Assessing Urban Development after the ‘Arab Spring’:

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 40 – Number 1
144 pages


Illusions and Evidence of Change

This article puts the contributions in this special issue of Built Environment into the perspective of the massive transformations that have taken place in the cities of the Arab world over the last thirty years. It analyses the specificities of the modes of production of the urban fabric and identifies the spatial, social, economic and political disjunctions that developed within the Arab cities – and led, with other factors, to the ‘Arab Spring’. The perceptions of the city and the claims on the urban environment have been transformed. The article demonstrates that the impacts of ‘Arab Spring’ on the production and the politics of the Arab cities remain to be seen. However, temporalities of change reflect gaps and iterations. Change faces resistance, drawbacks, and uncertainties. In-depth reshuffling of the hierarchy of powers, shifts in the mindset of the decision-makers, and transformation of the administrative and political bodies are long-term processes. In the meantime, the urban mobilizations, activism, as well as the stakes embedded in the urban fabric and materiality, are back on the agenda of research.

In 2010–2011, from small and medium cities like Sidi Bouzid (Tunisia) or Deraa (Syria) to capital cities like Cairo, Tunis, Manama (Bahrain) or Sana’a (Yemen), cities were at the forefront of the political and social mobilizations of the ‘Arab Spring’. These mobilizations were based on the rejection of the coercive policies of the regimes, some of which have since collapsed while others remain in power (Bennafla, 2013). More generally, they were rooted in societies whose social structures had undergone profound change over the previous decades as the result of the demographic transition, of the diffusion of literacy, but also of the generalization of urbanization (Pagès-El Karoui and Vignal, 2011). It is the object of this special issue of Built Environment to explore the urban roots and the dynamics of the contestations that have taken place in the Arab region since 2011, as well as to reflect on the challenges that this new era opens for urban studies. The authors of this collection of articles are looking at the dynamics of change and resistance, but also at emerging factors, settings, and actors, that might unfold new prospects for the urban in the future.

This special issue thus provides in-depth analysis focusing on the period 2011–2013 but also going back in time whenever necessary, looking at elements of long-term transformation, of continuity, as well as of rupture This is the reason we use with caution and with quotation marks the phrase ‘Arab Spring’, created by Western and global media, in both the title of this introduction and of the special issue itself.

Before the ‘Spring’: The Transforming Arab city

The massive shift towards urbanization translated into a radical transformation of the modes of production of the urban fabric and the urban experience in Arab countries. Over the last two decades, Arab cities have undergone massive physical transformations under the combined effects of two main factors. First, the inadequacy of the policies implemented by their ministries and para-public agencies, and thus the limited action on the part of the State to provide for the urban social demand, in terms of housing, services, and economic resources (employment), led to the explosion of illegal/informal housing and illegal/informal economy. Second, the (limited) liberalization of the Arab economies translated, in the non-oil countries, into a policy of laisser-faire that put the emphasis on new sources of investment. Private investment in the production of private elitist cities or economic territories was presented as a solution to address the challenges faced by growing and impoverished cities seeking economic development. The investments were important; the transformations of the cities sometimes major: the private cities that mushroomed on the desert fringes of Cairo are among the driving forces behind the three-fold extension of the agglomeration since the 1990s. However, the spread of private exclusive cities, tourist resorts, industrial zones, technology villages etc. has not been able to tackle the more challenging issues faced by the huge majority of the city dwellers such as the lack of jobs, of functional educational infrastructure, of available health infrastructure, etc. At the national level, the concentration of investment in big cities and in specific economic sectors (like tourism) contributed to the deepening of imbalances of territorial development. In other words, the rentier-based urban economic model, in particular as experimented with in the 1990s and 2000s through the ‘mega-projects’ approach, is a major source of shortcomings and failures of the governments of the region.

