These three essays form Part 2 of the Massive Urbanisation forum, collectively written by a collective of Southern urban scholars. Click the following links to view the introduction to the forum, as well as Part 1, Part 3, and the afterword.


he Politics of Maybe in Cairo

Urbanizing the desert edge has been a work in progress since the late 1970s. After the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, based upon recommendations by foreign aid agencies and as part of a governmental scheme to depopulate the heart of the city, the state initiated the creation of stand-alone satellite towns around Cairo. Concrete structures, multi-story housing, and vast open green spaces, it was thought, would attract youth and working-class citizens adjacent to desolate industrial complexes and agriculturally reclaimed desert land. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a plethora of experiments to remake the territory were conducted. But these desert satellites became ghost towns manifesting the failed schemes of a quasi-developmental state following the American and European mandates. In 1991, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pushed for an economic reform program that called for the deregulation and privatization of desert land in Egypt. The ‘geography of the edge’ is constantly reworked; the edge is continuously pushed deeper into the desert. Land deregulation opened the door for real estate developers to further reimagine the fluid desert boundary, and a set of eventualities came to deform and reform the desert’s jigsaw-assemblage. This piece aims to bring them together with the hope of theorizing these patches through configuring the praxis of their open-ended possibilities.

Eventuality 1: Spatial mutations 

The construction of gated communities propelled the desert’s expanded urbanisation. Developers were active agents in their construction and realization. They promoted hygienic open green spaces, well-ordered space, infrastructure, common amenities, and an atmosphere devoid of crime and sexual harassment. Marketing campaigns simply inverted the stereotypical images of a dilapidated city with collapsing infrastructure, no public space, lack of reliable public transportation, a surveilling state security controlling people’s movements, and a patriarchal society watching women’s freedoms. The price to buy in was hefty, initially affordable to only an upper-middle class. New loan and mortgages schemes, however, sought to increase the beneficiaries. Some developers, aiming to be pioneering figures in solving the housing crisis in Egypt, restructured the planning of gated communities to include a wider net of actors. Talaat Moustafa Group (TMG), one leading developer, built and rescaled a large number of gated communities over thirty years of practice, including Al-Rabwa (520 acres, 1994-2006), Al-Rehab (2500 acres, 1996-2017), and Madinaty (8000 acres, 2006-2023). In the 1990s, the construction of Al-Rabwa aimed for 800-1000 upper class residents with 970 stand-alone villas. By the 2000s, the area covered by Al-Rehab expanded almost five fold, with an estimated 200,000 inhabitants of mostly middle-class Egyptians. The last compound of Madinaty is designed to be 200 times more populated and popular than their first compound of Al-Rabwa In the late 2000s and throughout the decade of 2010, TMG secured a bigger plot of 8000 acres (45 kilometers away from Downtown Cairo) to restructure the gated community Madinaty, now home to 700,000 residents. This tripling of compounds in scale and size encapsulates a practice of dreaming and the temporality of a maybe, signaling open-ended possibilities of what these developments might become in the future. Indeed, they stake their viability not on the present, but in the eventuality of their continuous becoming.

These projects spread over vast landscapes required substantial mutation in form and shape in order to promote densification. Countering common expectations of “gated communities”, developers drew upon the inherited local experiences of Cairo’s inner city neighborhoods in order to market this densification. In Al-Rehab, TMG developed a masterplan with four to five floor apartment buildings absorbing more than 60 percent of the population. Simultaneously, they added a 16-acre Souq, a traditional market, adjacent to the entrance and across the wall of the compound designated spaces for cars-repair shops, car washes, laundromats, carpenter’s shop, blacksmith, food and vegetables market, baladi qahwa and shisha traditional coffee shops, and a butcher’s corner with livestock that was later relocated. The edge was further repurposed for a shopping mall complex and a medical center open to the public. In a twist of irony, the low-income families forced to relocate to the empty desert city of New Cairo in the 1990s and early 2000s became the working class operating many of these new facilities, and creating a revitalized and livable urban environment. On any given midnight, the pedestrian souq inside this porous open area of the gated compound, was active with hookahs and working craftsmen emulating the Cairene character of a lively city. Many gated compounds followed suit and repurposed their walls and revisited the notions of intermingling activities, developing two-tier governing spaces of private versus open-to-public areas within compounds. These practices precipitated many productive frictions between residents seeking privilege and physical-social segregation and those seeking a lively neighborhood at the desert edge.

