The government recently announced an ambitious plan to build a new capital city in the desert. Given the decades of the government’s mismanagement of Cairo, it is easy to get the impression that they’ve finally conceded and are abandoning the city outright. The vision of a new capital brings with it the promise of clean air, open parks, clean energy, and triumphant skyscrapers, embodying all that is good and true and beautiful about Egypt. It also brings the promise of investment, growth, jobs, and prestige. But mostly, it is a ruse, a costly distraction from the fact that this government cannot govern Cairo. There is a great difference between governing a city and building a new one, and unfortunately, you can’t hire a contractor to govern, but you can to build, and build they will.
But where does Cairo stand in all of this? Who in the government is speaking for Cairo? Who within the government will champion this capital city? There are people who speak for the country, for national pride, for the economy, and for elite. There are people who speak for the army, for security, and for foreign companies and their boatloads of money. But no one in the government speaks for Cairo. Yes, many government officials speak about Cairo and its problems and challenges and potential to be great again if only two-thirds of the city would disappear, but not for Cairo.
Why is this? In part, it is a matter of law. Anyone with decision making authority over Cairo works for the president or someone in his cabinet and no one working in local administration today depends on residents to keep their jobs. The governor of Cairo is appointed by the president. The chief executives of the districts and neighborhoods in Cairo are appointed by the prime minister. The governor appoints his own staff and the majority of the local bureaucracy works for national ministries. Local popular councils are the only elected bodies in local administration. During Mubarak’s time, they were filled with loyal members of the NDP. Today, there are no local popular councils at all. Because of this administrative structure, there is a wide gap between residents and the government and, as a result, the government suffers from a crisis of confidence among residents—one that will not be resolved by building a new capital, but may be resolved by giving someone the voice and authority to speak on behalf of Cairenes and to speak for Cairo.
How can a government with little money and disenchanted residents reinvent itself and reinvigorate a city? In the early 2000s, Edi Rama did just this. Rama was the mayor of Tirana, Albania from 2000 to 2011 and implemented a unique urban revitalization project that not only reshaped the city’s physical make-up, but instilled a sense of civic pride that reshaped its people too.
Between 1954 and 1991, Albania was ruled by a military, communist regime and was one of the most isolated countries in the world. Very few residents were allowed to travel abroad, cars were illegal for everyone but government officials, the economy was predominantly agricultural, and residents were poor. During the 50 years of communism, local politics were controlled by the central government and cities were centrally planned. The regime’s approach to the city and preferred style of urban development is captured by Skenderbeg Square, Tirana’s Tahrir. An Ottoman-era market dominated the square up until the mid-1970s, but it was leveled and replaced with a massive concrete square devoid of trees, benches, or playgrounds and surrounded by imposing, harsh, cement buildings meant to leave residents feeling exposed and vulnerable. It was, as Rama called it, “Tirana’s empty heart” (Kramer 2005).
The communist regime was dissolved in 1991, and over the next seven years, Albania transitioned from a communist country with a centralized economy, to a democracy with an open market economic system. This transition period was beset by political, social, and economic crises. Immediately after Albania’s economy opened to the rest of the world, it collapsed. GDP per capita fell from $640 in 1990 to $280 in 1992 (World Bank 2015). The economic crises and open agricultural market drove hundreds of thousands of Albanians from the countryside to the cities. No city in Albania absorbed more people than Tirana. In 1991, the city of Tirana had approximately 250,000 people, or less than eight percent of Albania’s total population. By 2001, the city’s population had swelled to 600,000 people, and the metropolitan area reached about 750,000 people, or about 25 percent of the total population. During this period of intense growth, Tirana was brutalized by the destruction of the communist monuments and rampant, unregulated construction. Within ten years, informal construction had occupied most of the city’s public spaces and choked the River Lana that runs through the center of the city. These temporary structures helped suffocate the memory of communism within the city’s public spaces, but also destroyed the city’s potential for beauty and vitality (Pusca 2008).
Along with the economic reforms following the decline of the communist regime, the Albanian government also established the legal framework and financing system for local governments. This decentralization process began in 1992, but for most of the 1990s, local governments were still controlled by the central government. In 1999, Albania passed a new constitution which established the principle of “decentralization of power [which] is exercised according to the principle of local autonomy” (Article 13, Albanian Constitution 1999).
The following year, they adopted a formal Decentralization Strategy that defined Albania’s long-term vision for local government and passed the law “On Organization and Functioning of Local Governments.” They adopted a two-tiered local government system consisting of regions on one level, and municipalities (urban) and communes (rural) on the next. The regions were headed by prefects appointed by the central government. All mayors and members of the municipal/commune councils were directly elected. Local governments were given full decision making authority over local public services such as roads, solid waste/wastewater, public and green spaces, public lighting, water, local economic development, and local culture and sports. The law also gave local governments the authority to generate their own revenues and creating their own annual budget.