Accompanying the urbanization of the Arab region, the diffusion of major urban services, like electricity, changed the daily experience of the inhabitants of cities. It contributed the transformation of the relationship between dwellers and authorities, as Eric Verdeil reminds us in his article exploring the link between energy provision in the Arab region and the politicization of urban issues. Other changes affected the way urban dwellers live in the city too: increasing commuting served by private transport services, individual cars, or (mostly) failing public transport; the restructuring of the commercial distribution networks – supermarkets, shopping malls; the increased share of industrial products in the daily consumption and more generally the premises of mass-market consumption (Vignal, 2007), etc. These various examples remind us that cities in the Arab region did not wait for the events of 2011 to undergo large-scale physical changes as well as major changes in their societies (Signoles et al., 1999; Boumaza, 2005; Souiah, 2005; Denis and Vignal, 2006; Ababsa et al., 2012; Elsheshtway, 2004, 2008; Zaki, 2011).

In addition, Arab cities today face the same challenges as other cities in the world including financialization, land speculation, increasing social inequalities, urban fragmentation etc (Denis, 2011). International competition makes them look more and more like other emerging metropolises (Sassen, 2011; Beaugrand et al., 2013), with high-end globalized landscapes next to informal and mostly impoverished neighbourhoods. Confronted by social unrest, the choice governments in the region face could be between going on with ‘business as usual’ and crony capitalism, or developing an urban agenda based on the general interest, social accountability, transparency, and decisions shared with empowered local powers, the private sector and civil society. However, as the real-estate-based economic model and the rentier entrepreneurial mentality are very much embedded in the urban economy of the Arab world, it seems highly likely it will require much effort and political will to shift away from the pursuit of old approaches. It is, for instance, striking that neither the financial crisis nor the revolutions impacted negatively the construction industry and real estate in the region. In Tunis or Cairo, high-end residential projects are indeed still attractive for investors betting on the continuing growth of new peri-urban middle classes (Dahmani, 2013). The prospects for a new economic model creating new opportunities to invest in other sectors than piling up the housing stock therefore seem remote (Schlumberger and Matzke, 2012). However, in the meantime, ordinary urban dwellers take advantage of the current period of confusion and expectation to revert to the self-organizing alternative strategies they developed long ago to compensate for the failures of the State. This is very visible, for instance, in the boom in informal construction that followed the 25 January Revolution and the relaxation of the political and security order in Egypt (Sims, 2012), a phenomenon that Valérie Clerc also describes for Damascus in her article for this special issue.

Arab Cities after the ‘Spring’: the Objectives of this Special Issue

The revolts laid bare the depth of the social and territorial inequalities or social ruptures that developed in the different countries of the region – although with differences from one country to another – and in particular among as well as within their cities (Lipietz and Lopes de Souza, 2012). They reflected the exhaustion of development models mostly based on the capture of land rent by economic elites with close ties to the political leaders. They revealed, in that sense, the frustration of populations confronted with the disappointing results of so-called ‘national development policies’ (economic, social, human, urban etc) promoted by governments over the years and their inability to tackle the territorial and urban dimensions of the new political challenges. Therefore, it is possible to posit that with the ‘Arab Spring’, it is also the legacy of the urban and territorial policies of the anciens régimes that was put under a new scrutiny. Interestingly however, a relatively limited number of academic publications have been dedicated to the cities per se within the prolific literature on the ‘Arab Spring’ onwards and its aftermath. This limited number might be a reflection of the fact that the urban dimension of Arab societies has not been seen as centre-stage by academia and media over the last twenty years, which favoured more directly political analysis and topics. It is, indeed, also a reflection of the treatment of the urban question by the regimes themselves, and of the decades-long marginalization of those (academics, experts, activists) who suggest alternative proposals. A contrario, we consider that analyzing the uprisings of the early 2010s in the Arab world through the lens of the urban dynamics allows helps in understanding the current complex and unfolding political and social processes of transition.

