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The Tadamun project seeks to broaden the discussion about Cairo's future.

The government of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had a vision for Cairo's future. In 2007, it put forth a plan dubbed "Cairo 2050," and among its objectives was to create wide avenues, green spaces, and new or revamped tourist sites, such as near the Pyramids.

However attractive such a scene may sound, it would mean displacing hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people from their neighborhoods, many of them Cairo's poorer residents who live in informal areas, or ashwa'iyyat. A whopping 70 percent of Cairenes live in these areas, where they build cheap housing illegally, often on agricultural land.

It is not a desire to cheat the system that drives such building. The Egyptian government's urban planning policies for the past 40 years have mainly been concerned with creating spaces and housing that cater to elites. As a result, low-income housing is difficult, if not impossible, to come by, and those with modest means must make do.

Cairo 2050 aimed to move these inhabitants from the city's more central areas to its desert outskirts and fill the emptied spaces with eye-pleasing features as well as businesses. The plan, according to Diane Singerman, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and an Egypt specialist, "would graft the skyline of Abu Dhabi or Dubai onto the Nile."

Cairo's informal Duweiqa district in 2009 (Tarek Mostafa/Reuters)

Yahia Shawkat, an Egyptian architect and activist, says that the plan stems from the government's "inexorable drive to create revenue from Cairo's prime real estate," adding that there is "no guarantee" that any revenue would be passed to the evicted residents.

Indeed, new cities have been built on the capital's fringes, but in the same way that the government seeks to benefit from Cairo's central spaces, it has sold this peripheral public land to private investors. As a result, most of the cities are unaffordable enclaves with names like "Beverly Hills" and "Dreamland."

Singerman, along with Cairo-based architect Kareem Ibrahim, founded the initiative Tadamun in 2010 to "turn the focus away from these new isolated, empty desert cities to serving the needs of the majority of Cairo's residents." As such, Tadamun's main purpose is to challenge the government's paradigm of urban development—illustrated by a plan like Cairo 2050—and to raise questions about social justice and the built environment.  

When Mubarak was toppled in the mass uprisings of 2011's Arab Spring, many hoped that the calls for social justice by the protestors would be met—including in the realm of urban planning and housing.

But while Cairo 2050 has gone through a few iterations since then, and is now named the Cairo Strategic Urban Development Vision (CSUDV), "unfortunately it does not differ significantly from Cairo 2050," says Ibrahim. "Some of the interventions have been toned down in rhetoric, but not so much in intent."

City residents take part in a Tadamun community mapping workshop (Tadamun)

Tadamun, which is principally funded by the Ford Foundation, aims to challenge such a plan by raising questions about it and making information about it more accessible to the public.

The initiative has published a series of articles critical of the CSUDV in both English and Arabic on its website. It also hosts public events, workshops, and seminars, and it collaborates with other urbanist and housing rights organizations in Egypt. Tadamun draws interest from a diverse audience, including government decision makers, the media, academic researchers, architects and urban planners, and everyday citizens.

Tadamun's more on-the-ground methods perhaps best illustrate its strategy for questioning an enterprise like the CSUDV. It documents neighborhood projects that can inform the government on how to better manage Cairo's spaces and residents, particularly by working to improve ashwa'iyyat instead of demolishing them.

Activist Sherief Gaber helped Tadamun with such projects, including a community-led trash collection program and the construction of a small library. He documented the cases in detail in order to "demonstrate the practicality of the initiatives to the government and expose how they could be supported fiscally or through changes to policy."

Ibrahim cites this approach as indicative of how Tadamun goes beyond an abstract treatment of urban issues by highlighting real solutions to Cairo's problems. The case studies show how collaborating with residents of ashwa'iyyat, rather than expelling them to remote locales, can improve Cairo's spaces and bring services to the underserved.

Yet to really empower Cairo's citizens, Tadamun calls for strengthening local governance so it can respond to neighborhood challenges and needs. Because Egypt has a centralized administrative system, most decisions about local issues are made at the national or governorate level. "State employees, unelected district heads, and unelected governors manage urban areas with very little citizen participation," says Singerman.

(Tadamun)

There is some hope in the new Ministry of State for Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements, established in July of last year. Ibrahim reports that Tadamun has been able to establish a relationship with the ministry's head, Laila Iskander, who seems "keen to collaborate with us and is open to many of our ideas." Iskander says that she "works closely with local groups" and that the ministry will develop slums in a section of downtown Cairo without evicting anyone. Upgrading the area will be a collaboration between the government and residents, she has said.

But whatever improvements may be made through change in the central government's approach to urban informality, real change may only come when more power is put in the hands of the residents themselves.

"More systematic reform of local government is needed," says Singerman. "Cairo needs more political spaces so that not everyone has to flood Tahrir Square to voice their demands."

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