Figure 7: Eid mass prayers inside Al-Rehab gated community in 2011 (Photo by Momen El-Husseiny)
Figure 8: Eid mass prayers inside Al-Rehab gated community in 2011 (Photo by Momen El-Husseiny)

Figure 9: Souq with livestock and butcher’s corner inside Al-Rehab gated community in 2011 (Photo by Momen El-Husseiny)
Figure 10: Souq with livestock and butcher’s corner inside Al-Rehab gated community in 2011 (Photo by Momen El-Husseiny)

Figure 11: Food and vegetable area taking over the sidewalk at the Souq inside Al-Rehab gated community in 2011 (Photo by Momen El-Husseiny)

Figure 12: Souq’s rooftop showing workers using it for laundry and resting at Al-Rehab gated community in 2011 (Photo by Momen El-Husseiny)

Eventuality 2: Reshuffling masses

In 2008, a rockslide of Muqattam Hill led to the death of 119 people in Doweia, an informal settlement in the heart of Cairo. The settlement is located at the foothills of a newly developed compound by the name of Uptown Cairo located at the top of the mount built by the infamous Dubai developer Emaar-Misr. The rockslide was a result of a newly constructed vast golf course, which produced geological cracks in the hill. Social unrest ensued, and Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the former president Hosni Mubarak, quickly requested the relocation of 231 families from Doweia to Samih Sawiris’s gated community, Haram City, abutting the Giza Pyramids plateau. At that time, Haram City was half-sold and half-empty, and could host the Doweia families. The original price of the land was set as a political-economic concession, and so Sawiris complied with the request of the ousted president’s wife. As of 2017, Haram City is inhabited by 30,000 residents, including approximately 6,000 residents that have been relocated from multiple informal settlements such as Istabl Antar and Ezbet Khairallah

This type of negotiation involving the reshuffling of large groups of ‘minority’ populations is not unusual in Cairo. The promise to build churches inside gated communities is another tactic for concession and negotiation that developers deploy to attract the Coptic Christian communities as potential buyers and homeowners. Hedging on the stringent state law whereby churches can be erected only if a minimum of 100,000 Copts reside in a given neighborhood, developers offered plots of land in their gated communities to Copts for building a church, should they become homeowners. In 1998, Hisham Talaat Moustafa utilized such a tactic in relation to potential homebuyers for Al-Rehab City. The location of the Church in the gated community was reshuffled to a less premium location, and then eventually built through donations from the wider Coptic community. The same practice happened in Madinaty as well as in Beverly Hills with SODIC developers at the western desert edge of Cairo. 

The incorporation of low-income and middle-class families into Cairo’s desert edges was also extended by availing residential opportunities to those displaced by Middle East wars and geopolitical conflicts. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, many Iraqi families took refuge in the Al-Rehab gated community, leading to a boom in the housing market. With the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the outburst of the civil war in Syria, many Syrian families relocated to Al-Rehab and Madinaty. They bought joint family houses, residential units and opened food shops and other businesses in Al-Rehab’s souq. Many Syrian families reported to feeling safe and being able to hide inside the gates of Cairo. They are appreciative of its massive population that makes their businesses boom. The ability to hide obscurely within the masses yet benefit from the characteristics of the populated compound was a determining factor for their choice of Al-Rehab; the play between ‘being present’ yet ‘not visible,’ ‘existing’ and yet not ‘too obvious’. There is a second life, but one that is incessantly obscured from itself. 

In 2020, the state announced that 50,000 government employees would have to migrate to the ministries' newly inaugurated buildings at the New Administrative Capital (NAC), 45 kilometers away from Downtown Cairo. The average salaries in the public sector hardly make ends meet, and thus the employees usually reside in the city's affordable informal and low rent neighborhoods, from whence they rely on public transportation to commute to Downtown Cairo, the original headquarters of the ministries. The mass reshuffling to Cairo's eastern desert edge is still being configured. The NAC's masterplan does not include affordable social housing, and the price of all anticipated apartment units are widely inflated. Nonetheless, Badr City, a stand-alone satellite town established in 1982, and which failed to boom, is 15 kilometers away from NAC. The state's restructuring and relocation are mere acts of chance, giving Badr City a second life; the half-empty concrete structures and housing units are ready to be repurposed and inhabited 40 years later. 

