Mohamed Elshahed is an architect and researcher focused on the modern architectural and urban history of the Middle East, particularly Egypt. He is also an observer of contemporary urban and architectural transformations of the region’s cities particularly Cairo. His New York University doctoral dissertation Revolutionary, Modernism? Architecture and the Politics of Transition in Egypt, 1936-1967, argues that 1950s urban and architectural development associated with Nasserism refashioned preexisting architectural production in the service of Egypt’s “necessary transitional authoritarianism.” The state’s developmental programs led by Egypt’s society of engineers focused on spaces of everyday life such as middle class housing, public schools and recreational spaces. Through an examination of press debates, periodicals, in addition to newly discovered archival material, his research investigates the role of the built environment in the formation of national identity and its place in Egyptian politics vis-à-vis local, regional and global contexts.
Mohamed has a Bachelor of Architecture from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a Master in Architecture Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Mohamed blogs about Cairo’s architecture, urbanism, culture and heritage at Cairobserver.com. He is currently a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin.
Mohamed Elshahed’s project:
Producing Publics in the Suez Zone: City, Agency and Spaces of Struggle
How has the presence of one of the world’s most contested and vital waterways in the backyard of three of Egypt’s cities influenced the productions of those cities’ publics and spaces? The three Suez Zone cities offer unique and extreme examples of spaces of struggle to investigate how urban publics resist urban futures determined by militarized states and global/Gulf capital. The Suez Canal is a vital strategic asset to Egypt and the country’s main source for constant flow of hard currency. The canal’s significance to global trade and economy has made it a particularly thorny asset to Egypt as it was of interest to global powers in the nineteenth century and a fundamental cornerstone in Britain’s colonization of Egypt. It was also at the center of a series of military battles between Egyptian, French, British and Israeli forces in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Today, the canal is a highly militarized waterway managed by the opaque Suez Canal Authority supervised by the military. The history of the canal and its relation to global economy directly impacts three cities, two of which were founded with the building of the Canal in the 1850s. Port Said in the north, Ismailia in the middle and Suez in the southern end of the canal are vital strategic points where the Suez Canal Authority maintains its offices and facilities. The history and the shape of those cities, particularly Port Said and Ismailia, have been directly linked to the colonial struggle to control the canal, the subsequent nationalization of the facility and the wars that followed as well as the political and economic policies of post-Camp David Egypt and subsequent neoliberal global economy. This project focuses on Suez Canal cities and the social movements within them to trace spatial practices, visual culture and public embodiments as ways to counter globalization, violence and political marginalization.
For the past decade there have been visions drawn up to maximize the canal’s functionality and the income it could generate for the Egyptian state. Such visions were to be financed with Gulf, specifically Saudi and Emirati investment with Dubai Ports World taking the leading role as the company to build and manage key facilities around the canal. After the Egyptian revolt commenced in 2011 Qatar pushed its way into the potentially lucrative Suez Canal strategic plan. Then again with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood Saudi Arabia and the UAE reemerged, as the main financial backer of that plan, which has never been fully disclosed to the public. This strategic long-term multi-billion dollar project is not the first that was envisioned by the Egyptian state, backed by the army and financed by Saudi and the UAE investment. Toushka New Valley was an earlier, now incomplete and failed, project which aimed to build a 300km canal in southern Egypt connecting Lake Nasser with a series of oasis to create a “second Nile branch.” That project was a total failure, which led to the loss of natural resources as well as the wasting of billions of dollars. The New Valley project however did not impact cities, spaces or publics as it was mainly through uninhabited territory. However, Suez strategic development future projects imagined by the same consortium of actors (the military, the state and Gulf capital) impacts the three Canal Zone cities directly with a combined population of over 1.5 million people.
This research project takes the Suez Canal cities as the sites from which to understand the ways in which the flow of Gulf capital into the Egyptian state’s development projects under the sponsorship of the military impacts communities and the spatial transformations of the cities they inhabit. While %20 of global container trade passes through the canal by the cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, those cities continue to be impoverished. As the world passes by communities in those cities continue to live on the periphery of national politics with restricted access to information or access to municipal systems that shape and manage their cities. Seen as sites of critical national security, the cities of the Canal Zone are guaranteed appointed governors linked to the military institution. The Gulf financed strategic plans for the Suez Zone treat the three cities within the zone as Tabula Rasa. The brief journalistic coverage of the plan shows no recognition of the zone’s existing urban centers or the role of local populations in the plan. The three cities have witnessed increased violence and worker protests since the start of the Arab Spring, events which seem to have had little effect on the state’s strategic plans. These recent mobilizations by various social groups, mainly youth and workers, in response to national but also local politics in resistance to the constant pull by the militarized state to enforce its hegemony and future vision for these cities make Suez cities unique spaces of struggle given the uniqueness of the Canal and the tenuous status of the Sinai Peninsula beyond it.
The project is grounded in Lefebvrian theory of the production of space and is further driven by the “global turn” in cultural theory and critical urban studies, which has attempted to trace the impact of globalization on the life of cities. Additionally the work of Neil Smith, particularly his classic Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space will be useful in providing a rich theoretical foundation for the project. David Harvey’s influential work will also guide this project as well as Arjun Appadurai’s recent work The Future as cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition and Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.