This essay series examines the roles that community-based organizations (CBOs) have played as active participants in the process of "governing" megacities whether in service delivery, risk mitigation, or the creation of livelihood and other opportunities. More ...

Greater Cairo, with its 20 million people,[1] faces wide-ranging challenges regarding its living conditions, as is typical of Southern megacities. One key factor is that 70 percent of Cairenes live in informal settlements.[2] Crisis in urban governance[3] has thus become chronic in Cairo. The situation has been caused by growing socioeconomic inequalities, strengthened by the government’s economic privatization policies and favoring the elites and their gated communities,[4] The Mubarak regime ignored the growing slum-related problems, and certain public works projects were put on hold for about three decades.[5]

O’Donnell[6] reminds us that problems are solved based on how they are framed and discussed. For instance, by employing a new perception of informal housing, the commonly identified “problem” of urban informality can be turned around: the phenomenon per se is not a problem but rather a question of values, recognition, and rights of the residents of informal settlements.

Why is Urban Collective Action Rare?

Good urban governance implies functional transformations in the megacity administration to strengthen civil participation in planning and decision-making processes. However, the central urban governance principles of public participation and partnerships between various actors face complex difficulties at the operational level. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) established by development professionals or wealthy citizens, rather than community-based organizations (CBOs), seem to serve as the main civil society actors.[7] Why has collective action in urban quarters been so rare in Cairo?[8] Despite good governance rhetoric, institutionalized forms of public participation are often lacking, and public hearings, for instance, can be merely cosmetic.

In Cairo’s neighborhoods, collective action at the street level may be hindered by societal barriers, resulting in a phenomenon that could be labeled “urban silence.”[9] To be sure, the central government’s lack of motivation, combined with authoritarian bureaucracy, corruption, and tight security rules, can inhibit the formation of civil society organizations and movements. Urban silence can also stem from peoples' expectation that the administration will eventually fulfill its duty to provide them with proper services and infrastructure. In the informal settlements, the uncertain land tenure situation discourages people from investing in the living environment. If the public sector cannot provide basic services and infrastructure, communities naturally attempt to help themselves, such as with unauthorized tapping into electrical wiring. While the good governance approach, in turn, assumes the self-organization of civil society groups, it simultaneously fails to recognize the prevailing urban silence phenomenon. Hence, instead of the collective self-organization of civil society, what happens is individual and collective efforts of self-help.

Constraints on Collective Action During the Mubarak Era

The environmental governance case of ‘Izbat Makkawi provided by Tewfik (1997)[10] serves as an example of the constraints that local communities have faced when attempting to organize collective efforts in order to tackle a problem, and to resist powerful urban actors. The case from the late 1990s illustrates the typical limitations upon as well as the accomplishments of community participation within the country’s wider political context during the Mubarak regime.  

‘Izbat Makkawi is a low-income industrial area in northern Cairo where the residents struggled for a decade to close down polluting lead-smelting factories. The area developed from an agricultural village, an urban growth path typical in Egypt. In the 1920s, the area started to experience in-migration by people seeking low-income informal housing. Industrial workshops soon sprouted up. Large, heavily polluting industrial factories dominated the area as a result of the unplanned urban development process. Residents banded together in an effort to stop the pollution. Because they lived in the same neighborhood, volunteers were able to meet informally in the mosque after prayers, in coffee shops, or on special occasions in order to discuss possible actions and the latest developments. The group attempted to employ nearly all possible peaceful means: protest letters to the government, media outreach, the assistance of doctors, the citation of scientific evidence, and political party lobbying in the parliament. A protest blocking the entrance to one of the smelters in order to get the attention of the police (who would then be forced to investigate) was out of the question, since the emergency law under Mubarak gave police the power to jail protesters. Tewfik identifies several obstacles that the community had to overcome in the collective action. At the local level, bureaucracy was the first impediment: protest letters took months to get from one government department to the other. Second, the factory owners attempted to bribe the leader of the movement. Local officials were bribed to delay the implementation of factory closure orders by the governorate. Collective efforts to close down the smelter eventually succeeded, for a variety of reasons. The main point is that the community demands did not constitute a threat to the formal power or interests of the state. The community chose to pursue painstaking legal and peaceful methods in communicating their needs to officials, instead of physical resistance or confrontation. Thus, according to Tewfik, collective participation acted as a buffer against possible acts of violence.

