Haphazard Urbanization: Urban informality, politics and power in Egypt

Blog post by Deen Sharp

1 Sep 2021, 11:14 a.m.
Deen Sharp

Abstract: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/00420980211040927


Urban informality is a key concept in urban studies and one that scholars continue to actively debate. The ambiguity of what urban informality constitutes in scholarly circles has not prevented governments and policy makers around the world from deploying this term or being concerned about it, however. Egypt is a notable case in point. Since the military regime of Abd al-Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2013 it has placed urban informality – commonly known by the Arabic term ‘ashwa’iyyat (which means haphazard) - as a political priority and framed it as a central threat to the state. The government declared its intention to ‘eliminate’ informal urban areas and that the country would be completely slum-free by 2030. The Egyptian state, however, has no fixed definition of what urban informality is or what exactly it is eradicating. Nevertheless, it has moved to undertake – importantly, not always successfully - the destruction of certain urban areas that it has designated as “informal” and from constructing mass-housing it frames as “formal”.  

The frustration by academics over the wide-ranging meanings of urban informality and vague formulations has led some to declare urban informality to be a myth. Accepting this idea, however, would tell us little about why urban studies scholars have spilt considerable ink trying to come to terms with this concept or why governments have been directed great resources in efforts to ‘eradicate’ it. In this paper “Haphazard Urbanization”, I argue that the elusiveness of urban informality should tell us something about this concept. Rather than dismissing urban informality as a myth or responding to this accusation by searching for a more specific definition, we need to examine the political processes through which this uncertain, yet powerful, concept is produced.

The formal and informal urban divide does political work which requires greater understanding. This is what the paper, “Haphazard Urbanization”, sets out to examine. I understand the appearance of urban informality not as the border of an object or a mode of urbanisation but as a complex power relationship articulated through an unstable political process. Urban informality is a framework that plays an important role in directly shaping the urban order and struggles within it – at times to devastating effect. Urban informality, I argue, is a political intervention that is always fleeting and geographically specific in an otherwise haphazard context. Haphazard urbanisation points to the complex power struggles by a range of actors, both within and beyond the state, through which the formal and informal divide can mark urban life.  

In “Haphazard Urbanization”, I undertake a critical reading of the first major study of informality in Egypt and point to how the urban was divided into the formal and informal through outdated and colonial laws. I show how the Egyptian state was reluctant to utilize the term urban informality until the 1990s when the military state sought to link the Islamist ‘threat’ to it. This article contributes to theorizations of urban informality that aim to be more attentive to the intricate political struggles that underlie the production and durability of this concept.

Haphazard urbanization points to the complex social negotiation between a large array of networks through which the urban is practiced and formed.  Urban Egypt, I argue, is not dominated by urban informality on one side and urban formality on another, but by haphazard urbanisation in which anything can be made to appear formal or informal if there is the will and power to do so.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.


You need to be logged in to make a comment. Please Login or Register

There are no comments on this resource.

Return to Category