Dictators and their Cities — The Case of Cairo

Abbas Sbeity
Abbas Sbeity
Published in
19 min readMar 13, 2023


In 1513, Nicolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a comprehensive guide for autocratic regimes and monarchs to sustain their power and achieve glory. Rousseau (1762) saw Machiavelli’s work as satire, while other scholars like Mary Dietz (1987) saw it as a trap to expose autocrats. Whether Machiavelli intended to praise, mock, or uncover the way autocratic regimes ruled and seized power, The Prince sets a precedent and debate in political theory in a way to give justification for the unethical doings of the powerful for the sake of maintaining power (Matravers & Warburton, 2000). Current autocratic regimes would not be innocent of similar doings, whether in the form of monarchs or republican governments. In fact, authoritarian regimes remained a phenomenon across Europe up until the 20th century. Autocrats, dictators, and monarchs conquered land, built cities, proclaimed power, and used the urban environment to exhibit their abilities. They worked with urbanists, architects, and engineers to realise their legacies. An example of such collaboration was between Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte and Georges-Eugene Haussmann, who worked together in the 19th century to plan Paris. Haussman is considered the precedent of creating what Bodenschatz et al. (2015, p. 7) referred to as “capitalist urbanism under dictatorial conditions.” Although Haussmann’s approach improved the city’s sewage system, parks, and transportation network, he obliterated neighbourhoods, forced people to move to the suburbs, and built wide boulevards (Bodenschatz et al., 2015). Such an approach affirms the dictator’s goal; having wide streets would hinder revolutionary efforts, and soldiers would be able to suppress the masses (Bodenschatz et al., 2015).

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Using urbanism as a powerful tool to install power and manifest strength continued in the 20th century with the new wave of dictatorships in fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia. Urbanism in dictatorship times became a tool for exchange and power (Bodenschatz et al., 2015). In the 1920s, Mussolini’s urban design policies came to oppose what was happening across the democratic European neighbours. His policies paved the way for similar practices by Stalin, Hitler, and later Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal. World War II led to the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, and their policies started to diminish, but Stalin rose to power, and his urban policies expanded toward Eastern Europe (Bodenschatz et al., 2015). Dictators did not only learn from each other but also worked to export their urban policies to other territories under their influence. Their policies also shared common patterns, such as having elements of “Grandeur” — large-scale urban projects, vast streets, and monumental buildings (Bodenschatz et al., 2015, p. 19). On the other hand, they also planned housing and transportation projects to transform society into a better future (Bodenschatz et al., 2015). The promise of a better future is a reappearing concept during the modernist planning of Brasilia, which will be referred to later in this essay. In brief, dictators adopted their cities to demonstrate their power and to impress people with a promise of a better future.

In this essay, I explore the relationship between dictators and urbanism, focusing on the case of Cairo, Egypt. By urbanism, I refer to the processes and conditions of urban development. My research question is what urban strategies did the Egyptian regime adapt to convey its authoritarian rule? My thesis is that dictators use urban development as means of consolidating power and controlling society. I will examine this thesis by analysing the urban policies and strategies of the Egyptian regime. The essay starts with a literature review of relevant urban trends and concepts to use as the basis for analysis. The second part of the essay gives a brief context of urban development in Cairo. The third part focuses on two major strategies concerning the surveillance of the public realm and the development of the new capital.

Photo by Tienko Dima on Unsplash

The Closed, Modernist, and Unjust City.

By addressing 20th-century dictatorships, we gain insights into the practices and strategies followed in producing and developing urban conditions under non-democratic rules (Bodenschatz et al., 2015). Lefebvre (1992) positions this political-spatial practice as not solely rooted in dictatorships but somewhat inherent to modernity. To further this position and to understand how contemporary urban theories relate to current-day dictatorships, I look at the work of Richard Sennett of the Public Realm, the critic of the modernist city by James Holston, and the Just City theory by Susan Fainstein.

