Moqattam stands up to Carrefour

Residents of Moqattam are protesting plans to build a new branch of  Carrefour, a France-based international chain of commercial malls, at the entrance to their district.

In December 2009, residents of Moqattam, an east Cairo suburb, learned that Carrefour plans to open a branch at the tip of the Salah Salem Road, at the entrance to Moqattam. On a Friday afternoon, some 50 people gathered around the central Nafoura Square in Moqattam mainly to protest the traffic jams that the proposed commercial hub would cause. Residents say Carrefour would disrupt entrance and exit from their neighborhood.

The outcome of the protest remains unknown and its scope is small, but it represents a rare act of collective civil resistance to an urban transformation that would disrupt residents’ daily lives. The protest involved the attempt to influence the decisions of residents’ direct political authority, namely their municipality, which could be held as a step towards democratic practice.

Protesters, including men, women, and children, carried signs reading, “We want a Moqattam free of congestion,” “Carrefour is strangling the city, boycott it,” and “We want a district administration that cares about its people.”

“We are not against Carrefour opening altogether. But their choice of a place to open in Moqattam is very bad because it is set right on the entrance of the neighborhood, from which people come and go everyday,” said Karim Abdel Moneim, who works in a clothing factory. Hisham Ibrahim, a high school student standing next to Abdel Moneim, agreed. “There is not even a parking space to accommodate all the cars that would come for Carrefour,” Ibrahim said.

Throughout the past two decades, the neighborhood on a hill outside Cairo has attracted middle-class residents with its reasonably priced real estate and its calm urban environment.
According to Zyad Elelaimy, a lawyer, Moqattam resident and one of the organizers of the protest, the governor of Cairo decided nine years ago that the building on the Moqattam upward road, branching off Saleh Selem street where the Carrefour is to be built should neither be sold nor turned into office space. This decision was reached due to the same concerns that inhabitants of the neighborhood have today–that a large-scale commercial building would create traffic blocking the entrance to Moqattam. Accordingly, residents addressed letters to the municipality, the governorate, and Carrefour’s administration in Egypt and in France. They have not received any responses.

“It is good for us to get Carrefour to open in Moqattam because it will lead to commercial competition, which in the end, benefits consumers," said Elelaimy. "But why can’t they open in a less critical spot in the neighborhood?”

Gehane Youssef, an IT engineer, said she came to the protest rather than simply resenting the project once it was too late. “I came today to stop this randomness before it’s hopeless. Moqattam was initially conceived to be well planned and calm. We’re not calling for anything illegitimate.”

For his part, Elelaimy thought it is not yet hopeless. “We plan on escalating our campaign if there’s no response to our demands. We will raise court cases against the municipality and the governorate and we will coordinate a campaign to boycott Carrefour,” Elelaimy said.

Towards the end of the protest, he told residents that they managed to exert pressure through their collective action. “Today, we succeeded. We did not disrupt traffic. We didn’t cause problems. And we spoke up.”

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