Building Politics: Urban Transformation and Governance in Cairo and Istanbul

The dissertation project examines the political economy of urban governance in developing cities. I argue that neo-liberalization and globalization have empowered a new variety of local and international non-state actors and state agencies to redesign urban public and private buildings, spaces and infrastructure. I demonstrate that these actors invest in holistic redesign of urban neighborhoods as a political tool; expecting urban redesign to mold societal behaviors, construct ‘imagined communities,’ reorder power hierarchies, and manage non-excludable goods. Thus, investing in transforming the urban built environment is motivated by a political logic that goes beyond the distribution of urban ‘goods’ to competing constituencies. I argue however that urban redesign as a political tool operates differently in Cairo and Istanbul. In a neo-liberalizing Cairo, where the state has retreated from governing, non-state actors mobilize a mosaic of different visions of urban redesign as a political tool that would replace the politics once performed by the now defunct state. In Istanbul, with the revival of a strong interventionist state in the 2000s, non-state actors and the state mobilize congruent visions of urban redesign to complement a larger state program to produce a regime of differentiated governance that manages the paradoxes of globalization through bypassing local democratic institutions. I trace that political work through examining six urban rejuvenation projects led by non-state actors and state agencies in historical zones of Istanbul and Cairo. I compiled the qualitative cases through a year of fieldwork in Cairo and Istanbul in 2011-2012, throughout which I personally conducted in-depth interviews, participant observation and archival research in Arabic and Turkish.

To examine the impact of globalization and neo-liberalization on the governance of Cairo and Istanbul I study top-down urban plans, urban resistances and city-level institutional legacies as one interacting eco-system of governance. Thus, I investigate how competing actors mobilize economic resources, technical expertise, the materiality of the built environment and informal tactics in order to empower their visions for each neighborhood and the city-level institutional legacies that shape the realization of those visions. Ultimately, I argue that studying the mobilization of urban redesign to empower political agendas within their institutional contexts is crucial for revealing the sites of political contention that define state-society relations in the contemporary Middle East. My work thus sheds light on the localized struggles underlying recent large-scale protests, like those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Istanbul’s Gezi Park. 

Committee: Mark Beissinger (Chair), Amaney Jamal, Timothy Mitchell, Deborah Yashar.