When Cairo rose up against dictator Hosni Mubarak in January’s Tahrir Square protests, the unsung hero of the moment was not an individual but rather a rough-and-tumble neighborhood. Bulaq al-Dakrour, a haphazard labyrinth of narrow streets and jerry-built buildings on the city’s western edge, provided the main crowd of protesters who stormed into Tahrir Square, risking their lives against angry security forces, on Jan. 25, and a large part of the vast crowd that stayed there afterwards.
The protest organizers knew that Bulaq’s young residents would take up their cries for democracy: The poor district, unknown to most better-off Egyptians and isolated by canals and railway lines from the core city, has a history of angry disenchantment with the ruling regime. It was where the revolution of 2011 began.
We should get used to seeing places like this in the news: They’re the neighborhoods built on the premise of change and progress, not static complacency. Bulaq is known to Egyptians as an ashwaiyyat (“chaotic or haphazard place”)—a neighborhood that does not officially exist. Home to a third of Cairo’s population, the ashwaiyyat are products of one of the world’s most dramatic rural-to-urban shifts, one that has turned Egypt from a mainly village-based to a very urban country in a generation.
Along with more than 70 other such self-built districts across Cairo, it rose spontaneously as masses of people migrated from the rural villages of Upper Egypt into the city’s unused land beginning in the 1970s, drawn to an explosion of employment and small-business opportunities that promised to end the starvation and tedium of peasant rural life. The government has tried over and over to demolish it, and transfer its residents to planned high-rise communities in the distant outskirts. But its economy, tied to consumer markets in the city, has kept it alive, if angry.
People here have saved for years to obtain their raw cement dwellings, whether legally or (more often) informally, and speculate on their property value, using it to invest in rudimentary business. They don’t want to lose that value. Better-off Cairo denizens, and the ruling regime, tend to view these districts as cancerous tumors on the city, breeding grounds for crime and poverty.
Yet the demonstrations cast a light upon the real function of such places. These ashwaiyyat are aspirational neighborhoods, populated by families who arrived with very specific plans for self-improvement, attempting to build links through small business and higher education into the established city life. I call these bottom-rung urban neighborhoods “arrival cities,” to draw attention to their dynamic, transformational nature. They include a great many of the slums of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, gecekondu outskirts of Turkey, bidonvilles of North Africa, favelas and barrios of Latin America.
It’s within arrival cities that the flashpoints of conflict and change occur—not always for the better. They produced the Iranian revolution, the Hindu-nationalist violence of India and much of the revolutionary violence of Latin America. But they also, if they are supported and allowed the to flourish, the starting point for a new, dynamic middle class and the next wave of entrepreneurial growth (it was the arrival-city enclaves of Europe and North America that brought us democracy and modern industry in the last two centuries).
Turkey and Brazil, both of which experienced two decades of violence in their rural-migrant outskirts and saw military dictatorships arise in response, have both been governed for the past decade by political parties—and, frequently, leaders—drawn from the arrival city, leading to a decade of growth, democratic stability and economic openness in both countries. China’s fast-growing arrival-city middle class, the children of peasants who are buying their first, tiny apartments on the fringes of the major cities, is producing pressure for democratic change.These are places of poverty, but still an order of magnitude better than village poverty, and they are built on elaborate networks of mutual support for their originating villages and on economies of rudimentary capitalism. Many are troubled or violent. All began with dreams of a better life and well-thought plans for its attainment; when things go wrong and gangs or destructive politics take over, it is usually because some barrier (physical, bureaucratic, legal or citizenship-related) has been placed in the way of those ambitions.
As junctions between village and city, between deadly poverty and the beginnings of prosperity, these neighborhoods are the focal points of the largest shift of population in human history—the great rural-to-urban migration of the Eastern and Southern hemispheres, a historic shift that began in earnest after the Second World War, is at its peak right now, and will be largely complete long before this century’s end.
This final period of transition, in which peasant-based rural economies become commercial and the largest cities grow, will be tumultuous and full of peril, as governments repeat the errors that led to decades of crisis in South America, Turkey, Iran and other early-urbanizing regions. It will also be the greatest hope for humanity’s future: the end of the food crisis, and the end of continuous population growth, will be products of the arrival city. These in-between districts were the places that transformed Europe’s and North America’s economies from subsistence, starvation-prone economies into middle-class stability; there is every reason they can accomplish the same in the East and South. Rather than squashing the arrival city, we need to give it support and resources.