December 2018: At the entrance to the Mugamma, Downtown Cairo’s warren of corridors for all things bureaucratic, I forced a smile and said good morning to the woman who half-heartedly frisked me; the metal detectors at the entrance were broken again. On the stairs I passed a police officer manhandling a young man and barely raised my eyes. A few years ago I would have been more curious, but these days I just want to get in and get out, with as little disruption to my day as possible. Much of my life in Cairo has become like this; a maze of well-rehearsed mechanisms for self-preservation.
The first hurdle was to obtain the right form from the various piles on a desk in the middle of the corridor, which is overseen by two policemen. Having successfully reached over the sea of heads to grab one, I headed back down the corridor to pay the fee at the bank. “The systems are down,” an employee announced loudly.
Nothing is ever smooth, but the process was at least familiar, and the frustrating experience bred solidarity among those of us waiting. A hierarchy was arranged of who could stand the longest, and people promised to save spaces; toilet breaks were agreed upon.
The next day I had to return twice, once just to hand in my passport, though it’s long been clear that this part of the process could be accomplished in one trip. Behind the long row of windows, employees are eating sandwiches. As I waited for my name to be called, I tried to catch the eye of the woman behind the glass; a direct smile has always helped me in the past; she summoned me forward. Instead of my passport, however, she handed me a small piece of paper with a number on it and told me to wait down the hall, with no further explanation. This break from familiarity was jarring, and I messaged a friend to let him know where I was, just in case. Because of my extended stay over a number of years, we surmised, my details were being checked by national security. I smoked a few cigarettes out of the grill of a nearby window and tried not to worry.
After a while, I was called in to sit with a policeman, who grunted at me to place my fingers on a machine in front of him—thumb first—and to sit squarely, looking into a camera. He shook his head and I was taken out of the room, and told to wait again. Now I was getting worried, and asked an austere-looking woman whom I hadn’t seen before: What’s happening? She waved me away dismissively, and I returned to my grill to smoke another cigarette. Another hour or so, and a different officer, this time with a teenage boy next to him, apparently working the machines for him, repeated the earlier process. We had more luck this time. The young man explained to me: It’s a new process for foreigners seeking visa extensions; the technology is also new. I’d certainly never seen so many computers, DSLR cameras or fingerprinting equipment in the Mugamma before.
Also in December 2018: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked the Communications Minister, Amr Talaat, to intensify the push to automate government services. A couple of months later, Talaatdetailed Egypt’s ICT strategy at the American Chamber’s monthly luncheon: 100,000 jobs were to be created in Information technology and Communications (ICT) by 2022; the ‘Massar’ initiative would partner older employees with younger ones more familiar with technology; the first innovation lab in Africa (Knowledge City) would be established in Egypt’s new capital, in partnership with the UN, and a development plan for tech ports and economic free zones with tax exemptions for foreign investors. The administration planned to digitize government departments including notarization, driving license renewal, visa applications, utilities and electricity, municipalities, agriculture (farmers cards), ID cards and marriage certificates.
Such investment in information technology has reportedly produced a rapidly growing and lucrative economy, contributing an increase of 14 percent to the nation’s GDP in 2017-18 over the previous year. As Talaat pointed out at the AmCham conference, the sector appears to be relatively unaffected by political instability. But in the context of a wider, fast-tracked neoliberal agenda—one that has become all too familiar in Egypt post-IMF loan—a clear political narrative emerges, with cuts to public sector spending, tax breaks for international investors, and attempts to censor and tax Egypt’s informal sector in a more aggressive manner than ever before. Local newspapers recently reported that CAPMAS (the government’s central statistics agency) has already commenced an economic census—using tablets, not papers as before—with a view to ensuring that all customs, taxes and service fees are collected digitally by May 2019.
The new capital in the desert, Sisi says, is to become a gateway to Egypt’s ‘smart cities era’, among plans for some 26 new cities nationwide. Meanwhile, 22 people died a couple of weeks ago in a train crash that many argued might have been avoided if funds had been allocated to the maintenance of already-existing railway infrastructure, instead of building a sky train through the desert.
The vision of “smart cities” isn’t unique to Egypt’s rulers. India’s Narendra Modi wants to build 100 smart cities in the near future, and governments worldwide have sought to make their cities more ‘efficient’ and ‘sustainable’ through the adoption of new technologies, and to centralize data in order to provide “better” services for their citizens. Multinational corporations and institutions such as IBM, Siemens and the World Bank, too, are taking a large slice of the technological pie.
