The Egyptian Center For Housing Rights |
Social Violence & Informal Areas
Mainstream sociological concepts and approaches have been inadequate to come to terms with the phenomenon of social violence, often reducing it to a simple consequence of societal fluidity contingent to the transitional period of social transformation in Egypt. Some attribute the phenomenon to the breakdown of the, allegedly, dominant pattern of social values due to the impacts of cultural penetration (from the oil producing countries); others ascribe it to the breakup of the traditional edification institutions (the family, the school and the religious establishment).
Nevertheless, social and economic development forms an organic process in which negative aspects and contradictions are essential. The process of development creates the marginal. One cannot simply isolate the mushrooming of informal areas and slums on the periphery of large cities - and sometimes in the center of large cities - from the changes that have occurred to the Egyptian society from the 1930s onwards. The growth of large cities was accompanied by the immigration of rural unemployed and small producers to metropolises in search of employment. In as much as such groups represent an organic byproduct of rural capitalization, they act as a reserve army of cheap labor for the nascent industries. A relatively long period of economic growth may lead to the integration of those immigrants and their adaptation to urban lifestyle. The reverse is also correct. Economic stagnation would accelerate the rate of unemployment and enhance selfishness and alienation that most of the newly migrants would be absorbed into the black economic sector (drug dealing, prostitution, smuggling, etc.). On the other hand, a feeling of hatred, or even hostility, and indifference to state actions and institutions prevails among such groups. In a state of complete deprivation of public expenditure and services, and the frequent raids by the police in addition to mass forced evictions by the authorities, there develops a feeling of insecurity among those people who live in informal areas. In view of such conditions their hostility towards the state and society can be understood.
This should not be taken to mean that residents of informal areas exclusively undertake the responsibility for social violence. The phenomenon also spreads among many sections of the Egyptian society, regardless of their class or professional connection. But residents of informal areas are, to a great extent, responsible for a specific type of social violence - i.e. hooliganism - on which they depend for living. According to available statistics, some 5000 acts of violence of this sort took place in 1998, of which inhabitants of informal areas were responsible for 70 per cent. Of course, such identification between marginalization and violence is not without exceptions. Marginalization only creates the conditions for the explosion of violence among the marginalized groups compared to other social strata. Violence among these groups is marked, not only by hooliganism (using violence for making livelihood), but also by retribution. Living on the periphery of modern cities, those people develop a feeling of hatred towards the city that creates and, at the same time, rejects them. Their violent assaults tend to be some sort of collective punishment regardless of any direct reasons or initial motives.
In addition to hooliganism, informal areas also represent a suitable social environment for political violence, in terms not only of the prevailing social and economic conditions, but also of the ecological and demographic construction of these areas. Economic deprivation, political passivity and the absence of state security control provide the most suitable conditions for the ideologies of violence. Any analysis of the social roots of militants of the Islamic groups, for instance, reveals the extent to which such areas support political violence. In the early 1990s, 14% of the militant groups came from Al-Sahel district, 9.1% from Al-Sharabiya, 9.1% from Al-Wayly, 7.3% from Al-Matariya, 31% from Imbaba, and 24.2% from Bulaq (all of these are among the most deprived areas in Cairo). The family origins of the majority of these militants are rooted in villages that suffer most from the economic changes and the problematic transformation from rural to urban lifestyles - such as the Al-Ayyat, Saftellaban, Nahia, Kerdassa, Ezbet Shukr, Ezbet Dollar, Al-Khanka, Abu Zaabal, and Kafr Shukr. During the second of the 1990s, the same pattern was repeated as the majority of religious violence attacks were concentrated in the upper Egypt's villages and towns - such as Mallawy, Dayrout, Samallout, Abu Qurqas, etc. This pattern clearly suggests that deformed development is responsible for the breakout of violence. The contradictory process of transformation that results from the rise of education standards and the narrow opportunities for social promotion intensifies a feeling of alienation and hostility to urbanization.
In this context, the contingent relationship between the growth of informal areas - or more specifically, the deformed capitalist development - and the breakout of socio-political violence is evidently clear. Such a relationship is expected to exacerbate in view of the following considerations:
The discussions resulted in various differences among participants over a number of issues and concepts that had been taken for granted as points of consensus. Consequently, some issues constituted the focal points on which most discussions were focused:
1.Sociological concepts applied:
It was evident that participants in the roundtable discussion differed widely on what was meant by the Sociology of Informal Areas. A by-product of the mushrooming of informal areas (approximately 1100 areas throughout Egypt), with some located in the very center of large cities and others on the periphery, and in view of the different date and conditions of emergence for each of these areas, many questions were raised over the parameters and organic characteristics determinant of informal areas. What do we mean with Informal Areas? Do we mean those areas that emerged on the periphery of large cities without any urban planning; or those that were formerly planned but deteriorated as a result of urban expansion and deprivation; or those deprived from services and public utilities from the beginning? Do we mean those areas deprived of public services and basic infrastructure; or those that emerged as a result of rural migration; or those that emerged as a result of the reverse migration (from the urban centers to the peripheries) as a result of population increase, high cost of living and real estate speculation?
