Egypt: Struggles that fuelled a revolution

Published on Pambazuka News (first on Jadaliyya), by Mohamed Elshahed, February 22, 2012.

The film ‘Bulaq’ succeeds in highlighting the fact that strong social ties and a community’s sense of ownership of place are far stronger than state plans and oppression.

‘Bread, freedom, and social justice’ has been one of the most memorable chants from Egypt’s year of mass protests. Although world and Egyptian media have been fixated on the symbolic Tahrir Square, little attention has been directed towards places where many Egyptians converging on the square actually live. Bulaq, only a few hundred meters north of Tahrir Square, is one such neighbourhood. The residents of Bulaq represent the essence of why Egyptians erupted in mass protests last year.  

This is a community that has suffered for nearly forty years at the hands of the Sadat and Mubarak regimes, which aimed to erase the district from Cairo’s map. ‘Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution’ is a short documentary film that shifts the focus from the square and into a community at the heart of the struggle for social justice … //

… The film portrays the intimacy and sense of community that Bulaq offers. It also highlights the sense of security provided by living within such a community. Despite the economic hardships and the deteriorating physical environment, the community is thriving socially. The filmmaker intercuts interviews with scenes of everyday life: a woman smoking outside her home, a butcher cutting meat, a child on a bicycle, and a man who is uncomfortable with the presence of a camera and demands to know what is being filmed. Because this has been an ongoing struggle for decades, it has become an intergenerational struggle where young adults echo the concerns of their older neighbours. The film succeeds in highlighting the fact that strong social ties and a community’s sense of ownership of place are far stronger than state plans and oppression. In light of this long struggle, as well as this last year’s unfolding upheaval, the film captures a sense of anxiety and uncertainty.

However, the film lacks historical perspective and context. Although it focuses on the present situation, particularly in light of the revolution, it could have benefited from a well-researched introduction. While the English translations are fairly accurate, the interviews fail to capture how the residents of this community fit within the larger context of Cairo. Also, it would be useful to link the experience of Bulaq to other communities in the city suffering from the same state-sanctioned brutality and eviction. Another shortcoming of the film is its one-sidedness. It would have made a stronger case against government policies if the audience had the chance to hear from officials directly how they view the issue of Bulaq. The multinational developers and hotel chains that also benefit from this government policy are also unheard. An interview with the management of the Hilton Hotel overlooking the district, for example, could have been interesting.

The film is well shot and provides a series of sharp images ranging from intimate close-ups to wide panorama shots. The filmmaker uses a combination of still frames for scenery along with moving shots where he follows some of the film’s characters as they traverse Bulaq’s streets. The sound quality and editing are well done.

The strongest aspect of the film is the residents’ direct address to the audience without the mediation of a third party. They are strong-willed. They know their rights and they demand justice regardless of the obstacles. ‘Those responsible for demolitions have to be tried,’ says one man. ‘In neighborhoods like Bulaq we love each other and work together like one family,’ says a woman. Another man confirms that ‘the owners of this place are the people living here; we own this place.’

‘Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution’ provides a much-needed portrait of the real places where Egyptians live. Officials turn a blind eye to the community they were elected to serve. With Egypt’s centralized governance and lack of local authority, Bulaq residents continue to live under the threat of forced evictions and demolitions. Their right to the city is constantly under duress. Meanwhile, the government carries on with its Cairo2050 plan that aims to transform the area into a zone of glass towers and international hotels. Currently under construction is the St. Regis, a six star hotel along the Nile turning its back on Bulaq.

Egypt’s revolution is about the people of Bulaq and their rights. It is about ending crony capitalism that allows such a disregard for citizens while making concessions to international corporations that aim only to increase their profits rather than develop and rejuvenate communities. As was the case with many Egyptians, the eruption of the revolution gave hope to the people of Bulaq. However, over the course of the past year, little has been done to ensure that the violations of the past and state oppression will end. In this sense, Bulaq continues to wait among its ruins for the still unfinished revolution to deliver real change. (full text).


Map of Bulaq / Cairo, Egypt (on Google Earth);

Egypt: Among Bulaq’s Ruins in an Unfinished Revolution, on Global Voices, February 20, 2012;

The Arrival City at the Centre of the Arab Revolutions, by Doug Saunders, March 19, 2011;

… about Bulaq typefaces, April 28, 2010;

Evictions, delayed relocation and conspiracy in Bulaq, on Egypt Independent, by Louise Sarant, April 3, 2010:
Anger is rising in Bulaq Abul Ela, a low-income neighborhood bordered by the Nile on one side and the noisy Galaa St. on the other. The government is forcing a growing number of residents to leave their old and often deteriorating houses which it considers uninhabitable and potentially life-threatening. The government has promised the Bulaq residents new homes, which will only be made available when their old homes have effectively collapsed. As a result, some families are forced to live indefinitely on the streets below their flats, while rumors are quickly spreading that residents are being evicted in order to make way for real estate development projects … ;

File: River Nile and Bulaq, by Piri Reis.jpg;

Bulaq ~ Boulaq ~ Bulak ~ Boulak ~ Bulac ~ Boulac, on sarahstil, by blog owner, with beautiful photos, October 30, 2008;

The Bulaq El-Amiriya Press;

Bulaq on en.wikipedia.

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