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Talking Egypt with Diane Singerman

By Gregg Sangillo

Talking Egypt with Diane Singerman

Professor and recent Carnegie grantee Diane Singerman shares her thoughts on Egypt

Since a popular uprising led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has dominated international headlines. School of Public Affairs professor Diane Singerman has focused on the Middle Eastern nation for much of her career. Through her work with colleagues and the organization TADAMUN, Singerman has encountered many of the systemic problems that have hindered Egypt’s growth and development at the local level. And she can talk at length about everything from the nation’s housing vacancies to its inefficient garbage collection. Singerman, who has also received grant support from the Ford Foundation, was just awarded a two-year, $300,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York for work related to Egypt and the Middle East. Below are edited remarks from a discussion with Singerman about her current work, career, and passion for Egypt.

GS: Can you tell me about some of your work?

Singerman: “For the past 18 months, this project has been trying to address the issues of urban governance, urban development, social justice, and the built environment in Cairo, Egypt. In phase one of the project, we conducted field work to learn about initiatives and mobilization in local communities to renegotiate relationships with local authorities and find better solutions to urban problems. One of the reasons the 2011 uprising was successful was because people from poor and informal housing areas lent their numbers and support. They had experienced regime corruption, police abuse, and the unfair distribution of public resources and services in their neighborhoods, and they were demanding change. I’m working with Egyptian architects, social scientists, and planners who have years of experience in urban communities with a social development focus.”

GS: What are some of the problems you are finding in Egypt?

Singerman: “The Egyptian government was pursuing a neoliberal policy of building massive new cities in the desert, and it hoped to attract employment for the residents. But many of these cities are now ghost towns, while a few others have become vibrant areas. These new desert cities are isolated from the jobs, families, and social networks which people depend upon in the older urban areas. In the past two years, many Egyptian officials have also been prosecuted for corruption due to speculative real estate practices and selling off land for private ends. Despite the government’s promotion of middle class and upper class housing in the desert cities, 90% of the people in Cairo do not live in them. The informal housing areas of Cairo were largely ignored by the government until a decade ago. And they have very little local representation, few public services, and their histories and contributions are largely discounted. We have written a policy alert that’s entitled ‘Why Did the Revolution Stop at the Municipal Level?’ Egypt is one of the few countries in the world that has no elected mayors and no elected governors. Local administration is extremely weak, and it’s a retirement sinecure for the police and military officers.”

GS: With no mayors, there can’t be much accountability.

Singerman: “And very little democratic, local government. Even in the new constitution, which was an opportunity to change the political formula for local government, only very minor changes were made and centralization continued. Most candidates in the recent elections have never held any elective office and have no administrative and legislative experience at lower levels of government, due to the national concentration of power and centralized state.”

GS: Despite some of the national political divisions, it seems like the issues you are describing are more structural.

Singerman: “I think the problem is that the Morsi [the Egyptian president overthrown in July] government was not innovative and it missed the opportunity to change the direction of the previous regime, even recognizing the difficult position it was in as the state remained largely in place. The Morsi government was focused on identity politics, as opposed to the needs of Egyptian citizens, which was ‘do they have a place to live, food on the table, a job, their dignity, and decent education for their children?’ Despite the intervention of the military this summer, and the political violence and repression that has ensued, our project will still make the argument that Egypt needs further democratization. People should be able to stay in their own communities to debate and address their problems, rather than having to travel to Tahrir Square to do so.”

GS: How did you first get interested in Egypt?

Singerman: “I started off in African studies. I went to Princeton, and Princeton had very few African studies courses. One of my professors who I liked a lot said, ‘well, you must study Arabic if you want to know African history because Arab geographers wrote down some of the first histories.’ So I started studying Arabic as an undergraduate, and then I just continued.”

GS: It’s considered an incredibly difficult language to learn. How long did it take you?

Singerman: “I’m still learning Arabic. I studied Arabic for a long time, both at the undergraduate and the graduate level. But it’s a big struggle. I’m not particularly talented in languages, but I’m a masochist, I guess.”

GS: What keeps you interested in Egypt? Why do you keep going back?

Singerman: “It’s a very dynamic place. I like a lot of things about Egypt. The people are extremely voluble, dynamic—they like to talk a lot. They care a lot about people. It’s a very social place. And it’s also not easy to understand or learn about. I always feel like I don’t know too much about the place.”