The Closed System

In his work on the public realm, Richard Sennett explores the relationship between urban design and society, and he presents two dichotomies: the open and closed systems. According to Sennett (2010), an ‘open’ system is an urban design that prioritises public accessibility, participation, and inclusion. An open system can be reflected in public spaces that are easy to access and use. Open systems are designed to be permeable and allow people to flow through and use them easily. While a ‘closed’ system prioritises control and exclusion to keep certain people out and restrict access to certain areas. A closed system takes shape through narrow sidewalks, high walls, and impenetrable buildings. Closed systems discourage the flow of people. Sennett (2010) argues that open systems are better for fostering a strong sense of community and encouraging public engagement, contrary to closed systems that tend to foster isolation and social fragmentation. He claims that the open system is characterised by its contextualisation, porosity, flexibility, and accessibility. On the contrary, he defines the closed system as a rigid and over-determined form, which refers to urban spaces with too specific uses assigned to them.

Sennett critiques the tendency to over-determine, over-planning and over-designing public spaces that tend to impose a particular vision and limit the potential of spaces for collective use. He argues that over-determination can lead to a fragmentation of the public realm and a weakening of social bonds. He instead promotes a more open approach with a degree of under-determination that allows spaces to adapt and evolve over time through the use and appropriation by different groups. Sennett links autocratic regimes and over-determination as he argues that over-determination is a byproduct of controlling public spaces, as the latter is associated with the regime’s security.

Over-determination became a norm in modern urbanism through the excessive spread of zoning regulations in the 20th century. For example, Le Corbusier, a modernism pioneer, strived to erase street life — which he referred to as the ‘disorder of street life’, and his approach to master planning aimed to codify and pre-define all elements of the city (Sennett, 2010). The urge to know what to do before taking action is an essential characteristic of the closed system, reinforcing the desire to control and the need for security and order (Sennett, 2010). The same desire is shared with dictatorial regimes, where surveillance frames the public realm daily and prohibits specific actions. The monitored public realm becomes a stage of acute regime presence (Sennett, 2010).

Photo by Thandy Yung on Unsplash

The Modernist City

In 1960, the Brazilian government moved its capital from Rio De Janeiro to Brasília. A new ambitious capital with the dream to connect the whole country to the centre. As a product of the 60s, Brasília is a particular example of a modernist city planned according to the Athens Charter and the four functions: dwelling, work, recreation, and transportation, and organised through the concept of zoning — what Holston (1989) referred to as ‘total city planning’.

James Holston (1989) studied the planning and development of Brasília; he considers Brasília a representation of the gap between what the modernist city promises and what it delivers. According to Holston, Brasília failed on two interrelated levels: first to respond to the social and cultural needs of the local population, and second to acknowledge the context and history of the place where it was built. As a consequence, the city became a top-down project parachuted into the social fabric. It failed to establish an identity and foster belonging among its inhabitants and social problems started to emerge such as poverty and crime. In contrast, the modernist city comes with intentions and promises to create efficient urban environments where social discrimination is decreased due to the standardisation of architecture. However, this pursuit of social cohesion failed to avert class segregation as the city is planned based on the organisation of housing according to work — which is hierarchical — hereafter, according to Holston (1989) producing hierarchical divisions through its different zones.

Modernist planning with its promises was envisioned as an instrument of social regulation (Bodenschatz et al., 2015), in a way portraying the state as the sole organiser of life and highlighting the focus on the centralization of authority (Holston, 1989).

The Just City

Susan Fainstein’s Just City theory is a critical perspective on urban development based on the principles of equity, democracy, and diversity. Her theory considers the importance of inclusion and social justice in decision and policy-making processes (Fainstein, 2010). The urban vision of the Just City counts on a collaborative and pluralistic welfare system rather than a dominated system of the state bureaucracy. Fainstein (2010) believes that a Just City is designed and governed according to the following principles:

  1. Participation and inclusion in decision making
  2. Adequate distribution of goods and services (housing, transportation, education, employment) to all residents regardless of their socioeconomic conditions
  3. Protection of the rights of marginalised and vulnerable groups, such as low-income residents, immigrants, and people of colour
  4. Providing accessible public services and places such as parks, schools, and healthcare facilities

Feinstein (2010) argues that engaging and including marginalised groups in planning processes is not a trait of dictators. While other writers (Bodenschatz et al., 2015) would argue that dictators might still aspire to gain ‘social approval’ of their large projects, they aspire to reach a consensus and appeal to their people by simulating a promising newness and greatness. The writers would still consider the people in question here only to be those with access to these projects, such as state employees and society’s elites who have access to the urban centre, use the city’s infrastructure, and benefit from the urban policies. Therefore, seeking ‘social approval’ does not include what Fainstein referred to as marginalised groups; instead, it becomes an exclusion process that ignores the interests and needs of a portion of the population. By excluding marginalised groups from decision-making processes, dictators eliminate the Just City.

