Interpreting the Habitat Agenda in Egypt

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Interpreting the Habitat Agenda in Egypt
10 July 2015

CAIRO—In Egypt, a country with 50% of its population living in rural areas and relying on local natural resources for their livelihood, organizers of a forum in Cairo have continued to narrow the nearly forgotten Habitat Agenda to an exclusively urban focus. This reduction of the 40-year global Habitat Agenda, up for renewal next year, is consistent with UN-Habitat’s serial campaigns and orchestrated amnesia that divert attention and memory from the holistic commitments that states and UN agencies adopted at Istanbul in 1996.

The promises of the resulting Istanbul Declaration and Habitat II “Commitments” and “Global Plan of Action” included, most notably:

  • Ensuring gender equality[1]

  • Protecting the environment[2]

  • Practicing international cooperation[3]

  • Participatory governance at all levels[4]

  • Maintaining just macroeconomic policies[5]

  • Recognizing habitat’s urban and rural scope[6]

  • Promoting community-based land management[7]

  • Promoting land markets that meet community needs[8]

  • Involving multiple sectors and partnering with civil society and communities[9]

  • Adopting innovative instruments that capture gains in land value and recover public investments[10]

  • Increasing housing affordability through subsidies and other innovative forms of assistance, including support for self-built housing.[11]

    In Egypt, as elsewhere, realistic preparation for the review and renewal of the Habitat Agenda commitments also should meet the human settlement-development challenges emerging since 1996 and light the way toward improving “balanced rural and urban development,” as pledged since Habitat I (1976).[12] However, a full-day of sessions at the recent Egypt Urban Forum (EUF), on 15 June 2015, featured UN-Habitat instead promoting its long-running “World Urban Campaign,” which has been virtually unknown in the Middle East/North Africa region until that public event.

    From the EUF tent erected in Azhar Park, overlooking historic Cairo, UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign (WUC) coordinator Christine Auclair gave a lackluster presentation of the so-called “campaign,” which still lacks also the essential constituent elements of any campaign: (1) a common goal (2) the indispensable normative framework of shared values and principles, and (3) a specific timeframe against which to measure achievement. Those shortcomings were precisely the reasons for the Habitat International Coalition’s General Assembly of Member organizations to vote overwhelmingly in two consecutive sessions not to devote their precious time and resources in an exercise so loosey-goosey, value-free and diversionary from the supposed shared commitments of the Habitat II Agenda already agreed upon.

    A UN-Habitat hand-out to EUF participants in the tent misinformed them by asserting that “The World Urban Campaign is the partners’ platform for Habitat III, the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development”…where “In 2016, Habitat III will assess the state of our cities and propose solutions.” In fact, the platform for multistakeholder participation in the Habitat III process is a different and more-inclusive mechanism, formed at Nairobi in conjunction with the April 2015 Habitat III Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) II: the General Assembly of Partners (GAP).

    The “World Urban Campaign” is as disconnected from the exigencies of Habitat III as it has been from the substance of Habitat II. The consistent lack of content of the WUC poses little prospect of preparing anyone for serious and meaningful participation in Habitat III. Now, it is the GAP that assumes the challenge to be relevant to the Habitat III process in ways that the WUC deliberately omitted to do. What the UN-Habitat sessions on Habitat III also omitted to mention is that the Habitat III Agenda will be largely cooked and served well before any participant or spectator arrives at the eventual conference in Quito. However, the corresponding EUF session succeeded to highlight the theoretical importance of preparation.

    The current UN-Habitat-promoted WUC sails on as the unwitting flagship in a sea of contention over whose vested interests dominate the built environment and the development agenda. That is not to say that the WUC is without purpose.

    Admittedly, UN-Habitat technocrats have explained this overtly content-hollow WUC effort as one that has sought to “depathologize” urbanization. In recent years, the self-acclaimed UN agency for cities has exerted its efforts incrementally to swing the ideological pendulum from the general perception at Habitat I (1976) that current urbanization trends posed many hazards for social development and the environment. Focusing only on cities billed as “engines of growth,” embodying “our urban future” and other such euphemisms—averting our gaze from the ominous bigger picture and the structural forces of disparity—that discourse has swung way too far toward the verbal exclusion of wiser and more-balanced concepts of city-regions, urban-rural territorial planning and, as it were, “habitat” approaches to our built environment that formed the basis of the hard-won consensus on balanced and integrated development maintained since the 1970s. Even the official UN-Habitat graphic for Habitat III depicts an inner-city devoid of green space.

    While the morning’s EUF plenary broke into three small groups to discuss (1) campaign events and activities, (2) media and (3) the attention-grabbing slogan of the campaign. The working group assigned to deliberate on the locally appropriate slogan for the Egyptian version of the WUC, a group of participating journalists, urban researchers, activists, government officials and concerned others brainstormed over what to call such a campaign, albeit without any hint of the campaign’s content or objectives. That cart-before-the-horse exercise was not so inappropriate, however, since it gave participants a chance, without predetermined substance, to encapsulate their indigenous sense of propriety into a few well-chosen Arabic words.

