Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Setha Low

Committee Members

Jonathan Shannon

John Collins

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology


Urbanism, urban anthropology, social movements Arab Spring, Egypt


This dissertation investigates the sociospatial and sociopolitical impact of the so-called Arab Spring by focusing on urban transformations in Cairo after the January 25th Revolution. In the wake of the 2011 uprising, Egypt’s capital witnessed a remarkable fluorescence of research, activism, and intervention, much of it undertaken by newly empowered “professional elites.” These non-state actors seized on the post-uprising farāgha–or opening–created by the country’s ongoing political turmoil to launch a range of urban-focused initiatives that would have once been impossible to pursue given the government’s labyrinthine bureaucracy and systematic repression of “civil society.” While some offered sociocultural explorations of historic or contemporary changes in urban life, others sought to improve the city and the lives of its residents through “rehabilitation” projects in public space, housing, heritage management, and infrastructure. Many, however, shared a commitment to fostering cross-class collaboration and “community participation.”

Through an ethnographic analysis of four such initiatives scattered across central Cairo, I make a two-fold argument about the sociopolitical implications of this post-uprising activity: first, I contend that these projects constituted novel forms and spaces of political action, whose organizers harnessed the reconfiguration of urban space to facilitate new ways of “being in common” among the city’s residents. In this way, the organizers used their initiatives to “imagine and enact radically different futures” in the present (Larner 2014, 204). At the same time, I argue that these activities were shot through with ambiguities and inconsistencies, relating to the broader political context as well as the actors involved and their interactions with each other. In short, they were compromised sites of political engagement. Yet instead of concluding that this pervasive indeterminacy signaled the “failure” of these initiatives as “political acts,” I suggest that it was a resource that various actors used in order to advance their aims or agendas. I expand on this idea to argue that ambiguity is not simply an inevitable byproduct of political processes; rather, it is the raw material out of which political action is formed.


A revised version was uploaded on October 28, 2021 with the approval of the dissertation committee chair and the Graduate Center.