People and Dancefloors Cairo: New Directions for Cultural Economy research in Egypt

Anthony Killick @AntKillick

Photo: Mohamed Samir Saad @zookeeh Pictured: Yaseen El Azzouni @theazzouni

People and Dancefloors began life as a UK-based project that focused on the intersections of drugs and dancefloors through people’s narratives and experiences. On the threshold between research and activism, the project aims to challenge misleading narratives through wider engagement tools like film, podcasts, blog posts, and other accessible media forms. The geographical scope has also expanded, and the project now has collaborative partners in Brazil, Malta and Egypt. As such, we now work across three continents to develop media and academic research that is rooted in localised contexts, but which hopefully appeals to international audiences. 

In Egypt, the project has come to focus on two things. First, the ways in which the country’s cultural and environmental policies are shaped through political-economic processes involving the Egyptian government and international organisations such as the IMF and UN (especially culture and development focused bodies such as UNESCO, UNCTAD). Second, there is a focus on the emergence of musical genres and subcultures surrounding jungle, grime, dub and hip hop. In Cairo, these cultures are very new, and are mainly driven by people who were in their teens and early twenties when the 2011 revolution took place. The two research strands are brought together insofar as we can see the impact of wider political-economic interactions on the possibilities for local cultural production.

Here, I want to outline the cultural economic context for this research (which is to say, basically, the political economic context in which cultural production takes place), before introducing a new People and Dancefloors podcast that explores the Cairo underground scene in more depth through conversations with locally based DJs, producers, event curators, filmmakers, and music journalists. 

Cairo the megacity and unplanned housing

Egypt is a frontier for the seemingly infinite expansion of globalised finance and debt-based urban development. Just 4 per cent of the country is populated, and the environmental limits to infinite growth can be seen in the fact that most of the country is desert. Expansion mostly occurs on the periphery of Cairo, a megacity of 22 million people. That’s over twice the size of London, and like most cities, the population is expected to increase. UN projections indicate that by 2050, Cairo will have grown to 38 million people. To put that in historical perspective, in 1950 the population was just over 2 million. Cairo is now easily the largest city in Africa by population, and it is going to get bigger. 

At around the year 2040, a significant change will have taken place, as the majority of Egyptians at this point will live in urban as opposed to rural areas. It is not just that most people will have moved to urban centres, more that cities themselves are expanding. This trend can be witnessed right now by anyone who takes the train from Cairo to Alexandria, which passes through the Nile Delta. Here, the urban frontier meets the rural in the shape of “informal” neighbourhoods (meaning building that takes place without any planning permission) being constructed on formerly agricultural land. 

While there is much debate over the efficacy and quality of informal housing in Egypt, the widely downplayed fact is that people simply building their own homes (often attached to existing urban agglomerations) provides significant relief for many problems surrounding the rapid increase in population density. The official stance is to discourage informal construction, with the government occasionally choosing, for whatever reason, to set an example by very publicly destroying one neighbourhood or another. Yet 40 per cent of Cairo’s housing market is informal, and 75 per cent of urban areas in Egypt are unplanned. As such, any claim that informal housing will soon be eradicated in Cairo is laughable, since it would primarily involve the eviction and sheer destruction of nearly half of the city’s homes. 

Above: Informal housing versus agricultural land in Boulaq al-Dakrour, Nile Delta. Photo: Cities Alliance. Below: Inside an informal neighbourhood in downtown Cairo. Photo: Keith W Roberts

I mention housing because it is perhaps the clearest and most immediate example of how urbanisation in Cairo occurs in a way that is radically different to cities in Europe (try building an anthill in London without planning permission and you will see what I mean). 

One of the most important urban development scholars in Egypt, David Sims, writes that the seemingly chaotic impetus underlying Cairo’s growth should be seen as “the logic of a city out of control”. The important thing to recognise there is that, by necessity, vast amounts of Cairenes have simply had to make things work, outside of the strictures of official urban planning. This DIY culture and attitude filters into many different parts of Egyptian life. 

The subsequent growth of informal labour markets within informal areas only increases people’s reliance (even dependence) upon this situation. Levels of under and unemployment in Cairo are high, and half (49.8%) of Egypt’s population are under the age of 25. There are currently 3.5 million students enrolled in higher education institutions in Egypt. The workforce, much like the city itself, is huge, and growing.

Economic shocks and sustainable development

It is difficult for the Egyptian economy to absorb this labour with even the most menial work, never mind the types of rarer “fulfilling” jobs that are (albeit decreasingly) expected by HE graduates. In partial response to this situation, the Egyptian government has committed itself to the rhetoric of sustainable development, which integrates environmental, economic and cultural policy, partly through the magic words “culture” and/or “creative industries”. The idea here is to use these industries as drivers of sustainable economic growth and funnel wayward graduates into their related areas of employment. Cities that embrace this plan can tick at least one box under the “sustainability” heading.

The relationship between Egypt’s 2030 sustainable development strategy and the UN’s sustainable development goals is so close that every element of the former is, in one way or another, derived from the latter. Subsequently, universities across Egypt are mobilising to achieve these inter-governmental aims through a host of “green events” that superficially declare commitment to the cause. These activities were particularly amplified during the run up to COP27, which was hosted by Egypt in the luxurious resort town of Sharm el Sheikh and sponsored by Coca-Cola

The elephant in the room at all these events is that Egypt’s ability to deliver on any goals contained within its 2030 vision is hampered by the country’s relative instability with respect to unforeseen events, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. More recently, the ramifications of the Russia-Ukraine war have brought many of the country’s pre-existing structural-economic problems to the fore, as the conflict resulted in massive food price inflation and a sudden, drastic loss of value in the Egyptian pound. 