    Ms. Auclaire offered the global WUC raw material for such a messaging exercise with the Nairobi-based agency’s own branding catchphrase “I am a City Changer” and the EUF Steering Committee’s proposal “My City, My Responsibility.” On that basis, the willing participants went to work on localizing a slogan for the still-undefined campaign.

    In the same morning session, participants reacted to the images promoted in the presentation of the local expression of the WUC. The Powerpoint presentation featured photos of a relatively high-income areas in Cairo. Suggestions from the floor proposed instead to identify the putative campaign with photos from informal settlements and/or rural area in Egypt. Such alternative images, they explained, would pose a challenge for the campaign to seek improvement of the quality of life for the inhabitants of those neglected areas. Others questioned the proposed campaign’s reliance only on social media for spreading the campaign, which restricts the opportunities of discussion for more community-based groups and individuals without privileged access to social-media facilities.

    The “national urban campaign toolkit” that UN-Habitat distributed to the attendees also encouraged them to “create your own slogan inspired by the following mottos: ‘toward the city we need,’ ‘better city, better life,’ ‘livable cities’ and ‘my city, my life,’ etc.” The literal translation of the EUF Steering Committee’s proposed slogan “my city, my responsibility” to “madinati mas’uliyyati” (in Arabic) rang hollow with the group. Salvaging the participatory spirit of the assembly, one of the organizers hastened to explain: “It is a temporary slogan, and you can change it.” So they did.

    The ensuing discussion over an Egypt-specific and popularly resonating slogan immediately exposed local concerns over “urban-versus-rural” priorities and government-versus-citizen responsibilities. The participants had little familiarity with the standing Habitat II Agenda by the end of the session’s introduction, and perhaps even less knowledge in mind than when they actually started that morning. Nonetheless, the discussants’ instincts turned their discourse, coincidently, to Habitat II’s essential pillars and commitments: (1) balanced rural and urban development, (2) good governance and (3) the full realization of human rights, in particular, the human right to adequate housing.

    “I don’t understand how ‘I’m a city changer’ became ‘my city, my responsibility,” said Ahmed Zaazaa, a Cairo-based architect and innovative urban-development activists, “It would have been better had it been translated literally to ‘ana mughayir lil-madina’ [I am a changer for the city]. As things stand now, my city is not my responsibility,” he asserted. Zaazaa explained how that the EUF Steering Committee-proffered slogan only promoted a recurring official narrative by which government consistently blames citizens for the country’s problems. “I don’t want to relieve the government of its responsibility,” he added.[13]

    Other interventions questioned the relevance of applying the rural-urban divide to Egypt, especially with rural life prevailing within the cities and the urbanization of “villages,” with their burgeoning populations. Some voiced their recognition of the organic connection between the city and the countryside in Egypt, as indeed elsewhere.

    A self-identified journalist participating in the slogan discussion remarked about the government’s lack of transparency in urban planning and financial management, in general. More specifically, he raised the controversial issue of extra-budgetary funds.[14] Another journalist explained these as “unregulated special funds that government bodies have been accused of squandering, and that often are identified as the subject of rampant corruption.”[15]

    Back to the subject of a locally appropriate slogan to promote a yet-unspecified end, several participants supported rights-based slogans: “haqqi fi madinati” (“my right to my city”), or “madinati haqqi” (“my city is my right” or “my city, my right”). Mina Muqbil, program officer at Better Life Association, a development and human rights NGO in al-Minya (Upper Egypt), pointed out how urban-centric the externally generated sample slogans were, and, therefore, inappropriate to the priorities of the nation.

    Other participants had chimed in on this point in the EUF’s plenary session on “Egypt’s National Urban Vision and Mega-projects” the day before, held at the 5-star Marriott Zamalek Hotel. Voices from the floor had charged that public investment and planning in Egypt already discriminate disproportionately in favor of the country’s big cities, especially Cairo and Alexandria, at the expense of the countryside that feeds them.

    In the end, the sloganeering group settled on three serviceable, nonurban-exclusive slogans and submitted them to a vote by a show of hands. These were: (1) “baladi: mas’uliyyati” (“my country: my responsibility”; (2) “shari`i: haqqi wa mas’uliyyati” (“my street: my right and my responsibility”); and, the hands-down favorite, garnering 17 votes: “baladna: haqqan wa mas’uliyya” [بلدنا: حقاً ومسؤولية] (“our country: a right and responsibility” or “our country: by right and [it’s] a responsibility”).

    When the three small groups reunited to put the slogans to a vote of the plenary, the moderator of the slogan-discussion group edited the three options to remove the word “haqqi” (my right”) from the eligible options. Despite protests from the supporters of the elected slogan, the unwitting plenary went with the less-elegant and diluted “baladi: mas’uliyyati” (“my country: my responsibility”). However, at least the important rural-urban nexus survived, if only subtly implied.

