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4 August 2015 / marouhhussein

[BOOK REVIEW] On Sims’s Egypt’s Desert Dreams: How will Egyptians Dream after 2011?

January 25, 2011 inaugurated a revolution in Egypt not only against the past regime’s 30 years of Emergency Law but also against a military-mindset legacy that dictated social and economic development policy for over 60 years. Starting with the post-colonial dream to build a socialist republic and an equitable economy under Nasser upon the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, and continuing with the liberal and neoliberal political and economic landscapes under Sadat and Mubarak, respectively, a major tenet of Egypt’s legacy has been colonizing the desert as the new frontier of development outside Egypt’s old Nile Valley. The evident spatial outcome of this dream has been vast and sporadic urbanization in the publicly-owned, tabula rasa space of Egypt’s desert against “an ecological-demographic narrative of crisis” in the Valley (65).

Fig. 1 Is the new Capital City project a zone that “render[s] urbanism as a service industry?” [Image source: The Capital Cairo, 2015; read more about zones and extrastatecraft from Keller Easterling in Places Journal, 2014]

Fig. 1 Is the new Capital City project a zone that “render[s] urbanism as a service industry?” [Image source: The Capital Cairo, 2015; read more about zones and extrastatecraft from Keller Easterling in Places Journal, 2014]

In his new book Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster? (AUC Press, 2014), David Sims scrupulously illustrates the many, mostly unsuccessful and unproductive processes of colonizing and developing the desert. He argues that over half a century of envisioning Egypt’s desert as the Promised Land has resulted in a process that is socially, economically and technically unstable and that has disregarded the socio-ecological history and complexity of the Nile Valley (see Figure 1). In return, Sims invites concerned stakeholders to quit on such “megafantasies” (52) and an “Egyptian Dream” (63) that is unbeneficial to a majority of Egyptians (youth graduates, unemployed labor, low-income groups), and he instead poses a series of questions about viable strategies and policies for social, economic, and environmental justice in post-revolution Egypt.

Sims’s long and hands-on planning experience in Egypt is insightful. His book connects different dimensions of social and economic development to spatial expansion policies and practices in the desert: Western, Eastern, and Sinai. It thoroughly and lucidly details how these expansion projects within the sectors of agriculture, urbanization, industry, mining, and tourism negatively affect the desert landscape (incomplete/unsustainable reclamation), public funds (inefficiency, redundancy, and corruption), and future possibilities (non-renewable resources, opportunity lost). The book is a valuable resource as a study that compiles available and accessible statistical data, cartographic and aerial imagery sets, government pronouncements and popular media analysis on the subject. Sims masters a logical and political sense out of the numbers and statistics relevant to objectives of social, economic, and environmental justice. A useful complimentary to this work is Sims’s earlier book Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City out of Control (AUC Press, 2012).

Fig. 2 “It’s just a bunch of crazy figures,” [Sims] says of the plans for Egypt's new capital. “I think it’s just desperation. It will be interesting to see if anything comes of it, but I rather doubt it.” [Image source: SOM, 2015; read the full feature in Guardian Cities]

Fig. 2 “It’s just a bunch of crazy figures,” [Sims] says of the plans for Egypt’s new capital. “I think it’s just desperation. It will be interesting to see if anything comes of it, but I rather doubt it.” [Image source: SOM, 2015; read the full feature in Guardian Cities]

The book’s policy-oriented approach reflects Sims’s methodology as a planner recognizing spatial urban expansion in the desert as a platform for national, multi-sectoral development. It also focuses on the institutional dimensions of the political economy of desert development where public policies facilitate entrepreneurial initiatives of individual citizens or private corporations, including some informal reclamation of land (wad’ al-yadd). Such a rigorous analysis of public policy and statecraft constitutes an impeccable platform for future research on the role and practices of civil society and citizens in negotiating and/or assimilating public policy, both as partners and/or targeted stakeholders.

In the same light, Sims’s work opens up avenues for a number of theoretical questions, such as: what about the failure of the Modernist nationalist project in Egypt, the notion of sovereignty and landed-citizens in a post-colonial geography, the rise and fall of the welfare state, socialist and post-socialist property relations, governance under Military and Emergency Law, and path-dependent development legacies? One important extension of this work would be a dual comparative perspective of Egypt’s desert dreams during the second half of the 20th century: one with oil-based desert development in East Asia and Africa, and another with security-based economic competition with the modern emergence of the state of Israel in the region.

Egypt’s Desert Dreams is a valuable and timely analysis of Egypt as a country and a nation-state, and of the status of planning and institutional governance in the Arab region. Most importantly. Sims’s main question “what is social justice to public land management” (277) remains an urgent priority for public policy in Egypt and the world.

Fig. 3 Aerial sections of Egypt’s Nile Valley and Delta show “rhizomatic” socio-ecological complexity of social, urban, technological and environmental networks that cannot be simply relocated to remote and disconnected desert areas [Image source: Google Earth, 2015 – compiled by author; read more on large complex urban systems by Anil Bawa-Cavia at Urbagram: Microplexes, 2010]

Fig. 3 Aerial sections of Egypt’s Nile Valley and Delta show “rhizomatic” socio-ecological complexity of social, urban, technological and environmental networks that cannot be simply relocated to remote and disconnected desert areas [Image source: Google Earth, 2015 – compiled by author; read more on large complex urban systems by Anil Bawa-Cavia at Urbagram: Microplexes, 2010]

Fadi Shayya is an urbanist and design strategist. He is editor of At the Edge of the City and advisor with Visualizing Palestine; he previously held senior positions with Dar Group and UN-ESCWA.

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