The process of collective action that Tewfik found in ‘Izbat Makkawi greatly resembles my field research findings with regard to the Association for Health and Environment (AHED), which ran an environmental campaign, also against lead-smelting factories, in the densely populated urban quarters of El Waily, in central Cairo.[11] Alarming results from a professional volunteer’s study on air pollution were disseminated extensively among the community, other NGOs, the media, the People’s Assembly, the Cairo governor, and the Environmental Agency. While the Environmental Agency did not respond to the results, the governor issued a decree closing the lead factories for the first time since they opened in 1972. However, one of the factories suddenly reopened, prompting the residents and local council representatives to march to the site and try to close the factory. But they were unable to do so, because the owner had deliberately removed the factory’s doors. Residents kept up pressure on the governor, who eventually managed to shut down the factory. AHED’s success in this case resulted from three tactics: taking legal action against industries; putting pressure on members of Parliament; and receiving help from the governor of Cairo.

External Actors and Community Development

Since urban silence often prevents local communities from taking action, intervention or assistance from an outsider, such as an NGO, is often needed to address and alleviate urban community problems. NGOs possess certain assets and resources that CBOs do not, such as technical know-how and networks with various national and international bodies, and thus better access to funding.[12]

Furthermore, because of city administrations’ incompetence and lack of motivation, international donors have often preferred to support urban development efforts directly through NGOs. They have been regarded not only as partners in urban governance but, in some cases, as alternative actors to local governments. This gap-filler NGO situation is problematic for several reasons. First, when civil society organizations are expected to tackle local community concerns in sectors that belong to the sphere of local administration, the latter can continue evading its responsibilities. Second, although NGOs would be committed to carrying out these tasks, they may not necessarily possess sufficient resources. Third, as long as there are “outsiders” involved in local community development schemes, the continuation and ownership of the endeavor remains uncertain.

There are new slum development schemes for Cairo. For instance, the army has announced a plan to build 600,000 housing units for people living in slums, and the state is trying to develop a public-private partnership to help alleviate the issue. Nevertheless, these novel urban development initiatives are, as usual, top-down solutions.[13] How, then, should external development actors approach local communities, for instance, in slum areas? A dynamic approach focuses on the change factors in the neighborhoods, instead of looking at mere physical or material deficiencies: What is going on in process terms? What are the patterns of people’s behavior? What are the ways in which the settlement is maintained and changed? It is the processes that are the energy behind the settlement, which should then be supported according to its own dynamics.[14] Thus, the crucial question is how these new development schemes could acknowledge not only the needs of the communities, but also their collective energy and assets. In addition, urban development schemes need to better distinguish between diverse sub-groups, such as poor youth, who may lack social safety networks and who may have difficulties in joining collective action.[15]

The Tahrir Revolution: A Change in Collective Urban Consciousness

Improving megacity governance requires relatively stable political conditions, but as is well-known, political unrest and conflicts can also open up new spaces for civil society development and democracy, especially in authoritarian institutional systems. In Egypt, the 30-year-long Mubarak regime and its repression of civil society and all forms of civic activism ended with the dramatic events of the Arab Spring: the 2011 Tahrir Revolution, which began with protests on January 25, 2011, and lasted for 18 days.[16] The slogans of the revolution were “bread, freedom, and social justice,” aptly describing the grievances and popular discontent with the country’s socioeconomic condition. The people’s loud voices are no longer heard, but not because of any improvement in the situation.[17] Nevertheless, Egypt and its megacity have changed fundamentally, though the long-term impact in the urban quarters has yet to be seen. As Sims[18] observes, at the very least, a new consciousness is forming, based on “a collective will of and for the people, one which is deeply suspicious of government promises and elitist interest groups.” In his opinion, this can only be good news for Cairo.

Post-revolution analyses have been made of community-level impacts in Egypt. Bremer[19] studied whether the new local citizen watch brigades (i.e., popular committees, or PCs, established to provide security during the revolution) could evolve into CBOs for local activism. Bremer’s study focused on popular committees and other youth groups at the national and local level by drawing research material from social media (Facebook). The study found new forms of activism in the “new communities,” referring either to new well-off suburbs in the desert or informal areas with a severe lack of government services. Bremer concludes that the PCs have empowered citizens in ways that may have a long-term impact on collective action initiatives. The difficulty, however, lies in sustaining the leadership for collective action and civic engagement. Thus in order to affect the lives of local communities, leadership structures and the organizational strategies need to be developed. However, as Bremer argues, the community security groups represent “Egypt’s first experience with organized civic activism emerging from the grassroots, rather than from the action of a religious organization, the state, or international actors.”