The origin of the special issue is the international colloquium ‘Revolts and Transitions in the Arab World: Towards a New Urban Agenda?’ organized by the CEDEJ (Centre d’Etudes et de Documentation Economiques, Juridiques et Sociales) in Cairo, in November 2012.1 The aim of this conference was to discuss the urban dimension of the political changes occurring in the Arab world, from the origins of the 2011 revolutionary episodes to the present experiences of transition towards political democratization, in a context of deep socio-economic crisis. The articles collected in this special issue are therefore based on a close follow-up of the practices, discourses and policies taking place in the urban realm in the countries of the ‘Arab Spring’ (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria) or affected at some degree by the revolutionary ‘wave’ (Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait). The texts reflect in-depth analyses of strategic territories (informal areas, mega-projects), or reviews of urban policies (in a holistic perspective), or explore a precise sector (energy or housing). Many of them touch upon issues of governance, of participation, of the role of civil societies. Finally, some articles focus on specific cities or countries whereas others have a more regional approach. Their authors, coming from different walks of academia or expertise (geographers, urban planners, sociologists, economists, and historians) all indicate that in Arab countries, the urban question is far from being peripheral to the political one.

The Struggle in the City, the Struggle for the City: City as a Revolutionary Site

The articles in the special issue Arab Cities after the ‘Spring’ analyze the cities of the region as ‘privileged sites for capturing and comprehending the social and historical nature of dissent expressed by struggles’ (Allegra et al., 2013). In the context of the ‘Arab Spring’, they explore both the place and the role of the city as the site of the struggle but also as the focus of the struggle (Kanna, 2012). They indicate that, in the light of the uprisings, cities from the Arab region are disputed and ‘contested spaces’ (Singerman, 2009).

In revolutionary times, the struggle in the city enacts physically the competition between different political and/or urban orders. The territories of the contestation are therefore also contested territories. This was illustrated in the organization of the repression (by the regimes that remain in power or by transitional governments) on many occasions since 2011, in Egypt, in the Gulf, and dramatically in Syria. The objective of the repression here is to reinstate an exclusive political, physical and military order on the city. The Pearl Square in Manama (Bahrain), where demonstrators would meet up, was torn down and cordoned. Walls were erected in Cairo city centre to close streets and control access of Tahrir Square. Today, checkpoints are set up on all Damascus main roads, and entire neighbourhoods oand small to medium cities are bombed and/or are rubble. However, beyond the security issues that remain a crucial trigger for the intervention of the army or police in public spaces, the disputes and contests in the urban realm can also be mediated through the monarchy (a symbol and a system) as in Morocco, or through the necessity to achieve a new constitution based on social and political compromise, as is the case for instance in Tunisia.

In her article, Valérie Clerc analyses the recent trends in urban planning in Damascus. New projects are on the table of the public authorities, based on former plans of urban renewal (i.e. demolition and reconstruction) of informal and peri-central neighbourhoods of the city. When the uprising started, the plans were suspended for a short period, before being back on the agenda. In their new version, they aim specifically at the peri-central and peri-urban neighbourhoods held by the opposition where most of the destructions is taking place. For Clerc, the planning options that are currently taken into consideration by the local authorities overlap with the military targets of the regime. They amount therefore to what she frames as an ‘urbanism of war’.

In Libya, the article of Françoise Clément and Ahmed Salah shows another version of the new urban conflicts in the region. In this country, the long-term territorial impacts of the 2011 revolution are deep: the emergence of a confederation of semi-autonomous cities seems to challenge the model of a centralized nation-state (Romanet Perroux, 2013). Locally, the militias confront the newly born associations of the civil society for the control and management of the cities.

