Great walls of Cairo: The politics of segregation

Mona Abaza , Wednesday 2 May 2012

In recent months, the military and police have erected walls throughout downtown Cairo, zoning and barricading the city in a tactic reminiscent of Israel's hated separation wall

An Egyptian man takes a photo in front of the "No Walls Street" graffiti, a reproduction of the streets behind them and the concrete blocks at El Shikh Rehan street which leads to the Interior Ministry (Photo: Reuters)

The Qasr Al-Aini cement barricade. Half of it was pulled down last month by protesters, while a roughly one-metre-high solid cement-block wall still remains. The scene is surreal.

The adjacent barricade that blocks Sheikh Rehan Street remains in place, so that athletic young men and women have increasingly made it their daily routine to climb the several-meters-high wall from both sides.

In the morning, numerous buses line up in the front of the two walls. Most probably, these vehicles transport the hordes of employees and workers whose offices are located in the area.

Then, the most striking scene: hundreds of male and female employees and pedestrians who must climb a single ramp every day in order to traverse the one-meter-high barricade before climbing down another ramp to reach the other side en route to Tahrir Square.

Then, if you walk along the fence of the nearby American University in Cairo, you will find the fantastic painted murals of artist Alaa Awad, which have now been supplemented with chairs and tables to become the newly-conquered open-air café on the corner of Mohamed Mahmoud and Tahrir.

Those sitting there appear to be enjoying themselves while meditating on the chaos of Tahrir traffic jams and the mushrooming of tents in the square and in front of the iconic Mugamaa building.

You ask yourself: Why is it that the barricades remain in place since last December unless trouble was still expected by the regime? Or is it yet another example of the Egyptian proverb Dawaakhini, ya limounah – a merry-go-round tactic aimed at inducing fainting so as to make life impossible for the capital's citizens?

In fact, Cairenes are all too aware that the entire area around Qasr Al-Aini Street, including the interior ministry, is a militarised zone to be avoided by any sane person.

And the remaining walls – with the exception of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street barricade, which was removed in February – continue to exist, albeit covered in graffiti that keeps expanding by the hour.

The blocking of Qasr Al-Aini Street, a vital Cairo artery, has made normal perambulation in downtown impossible.  It appears as if the powers that be have a master plan to torment all the capital's denizens – pedestrians and car drivers, rich and poor (this is democracy) – via the tactic of "detouring."

It's as if the entire city was exhausting all its time and energy in finding the shortest way between two points, not to mention finding a single strait street that might be used from beginning to end without being subject to detours.

The observer of this new urban constellation can immediately discern two parallel phenomena. On the one hand, there's an emerging subculture of protest (on which I will not elaborate in this short piece); on the other hand, it's interesting to note how resourceful drivers have become in finding alternative routes to their respective destinations.  

Last but not least is the emergence of an informal economy – street vendors, etc. – with its marginalised population that has gained a new public visibility. This is happening not only in Tahrir, but also on the bridges and other areas previously policed by security forces.

In essence, the city has been compartmentalised, rent by the erection of barriers, barricades, barbed wire, tanks and militarised zones. The barricading – the creation of a buffer zone between protesters and police – first began last November on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. This followed the death of over 40 protesters at the hands of police after Central Security Forces had resorted to extreme violence to flush protesters from Tahrir Square.

The military and police could only resolve the confrontation with protesters by erecting wall after wall, not only rendering mobility impossible, but making everyday life in areas adjacent to Tahrir Square almost unliveable. The walling off of entire areas eventually paralysed the area's economic life, deeply impacting local merchants, shop-owners and taxi drivers.

Over the past few months, the military has effectively countered the revolutionaries by "zoning"; i.e., cordoning the protesters off inside limited spaces of war. The ruling military regime believes it can resolve its problems by cutting entire streets off with stone walls and military vehicles.

The zoning tactic, including the zoning of Tahrir Square, is also used to put blame for downtown's paralysis on the revolutionaries. Zoning is therefore both a means of confining protesters to specific areas while simultaneously "normalising" the rest of the capital.

Erecting and destroying walls have became powerful symbols of SCAF/police oppression and popular resistance respectively. Zoning has conveniently divided the city into two spaces: a "normalized" versus a "warzone" space. It is, perhaps, an inventive way of acquainting the citizen with violence if not Balkanising it.

Certainly, walling off parts of the city brings apartheid Israel – and the segregation of an entire population – to mind. And as in occupied Palestine, graffiti covers Cairo's walls as well.

In the meantime, however, "detouring" is set to remain a lifestyle for the modern citizen of Cairo.

The writer is a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.

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