Do you know geography?

Cairo needs no introduction to most readers. It is the largest city in both Africa and the Middle East, capital of Egypt for over a thousand years, and an important political and cultural focal point in the region.

Table 1 shows that Egypt has been urbanising from quite early in the 20th century, but it also shows that that the urban population appears to have levelled off (and even declined) in the last decade, at roughly 42 per cent of the total. Over the same period national population growth has been brought down from 2.8 to 2 per cent annually. Does this mean that Egypt is well advanced in its demographic transition and that urban population has stabilised? Probably not. Two per cent national annual growth is still high, and seems to be worryingly stuck at this level. Total female fertility has also stag- nated at 3.5 children/lifetime.

The figures presented here are from the Census of Egypt, which maintains an administrative definition of what is an urban place. This means, for example, that there are cities (provincial sub-capitals in frontier provinces) with populations numbering in the hundreds and at the same time there are rural villages on the periphery of Cairo and in the Delta whose populations are in the hundreds of thousands. A recent study of the 1996 Census results has redistributed the Egyptian population by settlement type and size, and it calculates that 66.8 per cent of the population now lives in cities and "urban villages" with populations over 10,000, while only 33.2 per cent of the population in rural villages (Denis, 1999).

 History of Cairo

Cairo (al qahira, "the victorious") was founded in AD 969, on land adjacent to Fustat, another Islamic city established at the dawn of Islam in AD 647. These cities were themselves preceded by Roman and Pharaonic settlements (Babylon and Memphis) in the same approximate location at the strategic southern apex of the Nile Delta.
By the 14th century, under the Mamaluks, Cairo had become a metropolis unrivalled anywhere in the medieval world, dominating regional trade and exhibiting a vast concentration of wealth and architectural splendour.i But by the 17th century, under Ottoman rule, Cairo had entered a long period of decline. It was only in the mid 19th century, under Mohamed Ali Pasha and his successors, that Cairo began to reassert itself politically and to enter into a process of economic growth and modernisation, dependent in large part on European entrepreneurs and technicians. Entrepreneurial minorities such as Copts, Greeks, Armenians, and Levantines figured heavily in economic life. From 1882 until 1936 Cairo, and Egypt as a whole, fell under British colonial rule.
Following World War II and the July 1952 Revolution, Cairo's expansion accelerated under a socialist government which saw itself as the vanguard of development. At the same time, the phenomenon of informal urban development, that has become the defining feature of Cairo's growth in the last four decades, began to appear.

The Physical City

Cairo is situated on the Nile at a point where the flat flood plain, constricted by desert hills both to the west and the east, begins to opens out into the Nile Delta (See Map 1.) Historic Cairo (i.e. pre-1860) was confined to slightly higher ground abutting the eastern hills. Modern urban expansion under Ismail Pasha and his successors was concentrated to the west of the historical city up to the Nile, north to Abbassia, Shubra, and Heliopolis, and south to Maadi and Helwan. Only in the post-war period did Cairo's expansion extend across the Nile into Giza and north into Shubra el Kheima Governorate.
Practically all of Cairo's expansion has been on rich agricultural land. Only the eastern districts, most notably Medinet Nasr, Nozha (and earlier Abassia and Heliopolis), have been created on what was desert land. Cairo has a hot dry climate. Rain is very rare. The city has no surface water drainage system, and the rare showers can cause traffic chaos. Dust-bearing desert winds are frequent, especially in the spring, and combating dust is a never-ending domestic chore.

Map 1:

The map shows the expansion of the main built up areas of Greater Cairo according to three periods, pre-1860, 1860-1950, and 1950 to the present.
The population of Greater Cairo is currently around 14-15 million inhabitants, which represents almost a quarter of Egypt's population of 67 million inhabitants and almost half of the country's urban population. Cairo is a "primate city" and has maintained its urban dominance over the last few decades. The second largest city, Alexandria, is only 30 per cent the size of Cairo, and below this there are a grouping of provincial towns in the 200,000 to 400,000 population range, none of which contains even 5 per cent of Cairo's population. The inhabitants of entire Egyptian provinces (not to mention Gulf sheikhdoms) could easily fit into a number of Cairo's crowded neighbourhoods.