The ‘politics of maybe’ reworks itself from the middle. It develops through mid-range viewpoints. The eventuality of time and progress is non-linear; they do not follow the usual trajectories of space-time compression. Development forgets time. It is not path-dependent; the overlay of paths, second lives, and unplanned planning operates in cyclical rhythms that may or may not intersect. It is all subject to the possibilities of dreaming, becoming, and occupying the yet-to-become ‘spaces of maybe.’

Figure 13: Haram City at the half-empty part after the relocation of residents from Doweia transforming, adding and repurposing the compound’s spaces, images were taken in 2012 (Photo by Momen El-Husseiny) 
Figure 14: Haram City at the half-empty part after the relocation of residents from Doweia transforming, adding and repurposing the compound’s spaces, images were taken in 2012 (Photo by Momen El-Husseiny) 

he Politics of Living Massive Urbanism: Disjunctures and conjunctions in Karachi 

The massive city brings together a disparate group of people, all differentially positioned, who collectively endure urban uncertainty. Karachiites from all walks of life continuously work hard to insulate themselves from unexpected electricity outages, disruptions in water supply, recurrent political violence, everyday insecurity and economic precarity. The methods of living through and managing these forms of uncertainty, however, vary depending on residents’ class positions and their politics. Divergent interests and forms of inhabiting the city have so far worked to exacerbate the city’s problems. But as the endless negotiation of routinised disruption has become exhausting for all its residents. Perhaps the city’s rich and poor might now find common ground?

The upper middle class in Karachi have historically enjoyed a tenuous relationship with the megacity. While they are happy to live in Karachi as long as they can maintain their privileged, luxurious lifestyles, they have not hesitated to flee the city when the going gets tough. In the 1990s and 2000s, as neoliberalism came to Karachi and the city’s professional elites grew in numbers, the city's future looked bleak. Violent ethnic and sectarian politics brought the city to a standstill, threatening to derail prospects of economic growth. Meanwhile, as urban infrastructures became increasingly dysfunctional, it became apparent that formal urban planning had mostly failed. To the upper-middle class, it seemed that Karachi’s public spaces were hijacked by the teeming, insecurity-inducing majority, while the urban majority started claiming more of the city through their consumption practices. The upper middle class now found it increasingly difficult to maintain distance between themselves and the majority. At the turn of the century, those who could manage to move away from Karachi—whether to other parts of Pakistan or abroad—did so. Those who couldn’t, started bunkering down in fortified enclaves. For the affluent, escapism has thus far worked as an effective security strategy.

Today, aspirant upper-middle classes who dream of living elsewhere but are unable to find escape buy up real estate in suburban-gated communities or residential enclaves. These enclaves are developed by ‘reliable’ institutions like the Pakistani military or private developers who have ‘friends in high places’. Status conscious upper-middle class and the upwardly mobile middle class pay eye-watering prices for housing in such enclaves. They bear an additional tax burden paid to the housing societies in order to enjoy the bare minimum that they would expect from middle class urban life in Pakistan’s financial and economic capital. In interviews, interlocutors living in these spaces named security, predictable access to water, gas and electricity services, and a well ordered, clean neighborhood environment without trash accumulated on the street corners as a fundamental urban right. “It is not like we’re demanding luxury”, as a resident of one such enclave (Defense Housing Society, developed by the Pakistani military) mentioned. “We are just looking for ‘sakoon’ (peace of mind)”, they added, explaining how everyday life was routinely stressful and chaotic in Karachi. Even though enclave residents resent the extra financial costs by way of additional tax burden, the majority find it worth paying the fee. One resident metaphorically explained the situation by saying that ‘people pay extortion for protection’. 

