Cairo: Megacity

Cairo: Megacity

A recent analysis piece by P. H. Liotta and James F. Miskel at the Foreign Policy Research Institute examines the coming problems associated with the growth of many of the world’s cities. In particular, the authors focus on an area that they deem the “10/40 window”, the region in Africa and Asia between north latitude 10 and 40 degrees. It is here that they see the unchecked growth of “Megacities” leading to, “serious… consequences for international stability, human security and environmental degradation.”

The article goes on to describe what it calls the “Leviathan Effect” of unconstrained growth in urban areas in the 10/40 window. In their eyes, the governing structures are unable to cope with the problems that urban growth poses. Left to their own devices, these cities will continue to grow and spread problems of terrorism, corruption, homelessness and poverty along with them. The authors go on to provide 10 easy-to-follow solutions for correcting this terrible path that these cities are following.

While not stated explicitly, the reference to a “Leviathan Effect” belies the authors’ underlying assumption about the state of humanity. For those that are unfamiliar, the argument stems from the book Leviathan, written by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes during the English Civil War in the 17th Century. He argued that, without government, man lives in a state of nature in which each is entitled to everything in the world. Thus, conflict is inevitable and lives become, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As part of a social contract, men cede some of their rights to an authority, a leviathan, in exchange for security. Of course in doing so, citizens must accept the occasional abuse of power by the sovereign.

Liotta and Miskel use Cairo and three other cities in the 10/40 window to demonstrate the problems associated with megacities. They point out that Cairo is a collection of un-integrated neighbourhoods that essentially function independently. This is caused, in part, by the fact that Cairo has a weak municipal level of government; the national government takes a strong hand in setting the city’s budget and picks the head of the municipal government. The national government’s focus on Cairo has produced a history of neglect throughout the other rural and urban areas of Egypt. This, they believe, has opened up a space for Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, to thrive.

Of course it would be easy, from the outside, to characterize the Egyptian government as a leviathan. It is not hard to find examples of abuses and instances where the citizens of Egypt, and Cairo especially, forfeit certain rights at the expense of stability of the state. However, the authors would believe that the inhabitants of Egypt’s megacity live short, brutish lives. Though there are exceptions and Cairo is not without it’s problems, this is hardly the case.

The idea that Cairo is made up of disparate neighbourhoods that function independently reveals the authors’ lack of understanding of the city. This sort of individuality of place would be looked on favourably in Western cities. No one faults the island of Manhattan or central London for maintaining distinct neighbourhoods, each with their own individual identity. In many ways, Cairo does this better than Western cities by maintaining many of the familiar and social ties that are absent from large cities in Europe or North America.

The authors go on to point out that while the national government maintains strict control over the city of Cairo, they provide, “virtually no public services,” in most neighbourhoods. At the same time, state control inhibits the development of a proper civil society. This is hardly the case. While Cairo, and Egypt in general, may struggle to establish a formal civil society, especially in the realm of governance and civil rights, informal services here are booming. The government does not collect trash because they do not have to; there is a private system in place already. Over-crowded city buses are relieved by private minibuses, which may actually be suited better for the crowded streets of Cairo.  The idea that this city will languish as the government fails to provide services in ludicrous. In fact the opposite is true; Cairo thrives and expands because its populace continues to step in when the government does not.

Finally, the authors contend, and this is their main point, that the nature of a city like Cairo presents a threat to the world order because it’s “state of nature” presents a breeding ground for opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. While offshoots of the Muslim brotherhood have gone on to combine with other ideologies to produce today’s crop of international terrorists, this is not the purpose of the Brotherhood in a place like Cairo. Instead, they fill the area of society that the authors see as lacking: social and political vehicles for change in Egypt. While the state may suppress groups like this, this hardly demonstrates their threat to Egyptian society or the rest of the world; in fact, it shows how effective and well-supported they are. The idea that groups like the Brotherhood in Egypt or Hamas in Gaza are breeding grounds for extremists, ignores their recent history and current disdain for many of the beliefs and tactics of the Salafi Jihadist groups like al Qaeda.

It is true that the cities in this 10/40 window will continue to grow at a pace that far exceeds cities in the developed world. However, this urban expansion will eventually be checked as birth rates decline and city living becomes more expensive. While this expansion will present myriad of environmental and social challenges, it will not breed extremists that threaten Western societies. If anything these megacities will provide opportunities for different cultures to meet, assimilate and learn to live together.