Theses Doctoral

Engineering Metropolis: Contagion, Capital, and the Making of British Colonial Cairo, 1882-1922

Ismail, Shehab

This dissertation traces the transition of colonial Cairo from a marginal space to the British regime to an object of colonial governance and the site of technological and social intervention. It examines what caused this transition, how it shaped the spatial and social landscape of a booming metropolis, and how these developments produced and sustained opportunities, contradictions, and spaces for contestation and opposition. This dissertation challenges the current literature on British Cairo, which treats the colonial era (1882-1922) as a homogeneous expression of the regime’s retreat and of capital-led growth, by providing an account of the regime’s program of infrastructural reorganization and schemes of public housing and town planning. Because the literature largely ignores this history, it does not detect the colonial regime’s increasing discomfort at capital-led urban development or the regime’s late attempt to refashion its relation to capital and to take charge of Cairo’s future growth.
The first part of this dissertation examines the pressures and crises that led to this transition. A protracted biological crisis that saw waves of cholera epidemics and high death rates underscored the need for constructing and improving infrastructures of sanitation and service provision. And capital’s forceful entry into the city led to a speculative property bubble, a housing crisis, and uncoordinated urban expansion, which made the disjointed framework of urban administration and the absence of regulations all the more evident. These crises made the colonial regime liable to critiques from elites, proponents, and certainly from the nascent anticolonial movement. The second part examines projects of sanitation and schemes of housing and town planning that the regime turned to since the beginning of the twentieth century and that embodied a changing approach to the city. During the latter two decades of the occupation, the colonial regime invested in upgrading Cairo’s water supply and constructing the city’s first sewage network. This dissertation traces not only how these infrastructural technologies worked but also how they became sites of contestation over power and knowledge. It examines the reception of infrastructures by urban dwellers across the social spectrum, the techno-social debates they occasioned among expert managers and designers, including above all engineers and public hygienists, and the social visions they embodied. Finally, the regime broached projects of public housing and town planning that constituted, in one sense, the culmination of a program of infrastructural reorganization, and in another, an attempt to give coherence to urban governance and assume leadership over the city’s development. By offering material improvement, these schemes were also meant to neutralize political discontent, which nonetheless erupted with the 1919 revolution.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Elshakry, Marwa
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 19, 2017