This attitude — the willingness to pay private companies and developers money for services they already pay for by way of taxation to the government over the willingness to demand better services from the government —] sums up the long-standing politics of Karachi’s affluent citizens. The majority of the city’s professional elite remain aloof from democratic processes. While mainstream politics is a crucial tool that the urban poor use to overcome their precarity and marginality in the uncertain city, urban elites prefer to use their money and networks to resolve recurrent dysfunctions and disruptions. They are not interested in working collaboratively with the majority to fight for change through political action. The upper middle class have had far more faith in the power of money and meritocracy over siyasat (politics) and jugaar (hustle). They readily buy generators to provide back-up electricity, pay private security companies to provide security guards, and regularly purchase water through water tankers or invest in secure water supply by way of water boring on their land as opposed to engaging with the political representatives to ensure governmental support.

Up until the last decade, the upper middle-class elite were able to solidify and expand their social position by remaining both dissociated from, and indifferent to, the massive and its politics. They quietly lived their capsular[no5] [SAK6]  lifestyles. Studying at elite universities in Pakistan and in the West. Either settling in the US, Canada, UK or perhaps returning to Karachi to work in lucrative family businesses or to take up executive positions in leading domestic and international corporations. They enjoyed the privileges that Karachi had to offer them in its image as a global city, while turning away from the problems it threw up in its capacity as a megacity. The affluent externalized everyday uncertainties through additional costs. They readily paid their way through recurrent problems. Salaries for private security guards, bribes for government officials, fees for fixers and hustlers, and extra taxation to private housing associations that offered them running water and uninterrupted electricity. It was an expensive but effective way to stay out of politics, a practice the affluent perceive as a dirty and polluted.

However, the situation has started to change 2018 onwards (since the last general election). With exponentially rising living costs, restrictions on global visa regimes, and a crackdown on VIP culture, the upper-middle class find themselves increasingly restricted in their options. It is increasingly becoming unaffordable for them to maintain their extreme luxurious lifestyles within Karachi. It is also close to impossible to escape the city and live abroad. The massive city seems to be closing in on the upper-middle class. Meanwhile, the city itself is making its equalizing nature known to those who have violated it repeatedly without accepting responsibility for it. It seems to be getting back at its citizens, especially the affluent, who heavily invested in real estate developed on reclaimed land, or on housing developed by contractors who in their pursuit of profit, paid little attention to environmental repercussions of their controversial developments. Finding themselves in this bind, the affluent seem to be forced into a political awakening.

This was made visible in August 2020, in the aftermath of the recent floods in Karachi. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, record rainfall coupled with an inadequate and compromised storm-water drainage resulted in flooding much of the city with rainwater mixed with sewage. The floods caused indiscriminate damage to public and private property—whether belonging to the poor or affluent, or constructed ‘legally’ or ‘illegally’. The affluent area of DHA, however, became a focus of news for days. Houses were inundated with rain-water mixed with sewage. Storm water drains in the area failed, and it took authorities days to organize proper draining and cleaning within the neighbourhood. In the meantime, people’s belongings were destroyed and their premium properties suffered severe structural damage.

Figure 15: Flooding in the Bukhari commercial complex, Karachi (Photo by Faisal Iqbal)

Figure 16: An image of a flooded basement in Defense Officers Housing Authority (DHA) Phase 6 Karachi (Photo from a WhatsApp forward from a DHA resident)

This was not the first time that DHA residents had suffered huge losses. Neighbourhoods within DHA suffered from similar flooding during flash floods August 2007. At that time, the retired army officers, politicians, civil servants, professional executives and capitalists that lived in Defense Housing Authority (DHA) Karachi blamed the impoverished city government as well as the residents of katchi abadis (informal settlement) for blocking storm water drains through unauthorized constructions. Meanwhile, DHA undertook extensive public works to privately install storm water drains across its municipal jurisdiction. To recover the heavy cost of this infrastructural development, 27,000 plots across the seven phases of DHA Karachi were billed with Rs. 3-4 Billion worth of ‘refurbishment charges’. The land development authority justified the bill maintaining that it had become bankrupt in the process of completing the project, and was left with no other recourse than reclaiming the money from plot owners. How much of this amount was actually recovered is not public knowledge, but in any case, DHA was able to construct storm water drains across DHA.

However, when houses across all phases of DHA flooded in August 2020, otherwise apolitical residents of DHA became enraged. They started protesting the way they had been used, treated and misled by the Housing Society officials. The loss of personal property and investment produced nuanced debates on social media on the right to adequate housing and infrastructure, on the interconnected nature of urban infrastructures, on middle class illegalities and on corruption and malpractice of usually revered institutions such as the Defense Housing Authority.