The struggle for the city is obviously multifaceted. One of the dynamics of popular mobilizations, as showed by different articles in this issue, is the struggle to get the city back to its citizens, and in doing so the city is reinstated as a political stake. Therefore, the claim of the city as a space for contestation, political reframing, and elaboration of new prospects can be considered as one of the main outcomes of the Arab Spring (Lipietz and Lopes de Souza, 2012). Enrique Klaus, in his article documenting the graffiti that colonized the walls of Cairo from the very early days of the revolutionary movement shows how this street art, until then unknown as such in Egypt, is ‘a prolongation of the revolt’. In the winter of 2011, and with variations since according to the ups and downs of the political transition/repression, the strategic use of the ‘spots’ by activists and artists for graffiti reflects both the geography of the revolt and a symbolic appropriation of the city. Graffiti also play the role of alternative media and remind city dwellers of the mobilizations which have taken place since 2011. But because of the still ongoing process of political transition in Egypt, the graffiti can also be perceived as the permanent re-enactment of the contestation through the gaze of the by-passer.
Covering the walls with graffiti is therefore part of a new claim to the city, coming from stakeholders previously excluded from the urban public space. It represents in itself a fundamental shift away from decades of tight control of public space shaped by security agendas, economic interests, and the political monopoly claimed by the regimes in the region. Getting the city back is in that sense one of the most significant gains of the revolutionary movements, as suggested by Farah Al-Nakib in her article on the unprecedented demonstrations that took place in Kuwait city’s Irada Square in 2011. In her writings, she equates the physical occupation of Irada Square to the repoliticization of a city centre that has been deprived of all its political attributes by very aggressive urban planning policies and the eviction of its inhabitants. She interprets the mobilization of the Kuwaitis in Irada Square as a claim for social and spatial centrality, a physical enactment of ‘the right to the city’ conceptualized by Henri Lefebvre – a right that Kuwaitis lost after the discovery of oil and the transformation of their capital into a ‘modern’ city. The struggle in the city is here a struggle for the city.

Urban Policies and Projects: Change or Continuity since 2011?

This issue of Built Environment also reflects on some of the challenges for urban development, policy and planning in the Arab World after the ‘Spring’. It questions the possible elements of change in urban policies and projects, the institutional settings or governance of the urban and territorial issues. Such an exercise is of course perilous as the transitions are still taking place (in particular in Tunisia and Egypt) or as war is raging in Syria. However, here and there, the authorities have introduced timely initiatives to respond to social discontent. But more generally, the articles here point to the absence of a critical assessment of the legacy of previous policies. They indicate that a before/after approach is not always relevant to our understanding of the urban changes. And in some cases, the papers reveal key elements of continuity over the recent past.

The chronology of change in urban policies is uneven from one country to another. For instance, the Tunisian revolution and the fall of the hyper-centralized Ben Ali regime gave way to a rapid political consensus on the inscription of decentralization and empowerment of local bodies in the future constitution. On the contrary, the Egyptian transition so far shows an obvious inertia from both army and the majority of political parties to implement a new framework promoting decentralization. In addition, there is a striking continuity between the Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi2 administrations regarding the ‘politics of neglect’ (Dorman, 2007) vis-à-vis informal urbanization (Stadnicki, 2014). And not much innovation took place in terms of policy: the policy of social housing launched by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Secretary of State, Tarek Wafiq, was actually initiated under the last government of Hosni Mubarak. The same was the case of the Morsi administration proposals for territorial development (e.g. the massive development of the Suez Canal region), which essentially revamped from the plans of the Master Plan ‘Cairo 2050’ of the Mubarak regime. Alternative political visions were never on the agenda, and even the laws on decentralization, much talked-about over the last ten years, did not see the light.

Pierre-Arnaud Barthel and Leïla Vignal, in their article on the mega-projects in the Mediterranean Arab world, indicate that the most corrupt businessmen have been arrested, the most controversial projects cancelled or suspended, and that in Morocco instructions were given by the King to pay more attention to the social content of others. However, they show that neither the withdrawal of some of the big investors and developers from the Arab Gulf since the financial crisis of 2008, nor the voices of activists, urban experts, or the local mobilization of the populations have so far led to a dramatic change in urban policy. The model of urban development based on mega-projects (Barthel, 2010; Dorman, 2013) has not been superseded yet, although in some cases a more integrative methodology is being experienced in some key projects, for instance in Tunisia (Sfax-Taparura, Lake of Tunis), and in Morocco where proposals to ‘integrate’ the informal areas near the Bou Regreg project are on the agenda.

