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Diamonds in the Desert: Downtown Cairo and Downtown Austin

Austin's growth has outpaced all other American cities. Downtown Cairo has historically been a meeting point for entrepreneurs, artists, and intellectuals. Both cities have flourishing tech, media and arts scenes. In their CairoScene debut, Progrss compares and contrasts the two cities...

Staff Writer

Diamonds in the Desert: Downtown Cairo and Downtown Austin

Downtown Cairo, Egypt, has been at the epicentre of the country’s political developments for some time now. A meeting point for intellectuals ever since its foundation in the late 1900s, the city would become the heartbeat of the Middle East, most recently manifesting in the Egyptian Revolution where it was simultaneously a place of both peace and war; of revelry and raids and, importantly, of poets and playwrights, artists and intellects, musicians and makers.

Violence Lointaine Performed on Stage in Downtown Cairo.

Though ownership over the Downtown area around the now-iconic Tahrir Square remains disputed, with gentrification and security forces alike pushing out inhabitants, street vendors and frequenters of the bustling district, the artistry and allure of the area remains. Through local initiatives, self-formed collectives and an energetic independent arts scene, Cairo churns out an incredible creative output on a regular basis, despite its volatile political environment. Plagued by ever-dwindling tourist numbers, Egypt meanwhile looks to diversify its economy and sees the tech and IT sectors as saviours, given the country’s relatively high number of graduates and rapidly increasing digital literacy. And it’s in Downtown Cairo – between its dazzling storefronts and bureaucratic buildings – where the two industries, arts and technology, are colliding and filling the nooks and crannies of the historically liberal pocket of the megacity.

While Austin is in its infancy compared to Cairo’s long legacy, both cities share a unique resource – an overwhelmingly millennial population. In the Texan state capital and surrounding metro areas, they make up whopping 17.5% – the highest number in all of the USA. Meanwhile, in the Egyptian capital, it’s estimated at an even more impressive 36%, and despite a questionable education system, Cairo sees somewhere between 330,000 and 440,000 graduates annually. “Austin is a creative town where 50,000 undergraduates make up the most of the population,” confirms Mayor Steve Adler, and while the figures seem miles apart, the percentages of enrolled students from the total population in both Austin and Cairo are comparable. “It’s partly the youth of our population – which is very similar to Cairo – that has driven a lot of the willingness to take risks that characterizes Austin,” says Casey Smith, International Program Manager at the City of Austin’s Economic Development Department.

Freedom Fry at SXSW 2016.

Hot off the heels of South by South West 2016 in Austin, Downtown Cairo welcomes the fifth edition of D-CAF (the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival) – a multi-venue and multi-discipline arts event that has infiltrated the historic quarters every spring since 2012. While SXSW now attracts over 140,000 annually, D-CAF projects attendance this year at a more modest 4,000 – however, it has managed to exceed SXSW’s fifth year (1991) which saw less than 3,000 registrants. Of course, the nature of events and the experience economy has changed drastically since the 90s thanks to the advent of the internet and social media, but by and large D-CAF has been an astounding success, especially amidst turmoil that has often targeted cultural and non-profit organizations in Downtown Cairo. Meanwhile, the fiscal future looks bright for D-CAF should its evolution manage to follow in the footsteps of something like SXSW, which generated a massive $317.2 million for the city in 2015.

“When SXSW started I was at university here. Back then it was three venues and a $10 wristband for entry!” recalls Christine Maguire, Redevelopment Division Manager at the City of Austin. “A lot of people that attend now think it grew overnight. They don’t realize that this is a 30 year evolution, seeded by local stakeholders. And that’s something all cities hosting events need to foster: the long term view.” This notion is echoed by Smith, who has spent some time in Cairo: “The success of festivals really is about the collaboration and the intentional pulling-together of different stakeholders and circles. That’s the case at SXSW – it involves everyone from food trucks to the police force, and everyone in between.” D-CAF is a joint venture between Orient Productions, an independent arts production house, and Al Ismaelia Group, a real estate development company that has been procuring and redeveloping historic buildings in Downtown Cairo. However, while the festival lists the American University in Cairo and several media outlets as partners, the public, local business owners and the government are noticeably absent from the D-CAF table. Nevertheless, the area surely flourishes over the festival period as Cairenes descend on the likes of iconic watering holes El Horreya, Stella, El Lotus, Felfela and Estoril, mingling with older generations and downtown locals.

