One year ago the world watched stunning images of men and women, young and old alike, demanding their freedom and dignity beaming from Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The Egyptian revolution’s first remarkable result was the ouster of longtime authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak, but its ultimate end remains unclear. Though parliamentary elections have been held, the military remains in control.
Among those who will be watching—and studying—is American University School of Public Affairs professor Diane Singerman, one of the foremost experts on the formal and informal sides of politics, gender, social movements, globalization, public space, protest, and urban politics in Egypt.
“These transitions are very difficult,” she said. “It’s great on one level, frustrating on another. On the one hand, a lot has changed; on the other hand the military is still in control. I’m very optimistic but I’m not naive that’s it’s going to be easy.”
Singerman, who has written or edited four books on the North African nation, recently was awarded a $250,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to look at alternative models of housing, local governance, and urban development in Egypt.
“This project is really designed to encourage what’s called participatory urban management,” she said. “We want to foster dialogue within the community as to what their needs are. To figure out how to make those communities better.”
In pre-2011 Egypt, the government frowned on civic gatherings and organizations, even those as seemingly benign as neighborhood associations. As a result, Singerman said, Egyptians are not used to having a say in the fate of their urban communities. Cairo, a sprawling city of 16 million, has many informal housing areas. During the Mubarak regime, the government built several satellite communities in the desert. Many of these gated neighborhoods include only middle class and luxury housing. As a result, not much thought has been put into improving the largely poorer neighborhoods left in the city.
Singerman hopes to change that.
“Now there’s a different political climate,” she said. “As Egypt hopefully democratizes, politicians are going to have to pay more attention to where people live. Things as basic as having people involved in their roads and schools and sewer problems. The idea is to try and identify the assets of existing communities. These places have problems, but how can we improve them?”
At this early stage the project is largely collecting information, analyzing comparative case studies, and conducting research.
“There are very few mechanisms where people have been allowed to come together and deliberate about problems,” Singerman said. “Here we have a million different zoning boards and town councils and public hearings for people to debate, in Egypt much of that was seen as too threatening.”
Who will fill the power vacuum is one of the fascinating and plentiful questions surrounding Egyptian politics a year after the historic and relatively peaceful revolution.
“The basic problems are all still there, and in fact the economy has gotten worse,” she said. “People who have been organized before, like the Muslim Brothers, can provide goods and services. They’ve been doing constituent politics for a while. The new liberal and secular parties don’t have the same links.”
While the timing and spontaneity of the protests caught almost everyone off guard, the fact that the Egyptian people said “enough is enough” wasn’t surprising to Singerman.
“My whole career I have been writing about the power of informal networks and the ways in which people excluded from politics have been striving for their rights,” she said. “During the Egyptian revolution it was critical that some of the young people went into these neighborhoods we’re talking about. It was part of a plan to get ordinary Egyptians, not just your usual political activists, involved. You had people who were not politically active but were disgusted, humiliated, tired of unemployment, tired of getting abused.”
What does the future hold for a civilization thousands of years old that is in some ways so very young?
“I’m optimistic,” Singerman said. “I think there are all kinds of opportunities for a lot more creativity and innovative new projects. There’s an incredible number of smart women and men [in Egypt] to address these problems.”