Green in the City

It has been eight years since I spent the summer in Cairo and this is my first visit back. There has been a lot that has changed here, uprising not withstanding (see Jadaliyya on Egypt’s recent past, especially herehere, and here). Given that I am merely a visitor here, and a foreigner at that, it is not my place to write about the political scene in Egypt. Others (linked to above) are doing that better than I can.

Instead I have been doing my part to help the Egyptian economy, which has suffered from less tourist traffic since the uprising. The number of craft shops seems to have doubled or tripled since 2004. And the kinds of crafts being sold in the city or in the souq seems to have changed, too. Either that or I am merely noticing different types of objects. I am especially in love with the Berber embroidery and drafts from Siwa, which I would get on the bus and visit (there are some amazing ecolodges there) if it were not so hot outside. And because it is Ramadan there are additional craft fairs around the city at night, such as the one I went to a couple of weeks ago at Darb 1718.

The other thing that has been most striking to me over the past couple of weeks is al-Azhar Park. The park is built in the heart of a poor community in old, Islamic Cairo not far from Khan Khalili market. Although the arial shot above makes it seem like the park is an oasis in a midst of a concrete jungle, much of Cairo is actually pretty Green. If you drive along the Nile, for example, it is incredibly lush. Spending the last couple of years in Beirut, and Amman before that, I had forgotten how much I miss green spaces. There are very few public parks in Beirut for picnicking or for children to swing or play football. Although Ba’albek does have quite a lovely park where you can do those things.

At the entrance of al-Azhar Park you see a beautiful fountain, which children play in. The park does have an entrance fee (the equivalent of about $1), but if you are one of the families who live in the area you get in for about $.25. As a result, it the grass is filled with families having picnic iftar dinners while children run around on the playground. There is also a year-round souq and a Ramadan outdoor souq with beautiful crafts for sale.

 

It is refreshing to see such a wide, open space in the center of an urban metropolis. The weather is cooler there, the people seem happy, and the energy is amazing. I walked around the perimeter of the park last weekend right around iftar began (this hour of the day is not ideal for photography, but the images should give readers a small slice of what it looks like).

The park is also filled with beautiful landscaping, gardens (plant names are identified in Arabic and English on placards). There are restaurants and cafes and an amphitheater hosting terrific music.

My first weekend here I saw Oumeima el Khalil (photograph above) and last weekend I went to Dina el Wadidi’s concert. Wadidi sings in a band that fuses the incredible sounds of the accordion, violin, piano, and tabla (also bass and electric guitar, which unfortunately drown out the other beautiful sounds). One of the many people sitting around me filming the concert on their cell phones posted one of the songs on Youtube:

As I enjoyed the park I wondered about its construction. I thought about the people in Beirut who are working for greening the city. Every time I look at the enormous port I imagine how beautiful it would be as a green park with football fields, playgrounds for children, and areas for families to picnic. But, of course, this is Solidere territory (the best article on the history and context of how Solidere ruined downtown Beirut see Saree Makdisi’s articles here and here). The contrast between the once public space, albeit not green, of downtown Beirut and the public space of al-Azhar Park is striking in many ways (although similar kinds of encroachments on downtown Cairo were part of Mubarak’s re-imagining of the city). Whereas Solidere wants to keep poor people out, al-Azhar at least appears to be working to make all families able to access its space. Poor people may not be able to afford to buy crafts or eat at the restaurants, but for under $1 they can picnic and their children have a place to run around and play.

If only it were that simple.  I did a little research to see how this park was created. A foreign corporation, the Aga Khan Trust, financed the construction of this park. I was told by an Egyptian friend that the fees that one pays when entering go to that corporation for about thirty years before Egyptians may retain control over their own park (reminds me of the Suez Canal and the British). The microfinance division of Aga Khan collaborates with USAID on a number of projects, including one in Aswan, Egypt (they also have a numer of projects in Afghanistan and elsewhere in collaboration with USAID). It is unclear what role USAID has had in the building of al-Azhar Park. But there are some indications that they played a role. One document says, for example, that through the American Research Center, that USAID funded a part of a project in the park, but it doesn’t specify what. Another article suggests that USAID, along with the Ford Foundation, helped to fund part of the municipal underground water beneath the park.

Of course all this transpired under the Mubarak regime. Indeed, Suzanne Mubarak was apparently quite the champion of the park. It’s not yet clear to me how much of the park has been funded with USAID. But even a dime from that entity spells danger. But I am not at all surprised. This is what USAID does best: it appears to be a lovely gift from the Americans to the Egyptians (or the Haitians or the Palestinians), but in reality it is a mechanism of domination and control. This is why ALBA nations recently pledged to kick out USAID from their countries in a bold anti-imperialist move.

