Starting in the 1990s, in the core of Egypt’s capital city, a thriving, densely populated (now mostly working-class) community known as Islamic Cairo or Fatimid Cairo became the nexus of new projects of heritage restoration, cultural moralization, and population management. Urban planners and historians refer to the area as Islamic or Fatimid Cairo because of its remarkable concentration of intact Islamic architecture dating back to between the tenth century and the nineteenth. Islamic Cairo also hosts the seat of Sunni learning and jurisprudence, al-Azhar University and the Grand Mosque, as well as several major sites for devotion and pilgrimage valued by Sufi orders, Shi’a visitors, Isma’ili pilgrims, and cultural tourists of all denominations. Referred to on municipal maps and its own residents as al-Darb al-Ahmar, Husayniyya and Suq al-Silah this historic quarter once served as a walled administrative, commercial, political and religious, first as the seat of the Fatimid Empire (969-1171 AD) It also served as the seat of the modernizing rule of Mehmet Ali Pasha (1805-49 AD). At the end of the nineteenth century, Khedive Ismail moved the center of the city to the west, to the newly constructed Belle Epoque-era districts along the banks of the Nile.
Thus abandoned by government ministries and by its wealthier residents, Islamic Cairo came to be occupied by popular classes and their workshops; but the neighborhoods certainly did not lose their vitality. By the 1990s, Islamic Cairo had reemerged as a center of thriving, informal-sector manufacturing and subcontracting activities, all the while remaining a treasure-trove of medieval Islamic architecture. Islamic Cairo became an an arena of class conflict over globalization, a battlefield for wars over human patrimony and religious culture, and a test site for new globalizing security agendas attached to cultural authenticity and monumental heritage.
Initial security-and-development paradigms fashioned around Islamic Cairo aimed to produce economic rent for the state and profits for well-connected tourism-sector investors. The implementation of these plans exacerbated the contradictions between two sets of actors that I term the heritage bloc and the morality bloc, each driven by its own logic of securitization.
The heritage bloc brought together actors including the Ministry of Culture, the Cairo Governor, UN agencies such as UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and UNESCO, US aid institutions, powerful regional contracting business, and export-orientated national-business interests to champion tourism as a central development objective and national (cultural) security aim. This heritage bloc tended to identify “humanity” with the built forms of monuments and historic architecture, and with those consumers and visitors who would appreciate and not degrade them. It argued that to protect the patrimony of humanity, preserve cultural value in the market, and generate economic revenue, locals needed to be cleared from the vicinity. This set of agents pursued two kinds of protection: the safeguarding of monuments from the pollution brought by the working classes and their dirty and noisy workshops, and the rescuing of consumer-class Egyptians and foreign tourists from purported harassment by thuggish residents. As this heritage bloc identified working-class community members with trash, environment degradation, and pollution, it justified the deployment of a kind of emergency regime that revoked housing rights and shuttered local productive collectives.
By contrast, the morality bloc was a populist group identified with the religious authorities and other movements committed to overseeing doctrinal orthodoxy and social orthopraxy. This bloc of actors consisted of al-Azhar Mosque and University (the center of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, moral guidance, and cultural censorship), populist political groupings that focused on morality politics rather than social justice issues, and nationalistic intellectuals and journalists.
Just as the heritage bloc tended to abstract the notion of “humanity”, identifying it with the built forms of the old city, the morality bloc tended to abstract the notion of “the people”, projecting it into an ideal image of the proper Islamic family under pious tutelage. Meanwhile, both blocs demonized the actually existing people of Islamic Cairo as an embarrassing assemblage of degradations and perversions. Never-the-less, the morality bloc appeared, at first glance, to be more empowering of community actors than the monument restorers were. The religious authorities and nationalist intellectuals claimed to stand with “the people” against the moral threat and cultural pollution of ‘the market” as born by globalization and touristic commodification. However, their preoccupation with rescuing authentic local culture by eliminating spaces of contact between locals and internationals, men and women, and orthodox religion and syncretic vernacular spirituality ( i.e. working-class Sufi orders) ended up constantly reconfiguring local populations as impure, degraded and incapable of self-government.
As an architect raised and educated in an Oriental-Islamic city I have a personal obligation towards and a professional interest in those cities. Although I grew up in Cairo, I only “discovered” the old city at the age of 16. In spite of decay and change of use, I came across many things in the old city that I had subconsciously been longing for in the metropolis of Cairo . . .In my academic studies, I had learned more about Gothic styles than Mamluk, and dealt with Frank Lloya Right [sic] more than Hassan Fathy. I feel that little can be done for the old cities through architecture by itself but I hope that urban planning will provide a chance for me to make a real difference.
A narrativization of medievalized Cairo (going back to work of Thomas Cook and Edward William Lane in the 1830s) animated the (re)launch in 1995 of projects to restore Islamic Cairo as an exhibition of authentic, “original” heritage and to enable its successful reintegration into the world tourist system. Egyptian consultants for UNDP insisted, “The architecture of the zone should echo its original urban character and its original cultural identity . . .Public spaces should be redesigned, equipped, and managed not in function of their use, but in function of their national traditional character.” This overall project of staging or thematization aimed to transform the most densely populated working-class manufacturing and residential community in Egypt into an open-air museum, a model of the country’s tourist-centered security-and-development model.