The three theories presented in the literature present an opposite definition of a city under dictatorship:

  1. In cities under dictatorships, the public realm is over-determined and discourages inclusion and openness.
  2. It is a city based on ‘ideal’ principles with utopian promises, however, detached from its people’s social and cultural conditions.
  3. It is a city where participation is exclusive or non-existent and where other social justice conditions are absent.

In the next section, I focus on the case of this essay, Cairo, and I use these theories to analyse the urban strategies implemented in Cairo. As a start, I provide a brief overview of the context of urban development in Cairo.

Google Earth Snapshot of Greater Cairo (2023)

Urban Development in Cairo

Cairo is the capital of Egypt and is home to more than 20 million people. It is one of the most populated urban areas in the world (World Population Review, 2020). The excessive overpopulation made governing Cairo a challenging task for the successive governments of Egypt since its independence in the 1950s (Sims, 2015). Successive leaders shared similar strategies to relieve and de-densify Cairo, a phenomenon of expanding crowded urban areas through an endless supply of vacant public lands (Sims, 2015). In 1996, Hosni Mobarak referred to this strategy as the “conquest of the desert” when he launched a new urban development project. While giving a speech, he outlines the vision behind his strategy (Sims, 2015, p. 26):

Leaving the narrow [Nile] valley and fanning out, in a planned and organised manner, throughout the country, has become an unavoidable necessity. Given these facts, the conquest of the desert is no longer a slogan or dream but a necessity dictated by the spiralling population growth. What is required is not a token exodus into the desert but a complete reconsideration of the distribution of population throughout the country.

The process of expansion toward the desert had been gaining momentum before Mobarak’s regime; it has been around for fifty years since Abdel Nasser’s regime in the 1950s, followed by Sadat, then Mobarak, and current-day President El-Sisi (Sims, 2015). Egypt’s desert appealed to be a playground for a ‘new Egypt’, contrary to the crowded and messy density around the Nile Valley and Delta (Sims, 2015). Abdel Nasser (1956–1970) started with the expansion and development of Nasr City, a new urban development 14 km east of Cairo, with the ambition to establish a new capital. The project constituted new government buildings, commercial spaces, housing, and sports facilities. However, his successor Anwar Sadat (1970–1981), moved back the capital to the centre of Cairo and continued the desert reclamation with the development of eight new cities surrounding Cairo. Hosni Mobarak (1981–2011) continued the intense focus on desert development by planning and building new cities, agricultural zones, tourist hubs, and industrial zones. The desert reclamation and development schemes faced four main interrelated points of criticism (Sims, 2015):

  1. The lack of affordable housing failed to attract working-class populations: the new settlements turned into ghost towns with a ‘forever under construction’ state since selling and occupying the large residential areas was challenging.
  2. The high cost: the development of the new towns consumed land and came at a high cost for the state. Current-day developments are also highly dependent on debts and loan schemes.
  3. The dominance of car-dependent mobility: Not only the lack of affordable housing was a way to exclude working-class Egyptians from accessing the new cities but also only caters to the car-owning middle-class and wealthy population. The cities are spread distances away from commercial and service hubs with disconnection to the formal public transportation system.
  4. An “I-am-not-in-Egypt” (Sims, 2015, p. 492) illusion was created due to the marginalisation process. The new settlements were home to high-end, private, expensive hospitals, sports facilities, schools, universities, and business hubs. People did not need to leave their gated surroundings as everything was accessible and close to them.

Today’s trends in Sisi’s regime are similar, despite the different political contexts after the 2011 revolution and the 2013 coup. Sisi’s regime is considered a dictatorship in the following analysis, as it is an army-state where the army and the police manage and control the country’s power. Human Rights Watch (2022) reports that his regime has the highest human rights violations in Egypt’s history, with imprisoned journalists, activists, and human rights defenders. The following analysis focuses on two primary strategies under Sisi’s regime and the by-products of his urban development schemes. The first strategy is the control and surveillance of the public realm through redesigning the Tahrir Public Square in downtown Cairo. The second strategy is developing the New Administrative Capital 40 km east of the Cairo metropolitan area. It is a mega-project aimed to occupy 714 km² of desert land with ‘grandeur’ as its central theme, with the largest palaces, skyscrapers, and airports in the making.