Figure 17: A screenshot of an online forum discussing protests and grievances by the DHA residents (Photo from Voice of DHA Karachi)

The emerging discussion and debates during street protests by DHA residents and on social media made it clear that the upper-middle class were tired of their heavy investment in undemocratic private institutions that allowed the City Government to escape its responsibility towards its urban citizens. The very public protest by a collective of DHA residents was testament that the upper-middle class had had enough. DHA residents put up a list of 22 demands to the Defense Housing Authority. The demands mainly asked for accountability, environmental consideration, effective and efficient public provision of municipal services, and good governance. After years of shying away from publicly participating in political activities, the upper-middle class took themselves out of their comfort zone. They took to the streets, appropriating forms and expressions of protest popularly adopted by the urban poor. In protesting against a military-backed estate management agency, DHA residents faced the threat of police brutality as well as the possibility of arrest. Meanwhile, DHA residents also received public critique once their list of demands was made public on social media. Their demands included a clause asking for the removal of beggars from street signals. This ignited furious debates on Facebook and Twitter, where people were keen to call out the classist attitudes of DHA residents towards the public. DHA residents who were previously ignorant of why their classist positions were problematic were publicly educated on this issue through heated dialogue on Facebook forums and twitter threads. The DHA residents leading the protests eventually removed the clause from their list of demands.

Figure 18a: A protest by DHA residents, 3rd September 2020 (Photo by Usman Hashim)

Figure 18b: A protest by DHA residents, 3rd September 2020 (Photo by Usman Hashim)

While this example of political action is limited in its spatial scale and political scope, it signals emerging possibilities of cross-class and cross-cultural solidarities that have been slowly brewing in Karachi over a couple of years. The slow violence of living in a traumatic city is generative of feelings of being overwhelmed and exasperated. Emerging structures of feelings have allowed collective interests to converge, especially during the current pandemic, when people realize how their futures are relationally intertwined. As digital forms of engagement become more common during pandemic conditions, a new public is now forming. One that convenes over physical as well as digital space. In a country that is increasingly stifling freedom of protest and where forms of democratic exchange are currently limited by cultural and social norms, social media has emerged as an especially powerful tool for organizing political action and engaging debate. Not just as a medium of communication, but also for the forms of communication it makes possible. Poetry, images, memes are developed and widely circulated among different platforms like YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp. These combine to build a structure of feeling that extends across (and perhaps sometimes problematizes) existing racial, gendered, class, and cultural norms or even divides. As these platforms become widely ‘democratized’ due to mass availability of mobile phones and free access to some of these apps, a new public space of interaction and negotiation has started to emerge in the massive city.  

Figure 19: A list of demands put up by the DHA residents on an online forum (Photo from Voice of DHA Karachi)

While a lot of work needs to be done to repair exiting mistrusts and divides across the massive city, there is reason to be optimistic. The political awakening of the previously a-pathetic upper-middle class, coupled with the expansion of new forms, mediums and spaces of democratic exchange allows possibilities of political convergence between disparate trajectories of urban politics. Perhaps the very being of the massive city can produce conjunctions between disjunctive groups.


rom Shantytowns to the Mass Housing Block– Mass Urbanisation and the Politics of Maybe in Istanbul

The term ‘poverty-in-turn’ was introduced by Turkish urban scholars Melih Pınarcıoğlu and Oğuz Işık (2008) to describe the wave of migration from rural areas or towns of Anatolia (Asian part of Turkey) to metropolitan cities such as Istanbul in 1980s and 1990s. It describes the following process: newcomers to Istanbul in 1980s and 1990s first rented an apartment in a squatter building. After saving some money, they constructed their own squatter housing. Then once they became more familiar with city life, and found better jobs and saved more money, they started to add new floors to their buildings and converted them to 4 to 5 floor houses to rent or sell the other floors to other new comers and generate income. The tenant new comers in turn constructed their own houses and added new floors later on. Thus, established migrants enjoying opportunities in the informal labor and real estate markets, exploited newcomers in a continuing cycle. 

