In the Traffic of Cairo’s DIY Highway Exit, an Urbanist Movement Grows

Residents in a Cairo neighborhood adjacent to a highway have built their own exit ramps using dirt mounds. Credit: Joseph Dana

Jamel Mubarak leans over the side of his balcony overlooking Tahrir Square and makes a simple observation: Cairo, the city of his birth, is not as pretty as it used to be.

For 40 years, Mubarak has lived in a 10-story building on Cairo’s most prominent public square. In that time, he’s watched it transform from a downtown traffic roundabout and symbol of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime to become, last year, a ground zero for the overthrow of that same regime.

And now, nearly two years after the first protest of the Egyptian Revolution, the square has again sprung to life as a center of opposition, this time in protest over the drafting of the country’s constitution and sweeping new self-granted powers of its Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, who took power democratically after Mubarak’s fall.

Looking down at the tens of thousands of protesters filling the square below him, waving flags and chanting slogan’s against the country’s ruling party, Jamel Mubarak (no relation to the ousted leader) notes that the once-peaceful square is not likely to quiet down anytime soon.

“People are angry with Morsi and emboldened by the fact that they removed one Egyptian president,” he said, speaking loudly to be heard over the din of chants emanating from the square below. “They might try to do it again and one thing is for sure, the entire process is going to unfold in Tahrir.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that Tahrir Square has emerged as a living laboratory for the social shifts sweeping Egypt’s densely populated capital city. As the revolution entrenched itself in Egyptian society, street vendors, once tightly controlled by the old regime, moved into the square, at first to sell flags and water. Flags gave way to goods of all shapes and sizes, from underwear to flat screen televisions. Today, that market has overtaken the blocks surrounding the square, with back streets serving as veritable outdoor malls, dominated by vendors and shoppers at all times of day and night.

What happens in Tahrir Square today would never have been seen in pre-revolution Egypt. Credit: Joseph Dana

This week, protesters wait in line for tea alongside people doing their morning shopping. In fact, one can encounter deadly street clashes on one street jutting out from Tahrir and families strolling down another. It’s a scene that would have been impossible in pre-revolutionary Egypt.

To Egyptian urban planner Omar Negati, the square embodies the “redefinition of the boundaries of public and private sphere started by the revolution.”

“Tahrir’s meaning,” he said, speaking from his comfortable office a few blocks from the square, “transcends the revolution and is the future of the city, the future of public space in Cairo.”

Indeed, underlying all political protest in Tahrir is a subtle battle over the control of space in Cairo. Protesters have laid claim to the square by erecting field hospitals, covering walls with political graffiti and allowing street vendors free rein to sell their goods. They have even set up their own checkpoints — in place to this day — to ensure that regime loyalists don’t attempt to wreak havoc from inside the protests.

To all this, government authorities have responded with their own attempts to lay claim to Tahrir, raiding the square with clouds of pungent tear gas and erecting walls on side streets.

For months, this cat-and-mouse game over the character of Tahrir has unfolded.

But while the battle over this downtown space moves in time with the broader fight to determine who will run Egypt, it has also created a ripple effect that is beginning to reshape neighborhoods far from the city center. After a year of observing the transformation of Tahrir, Cairo residents are rethinking other parts of the city’s urban fabric. A quieter revolution than that which ousted Mubarak or now threatens Mosri, this movement holds the power to change not only roads and parks, but the relationship between that environment and the people who live in it.

A city of nearly 20 million people, Cairo’s urban landscape is best defined by the rebar of makeshift construction. Bare concrete and steel frames dot the horizon in neighborhoods where residents simply add a floor to their homes when things get tight.

Cairo has always been a city of informal, unsanctioned construction, and this practice is only increasing. Take what’s going on in the neglected neighborhood that runs next to Cairo’s main highway. With no paved streets and flocks of sheep clogging busy thoroughfares, 20th Street seems like an unlikely place for urbanist revolution. But with no assistance from government or any other authority, this year the working-class residents of this area built their own informal highway exit.

That’s right — a highway exit. It connects other, more affluent parts of the city to the 20th Street neighborhood, long isolated from the rest of the city despite its immediate proximity to the thoroughfare.

Nondescript mounds of dirt and sand mixed with trash, roughly 10 feet high, sit comfortably next to the highway overpass, forming entrance and exit ramps. Stray cats and dogs rummage through these homemade ramps as cars and large trucks fly by. Once the dirt highway exits were in place, residents simply moved the concrete safety barriers to create their new entry point.

Underlying political protest is a subtle battle over the control of public space in Cairo. Credit: Joseph Dana

On a recent Tuesday morning, traffic on the informal exit continued at a frenzied pace, with drivers treating it no differently than any other street ramp in bustling Cairo. Nearby residents began to build highway exits of their own, marking their newfound place on Cairo’s major traffic artery — and an emerging connection to the city center.

“What I saw in Tahrir made me want to change my physical environment,” Ali El Ashraf said through a translator at his pop-up café next to the new highway exit on the ring road. El Ashraf was instrumental in convincing the neighborhood residents to build the makeshift exit. Six months after it opened, his modest café is packed throughout the day with the new traffic.

“This exit has cut down our travel time to the center of the city by nearly two hours,” El Ashraf said. “It was a risk to build, but now other neighborhoods are doing the same thing. They are popping up all over Cairo now.”

From a planning perspective, the explosion of unmarked, dirt-mound highway exits is a nightmare. But while the community-made infrastructure may not be as sleek or environmentally conscious as some urbanists would have it, there is no doubt that the residents of 20th Street have responded to limited mobility and connectivity in a way that demonstrates true community resiliency. In a way a parklet never could, 20th Street’s DIY intervention demonstrates the power of grassroots action to reshape urban infrastructure.

“When they ignore us, what should we do?” one man said between sips of sugary tea at El Ashraf’s cafe. “If people can take over Tahrir, we can address our needs as well.”

Away from the dirty informal highway exits of 20th Street, more and more Cairenes are renewing their contract with the city through bold new community-based initiatives.

Mere steps from the Nile riverfront, tucked quietly behind a line of five-star hotels, slum neighborhoods known simply as “the Shacks” have began to make their needs heard. There, residents have resorted to violence, as well as the courts, in a long-simmering fight with the city over land rights and labor issues. Community groups, known as popular committees, have been formed to combat the city’s long-standing record of ignoring the informal neighborhoods that continue to grow off the official grid.

Residents have drafted plans to bring in their own resources, from gas to fresh water, with the help of subversive elements in Egyptian society. The idea, residents explained, is to remain off the grid, yet with the self-sufficiency of a sovereign community.

The model for this revolutionary upending of the Cairo’s municipal structure? Tahrir Square.

Joseph Dana is a multimedia journalist based in the Middle East and South Africa. He is the Jerusalem correspondent for Monocle, covering everything from political developments in the West Bank to cultural events in Tel Aviv to elections in Egypt with a focus on urbanism. His print work has appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique (German, English), GQ (Germany), Salon, the London Review of Books, Tablet, the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Mail & Guardian among other international publications. Dana is associate producer of Just Vision’s East Jerusalem short film series Home Front: Portraits from Sheikh Jarrah as well as Just Vision’s documentary My Neighbourhood.

Tags: public spacehighwaysprotestsstreet vendorscairoarab spring