Elements of continuity and rupture are both present in Morocco. In her article on the legacy of urban policies in Morocco, Pascale Philifert reflects on the limits of the last decade of economic and political reforms as exposed by the ‘20 February Movement’. She shows that since November 2011, the newly elected Islamist-led government has not been quick to change the top-down approaches that dominate urban action. The inability of the policies to reach beyond the physical development/regeneration aspects is still there, as is the way assessments of projects are conducted (e.g. the Villes Sans Bidonvilles, VSB [Cities Without Slums] programme launched in 2004 and evaluated for both positive and negative impacts by O. Toutain in Barthel and Jaglin, 2013), focusing merely on quantitative results rather than on their ability to meet social demand. But positive signs indicate evolution in governance reforms, like the new politique de la ville (which aims at creating better convergence between sectoral policies in cities), the régionalisation avancée (aiming the empowerment of elected regional councils) and the new plans communaux de développement, i.e. strategy, action and financial plans that municipalities have to set up to channel in funding. The complexity of the task is obvious.

In his article on the place of territorial and urban reform questions in the political manifestos of the new parties of ‘post-Spring’ Tunisia, Sami Y. Turki underlines the cultural, political and technical obstacles that their inclusion requires, although issues of unequal territorial development have been very much at the forefront of the revolution, the demands of the population, and the media. There is also a discrepancy between the chronology of reform and the rhythm of political transition. Regarding decentralization for instance, once the constitution is implemented, it will take several years to promulgate the laws and decrees to enforce the codes that will regulate the new competences of the local powers, their financing, the training of the elective representatives, the creation of ‘territorial’ civil servants, etc. The implementation of such reforms will not take place quickly.

In Egypt, it is difficult to assess the legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood administration’s actions in terms of urbanism and territorial planning, as it remained in power for only a year – and territorial and urban planning was not among its top priorities. Twelve months have been enough, however, to coalesce both the urban population and the community of experts (architects, planners, NGOs) against the Morsi administration. They denounce the fact that the new administration did not show any political will to redirect the urban/territorial policy of the Mubarak era and address urban challenges. Faced with the repression by the army since August 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to re-root itself in the impoverished urban peripheries in which it had worked clandestinely for decades to build up political legitimacy as well as strong networks and territorial control. However, it is precisely from these neighbourhoods that rejection is the strongest, as if disillusion is proportional to the hopes raised by the election of Mohamed Morsi in June 2012.

The Urban as a Cause

The output of post-revolution transformations is not so much a shift away from former urban politics as the shaping of other dialectics between political change and urbanization. In his text Eric Verdeil analyzes, for instance, how the urbanization of certain issues (in this case, energy provision) leads to their politicization through the implementation of new material and social settings. In that sense, the energy transition that took place over the last twenty years in Jordan and Tunisia led to a reordering of the social and spatial urban orders and provided for the political empowerment of new actors, among them the dwellers and the whole range of non-institutional actors.

More generally, this special issue reflects the importance of the place taken by urban issues and urbanism in general in the debates of the civil society from 2011 onwards. The article by Sami Y. Turki indicates how central is the territorial question in the ‘post-Spring’ political debates in Tunisia, and how these debates allowed new categories of actors to intervene in the public scene, and in particular the ambiguous emerging category of the ‘experts’. In Kuwait, Farah Al Nakib articulates the rediscovery of the centrality of the city by demonstrators in Irada Square and the politicization of the city by the activism of a group of young architects, Arabana.