The Governor of Cairo’s duty was primarily to protect buildings and clear protestors and squatters from public spaces. He assumed the power to unilaterally abrogate the rental contracts of area residents and small-scale manufacturers. He also disbanded state-organized production cooperatives, rent-control protections and local representative councils, thus liquidating the last vestiges of Egypt’s “social contract state.”
Two maps produced by UNDP in cooperation with the Government of Egypt and UNESCO consultants reveal the geography of cultural rescue and the binary separation of culture from economy. In the first map we see the diverse landscape of social and economic production in Islamic Cairo as it appeared in the late 1990s, where spheres of manufacturing, crafts, subcontracting, and mechanics, as well as historical, religious, and community institutions which overlap and interact in a vital, protective, complex social geometry. The second map depicts the projected future for Islamic Cairo. A gray corridor carves culture from economy, evacuating modern industries and working-class populations in order to create an open-air museum for monumental tourism.
In October 1995 General Security forces came to remove a squatter settlement located at the historic northern gate to the medieval city walls of Cairo. Present that day were several local and international urban-planning officials who were monitoring the scene and supervising the development of the wall and its heritage zone. Among them was one Egyptian engineer who was studying the restoration of the old city wall as part of his urban-planning training for a German university. The young man was pursuing a degree in urban redevelopment and heritage preservation in Hamburg. He was passionate about rescuing the ancient monuments, and angry that international agencies had refused to give him a job or award him a contract to work on the project. His German colleagues reported that around the time of the squatter clearance, his level of frustration and disgust rose sharply. The project, Muhammad Atta came to believe, involved little more than knocking down a poor neighborhood to improve the view for tourists. It really made him angry. ‘He said it was a completely absurd way to develop the city, to make a Disneyworld out of it.’
At first glance, the urban-planning thesis of Muhammad El-Amir Atta (reported here for the first time) seems remarkable for its technical and scientific character. Here, his is the voice of a very serious draftsman, civil engineer, and urbanist. Atta’s thesis, researched and drafted in German at the Technical University of Hamburg in 1998 and 1999, after research trips to Cairo and Aleppo (Syria), assesses economic, environmental, and cultural threats to Islamic monuments. He advocates active participation of local people in urban planning and development, but asserts that only a particular set of families within the citizenry have the capacity to represent their own culture and oversee the policymaking.
Atta’s writings are not works of Islamic moralism, ideology or jurisprudence. Atta’s prescriptions for cultural and behavioral purification and gender segregation resonate with the discourse of Salafi preaching in Egypt and Europe during his time; but his plans also reflect a high degree of identification with the technical-professional values of urban planning and architecture, and distinctly neo-liberal prerogatives aiming to develop heritage and urban spaces as globally marketable commodities. In this context, he lays out a highly technical project for shepherding populations and managing the rescue of culture. He advocates the establishment of a technocratic, culturally pure elite who would oversee a particular blend of modernization and marketization of Islamic Arab cities. His writings tell us much more about the contradictions of neoliberal urbanism and its evolution into a militant cultural-security regime than it does about Islamic radicalism.
In many ways, Atta’s thesis reflects a sophisticated advocacy of a form of second- wave neoliberalism, the “roll-out of neoliberalism.”
In the 1980s, the roll-back neoliberalism of Thatcher, Reagan and the IMF focused on slashing state expenditures, deregulating business and finance, crushing unions and dismantling Keynesian policy frameworks. But in the 1990s, as forms of violent social marginalization, civil conflict, and resistance emerged among populations rendered “redundant” by roll-back austerity policies, a new roll-out neoliberalism emerged. No longer concerned narrowly with the mobilization and extension of markets (and market logics), neoliberalism is increasingly associated with establishing new modes of social and penal policy-making, concerned specifically with aggressively reregulating, disciplining and containing those marginalized of dispossessed by the roll-backs of the 1980s.
Most of Atta’s thesis locates him securely within the camp of roll-out neoliberals, a kind of human-security fundamentalist. His work demonstrates the transcendence of neoliberalism by a concern for cultural security and gendered moral control. Gendered securitization mechanisms, aiming to assure social discipline and wealth creation defined as rent-seeking (rather than entrepreneurialism) by developmentalist elites.
Atta speaks as a socially conscious roll-out neoliberal and as a moral-security humanitarian interventionist. He depicts the working classes as creative and their economic informality as an easily exploitable form of low-cost entrepreneurship. They may need a bit of help from the state to access technology and seed capital but they will otherwise flourish if left alone. He articulates a romantic, not (yet) explicitly violent mission for a new kind of humanized security state managed by a vanguard of religiously conservative families drawn from the more devout members of the techno-professional class. It is only they who are able to give voice to all the inhabitants of urban neighborhoods and who have the material resources to invest in their restoration. It is these elite groups, emanating from “well-off conservative families” who articulate the voice of the nation; pious, moral, upper-middle-class professions who stand in and “give voice” to the general category of “human being.”
