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 Egypt’s Bifurcated Spatiality: Social Control and Global Linkages

Yezid Sayigh


The administration of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Sisi has a highly compartmentalized spatial imagining of Egypt that is generating profound economic and social bifurcation. Whereas paths of economic and social stratification since the establishment of the republic in 1953 and of state capitalism under then President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1961 were inchoate and inconsistent by comparison, a more homogenized version of these legacies is taking form under the Sisi administration. This imagining relegates the mass of Egypt’s territory and population to semi-invisibility (where it is controlled, coerced, etc.) and attaches low economic value to it, while seeing key physical locations in the country as occupying particular positions in a global setting. These privileged physical locations either reflect an aspiration (to be like Dubai/Saudi Arabia), or constitute a sales pitch (Egypt as sitting astride the world’s most important shipping route) – with the state working assiduously in both cases to maintain itself as the gatekeeper and orchestrator of economic access and investment opportunities. Still incipient, the foundations of an oligarchic form of capitalism are taking shape. This may privilege a business class that could eventually acquire sufficient consolidated economic power and autonomy to shift from crony status to oligarchy as an independent actor capable of defending its wealth. Or, as seems more likely at present, it will produce a fusion of state bureaucrats and officers, who will remain dominant, and favored business counterparts. Either way, a significant transformation is underway in Egypt’s political economy and class formation.


In more detail:

Egypt, in common with most Arab and developing countries, is globalized by the measures of reliance on external trade (raw or semi-processed material exports), inflows of capital, and consumer and technology import dependency, but is at the bottom rung of integration into global value chains. This is expressed in a bifurcated approach to the economy, with distinct spatial manifestations. Economic sectors that are, or have the potential to be, the most socially profitable (agriculture, industry, services) are placed behind extremely high Non-Tariff Barriers and protection and, along with the vast majority of the population, physically located almost exclusively in interior parts of the country (almost exclusively in the Nile Valley and Delta) where foreign companies rarely invest. 

The exceptions to this are mineral-rich and land reclamation areas of the southern “new” valley and western desert, where global multi-nationals and GCC investors are given franchises, and the Suez Canal Development Zone, which is heavily promoted as the national economy’s main engine and as a hub for global shipping, related services, and industry. But in both these geographical categories, it is the Egyptian state that is the promoter and partner, almost entirely through the military, which by definition and by law is the dominant (in some cases suzerain) authority in border regions (including coasts) and designated “strategic zones of military importance”. Indeed, because the latter designation includes the country’s main “national roads” connecting its principal cities and economic zones (in which the military has an exclusive economic franchise), a map can be drawn showing all “nodes” countrywide that state leaders consider valuable and allowing analysis of the objectives and assumptions linked to each and its place in a wider imagining of the domestic and the external and of the boundaries between them.  

Spatial differentiation also reveals how “social relations are territorialized, institutionalized, and comprehended” by Egypt’s rulers. Much as in the political economy, spatial differentiation reflects and consolidates specific forms of social stratification and aspiration. This is graphically illustrated by the construction of fantasy “smart” cities that mimic the Dubai/Saudi model allows the upper middle class (private sector, but also senior state bureaucrats, including officers and judges) to avoid “real” Egypt. It is further demonstrated by the new administrative capital being built in a desert area to the east of Cairo, to which civil servants and workers will be bused in from dormitory suburbs, by the separate “international” schools and universities for the elite’s children, and by the planned High-Speed Train network (affordable only by the affluent) to link nine up-market cities and the new capital.

Elsewhere, in contrast, industrial and other categories of workers are directed to custom-designed cities in economic development zones (such as Ismailia in the canal zone, Toshka in the southern desert of Upper Egypt). Upper Egypt and the southern border region, long neglected and marginalized, offer another illustration: state investment and development initiatives reflect a perception of their inhabitants as a benighted class to be targeted with benevolent interventions. So-called “desert cities” constructed there are intended for workers and farmers and low-income groups, while a new railway being considered connecting Aswan to Toshka and on to Sudan is geared to the transport of working class people, livestock, and grain. 

What this reveals is how ruling elites are rethinking the regions of Egypt in relation to what is to be kept local, versus what interacts with the global (albeit in highly narrow and controlled ways). 


Yezid Sayigh is a Senior Fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where he leads the program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States (CMRAS). His work focuses on the comparative political and economic roles of Arab armed forces and nonstate actors, the impact of war on states and societies, and the politics of post-conflict reconstruction and security sector transformation in Arab transitions, and authoritarian resurgence.