Egypt has been controlled by USAID since Sadat’s treacherous signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979, which gave Egyptians back the Sinai Peninsula (though not military control over it) and sold out the Palestinians. In exchange for this agreement, Egyptian people began to receive funds and imports from the United States. But it is not so simple.

Jason Hickel explains how this works in the most important sector, the agricultural sector:

To push along the process of neoliberal reform, USAid has given $200 million each year to the Egyptian government in handouts to encourage “continuing reduction in tariffs” and the privatisation of 314 government-owned companies. Furthermore, USAid devotes some 25 per cent of its budget to a special Commodity Import Programme designed to help Egypt buy American-made goods and reinforce bilateral trade.

Programmes like these have proven to be devastating for many Egyptians: they tend to undercut local manufactures, encourage foreign monopolies, concentrate wealth in the hands of political cronies and ultimately contribute to unemployment, which (depending on the measure used) has risen to 25 per cent in recent years and reaches as high as 30 per cent among the young.

Some of the most extreme neoliberal measures have been directed at Egypt’s agriculture sector. As a condition for development aid, USAid has required Egypt to shift its formidable agricultural capacity away from staple foods and toward export crops such as cotton, grapes and strawberries in order to generate foreign currency to pay off its burgeoning debt to the US.

According to Columbia University professor, Timothy Mitchell, USAid first began to facilitate this process in the 1980s through its Agricultural Mechanisation Project, which was designed to develop the productive capacity of Egyptian export agriculture by financing the purchase of American machinery.

In the end – despite USAid’s projections to the contrary – the programme did very little to help common farmers. Instead, it disproportionately benefitted the few large landholders who could afford to take out the loans, while slashing the demand for agricultural labour and causing rural wages to plummet.

To propel the transformation to export-led agriculture, USAid forced the Egyptian government to heavily tax the production of staples by local farmers and to eliminate subsidies on essential consumer goods like sugar, cooking oil and dairy products in order to make room for competition from American and other foreign companies.

To ameliorate the resulting food gap, USAid’s so-called “Food for Peace” programme provided billions of dollars of loans for Egypt to import subsidised grain from the US, which only further undercut local farmers. The result of all of this “agricultural reform” was an unprecedented spike in food prices which made livelihoods increasingly precarious and forced much of the workforce to accept degrading and dehumanising labour conditions. The widespread social frustrations that resulted from these reforms helped spark the 2011 uprising.

Similar forms of neoliberal shock therapy been applied to the public services sector. USAid has aggressively pushed for so-called “cost-recovery” mechanisms, a euphemism for transforming public healthcare and education into private, fee-based institutions. Indeed, USAid typically spends nearly half of its health and education budgets – more than $100-million per year – on privatisation measures.

This has been fantastic for multinational medical companies, as it translates into greater dependence on imported drugs and equipment. For Egyptians, however, privatisation means having to pay large sums on healthcare and education. Mitchell shows that such expenditures – as a percentage of household income – now rank at the second and third highest in the world, respectively.

To make matters worse, Mitchell also demonstrates that USAid’s cuts to public service budgets have forced the wage rates of workers in hospitals and schools below the rate of inflation, causing deep income deficits among working-class households.

These destructive, pro-corporate policies get obscured by the rhetoric that USAid deploys. According to its website, USAid claims to have helped Egypt become a “success story in economic development”, citing “improvements” in the quality of education and – amazingly – “the administration of justice” (a shocking contradiction, given that the US actively funded Mubarak’s repressive military apparatus and its widespread human rights abuses).

Egypt’s vigorous market liberalisation programme has attracted foreign investment and boosted GDP growth, but these gains have only benefited the very rich, while the country’s bottom quintiles have seen their portion of the economic pie shrink significantly over the same period.

This one aspect of American control over Egyptian society since the 1980s–in other words since Camp David–gives one a sense of why USAID is so dangerous and also provides context over the ongoing uprising in Egypt.  Additionally, and a reason why USAID is associated with the CIA in most of the global south, is because there is often a relationship between NGOs and USAID. This relationship may be predominantly financial, but it is one that can be used to foment unrest, one reason why a few months ago Egyptians also considered removing USAID.

This issue of funding and the way it is used to control people is a huge problem, especially for those who have amazing ideas that they want to make tangible. Creating a park is an amazing thing to do for a community. But whether it is a park or a farm, one has to weigh the funding of such projects with societal control by outside corporations, foundations, or governments that have an agenda. There is no easy answer to this. But there is a reason why Henry Kissinger, who negotiated Camp David for Carter, famously said, “If you control oil, you control nations. If you control food, you control people.”

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