In Azhar Park on June 15, Christine Auclair, coordinator of the World Urban Campaign, invited a group of journalists, urban researchers, activists, government players and others to brainstorm about a national campaign on urban issues in Egypt.
This was in the second day of the first Egyptian National Urban Forum (NUF), a three-day event organized in partnership with UN-Habitat, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Communities, and the Ministry of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements. Among the goals of the forum is to “provide a comprehensive platform to allow a meaningful dialogue and an active participation of all stakeholders that raises the challenges of sustainable urbanization.”
The attendees, who are reported to be over 500 in number, came from various governmental institutions, universities, media and other civil society organizations.
The World Urban Campaign, a global coalition and advocacy platform coordinated by UN-Habitat, uses “I’m a city changer” as its key message in order to engage citizens and stakeholders to launch national campaigns in various countries, addressing ways of making cities livable and sustainable.
In the session organized in Cairo as part of the forum, Auclair asked the attendees to form various working groups to brainstorm the facets of such a campaign in Egypt. Groups were formed to define the slogan of the campaign, potential media engagement strategies and the campaign’s activities, among other topics.
The first step of localizing this world urban campaign was to define an Egypt-specific slogan. This discussion became a site of the contention surrounding urban issues and government versus citizen responsibility.
“Adapt ‘I’m a city changer’ to your own language,” the national urban campaign toolkit distributed to the attendees stated. “Or create your own slogan inspired by the following mottos: ‘toward the city we need’, ‘better city, better life’, ‘livable cities,’ ‘my city, my life’ etc,” it read. While the kit urged users to create their own slogans, the organizers, while Arabizing the content of the forum, had already translated the campaign slogan to: “madinati mas’uliyati” (“my city, my responsibility”).
“It is a temporary slogan, and you can change it,” one of the organizers told the participants. Nonetheless, this very choice triggered interesting debate among participants of the working group.
“I don’t understand how ‘I’m a city changer’ became ‘my city, my responsibility,” said Ahmed Zaazaa, architect and urban researcher at 10Tooba, a research collective on urban issues. “It would have been better had it been literally translated to ‘ana mughayer lil-madina.’ As things stand now, my city is not my responsibility,” Zaazaa asserted, explaining how that slogan (“my city, my responsibility”) reproduces a recurring official discourse in which the state blames the citizens for the country’s problems.
“I don’t want to relieve the government of its responsibility,” one of the participants, who identified himself as a journalist, said, while talking about the government’s lack of financial transparency, bringing to the table the topic of controversial extra-budgetary funds. These are unregulated special funds that government bodies have been accused of squandering and which are often defined as “a source of rampant corruption.” The speaker insisted that these funds should be scrutinized, reformed and geared towards local needs-based spending.
Several participants supported choosing a rights-based slogan: “haqqi fi madinati” (“my right to my city”), or “madinati haqqi” (“my city is my right” or “my city, my right”).
Mina Mufeed from the Better Life Association, a developmental NGO in Minya, raises concerns about choosing a very city-centric slogan, which excludes many poor and marginalized rural communities, he argued. Instead, he proposed: “baladi: haqqi w mas‘uliyati” (“my country, my right and responsibility”).
Many observers said that the majority of Egyptians are now living in urban centers, and that the rural-urban divide in Egypt remains rather dubious. In other words, rural areas are being swiftly urbanized and dichotomies remain unclear amid the prevalence of informal habitation.
“But it is important to focus on cities,” Delphine al-Dahdah, senior urban consultant, tells Mada Masr. “For example, we need to ask, can we even have cities without mayors?”
The issue of local governance surfaced in the working group’s discussion of the question of responsibility, with some claiming that the responsibility rests on the government in the absence of an elected municipal council. The system of local governance in Egypt is highly centralized and theoretically rests on two forms of councils: elected Local Popular Council and a government appointed Council of Local Servants. According to researcher Muneeb Ansari, civil servants and governors (appointed by the president) run the districts and the elected popular council has very little say on budget and planning.
“But if the slogan puts all responsibility on the government, nothing will happen,” said one of the participants in the working group. “We need to engage the people who are still responsible and can change the street where they live at least,” she added, proposing “my street, my responsibility” as a slogan that she thought better engages citizens.
“A campaign needs to first raise awareness about people’s rights; educate people about the tools of change, political advocacy, and then later comes the citizen’s personal responsibility,” professor of architecture Amr Abdel Qawi, who participated in the session, tells Mada Masr.
Egypt is probably among the most challenging cases in the world in terms of sustainable urbanization. Experts in the field, such as urban researcher Yahia Shawkat, show how the Egyptian government’s urban vision has rested on constructing new cities, which mostly remain vacant, and are an epitome of unsustainability.
As for making the “old” cities sustainable and livable, the challenges amass: inadequate housing, infrastructure and transportation. In greater Cairo alone, more than 60 percent of residents live in inadequate, and often unsafe, houses, which are officially classified as “informal settlements” or slums, according to Abdel Qawy. He added that the remaining 40 percent live in planned settlements that suffer from various facets of informality and encroachment on public space. “Where is this quality of life in our cities when pedestrian sidewalks are considered a luxury?” he asked in an article preceding the forum wondering. “What’s the use? What comes after the forum?”
Despite the interesting debate, the final vote on the slogan took us back to the forum’s original translation: “my city, my responsibility.”
“The overall picture of this session is predetermined organizationally,” said Abdel Qawy. The urban campaign session seems to merely pave the way to the third UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development (Habitat III), where a new global urban agenda should be drafted in Peru next year.
“But this forum and a session like this one are an opportunity for some alternative voices to be heard,” Abdel Qawy explained. “Otherwise there are no other platforms.”