Noteworthy examples of “smart cities” initiatives include Qlue in Indonesia, a digital platform for citizens to file reports with their local councils about things that need fixing, and Virtual Singapore, which offers “urban dashboards” to enable government officials to monitor energy consumption, track vehicles, control crowds and detect people littering.
IBM began smart city initiatives in 2008, by developing a network of meters and sensors that could detect changes in movement, light, sound and temperature. Placed all over the city, with a central information hub, this network resembles a brain and nervous system. The idea is to harness smartphones as portals of personal or real-time information, connected to a central hub.
“A smart city means a safe city, with cameras and sensors everywhere,” the spokesman for Egypt’s new capital project (the size of Singapore) told foreign journalists during a site visit to the desert utopia late last year. This new administrative capital (60km from the cities of Suez and Ain el-Sokhna) is to be “fully electronic,” with digital home security systems and smart cards to track student attendance and their whereabouts, among many other initiatives.
But surely the ‘smartness’ of cities should come from the emerging demands of their citizens, not directly from distant planners, corporations and governments. The power of a city like Cairo is located within the dense mass of people from all walks of life that rub up against each other, when they are engaged, and when they are able to imagine a better life within their own neighborhoods and localities.
Who will store all this personal data, and who will have access to it?
Despite recent efforts to draft consumer protection laws, a cybercrime law and an e-commerce law, Egypt does not have basic data protection legislation. How might “smart city” technology be used in a place like Egypt, where citizens are being increasingly alienated from public spaces, and where even the simplest administrative tasks involve a lot of patience, and resigning oneself to interfacing with state power and bureaucracy in its many forms and guises?
There are ways to use technology that truly improve the lives of citizens and aren’t intended only to surveil the heck out of them in a Kafkaesque fashion. Norway, for example, now gives citizens tax return forms that are mostly filled out digitally for them in advance. Not surprisingly, a higher percentage of citizens submit these forms, though some people have questioned the ease with which you can now see what your neighbor earns online.
Initiatives like these color the narrative that new technology means things are getting better for Egyptians. The reality, though, is that millions are struggling to make ends meet. Just this week I asked a neighbor why the lines for government bread subsidies in my areas were much longer than usual. “There’s something wrong with the new smart cards,” he told me. “Many people can’t access them like before.” Technological measures that might propel a fraction of the population into a smart, if dystopian, future will not ease the growing divide between the haves and have-nots. “Egyptians can survive a day without water, but not even an hour without the Internet,” according to Ramy Abdallah, IBM’s Smarter Cities sales leader for Africa. I wonder which Egyptians he is speaking for.
February 2019: A friend went through the process of renewing her driving license and car license a few weeks ago in Cairo. She went to the usual office in Bulaq neighborhood to obtain a certificate stating that she had paid all of her outstanding tickets.
It was taking longer than usual. Amira asked the employees sitting around smoking, “What’s the deal?” One of them replied, “The system has been down since yesterday. It won’t work today. If you want my opinion, you should go home.” After having made the journey and waited around, most are reluctant to leave. After a while, one of the employees suggested they go to a different government office in Attaba, quite a drive away. Finally, another employee—who’d known this all along—said it’s possible to go to any post office to obtain clearance for outstanding tickets on a car license. Amira expressed her frustration only to be told, “It’s not my problem. Do what you want with the information I give you.”
Amira was given the runaround for several hours, traveling between offices and government employees, all of whom gave her snippets of information, but never the full picture. At last in the Attaba office she was told she couldn’t be given clearance for her outstanding tickets because the car was registered under someone else’s national ID number. “That’s just what the computer says and I can’t change it.”
Hours later, in the same office she started in, it emerged that this computer had her listed as the owner of her car. She was told to pay LE500 (roughly $29) by a woman loudly eating a sandwich, and she paid eagerly, without asking questions. She was asked to wait while a folder containing all her car documents was located from the basement archive by means of a number scribbled on a tiny slip of paper. This part of the process was surprisingly efficient. Next came the cutting, and laminating, and printing of her license, with a different person performing each task. On her way out, Amira overheard a young man quibbling over the amount of his fines, saying it wasn’t the amount he’d seen online. Eventually he gave up and paid.
A young employee asked if he might accompany Amira to her car. When they arrived he used a gun to stick something to the dashboard; there’s an app in development, he explained. Soon all this would be done online.
“Tahya Masr!” (Long Live Egypt!), Amira replied. She later commented to me that she has no idea how they will run this process. “There’s no brochure, and no one tells you, of course,” she said, laughing. “So, let’s see.”