This cycle of hope, an eventuality and an opportunity, fascinated millions of migrants who left their towns and villages and arrived and settled in Istanbul for a better life in late 1980s and the early 1990s.Poverty-in-turn was an upward mobility strategy of the poor new migrants to escape poverty during 1990s.

That is to say, housing was ‘informally’ financialized even when half of Istanbul’s population was living in shantytowns in 1990s. To be sure, this was possible thanks to the populist politicians, which in the Turkish case were politically ‘Islamists’ turning a blind eye to those who occupied public land and constructed squatter housing. In elections, those populist policies helped to garner strong political support and get votes from the shantytowns.

The local municipalities governed by the political Islamist Welfare Party in the 1990s distributed illicit title deeds to shantytown residents. While such title deeds did not have any formal status, they helped the builders of squatter housing to buy or sell their house in an informal way or to apply for municipal services and help. To be sure, that was a symbolic challenge by the opposition parties that controlled power from the local municipalities to the national government at the time. Thus, the populist opposition introduced itself as the protector of the shantytown residents, who were neglected by the mainstream political parties for years.

Figure 20: Demolished Squatters and High-Rise Buildings in the Background (Photo by K. Murat Güney)

From 2004, though, almost all municipalities that were controlled by the Welfare Party throughout Turkey, including Istanbul, came to be replaced by the new Islamist, and this time, neoliberal Justice and Development Party. Although most members of the Welfare Party and Justice and Development Party were the same people, and the transition resembled a mere change in nomenclature, the economic and political approach in the Islamist movement in Turkey changed dramatically. Whereas the old-school Islamist Welfare Party was an Islamist Party in opposition that helped the poor by creating new informal channels for upward mobility, the new Islamist Justice and Development Party was a party in power that controlled the national government in Turkey since 2002.

With the coming to power of the neoliberal and Islamist Justice and Development Party, the priority in urban administration became the formalization of mass housing development. The new administration took strict measures against all illegal and informal construction activities. Since then, most of the squatter housing has been converted to formal mass public housing projects, an enormous urban transformation.

Figure 21: Ongoing construction of massive public housing complex in a suburban district of Istanbul (Photo by K. Murat Güney)

The scholars who introduced the term poverty-in-turn claimed that, “since the informal markets of squatter housing and labor as the major veins for survival in urban conditions have been faced with a block, the sound of chronic poverty or poverty traps have been more familiar in Sultanbeyli” –Istanbul. (Işık and Pınarcıoğlu, 2008, 1366). However, in actuality, that was not what had happened.

The neoliberal governments, construction companies, and financial institutions in Turkey deploy public mass housing projects as a major driver of modernization, economic development and growth. They introduce these projects located in the urban peripheries as an opportunity for low-income households, formerly settled in informal self-built housing, to become formal homeowners, enjoying a better quality of life, and inclusion in the formal mechanisms of the market. Indeed, such economic growth resulting from urban transformation and construction also benefits individual land- and home-owners. Housing and urban development, which bolster home and land prices and provide homeownership opportunities for low and lower-middle income groups, continue to be an important source of aspiration for the impoverished segments of the society and are still largely seen as an opportunity for upward mobility. Whereas the mechanisms have changed, the dream of ‘maybe’ being rich thanks to mass-urbanisation has survived. As a result, poor segments of the society continue to support the governing neoliberal Islamist party’s massive housing development and mega-projects.

Figure 22: The dream of “maybe” being rich thanks to mass-urbanisation (Photo by K. Murat Güney)

To be sure, although rapid urban development created economic growth and capital, the distribution of this added value is highly unequal. Construction-based development differentially affects populations according to their ownership rights and class positions. The unequal distribution of the benefits and harms of such development includes capital accumulation on the one hand and rising indebtedness on the other. However, it is still important to observe how the politics of the maybe and eventualities help consolidate the power of populist politics that successfully introduced mass-migration and mass-urbanisation as an opportunity for upward mobility. A household may now own or exert nominal control over one of hundreds of thousands of “units”, which unlike the holdings of the past may not be sufficiently fungible to constitute a real asset - a bargaining chip for future attainments. In return, the politics of the maybe converts low-income home buyers and poor segments of the society into long-term debtors and subordinates them to the mechanisms of financial discipline.