Does the absence or existence of official control constitute a determinant factor for judgment on the classification of informal areas? Or can the social formation of inhabitants - in terms of education, occupation, craft, or profession - be a suitable factor for such a judgment? Such questions and many others mirror the various difficulties of defining a scientific and empirically viable conception of the informal areas, thereby, obstructing any opportunity for the development of a clear strategy for dealing with these areas.
On the other hand, the concept of violence (social and political) was also the subject of similar debates among participants. Differences arose on the types of violence (hooliganism, revenge, and ideological violence) and its targets. In this context, there were attempts to explain the different types of violence in terms of the changing social roots of the inhabitants of informal areas. Although all participants recognize the significance of the statistics available, which point to an organic relationship between violence (hooliganism and religious violence) and the informal areas, the extension of religious violence over many parts of the Egyptian territory obstructed the possibility for dialectically relating violence to these areas. 2.Informal areas & the problem of capitalist development:
In contrast to the basic argument adopted by the background paper on the phenomenon of informal areas as a byproduct of a deformed capitalist development, the discussions witnessed the crystallization of a different approach, which relates the growth of informal areas to (sic) economic development. Thus, there emerged two approaches in dealing with the phenomenon: a dialectical approach that views the growth of informal areas as an inbuilt component of a deformed capitalist development which causes the poverty and backwardness of the margins, and an evolutionist approach that views that growth as a superfluous and temporary side-effect in the process of economic growth.
3.The psychological approach and problems of interpretation:
In an attempt to explain the relationship between violence and informal areas, the paper discussed a dialectical approach on the impacts of the surrounding environment on the psychological development of the inhabitants of informal areas. This explanation is based on a broad definition of environment to include the various dimensions of the relationship between those areas and metropolises. It also includes the historical context of the areas emergence, the dominant crafts and professions, the prevailing culture, etc. In sum, those dimensions may constitute the relative concept of the peculiar psychological mode of the informal areas that could partially explain the distinctive type of violence there. The experience of marginalization, police raids, and immoral and dirty works discharges the energy of violent reaction and retribution against urban centers. A different culture and morality also develops to justify socially immoral practices - prostitution, theft and drug dealing, etc. - as a challenge to dominant culture. The Place here acquires a symbolic value that exceeds its physical dimensions. It is the milieu of acceptance and mutual recognition as well as the sphere of security.
This argument was faced with many criticisms during the discussions, most of which rested on two points. Firstly, people living in informal areas do not entirely cut their relations with the rest of society; they belong to society and interact with the social environs around them. This means that the inhabitants of informal areas carry the same fundamental cultural and psychological characteristics of the Egyptian society as whole. Secondly, the idea of a peculiar psychological mode for the inhabitants of informal areas was challenged as marred with generalization that disregards the social differences within such areas. However, further discussions on the effects of Place on the psychology of inhabitants reflected some agreement between the two viewpoints.
4.Informal areas & the social role of the State:
The background paper pointed to the dialectical relationship between the nature of the state and its perception of development and the breakout of the phenomenon of informal areas. While the emergence of informal areas is rooted in the dominant type of development, its exacerbation is inextricably connected to the dominant perception of development and the social construction of the state apparatus. In this context, the participants of the roundtable discussion raised the issue of the qualitative difference in the status of informal areas in the Nasserist era from their present status. Notwithstanding the continued domination of the capitalist mode of production, the hegemony of state capitalism during the Nasserist era, with the populist rhetoric of the ruling elite, meant that the social and living standards of the lower and middle classes were much better. Later, however, with the move to private enterprise capitalism in the early 1970s and the State's gradual withdrawal from social support programs (reduction of public expenditure, non-commitment towards employment, etc.) the phenomenon of informal areas broke out to the extent of threatening social and political stability.
Many of the participants to the discussion, however, defended the neo-liberal approach adopted by the state, emphasizing the necessity to encourage private initiative and to give the private sector an opportunity to participate in development as the only way out of the present social debacle.
On the other hand, representative of the Public Agency for Urban Planning advocated the present official policy and stressed the State's considerations regarding the informal areas and its strategic plan for urban development. Further discussion, however, unveiled many doubts among participants over the ability of the private sector to undertake the task of social development, reaffirming the negative impact of the State's withdrawal from socioeconomic fields on the conditions of the lower layers of society and the problem of informal areas.
The debate over the civil society and its ability to fill the vacuum left by the state raised many differences among the participants to the roundtable discussion. Many of them were skeptical towards, even the existence of, civil society organizations. Others, however, mentioned some positive initiatives of civil society in the field of development. But, ultimately, all participants agreed that initiatives of civil society organizations were necessarily incapable of with such a phenomenon, and cooperation between the various parties would be inevitable.
The roundtable discussion on 'Informal Areas & Social Violence' reached some recommendations that may be summed up as follows:
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تصميم : جمال عيد