The Surveillance and Control of the Public Realm

Pedro Ugarte/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Public squares have been the epicentre of revolutions and political protests worldwide. In Georgia, the Rose Revolution took Tibilisi’s Freedom Square in 2003 to overthrow president Eduard Shevardnadze. In Kyrgyzstan, protesters occupied Ala-Too square in 2005 before ousting President Askar Akayev. Likewise, in Ukraine, Independence square was the scene of clashes with police forces (Ford, 2014). Similarly, Tahrir Square played the same role as the focal point for the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Around 2 million people occupied the square and demanded the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and his regime (Al Jazeera, 2011).

Historically, the square was developed in the 19th century and was inspired by Haussmann’s Parisian model to appeal to urban middle and upper-class Europeans under the British colony (Riphagen & Woltering, 2018). The square has a rich history with protests, in 1919, with an anti-colonial uprising targeting the surrounding area of Downtown Cairo that symbolised British colonialism (Riphagen & Woltering, 2018). In 1952, Policemen and students torched buildings in the Downtown area again as it was associated with the British colonial authority. Consequently, in the same year after the coup d’etat led by Abdel Nasser, the square identity and its surrounding area began to change. New buildings such as the Nile Hilton Hotel and the Arab League headquarters were built with a modern vision detached from the European coloniser (Riphagen & Woltering, 2018). During Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the square regained its identity as a political space; it witnessed various protests against Mubarak, such as a large protest opposing the decision of Mubarak’s support for the US war against Iraq in 2003 (Schemm, 2003). Mubarak’s regime’s fear of more significant movements started when he took office in 1981; his regime created an emergency law that would prevent groups of people from gathering in public squares and lead to arrest (Ford, 2014). In January 2011, the square was constantly full of protesters from all over Cairo and Egypt until the fall of Mubarak on February 11. In 2013, a large opposition against Mohamed Morsi, who was elected president after the revolution, built up, and large demonstrations were organised in Tahrir Square (Riphagen & Woltering, 2018). The protests continued until Morsi was forced out of power in a bloody coup d’etat by the army, led back then by current president Abdel Fatah Sisi (Smith, 2017). With Sisi in power, authoritarianism was re-established in Tahrir square. Sisi’s regime continued with the same logic of surveillance and the ban on assembly of the public square (Bar’el, 2017; Riphagen & Woltering, 2018), fearing a similar movement to the one that brought him to power.

This historical evolution of Tahrir Square and its current state reflects the open and closed systems theory presented by Sennett (2010). I argue that Tahrir Square, as a public space, is an overdetermined and closed space. According to Riphagen and Woltering (2018), Tahrir square became a legitimate tool for the military’s authoritarian rule. The regime tried to empty the square as much as possible; open areas were divided into smaller ones, often interrupted by sidewalks and green zones. The square logic of gathering and assembly changed to a space of avoidance and fear. Police stations, private security guards, large monuments, and surveillance cameras are spread across the square to instil fear and control (Ford, 2014). In addition, the square is closed off on any occasion that could turn into a protest (Riphagen & Woltering, 2018).

To sum up, the surveillance of the public realm in Tahrir square serves as a tool for the authoritarian regime to control and prevent any possible opposition. It has taken shape through policies (the ban on assembly by Mubarak) and design interventions (redesigning the square during Sisi’s rule). This refers back to the description of the monitored public realm by Sennett (2010) as a stage of acute regime presence.

Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Capital City

Historically, large urban development projects have focused on capital cities since ancient times. In 1931, the Master Plan for Rome was one of the first European authoritarian capital projects, followed by Moscow in 1935, Berlin in 1937, Lisbon after 1938, and Madrid after 1941. Capital cities under authoritarian regimes envisioned urban growth and highlighted elements of ‘grandeur’. Capital cities changed forms under these new planning projects, and city centres were replaced by modern car-friendly centres catering to the new elites (Bodenschatz et al., 2015). Brazilia comes back here as a modernist example of a capital city with its large vision to connect Brazil’s regions with large highways and establishes its sovereignty as a capital at the centre of the country (Holston, 1989). A more contemporary example of a capital city is Myanmar, where the ruling government moved from Yangon, where 5 million people live, to a newly established capital, Naypyidaw, in 2005 (Ford, 2014). The new city is completely isolated from the population, and only governmental administrations and military facilities can be found there. According to the government, the reason for moving the capital was security concerns which later confirmed the governmental tactic in 2007 when the Saffron Revolution started. The country’s military regime remained in power as protests were never able to reach the new capital (Ford, 2014). The city is characterised by large highways (20 lanes) that would eliminate any possible demonstration to reach any critical landmark; journalists have referred to this practice as “dictatorship by cartography” (Varadarajan, 2007).