Yasmine Hamdan at D-CAF 2014.

The closeness of venues and amenities in Downtown Cairo, alongside heritage bookshops, liberal publishing houses such as Dar Merit,numerous art spaces, including the modern Townhouse Gallery and legacy cinemas Rivoli and Cinema Radio, and several newspaper headquarters, have made the area a natural meeting point for Egypt’s intellectuals and artists. It was here that both Egyptian revolutions kicked off (1952 and 2011) and it is here where independent artists go for both inspiration and creation. Like Austin, Cairo’s downtown scores considerably higher on the walkability scale than the greater city: Downtown Austin scores a walk score of 88, while as a whole the city scores just 35. Downtown Cairo scores an impressive 98, meaning, like Austin, Cairo culture-seekers are able to move from one venue to another with relative ease and no need for a car. In fact, recent urban planning developments in Cairo have been tailored to discourage cars altogether – a new 1,700-capacity car park under Tahrir Square paired with a decrease in parking spots in the streets recently made walking into the center of town the better option and, in late 2015, the underground metro introduced a smart card ticketing option.

An important venue on D-CAF’s map is the Greek Campus, a defunct facility which is part the American University in Cairo. A stone’s throw away from the historic Bab El Louq market which, in the 80s, was the original hub for IT and electronics, the former-campus not only hosts music and arts events, but has been revamped into what the Huffington Post dubbed a “mini Silicon Valley” when it was leased to Egyptian venture capitalist firm Sawari Ventures in 2013, proving that it isn’t only Austin that sees the tech and arts world collide. In fact, just days before D-CAF’s opening night, the Greek Campus hosted Egypt and the Middle East’s very first Maker Faire, dedicated to showcasing local innovations in science, technology, engineering and arts and crafts with equal enthusiasm.

IBM’s Pepper Robot Exhibited at SXSW 2016.

The Greek Campus is now home to a plethora of startups and entrepreneurs, from media agencies to fin-tech programmers, app developers to social enterprises – many of which are creatively solving problems. “Other industries depend on incremental growth, but the tech industry depends on huge leaps of creativity. I believe that the growth engine of Egypt’s economy is entrepreneurship across all sectors, but technology will have a disproportionately large impact,” said Ahmed El-Alfi, CEO of Sawari Ventures, on the launch of space.  Since 2013, the Greek Campus has also been the stage for an annual technology and entrepreneurship conference, the RiseUp Summit, which, in 2015, saw over 4,000 attendees from 49 countries and speakers from Microsoft, MIT, Tech Crunch, Google and Facebook.

Given the growing culture of tech entrepreneurship, and whole streets and malls in Downtown Cairo dedicating to computing and electronics, it came as no surprise that when Microsoft CEO came to Egypt on his Middle East tour, his keynote speech was held right off Tahrir Square. However, while Austin basks in the light of its high profile guests, Satya Nadella’s visit to Cairo was wildly under-publicized. Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities are noticeably more focused on creating new cities and enforcing a top-down plan which looks to bolster the technology and ICT industry by implanting it at the trade-reliant Suez zone – an area of Egypt that looks to be stimulated by the building of a new administrative capital city nearby, within 10 years. While some praise the moves to diversify the economy in the Suez zone, others are critical of the government’s lack of nurture towards the startups, innovations and initiatives that already exist in the heart of Cairo.

Riseup Summit on the Greek Campus in Downtown Cairo.

“The attention that high profile events garner bring increased opportunity for creative people in Austin to shine,” offers Jim Butler, the City of Austin’s Creative Industries Manager. “It’s our job to make those opportunities real; to find ways that, whenever there’s a spotlight on Austin, we can showcase our local talent.” The lack of government and mass media attention towards local tech and creative output, vis a vis the frenzied coverage that often accompanies foreign visitors to Egypt, is a point of contention for many young innovators who lose out on the opportunities a city like Austin has made a pillar of its business policy. “There’s this Texan phrase we like to use: ‘Dance with them that brung ya’. In this context, we mean that it’s the indigenous organizations that make the city what it is, whether cultural or tech. Thecompanies or high profile individuals that come to Austin owe it to the locals,” explains Christine Maguire.

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