even though I am a maadi resident.

  • sam enslow

    I saw once on BBC that Cairo must double in size by 2040 to keep even. That is just because of population growth.
    The lack of urban planning is a plague of Egypt. Corruption combined with “Fast Buck Freddies” is destroying all that made Egypt beautiful. In Alexandria historic buildings are torn down to be replaced with ugly, too high buildings with no charm. All, or most, are illegal. No one cares. A little under-the-table sweets, and build what you want. The owner of record, often an illiterate farmer from Upper Egypt, doesn’t even know the building exists. When a building collapses, no one is responsible. It is impossible to walk most streets in Alexandria, street venders block streets. They pay “rent” to someone, but this is not to be discussed. A legitimate businessman cannot thrive because he must compete with the crooks who sell smuggled goods and/or pay no taxes or other standard costs of doing business. Customers cannot even get near a legitimate shop. No one cares. No one plans. Green spaces do not exist.
    When cities are developed with an eye on preserving their historic “spirit”, they thrive and attract tourists and other visitors. Look at Istanbul, Rome, Paris, and London as examples. Even small cities like Savannah, Georgia, New Orleans, Louisiana, Key West, Florida – even South Beach on Miami Beach have become famous because they restored old buildings and kept their “spirit”.
    But then several years ago, I was expressing my worries about the over development of Siwa Oasis. A friend told me at the time, “It is the policy of the Egyptian government to destroy one beautiful place a year.” He was only half joking. Recently representatives of the government met with Siwi to tell them their plans for Siwa. It was all about roads. They paid no attention to the wishes of the Siwi who wanted schools and hospitals and a chance to prepare for new opportunities. It is the belief among Siwi that the government is just looking for a place to put ever increasing numbers of Egyptians – all without plans. All without consultation. Siwa has a very large sports stadium that has never been used. They expect more of the same from the government in Cairo that claims to care so much for them.

  • Em Moftah

    The problem started with the Banks and offices. A moratorium should be placed on Bank Branches and presently existing ones should be given a year to provide parking for their employees and customers. Offices should not be allowed in residential buildings.

    • Kim Fox

      No need to require parking for employees because people who live in Zamalek can not easily find a place to park their cars. Public transportation is a more viable solution – though I realize that this is a classist society and many people view public transportation negatively.

  • Mo

    You know, there are real issues facing this country outside your fragile upperclass bubble. Why not devote your limited mental energies to decrying the overpopulation of Cairo’s ashwa’iyyat neighborhoods (where the majority of citizens live) rather than bleating about the breakdown of Egypt’s caste system and the invasion of your upper class sanctuary by the hoi poloi?

    • Mohamed Azzam

      this is not about upper and lower class. Every citizen should have a say in what their neighborhood transforms into. Yes, there are bigger problems facing Egypt, and yes they can contribute to solving them, but that doesn’t mean they should neglect their most basic of needs, proper living!

      • Mo

        I agree that citizens have an interest in shaping their environment. But devoting column inches to the living needs of the 1% is an insult to the vast majority of Egyptians who live in far worse conditions. I would like to think this is revealing only of the priorities of this columnist but unfortunately, as your comment seems to suggest, this is reflective of wider views in upper and middle class Egyptian society.

        • Guest

          Well think about it this way: you will have to solve the problems 99% instead of 100%… that would be more than insulting… you could have spared 1% but the 99% were not enough… it had to be all of it!

          • Mo

            That literally made no sense. Maybe write in your mother tongue so I can translate it.

    • Mandarina Naguib

      So what are you suggesting… everyone becomes a member of the “hoi polloi”? That anything spared from “uglification” should be left to decay? Besides, why are you assuming that the writer, while devoting her “limited mental energies” to save a district struggling to keep its standards & avoid falling, is not ALSO concerned about the rest of the country and its pressing issues? “The Invisible Hand” concept suggests that individuals’ efforts to maximize their own gain ultimately benefits society as a whole, regardless of their intentions being altruistic or otherwise! Rhetorical “sloganish” comments, on the other hand, don’t!

      • Mo

        What I am suggesting, as I said in my original comment, is that this newspaper cover the issues of Cairo’s ashwa’iyyat neighborhoods ahead of whinging about crowded sidewalks in Zamalek. Regarding your comment though, how is spouting off about invisible hands (I don’t know why you’ve capped that or put it in quotation marks, it’s a metaphor, not a proper noun) not “sloganish”? You literally just parroted a slogan. You want to lecture me on Adam Smith? Have you even read The Wealth of Nations? Tell me what would Smith say about the issue of crowded sidewalks? Why don’t we discuss the the issue from a Lockean perspective of property too while we’re at it? Or perhaps you’re more a libertarian in the vein of Robert Nozick? Or were you just spouting a slogan?

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