This phenomenon of urban activism is part of a more global social movement, based on critical urban theories inspired for instance by the work of Henri Lefebvre (Busquet, 2013), and its ‘right to the city’. However, in Egypt, as well as in Tunisia, Lebanon, or Palestine, this urban activism or ‘street activism’ (El-Naggar, 2012) considers that revolution is also an urban process and has to be pursued in the city and through the planning of the city (Bayat, 2013; Stadnicki, 2013). Elsewhere local organizations have mushroomed too since the 2000s. It is for instance the NGO Bimkom, based in Jerusalem, which aims to counter Israeli planning policy; or the Turkish IMECE movement, which supports Istanbul inhabitants’ demonstrations against major controversial urban projects such as the ones that the events of Taksim Square put into the forefront of the media (Montabone, 2013). In Tunisia, the first Assises pour le droit au logement  (Meeting for the right to housing) was organized in 2013 by the association Doustourna. Doustourna (‘Our Constitution’ in Arabic) had also taken part in the elaboration of a constitutional draft, back in August 2011, in which the ‘right to housing’ was introduced.

Conclusion: Focusing on the Temporalities of Change

Arab urban societies are marred by major dysfunctions, the fruit of decades of political negligence. Issues of governance and democracy are increasingly part of the urban question, and urbanization should put the city back on the political agenda of the ‘post-Arab Spring’ era. The mobilizations of the ‘Spring’ are a reminder of the political centrality of the urban in the societies of the Arab world. Through their struggle, the demonstrators as well as the activists involved in urban issues brought politics back to the city. They challenged and competed with the established political and urban order. In that sense, the ‘Arab Spring’ can be read as an urban revolution too. In the coming years, the redefinition of urban policies oriented towards the needs of the cities’ inhabitants and including their voices will be or may be undertaken in Tunisia. For Egypt, the perspective of a shift in the priorities of public policies and of a change in the rentier economic model is still uncertain. Inertia and economic interests are difficult to dislodge.

Temporalities of change reflect gaps and iterations. They are not gradual, nor do they have a teleological orientation. They face resistances, drawbacks, and uncertainties. In-depth reshuffling of the hierarchy of powers, shifts in the mindset of the decision-makers, and transformation of the administrative and political bodies to embrace new solutions are all long-term processes of change.

In that perspective, the ‘Arab Spring’ could be the trigger for a profound rethinking of urban studies of the Middle East. One of its lessons is possibly that the old bottles of Neo-Orientalist approaches, which look at the cities of the Arab-Islamic area through their ‘cultural’ specificities, should definitely be stored on the shelves of history (Allegra et al., 2013). Another is to frame urban studies in the Arab world within a more global analytical and conceptual framework, as well as building more comparative approaches to discuss the region and its cities. Finally, this special issue indicates that after decades of tight control, the urban question is back in full force as an issue for mobilization, a tool for political empowerment, and an issue of and for democracy, even if uncertainties remain. It is a central question for the inhabitants of the cities, and is constructed by civil society as a cause. Could that be the symptom of the development of new ways to articulate urban identities and belongings in the Arab world? What we see are new and alternative forms of urban citizenship emerging from everywhere: from the organizations of civil society in the cities of Libya, to Jordan and Tunisia where access to services gives new instruments for action to the urban dwellers, to take only two examples of this special issue. One could also reflect on the local councils organized mostly by civilians in the opposition-held areas of Syria (Kachee, 2013; Vignal, 2014).

This collection of articles is part of the effort to draw new perspectives: social mobilizations, governance issues, design of new policies and projects, new guidelines defined by the decision-makers, all of these will be material to analyze. Collaborations through alternative platforms accompany these new discussions. Two of the contributors, Farah al-Nakib and Eric Verdeil, participated in the launch in the Autumn 2013 of the ‘cities’ page of Jadaliyya, a leading website of critical information and debates on and in the Arab world. The launch of this page is a stepping-stone towards the much needed ‘de-Westernization of urban studies’ (Choplin, 2013). It is a welcome indication that the revolutions of the Arab peoples have also an impact on the intellectual and academic milieu.



1. This international conference was supported by three research programmes : MERSI (Pierre-Arnaud Barthel, AUF); SYSREMO (Leïla Vignal, Agence Nationale de la recherche, France); and MUMED (Roman Stadnicki, ENVI-MED, MAEE/CNRS).
2. Mohamed Morsi was elected end of June 2012 and deposed 3 July 2013 following a military coup that was supported by the majority of the Egyptian population.


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