The demographic composition of Cairo is markedly homogeneous. That is, there are very few minority communities and these are mostly quite small. In addition, these minority groups do not concentrate in exclusive neighbourhoods. There are practically no ethnic minorities, except perhaps Nubians and northern Sudanese and, lately refugees from Southern Sudan and the Horn of Africa. Coptic Christians, who make up roughly 10 per cent of the population of Cairo, are well integrated to urban life. Foreigners (Westerners and also residents from various Arab countries) have a strong presence, as one would expect in a cosmopolitan regional capital.
The population of Cairo is characterised by its youth. Over 33 per cent of the population of Greater Cairo is under 15 years of age (versus 37.6 per cent nationally). The sex ratio for Cairo is exactly the same as that of the country as a whole (48.8 per cent are females).
Currently the population of Greater Cairo is estimated to be growing at roughly 2.0 per cent annually. However, the labour force is probably growing at over 3.0 per cent per annum, due to the large youth bulge in the population pyramid now reaching working age.

Greater Cairo is a rare phenomenon of a third world mega-city where, since the 1980s net in-migration has almost stopped. The metropolis's expansion is fuelled by natural increase and the incorporation of surrounding rural populations. This fact, clearly supported by census figures and various studies, seems however to be ignored by most Egyptian observers, and the view is commonly held that rural migrants continue to pour into the city and that most of the problems are due to them.


As the capital and primate city of Egypt, the economy of Greater Cairo largely reflects that of the nation and, indeed it probably contributes half of the Gross Domestic Product. In spite of many calls for decentralisation of the bureaucracy, government is heavily concentrated in the capital, and it also contains most of the higher-order private sector services. With the establishment of industrial zones in the new towns of Sixth of October and Tenth of Ramadan (30 and 50 km from the city centre respectively), Cairo has also become the focal point of most modern manufacturing. Finally, Cairo has a well-developed tourist economy, catering both to Western tourists and Gulf Arabs, and it also enjoys an important position as a regional centre for conferences. Paralleling the formal economy, Cairo also has an immense informal economy, made up of hundreds of thousands of small and micro-enterprises. The informal sector absorbs over half of the city's labour force and informal employment is expanding at a faster rate than formal employment. Also, as estimated in the recent work of Lima's Institute for Liberty and Democracy, informal investment in residential real estate in Greater Cairo is valued at over US$ 36 billion, representing 39 per cent of the city's total (Sims, 2000, p 38).
Female participation in the labour force is slightly higher in Cairo than the nation as a whole (19.7 per cent versus 15.3 per cent), with female employment showing a marked concentration in the ranks of the civil service (59 per cent of Cairo's female labour force), (Institute of National Planning, 1998, p. 132).


Greater Cairo is made up of the whole of Cairo Governorate and the urban parts of Giza Governorate (west of the Nile) and Qaliubia Governorate (north of Cairo Governorate). Governorates are the main divisions of local administration in Egypt, and there is no macro-administrative structure which covers Greater Cairo as a distinct entity. However, there are certain service authorities (e.g. water, wastewater, public transport) whose responsibilities extend through all of Greater Cairo. For planning purposes, a "Greater Cairo Region" has been established in the national-level General Organisation for Physical Planning.

For most investments and day to day administration, governance in Greater Cairo is organised through the three governorates and their administrative districts, as follows:

  • „ Cairo (classified as an "urban" governorate): 26 districts (ahiya)
  • „ Giza (classified as a "rural" governorate) 5 districts of Giza City plus outlying village administrative units
  • „ Qaliubia (classified as a "rural" governorate) districts of Shubra El Kheima City plus outlying village administrative units.

Governorates have considerable local executive powers, but they command practically no own-source revenues. They are dependent on central government budget allocations both for recurring and capital costs. They are also weakened by the peculiar dual executive system whereby national ministries have their own directorates at the governorate level through which sectoral budget allocations flow. Governorates suffer from the ills present throughout the Egyptian civil service: incredibly bloated bureaucracies and abysmal salaries, which makes it nearly impossible for the administration to play its assigned role as the primary agent of development.

Governorates are purely executive bodies, with all important officials (e.g. governors, city council and district chiefs) appointed by central government. Since 1979 a parallel system of representative government has been in operation, with elected local popular councils at the district and governorate levels. These councils must approve development plans
and budgets, and are to provide the voice of citizens in the deliberations of executive government. They are completely dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party and in practice their powers and influence are quite limited.
Although there has been a recent rise in civil society organisations at the national and regional levels (NGOs, professional syndicates, businessmen associations, etc), at the local and neighbourhood levels such organisations remain very limited in number, scope, and effectiveness.