Demography and urbanisation: From Mubarak to al-Sisi, Egypt’s changing face (Part I)
Ten years after the Arab Spring, the land of the pharaohs has gone through an upheaval: the end of Mubarak's regime, the brief interlude of the Morsi presidency and Muslim Brotherhood rule, and the military’s intervention. Both population and prices have risen. Construction is happening everywhere, from archaeological sites to the desert, marking the end of a rural nation.
Cairo (AsiaNews) – In 2011, a vast popular uprising successfully brought to an end 30 years of absolute rule under Hosni Mubarak. The main slogan of the grassroot movement was “Bread, liberty, Social Justice”.
The whole system was shaken by 18 days of a real people’s revolution. Egyptians showed courage, faith and determination. Mīdān at-Taḥrīr, Liberation Square, was the eponymous epicentre of events.
Now, in the northern part of the square, next to the Egyptian Museum, the building that served as headquarters for Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) is no more. Party leaders set fire to it in order to destroy all documents and avoid providing any evidence to the revolutionary movement.
To the south of the square lays the Omar Makramm Mosque located between the old Foreign Affairs building and the giant Mogamma administrative complex, which is in front of the Evangelical Church.
Both mosque and church served as field hospitals during the uprising. The two worked together, with the imam of the mosque praying in church and the Protestant pastor doing the same in the mosque, a remake of Saad Zaghloul's 1919 revolution against the British occupier, whose famous slogan was “Religion is for God and the homeland is for all”.
Now, the monumental Mogamma building has been emptied of its many government administrative offices and is likely to become a hotel.
To the west, along the bank of the Nile, in front of the Foreign Affairs building, stands the Arab League headquarter and the Nile Hilton, once Nasser's pride, now replaced by the Ritz Carlton Hotel next to the museum.
In the middle of the traffic circle, where revolutionaries bivouacked, an obelisk stands proudly surrounded by four pharaonic rams from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor.
On the far south-eastern limits of the square is the beautiful Islamic architecture of the American University in Cairo, founded in 1919 in a palace once built by a Greek who owned vineyards and a cigarette factory.
The American University in Cairo kept its library and printing house there, as well as its famous theatres and exhibition halls, Arabic and English language courses, whilst moving its headquarters to a huge complex in the New Cairo area northeast of the capital.
The entire eastern part of the square is surrounded by residential buildings and streets leading to the heart of the city.
A large underground multi-storey parking lot was built in front of the Museum, covered with palm trees. The whole square is illuminated again at night. As one can imagine, it is no longer possible to hold any public demonstration in the famous square.
We all know that the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in taking over the people’s revolution 10 years ago, infiltrating all strata of civil society and state administration, until they managed to take power in 2012 with Mohammad Morsi as Egypt's president.
Western media still persistently and obstinately claim that Morsi was the “first democratically elected president in Egypt.”
Egyptians know that his election, like all elections of the last 60 years, was a fake. In fact, his opponent won more support, but the US administration insisted on Morsi's election and it took 10 days before the results were published giving the victory to the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate.
We all witnessed election boxes delivered to election offices full of ballots before the election even started. The same thing happened in Upper Egypt, where the Christian presence is greater than elsewhere, and where Christian voters were prevented from reaching polling stations.
The absolutist and catastrophic reign of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, with a four-year term renewable once, lasted only a year.
On 30 June 2013, more than 30 million Egyptians demonstrated across the country, from Aswan in the south to Alexandria in the north, and in Cairo as the main epicentre, calling for an end to the loathed Morsi regime. On 3 July 2013, the military, in view of the people’s tsunami, deposed Morsi.
Much has been said and discussed about the closure of the two squares where the fundamentalists gathered, to the south, near Cairo University, and to north at Rab'a Square, but in fact the Egyptian people felt a real charge of oxygen.
A year later, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi swapped his military uniform for a civilian suit and was unanimously picked as head of state for a four-year term, clumsily renewed in 2018.
Many achievements must be acknowledged, but the main change is Egypt’s huge population growth. Today, there are 110 million Egyptians, 10 million of them expatriates in Arab countries but expected to come home someday. About 30 million live in the megacity of Cairo, about a third of the total, while the population of Alexandria stands at 7 to 8 million.
Known as a rural nation, Egypt is becoming increasingly urban. The capital and the big cities are expanding not only into the desert, but also into farmland. Cairo and Alexandria, as well as the other governorates’ main cities, are surrounded more and more by satellite cities and residential compounds.
The Egyptian currency had to be devalued. The Euro, which was worth 7 and 8 Egyptian pounds, now buys 22 pounds; the value of the US dollar went from 7 to 21 Egyptian pounds. Now the Euro and the US dollar have stabilised around 20 and 18 Egyptian pounds respectively.
The cost of living has risen enormously in all areas: housing, food, transportation, healthcare, etc. In the past two years, the cost of some basic drugs has increased tenfold. The subway ticket went from one pound to 3, 5, and 7 pounds depending on the length of the trip. The price of train, bus, and plane tickets is also quite high.
Since rents are blocked in Egypt, owners are selling their properties to developers, and many small buildings and villas are increasingly being replaced by condo towers. Their prices can reach up to two million pounds or more in the best areas.
The system of 'new rents' with limited contracts is taking off, while old rents are blocked and attempts to renew the system have gone nowhere in Parliament. In view of all this, the government is building many new homes for young people at much lower prices, helping them cover the cost with long-term loans.
Egypt’s real estate market is crazy with development fever everywhere, sometimes even on farmland and archaeological sites, like new city of Alamein; however, the expansion is mostly into desert land. New settlements have also popped up along the Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts.
End of Part One
* Anonymous and modest witness analyst, pseudonym of a leading scholar and expert on Middle Eastern issues.