The planner must never forget that he is a human being who primarily represents the interests of other human beings that are affected, and not the interests of groups external to the planning process or even the government . . .If we think about the maintenance of urban heritage, then this is a maintenance of the good values of the former generations for the benefit of today’s and future generations. The objective can never be to turn the old city, which is a place of life, into an ‘open museum.’
Atta’s blend of techno-professional authority and deeply moralizing paternalism consistently locates “human beings” and “life” at the center of his analysis, but not as rights-bearing subjects but as what I call para-human subjects of rescue; what Atta he calls “value-protection.” This value-protection agenda aims to rescue certain populations from themselves. Atta advocates the erection of urban borders to separate traditional families from modern developments. Modern and Western-built forms and cultural-economic institutions are not seen as a problem until they violate these spatial borders and threaten timeless values.
A lot of care must be taken when planning and introducing re-development schemes, in order not to create social and familial conflicts by disturbing established gender roles in the family and society. The design of these models must never stir up emancipatory thoughts, as these are out of place in Islamic societies anyway.
Revealing the profound degree to which his thinking was structured by the classically gendered binarisms of modern urbanism and orientalist planning discourse, Atta identifies urban cul-de-sacs as the feminine, cultural core of the Islamic city, to be managed, protected, and controlled by the entrepreneurial, visionary planner. Meanwhile, he identifies phallic, high-rise corporate office towers as perversely hyper-masculine; They are described as generating their own kind of “male fitna” (meaning strife stimulated by sexual or ethnic difference) that perverts the urban fabric and threatens family values incubated in the woman’s world of cul-de-sacs and alleyways. Atta identifies figures of contamination and perversion with tall modern towers, especially when they overlooked protected, feminized community spaces of “traditional” Islamic urbanism.
In consideration of the concerns expressed in his thesis, a reader could be led to wonder whether Atta, when doing ethnographic interviews with Syrian merchants evicted from old Aleppo for the erection of high rises there, also spoke to the descendants of those who lived and owned shops in the cul-de-sacs and bazaars of Little Syria in New York City in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. This area in lower Manhattan was home to countless immigrants from Syria and Lebanon. They were bankers and publishers as well as manufacturers and importers of lace, linen, embroideries and lingerie, but mostly they were a multitude of transient and resident peddlers crowding the streets.
Little Syria was a mixed community of Christians and Muslims, with a preponderance of the former. Some prospered and moved to Brooklyn Heights and Atlantic Avenue, switching from peddling to wholesaling. But many others were removed forcibly when Lower Manhattan was targeted as “urban blight” and cleared for the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in the 1940s and the World Trade Center between the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some of these displaced Syrio-Lebanese immigrants then returned to Beirut, Aleppo and Damascus. Was the World Trade Center targeted, in part, because it represented, for Atta, a monumental modernist urban offense to the cultural and family values of an Arab urbanism that once thrived in that part of Lower Manhattan?
In 2010, nine years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a very different kind of urbanism – an ecumenical cosmopolitan one- was evoked as the vanished legacy of Lower Manhattan’s Little Syria. This time, urban memory of Middle Eastern peoples and cultures in the area was resurrected by a very different kind of pious Egyptian, an Egyptian-American Sufi Muslim imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has raised funds and generated plans for a proposed Cordoba Islamic Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan. This center would celebrate cross-cultural exchange and interfaith dialogue along the model of the Andalusian scholars of medieval Cordoba, often commemorated by the Arab historians as the Golden Age of Islamic culture, when it was at its most open, creative, and inventive.
But the project was slandered by the vitriol of US conservative demagogues who labeled it the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Newt Gingrich proclaimed it an “Islamic offensive to undermine and destroy our civilization,” and Pamela Geller at the New York Post declared it a “Monster Mosque.” This attack ended up redoubling violence against Sufi attempts to produce cross-cultural dialogue and to counter the purism of militant practices and doctrines – Muslim, secular, and Christian. Ironically, as they posed as crusaders against radical “Islamism”, Gingrich and the US media were taking up and propelling forward Atta’s Salafi agenda, culturally re-segregating city paces and demonizing as apostasy alternative community-based and Sufi-inspired urban visions.
Atta probably would have known the history of the eradication of Little Syria and of cosmopolitan forms of syncretic Arab identity, as he had performed extensive urban fieldwork in Aleppo among returned migrants from New York and displaced urban populations there in contemporary Syria. Given this, could one hypothesize that Atta’ participation in the attack on the Twin Towers enacted, in part, a radical inversion of the modernist version of urban renewal? One can do no more than speculate. But what is clear from this analysis is that Atta, for much of his career, was driven not solely by a radical branch of Islamic millenarianism, but rather by a romantic version of the dominant trends and clashing preoccupations within modern urbanism, humanitarian security, and gendered cultural-rescue politics.
The Security Archipelago; Human-Security States, Sexual Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism by Paul Amar; Duke University Press, 2013; excerpts from chapter three
Photo: Muhammad Atta and his sister in Egypt before leaving for Germany in 1998