Similar to Myanmar, Egypt is not only invested in the planning of its capital but is currently building a new capital 45 kilometres east of its historical capital Cairo. In 2015, Sisi’s regime announced the New Administrative Capital. This new city would isolate the majority of Egyptians from their capital and, like Myanmar, protect the regime against any possible scenarios (Mandour, 2021). As the capital is still under construction, articles and documentaries have been the only sources to showcase the plans and the significant anticipations behind them (Vox, 2022; Neo, 2021). According to the plans, the new capital will house the whole administration departments of the country, including the ministry of defence, a presidential palace, and the parliament, among others. The concept of ‘grandeur’ reappears when looking at the new capital city and how it is being described; according to the plans (Vox, 2022), the city will consist of the largest flag, the largest defence headquarters in the world, the largest mosque and church, the tallest building in Africa, and a park 6-times the size of New York’s Central Park. The elements of grandeur aim to demonstrate strength and showcase the vital role of the military (Neo, 2021). In addition, the city will include housing for politicians, civil servants, and other residents who will work in the capital; however, the residential districts and compounds are separated by different levels of income and jobs, a similar practice to what was described in Brazilia (Neo, 2021).

Sisi is not the first president to attempt to build a new capital city. As described earlier in the context section, all Egyptian presidents shared the vision of conquering the desert and building new cities. Abdel Nasser wanted to build a new capital after the revolution in 1952 to establish its legitimacy and create a modern city that reflected the progress of the new regime (Elshahed, 2015). Nasr City was built in the 1960s around 13 km from central Cairo. Nasr City aimed to attract educated upper and middle-class residents with high-end modern design and architecture of apartments, villas, and green spaces (Elshahed, 2015). Ministries were also relocated from the downtown area to new administrative buildings. Today, Nasr City is mismanaged and joined the chaotic urban development processes of larger Cairo. According to Elshahed, Nasr City represented a modernist top-down project where bureaucracy and hierarchy were prioritised over the needs of the local population. The city was a field for the president’s vision and excluded opposing voices. However, today’s state of the city proves that it failed to fulfil its promises and attract the desired population.

The New Capital City fate is still to be discovered, but a lot can be learned from Nasr City and other spatial practices in Cairo. The systematic exclusion and marginalisation of the large population of working-class Egyptians will lead to more segregation, and the Just City becomes an impossible dream under the rule of the elite. Designing cities according to hierarchy and distributing people according to their job types would only lead to failure, and the promise of a great future will soon be defeated.

In summary, the authoritarian regime in Egypt wanted to protect itself far away from the population who might revolt again. Hence, the regime built a new capital 50 km away from the city’s centre, where demonstrations usually occur. The capital becomes connected to the public realm. The new capital city in Cairo is correlated to the epicentre of the 2011 revolution Tahrir Square. Since the public realm cannot be endlessly controlled, the logic becomes to move the city somewhere the masses cannot reach.


This essay discussed two urban strategies practised under authoritarian regimes in Egypt: the surveillance of the public realm and the establishment of a new capital city. The strategies were connected to contemporary theories in urban studies: the open city (Sennett, 2010), the just city (Fainstein, 2010), and the modernist city (Holston, 1989).

In conclusion, the urban space has been a field for dictators to control and oppress their people. This has been manifested from the 19th-century practices in Europe to current-day practices in Egypt, and Myanmar, discussed in this essay. The urban practices go beyond the two discussed in this paper; other practices include infrastructure projects, demolitions and urban renewal projects, among others. Most often, authoritarian regimes aim to gain legitimisation and present a positive image through the large projects they adopt, which cannot be done solely by urban practitioners but with the support of the media and its power to establish propaganda. This leads to a question to explore: how do authoritarian regimes use large urban projects for propaganda?

This essay was written as part of the course “The Field of Urban Studies” at Malmö University.


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Abbas Sbeity
Abbas Sbeity

Community– & Human–Centered Researcher, Designer, & Facilitator