The sudden appearance of this new street-level phenomenon indicates that there is an underlying community energy from which megacity governance could benefit. Nevertheless, grassroots-based action and participation relies on the responsiveness and tolerance of the state. Good urban governance requires collaboration between multiple actors. Hence it has yet to be seen how these actors in Cairo can join forces and redefine their relationships in a volatile political context. 

[1] CAPMAS 2012, see W. Cox,  “The Evolving Urban Form: Cairo,” New Geography, June 13, 2012,

[2] R. Kipper, “Cairo: A Broader View,” in R. Kipper and M. Fischer, eds., Cairo’s Informal Areas: Between Urban Challenges and Hidden Potentials (Portugal: Norprint SA, 2009), pp. 13-16.

[3] A. Tostensen, I. Tvedten,  and M. Vaa, eds., Associational Life in African Cities: Popular Responses to the Urban Crisis (Uppsala: The Nordic Africa Institute, 2001).

[4] See for example K. Piper, “Revolution of the Thirsty: Egypt and the Privatization of Water,” Earth First Newswire, January 6, 2014,; S. Myllylä, “Islamic Cairo Imagined: From a Historical City Slum to a Time Machine for Tourism?” in K. Henriksson and A. Kynsilehto, eds., Building Peace by Intercultural Dialogue (Tampere Peace Research Institute, 2008), pp. 215-234,

[5] M. Peterson, “Fixing the ‘Ashwa’iyyat?” Connected in Cairo,  December 22, 2013,

[6] S. O’Donnell, “Informal Housing in Cairo: Are Ashwa'iyyat Really the Problem?” Working paper, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs (2010),

[7] For a typology of urban NGOs, see S. Myllylä, “Street Environmentalism. Civic Associations and Environmental Practices in the Governance of Third World Megacities,” Tampere University Press, Doctoral Thesis (2001),

[8] I am not focusing here on traditional religious associations, such as Islamic social welfare organizations.

[9] S. Myllylä, “Street Environmentalism. Civic Associations and Environmental Practices in the Governance of Third World Megacities,” Tampere University Press, Doctoral Thesis (2001), pp. 118, 122-125,; and S. Myllylä and K. Kuvaja, “Societal Premises for Sustainable Development in Large Southern Cities,” Global Environmental Change, 15:3 (2005), pp. 224-237.

[10] I. Tewfik, “Community Participation and Environmental Change: Mobilization in a Cairo Neighborhood,” Middle East Research and Information Project, MERIP 202 (1997),

[11] S. Myllylä, “Street Environmentalism. Civic Associations and Environmental Practices in the Governance of Third World Megacities,” Tampere University Press, Doctoral Thesis (2001), pp. 225-231,

[12] For further discussion ofthe urban associational endeavors, ibid., pp. 244-259.

[13] M. Peterson, “Fixing the ‘Ashwa’iyyat?” Connected in Cairo,  December 22, 2013,

[14] S. Myllylä, “Street Environmentalism. Civic Associations and Environmental Practices in the Governance of Third World Megacities,” Tampere University Press, Doctoral Thesis (2001), pp. 192-193,

[15] See for example  S. Myllylä, “Just Mind Your Own Business,” Youthscapes in Addis Ababa. The blog of Poverty and Development Research Center, University of Jyväskylä, Finland (September 2015),

[16] J.A. Bremer, “Leadership and Collective Action in Egypt's Popular Committees: Emergence of Authentic Civic Activism in the Absence of the State,” The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, 13:4 (2011),

[17] R. Malaty, The blog of the Finnish Embassy in Cairo, July 14, 2015,

[18] D. Sims, Understanding Cairo in Revolutionary Times (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2011),

[19] J.A. Bremer, “Leadership and Collective Action in Egypt's Popular Committees: Emergence of Authentic Civic Activism in the Absence of the State,” The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, 13:4 (2011),