The central government still held the right to create and enforce Tirana’s property tax laws, determine the size of the city’s police force, control the water and power supply to the city (the city had control over how it was distributed), and run all of the schools and hospitals. Furthermore, with their new responsibilities and abilities to raise revenues, transfers from the central government to local authorities diminished drastically. In 2000, 72 percent of local budgets came from the central government as unconditional transfers. In 2005, that figure dropped to 35 percent, putting incredible strain on cities to find sources of revenue (Brahimi, et al. 2013).
Edi Rama was elected mayor of Tirana in 2000. When he came into office, the city was in tatters, the streets were merely conduits for people and goods to move from one place to another, and democracy and free markets hadn’t born the fruit residents had hoped. The city needed a major intervention, but the city was strapped for cash (Rama estimated that he had USD 26 million for public projects in 2005, or about USD 11 per capita) and a major, government-funded urban renewal project was out of the question. So Rama turned to an unlikely ally: paint. He wanted to reinvent Tirana with color and in doing so, invite residents to reimagine their future with optimism.
Rama followed an unlikely path to mayor of Tirana. His father was one of Albania’s great national sculptors of the twentieth century and in the 1990s, Rama lived in Paris studying and creating art. Before moving to Paris, he spent his time as a leader of Albania’s young democracy movement and sat on the board of George Soros’s Open Society initiative working with other like-minded intellectuals to craft an open, democratic future for Albania. He described his politics as a youth as “Paris left and Tirana trouble maker” and he continued his involvement with the democracy movement by writing articles for a number of magazines and journals in Albania which attracted the attention of many people in power.
In 1997, on a brief visit home, Rama was beaten and left for dead by two men rumored to be hired thugs of a political opponent. With a fractured skull and a bloody, beaten face, Rama walked to a hospital for treatment, but on his way, he took a detour to a photographer’s house to memorialize the event, calling it the “Edi Rama style.” Rama returned to Albania again for what was supposed to be a four-day visit, but during his stay, the Prime Minister appointed him Minister of Culture where he worked to restore the Ottoman era Et’hem Bey Mosque and the adjacent clock tower in Skenderbeg Square—his first stroke in revitalizing the square, but certainly not his last. During his time with the ministry, living and working in Tirana, he forged what he called a “moral contract” with the city and the citizens, decided to run for mayor, and won (Kramer 2005).
The paint was a natural progression for Rama. He leveraged his artistic sensibility and his deeply held belief in the transformative power of art to use the city as a canvas to engage with a population that had long ago disconnected from the government.
Citrus orange was the color of choice for the first building transformed through Rama’s great experiment. Upon seeing the riotous results, one French European Union official attempted to halt the painting by threatening to cut off funding for the project. He explained to Rama that the color did not meet “European standards.” Rama, a master the media, recalls saying to the official, “Well . . . [the colors] are exactly what we want. And if you do not let us continue with our work, I will hold a press conference right here, right now, right in this road, and we will tell the people that you look to me just like the censors” of the socialist regime (Rama 2010). The official relented and Tirana blossomed.
Within his first few years as mayor, Rama had dozens of buildings throughout Tirana painted in brilliant, vibrant colors, in wild patterns and forms. While the art made Rama one of the world’s more recognizable mayors, it was his unshakable commitment to Tirana and to its residents, and his ability to rally people to his cause that made him so successful and ultimately propelled him to national office. Rama was elected as Prime Minister of Albania in 2013.
“When I think about governance—about how easy it is—it makes me sick.” – Edi Rama
As mayor, Rama was a pragmatist. He was neither a leftist nor rightist; he worked to get things done and worked with anyone who would help. He believed that the divisions in Albania were less about politics and more about the people who contribute to society and the people who exploit it, “the hard-working people and the people who don’t respect work” (Kramer 2005). He emphasized law-and-order and in Tirana, he saw a city in which people had lost hope for the future and cared little for the present and in order to reshape the city, Rama believed that he needed to involve the people in that change. His painting initiative was just one component of his intervention in Tirana. He dealt with the informal areas, made a new city plan, and strong-armed local developers to follow his vision.
The informal development of the 1990s was a major challenge for Rama. Most of the public green spaces in the city, especially along the River Lana that runs through the city center, were lost to informal development. The city’s periphery was also rapidly expanding through informal settlements to accommodate the influx of migrants from the countryside. Rama detested the informal construction that had obliterated the public spaces on the river and, as soon as he was able, tore them all down, cleaned out the river, and returned those spaces back to the public as urban parks. But as for the informal residential areas on the city’s periphery, Rama took an entirely different approach. He extended the utility networks, and built schools, hospitals, and parks in the informal areas and encouraged residents to “turn piles of bricks into legal homes” by granting land title to the people who built homes themselves (Kramer 2005, 6).
Rama also launched an international competition to create an urban plan for Tirana and to re-envision Skenderbeg Square. The winning plan came from a French firm called Architecture-Studio which called for ten office and apartments buildings that were 280 feet tall (about as tall as the minaret of the Sultan Hassan mosque) to delimit the boulevards and the spaces in the central square district. The plan also established different zones throughout the city through which Rama and the city government could easily control the development of the city.1
One of the other challenges Rama faced in post-communist Tirana was the endemic corruption. The construction industry is among the most favored industries for money laundering and construction firms working in Albania were reputedly corrupt. Rama knew this, but he also recognized that if he wanted his plan to be built, he needed to work with the people who owned the property—and the people with money.
