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"Mini Cities" Behind Big Walls: How Gated Communities are Splitting Egyptian Society

Gated communities have changed the country as we once knew it.

Gated communities, AKA compounds, keep poppin’ up on the outskirts of Cairo, and unless you’re blind, you’ve seen them advertised on the roads and highways of the city. You would think that these billboards are advertising paradise; highly secure residential areas grouped in several blocks, with security guards blocking the entrance to each gate. They often contain lush gardens, swimming pools, sports facilities, a club house, supermarkets, laundry services, restaurants, retail stores, and even golf courses! They are mini cities, so to speak. It really makes one feel like they’re not in Cairo. These communities became greatly popular at the turn of the millennium, as people grew frustrated with the big city chaos, noise, and pollution. This trend is still very much alive among Cairo’s affluent and middle class, and it’s only growing in popularity.

 

But these gated communities underline major issues in society today. The gulf in class in Cairo is already massive and still growing, and the development of these residences behind closed walls does nothing to alleviate this. These compounds, generally, are not residential areas that many can afford to live in. They're a place where Cairo’s middle class and elite go to avoid the stress of big city life. In turn, this immediately creates a division in classes, where affluent people are almost placed in a separate city, not only due to the fact that these compounds are a mini-city in themselves, but also because they are built in the desert, and are therefore located far away from the main city.

Picture Mahmoud. Mahmoud is on the way home from his high-earning finance job in Mohandessin, chilling in his air-conditioned BMW 7 series, driven by his long-standing chauffeur who knows all the shortcuts back to the wealthier side of town. He's heading west, to the clean, lush and serene gated-city that Mahmoud loves to call home. Too busy watching a movie on his tablet, he barely even takes a glance at the unknown, a world where peasants are packed like sardines in a never-ending universe of bricks, old state housing projects, and self-made apartments. When Mahmoud does decide to take a look outside, on the borders of the highway, he remembers why he decided to get out of the city, and move far away from what he believes is a backwards world that makes Cairo look ugly. 

Ironically, while these real estate developments are trying to move Cairo forward, they are only moving society backwards, creating a further gulf in classes as well as a negative sentiment between Cairo’s elite, and those that have never crossed those massive compound walls.

These Khaleej inspired baroque buildings, imposing balconies, and neoclassic colonnades are located behind big walls, creating a kind of curiosity or even mystery to those who can’t afford it. Those living on one side of the wall equate leaving the gates to chaos and disorder, while those on the other side are curious about what’s behind that wall. You know how it is. You want what you can’t have. Those who have been walled off would do whatever it takes to taste the luxuries behind that wall, luxuries that are advertised in massive billboards and newspapers, where they’re made to look like paradise.The middle class and elite move from city streets to secure, big walls in the desert create the same kind of spectacle as driving a tinted-glass Bentley through the city’s frequent traffic jams. Though it would be a leap to call it showing off, it naturally emits a sense of looking down your nose at society, so to speak. Aida Zouhir, who lives in a popular compound in the west of the city, does not support the division of classes. “I don’t like the separation of classes. In certain compounds, they have villas for the wealthy, but also smaller flats for those who are less well off. Of course, it’s not exactly for the lower class, but more like the middle class.” Sharif Sayad, who lives in Katameya Heights, a lavish gated community that looks more like a golf resort than a compound, is not really concerned with the division that these communities create. “This is the normal way of life. You cannot put all people together. If you want to pay more for the safety of your child and for relaxation, it’s your right."

This is the normal way of life. You cannot put all people together. If you want to pay more for the safety of your child and for relaxation, it’s your right.

Rather than simply selling beautiful residences in calm, gated communities, real estate developers today are selling safety; a safety that comes with guarded walls, security guards and a secret password. Well, I made up that last part, there is no secret password, so to speak, though you do have to mention who you’re visiting and exchange a few pleasantries with the bored security guard before entering this magical kingdom. Those living in one will be familiar with the obligatory hand wave upon entering the compound's gates. Aida, who lives in a gated community since January, explains why she picked to live in a compound. “I like living in a gated community, mainly due to security as I am a woman living alone. So I’m happy to have a security guard in front of the gate, as well as roaming the gardens outside.” Safety has become one of the main priorities of residence life in Cairo, following a revolution that changed society as Cairenes once knew it.

Gated communities clearly empower the division of classes, but they also split the city geographically – the west, where many of these compounds are located, the center, and the east. Amina Kandil, who also lives in a compound on the west side of Cairo, explains, “I don’t think there is a division of classes between compounds and downtown, because you have a lot of very affluent people who still live downtown, like in Zamalek and Mohandessin. And also vice versa; my compound, for example, is not expensive. So it’s not really a division of rich and poor, but more of a division in neighbourhood.”

“West Cairenes” are really comfortable in their environment, not only in their compound, but also in close proximity to it, where many shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars exist. Due to this comfort, West Cairenes no longer need to go far for entertainment, and those living in the center or the east will rarely socialize in the west due to how far it is. This creates a socializing circle among one’s own class and clans, in what author of “Cairo as Neoliberal capital” Eric Denis calls “elite micro-collectives”. It subconsciously creates a feeling of superiority, though one living behind such walls would not like to admit it.

Clearly, the problem with gated communities is division, as well as a perverse sense of superiority that comes along with it. Ironically, while these real estate developments are trying to move Cairo forward, they are only moving society backwards, creating a further gulf in classes as well as a negative sentiment between Cairo’s elite, and those that have never crossed those massive compound walls. Cairo has been altered; living in a gated community really makes you feel like you don’t live in the city, and unfortunately, that’s what many people want to feel today.

Main image from Thinking Art 


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