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The Middle East @ Work

Can Cairo afford globalization?

Scott Jagow Mar 3, 2008


SCOTT JAGOW: Yesterday, Egypt reopened its Gaza border – roughly 200 miles from where I am. Egypt let in Palestinians injured during Israeli air strikes the past week. The border was closed to stop the flow of Palestinians. Egypt already has the largest population in the Middle East. Cairo is spilling into the desert.

Diane Singerman co-edited the book “Cairo Cosmopolitan.” She explains:

DIANE SINGERMAN: People started buying land, purchasing land, figuring out to build however they could, on what was formerly marginal land, and a lot of people are either lower middle class or living on the margins between poverty and the middle class, and these days about half of all residents in Cairo live in informal housing areas.

JAGOW: This is an ancient city. Just modern Cairo dates back more than 1,000 years. How does a city that’s so old, maintain its infrastructure?

SINGERMAN: Well, it’s difficult. It’s quite difficult, and actually there has been a lot of investment in infrastructure, the building of a new ring road around Cairo, the building of a metro which is very important, but a lot of that has to do with the tourist industry. For example, one of my colleagues, Petra Kuppinger, argues about the pyramids. Are you going to build a new museum that will really sort of create Cairo as an international city for $350 million at the Giza plateau, or are you going to worry about the houses that are falling down and the people who don’t have water and the people who don’t have security of tenure in their villages right next to the pyramids. It’s not a zero-sum game. I don’t want to be naive about that. Tourism creates lots of revenues. It produces lots of employment, but when people see the kind of investments and the economies that are oriented around tourists and making tourists happy, the kinds of foods, the kinds of buses, when that vision of Cairo is more important than the way people live their lives, it gets really sensitive.

JAGOW: Well if you look around the Middle East, you have these new glistening cities, like Dubai, where there’s so much investment. You have places like Saudi Arabia that are thriving from oil money. Where does Cairo fit in to this “new” Middle East?

SINGERMAN: Certainly Egyptians will tell you, Cairo is really the center of the Arab world. Sort of it’s cultural and historical legacy is huge, but the question is can Cairo afford globalization? There seems to be sort of a bifurcation developing, where you have fantastic shopping malls; you have the Media City, and Egypt is trying to compete, but Egypt doesn’t have the wealth that Dubai does, and what’s important to remember about those countries is wealth without citizenship, and so many of the people in those countries are migrants and they don’t have citizenship, and so Egypt has to deal with the fact that they have citizens, they don’t just have migrants in their country, and so some of the things that Dubai has been able to do, Egypt can’t do.

JAGOW: Diane Singerman, she’s the co-editor of Cairo Cosmopolitan, along with Paul Amar. Thanks so much for joining us.

SINGERMAN: Thank you very much. It was great.

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