    EUF Steering Committee Chair and Cairo University Architecture and Planning Professor Sahar Attia had joined the facilitation of the plenary for the end of the slogan discussion. As an officer of UN-Habitat later explained, it seems that “some people considered the word ‘my’ embedding already the ‘rights’ language” could be read as “too political.” The organizers then announced that the original EUF Steering Committee’s proposed slogan, “My City, My Responsibility,” would prevail. That decision presumably will continue to be a subject of deliberation among the campaign participants and observers.

    Whatever the slogan and whatever the campaign, this reductionist expression of the Habitat Agenda so far has attracted 19 individuals who have volunteered to form its Steering Committee. In some yet-unspecified fashion, that committee is to be assigned to determine the activities of Egypt’s “national urban campaign.” Apart from this messaging, no word about content was mentioned in its Terms of Reference.

    That volunteer group now faces the task of articulating the campaign’s relevance and meaning among the myriad urgencies in Egypt’s human settlements. These still encompass the yawning deficits in the Habitat II-promised pursuit of balanced rural-urban development, good governance and the progressive realization of human rights related to habitat. These essential pillars of the still-valid Habitat Agenda—along with the implementation of their constituent commitments—deserve careful local and global evaluation well before states reconvene to adopt our new Habitat III Agenda at Quito, Ecuador in October 2016.

    In the subsequent panel dedicated to Habitat III, HIC’s Housing and Land Rights Network coordinator Joseph Schechla posed the question directly to UN-Habitat panelists as to the benefit of “reducing and narrowing the Habitat Agenda to a New ‘Urban’ Agenda.” UN-Habitat’s Human Settlements Officer Katja Schäfer alone addressed the issue, explaining that, “when we say ‘urban,’ we consider that to include both urban and rural areas.” That broader-minded interpretation is so far not reflected in the dominant UN-Habitat or Habitat III messaging.

    Although the day’s program featured the participation of the “Egypt Habitat Committee representatives,” that multistakeholder formation remains unknown. In the Habitat III run-up, one principal output of the national Habitat Committee[16] is a “national report.”[17] It remains to be seen also how and when that will materialize and who will be included.

    In the case of Egypt, the Ministry of Housing’s General Office of Physical Planning already submitted a draft Habitat III report in 2014, but that document remains unpublished. Like many other states, Egypt is far behind the preferred deadline for submitting its national Habitat III report.

    Three weeks after the EUF, Ahmed Zaazaa reports that he is still gathering his reflections. This indicates positively that, at least for some, the EUF exercise has planted seeds for critical thought. It also has raised many questions about the processes, products and expectations that will determine the outcomes of Habitat III not only for Egypt, but for all nations.

For more information about the Egyptian Urban Forum, visit the EUF website and facebook page.

For Habitat International Coalition documents relevant to Habitat III, go the Housing and Land Rights Network website.

See also the official Habitat III website.

See HIC’s Habitat III Basics

Photo on front page: EUF panel on Habitat III (L-R): Suzuki (UN-Habitat), Christine Auclaire (UN-Habitat), Katja Schäfer (UN-Habitat), Sahar Attia (Cairo University/EUF Steering Committee), Husain al-Gabaly (Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities), Mohamed Nada (UN-Habitat). Photo on this page : UN-Habitat’s graphic for Habitat III.

[1] The Habitat Agenda, 119(a–l), 46(a–e), 72(a), 78(f), 46(c), 51, 72, 119(j), 120(f), 127(b), 180(g), 180(l), 208(b) and 239.

[2] Istanbul Declaration, paras. 1, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10 and 11; The Habitat Agenda, paras. 128–144, and throughout, totaling 278 references. A/CONF.165/14, 14 June 1996, at:

[3] The Habitat Agenda, paras. 119(k), 204(a–j), 204(m) and 204(y).

[4] The Habitat Agenda, paras. 50(c) 113(l) and 68(b).

[5] The Habitat Agenda, paras. 40(a), 62, 65, 67(b) 115, 186(d), 189(b) and 201(b).

[6] Istanbul Declaration, paras. 6 and 10; The Habitat Agenda, paras. 46(d), 68, 68(c), 70(a), 70(c), 75, 79(m), 104, 113(a–n) and 114.

[7] The Habitat Agenda, paras. 74(c), 75 and 113(m).

[8] The Habitat Agenda, paras. 113–14.

[9] Istanbul Declaration, para. 8; The Habitat Agenda, paras. 50(c), 61(c)(v), 113(l).

[10] The Habitat Agenda, para. 76(h).

[11] The Habitat Agenda, paras. 47; 61(c)(ii), 72(b), 73, 74.

[12] Istanbul Declaration, para. 6; The Habitat Agenda, paras. 29, 43(I0, 43(k), 109, 111, 126, 156, 163–69.

[13] Dina Hussein, “My City, Whose Responsibility,” Mada Masr (17 June 2015), at:

[14] Which relate to the Habitat II Agenda’s commitment to value-sharing, as enshrined in its paragraph 76(h), and to good governance throughout.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See UN-Habitat, “Guide on National Habitat Committees (NHCs): Purpose and Composition,” at :

[17] See definition of Government report v. National report in “Terminology Corner” of Land Times/أحوال الأرض No. 12(June 2015), at:

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