Using his mayoral powers as designated by the decentralization laws, Rama used the new master plan, which covered all of central Tirana and many of the surrounding areas, as a baseline to deal with developers. He would not allow the developers to build anything other than what the plan called for and he also required that the developers contribute something to the city—a park, a school, a hospital—if they were going to build anything at all in the central, planned areas. The developers begrudgingly worked with Rama. For example, the first tower built in Tirana was designed by a group of young Belgian architects. The design was approved by a jury Rama instituted to monitor the city’s urban development, but it was unconventional and costly: the tower’s defining feature was its latticework exterior which called for glazed terra-cotta paneling. Rama liked it and believed that it would be Tirana’s first internationally recognizable building. The developer preferred to build a less costly, steel and glass tower with a mall on the ground floor to boost his bottom line. But Rama prevailed. In the end, the calculus was simple: if the developer didn’t build the tower, he wouldn’t be able to build anything at all.This episode is instructive for Egyptians. Rama realized the assets that the limited real estate of the central part of the city presented. Crucially, he did not try to attract foreign capital for these projects by offering favorable loans, tax exemptions, or prime real estate at bargain prices. He used local developers and local money to create spaces that were inherently attractive to residents of Tirana first, knowing full well that foreign investors would follow. Yes, large, multinational construction firms are attractive because they bring a lot of experience, vision, and money. While local developers may not have the same cache as the international organizations, they have limited options as to where to invest their money. An international firm can often dictate the terms of a construction agreement with the government because they can sit on empty land without much of a loss and threaten to take their money elsewhere. For local developers with comparatively small portfolios, the investment in Tirana’s downtown may be their single most valuable asset and simply cannot afford to sit on their hands and are thus, more willing to work with the vision of the local government.
After ten years of Rama’s unique approach to city development, Tirana has become one of the most unique capitals in Europe. It isn’t classic, it isn’t stately, and it doesn’t quite fit in with its sister cities like Prague, Warsaw, Madrid or Rome. But it is vibrant, it is lively, and it is livable. People are always out, public spaces are full. The River Lana is clean and is now surrounded by green space on both sides.
Tirana is a much smaller city than Cairo, and there are real questions as to whether a figure like Rama would be able to achieve in Cairo what Rama did in Tirana. But the simple fact is, like the other mayors we have discussed in our other articles including Jaime Lerner of Curitiba, Brazil and Joko Widodo of Surabaya, Indonesia, there is no chance for an Edi Rama to enter into politics in Cairo. The men who control Cairo are appointed by the central government and have allegiances not to the people of the city but to the president and/or the army. There are no politicians in Cairo that can champion the city or its people. Cairo is too tied up on the national myth and the prestige of the country for anyone to take Cairo on its own terms, let alone for the national government to allow someone like Rama, someone elected by the people, to have control of the city.
We aren’t suggesting that the government should mimic Tirana’s painting approach. Painting itself has limits. Rama did not paint for the sake of paint. He saw painting as a means to an end. He did not paint for beauty alone and he did not paint to bring culture to the people of Tirana or to “civilize” the migrants from Albania’s countryside. He painted to get people to see, to take notice of their city, to bring them out of their homes and into the streets. The painting was his attempt at opening a dialogue between the government and the people of the city who had, for many years, seen a government work against them to enrich themselves. The dialogue between residents and the government began about buildings but quickly moved to people’s needs. And Rama listened. He understood that his first priority was to address the needs of the people, not by providing a solution, but by providing the opportunity to find a solution themselves.
It would be unrealistic to characterize Rama’s revitalization scheme as universally adored or as a runaway success. He had his detractors and some people believed he was too uncompromising in his vision. But the city and its people were his beginning and end. With the proper legislation in place, Rama was able to use his dedication to Tirana to reshape it for the better.
Maybe it is a good thing that the Egyptian government wants out of Cairo. Then maybe they will let us choose someone who cares about the city to govern it.
Brahimi, Fran, Fiqiri Baholli, Nazir Heldeda, and Ines Dika. 2013. “Decentralization Reform, Case of Albania.” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 4(10).
Kramer, Jane. 2005. “Painting the Town: How Edi Rama reinvented Albanian politics.” The New Yorker, June 27. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/06/27/painting-the-town
Pusca, Anca. 2008. “The Aesthetics of Change: Exploring Post-Communist Spaces.” Global Society, 22(3), pp. 369-386.
Rama, Edi. 2010. “Take Back Your City with Paint.” Filmed May 2012 in Thessaloniki, Greece. Ted Video, 15:27. https://www.ted.com/talks/edi_rama_take_back_your_city_with_paint?language=en
Triantis, Loukas. n.d. “Urban change and production of space: The case of urban renewal in Tirana (2000-2008).” https://bit.ly/2QcIwlx
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