This devaluation occurred after Egypt was forced to “float” its currency on the open market, meaning its value would be determined not internally, but by global conditions of supply and demand. Floating the pound was one of a series of conditions set by the IMF for Egypt receiving another loan (its fourth since 2016), this time for $3billion. Other conditions include the privatisation of state assets (purchased mostly by gulf countries such as UAE) and a pause on all major government construction projects. 

Once the pound was floated, Egypt’s currency swiftly lost over a third of its value and kept sliding, finally “stabilising” six months later at around half of its previous value. To put that in perspective, when I arrived in Egypt just over a year ago in 2022, the value of EGP2000 was around £100. Today, the same amount in Egyptian pounds is equivalent to £54. 

As one aspiring filmmaker in Cairo put it to me recently “I saved up all my money to buy the equipment I needed. Then, just when I had the right amount, my savings were halved, and then halved again”. 

Egypt’s susceptibility to shocks like this begs the question of how it will be possible to implement any long-term goals, never mind the typically low-priority cultural and environmental ones. So far, I have not even been able to find an acknowledgement of this question, much less an answer to it, in any of the “strategic vision” documents I have looked at.

Desert development and cultural provision

In this respect Egypt’s cultural workers navigate a political economic landscape wrought by the often-contradictory incentives of the IMF, the UN, and, of course, the Egyptian government. On the one hand, the country is obliged to meet the conditions set by the IMF bailout package (though there is much debate on how likely the government is to actually pause its flagship construction projects in the desert). On the other hand, sustainable development is still the biggest game in town (rhetorically, at least), and “culture/creativity” is a central pillar of this rhetoric. 

The point about desert development is significant, because the government has spent the past few years building colossal, debt-financed megaprojects, the interest on which now regularly consumes half the state’s revenue. The one thing Egypt certainly has a vast abundance of is land – empty desert space that has seen the construction of entirely new cities, including a new administrative capital, and a central military complex that, when finished, will reportedly be eight times the size of the pentagon (indeed, in typically machismo fashion, the government has called this thing “the octagon”). Why Egypt (a country with a military capacity similar to Italy) would need such a gigantic installation is anyone’s guess. 

Above: Egypt’s new administrative capital under construction. Below: The “octagon”, the country’s new military headquarters. Photos: Creative Commons. 

One stated aim for desert development is to absorb the increasing population and provide an alternative to the informal neighbourhoods mentioned above. However, the completion of this goal has, so far, been minimal to non-existent, partly because cities in the desert are not attached to existing urban areas and the (often informal) networks of labour, housing and cultural activity that exist within them, and which help people stay afloat much more than any vague proposal to increase “resilience” by “tackling informality”.

There also seems to be little, if any, cultural provision within these new desert developments. While the new capital will reportedly have an opera house and a designated “arts and cultural city”, the cultural policy framework guiding the development of creative industries in Egypt (especially the relation between these industries and desert development) is, at best, vague.

Indeed, the cultural industries are governed by sets of laws and regulations, as well as presidential and ministerial decrees endorsed (often spontaneously, it seems) in recent decades and altered several times (with similar spontaneity). Although the 2030 vision advocates a “system of positive cultural values respecting diversity and differences” and giving people “the wisdom of freedom of choice and of cultural creativity” just 0.23 per cent of the state’s annual budget is spent on culture. Most of this tiny amount (92.5 per cent) is spent on Ministry of Culture employees’ salaries.

Broadly speaking, Egypt’s cultural industries can be broken into three sectors, which will probably sound familiar to Europeans. The first is a governmental sector comprising things like the higher council of culture, opera houses, some theatres, and the Arab music orchestra. Next, there is the established commercial scene, which tends to reproduce popular or previously successful formulas in order to maximise profit. Finally, the independent arts scene emerged in the 1990s, and comprises a number of initiatives that aim to widen public access to the arts and facilitate new cultural enterprises. 

Familiarly again, however, the independent sector is grossly underfunded, and has little to no contact with space and resources within the governmental sector. Yet, as discussed in one of the upcoming People and Dancefloors podcasts, this lack of provision for independents has, in some senses, generated impetus for a group of filmmakers, artists, events curators and underground musicians to develop their own (albeit tiny) cultural infrastructure. 

These groups can be seen as part of a “Cairo renaissance” that really took off during and after the 2011 revolution, largely in the forms of painting, graffiti and hip hop music. As Cairene DJ/producer, ZULI, explains in episode three of the podcast, hip hop in Egypt did not really exist prior to 2011, whereas now it is huge. Comments such as this provide food for thought when it comes to the emergence of new artistic subcultures and their impact on the city. 

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Photo: Yusha Charles @itswhysee Pictured: Kareem Gaber @el_waili

Which brings us to the new People and Dancefloors: Cairo podcast, wherein we explore the city’s underground music scene, its main actors, artistic products and practices, and cultural infrastructure. As noted above, this “scene” is emerging within a highly specific cultural economic context. Over the course of the series we will be talking to those involved in the recent history of subcultures in Cairo, and discussing continuous changes and developments within “the scene”. 

Episode 1: A beginner’s guide to the Cairo club scene can be found here

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Photo: Yusha Charles @itswhysee Pictured: Mahmoud Hatem @feelthemotion

Next article, How to ban working class music: politics and popular culture in Egypt, can be found here

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