Opinion

Walled Off: The Truth About Madinaty’s Promise of a Desert Utopia

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Walled Off: The Truth About Madinaty’s Promise of a Desert Utopia

Birdseye view of Madinaty, New Cairo. Photo courtesty of Wikimedia Commons.

Since it has stopped airing, the outcry against the ad for Talaat Moustafa Group’s (TMG) Madinaty has died down a little. Rants, jokes, and memes that filled the feeds of  various social media platforms for a few days have now been replaced by the more recent of Ramadan’s rapidly changing trends.

But now that the impulsive fury of critics and defenders alike has abated, we can rationally dissect this controversial three-minute spot, the discussion around it, and the underlying social problems it points us to.

The Spot and the Controversy

For those hearing about this for the first time, here is the situation: A commercial advertising the gated city of Madinaty was released in the first week of Ramadan, showcasing the various benefits of living there. These benefits were presented through a compilation of short clips of presumptive residents telling viewers about their own personal experiences and their favourite aspects of living in Madinaty, edited together with shots and artists’ renderings of the mini-city.

The themes within the commercial are not unfamiliar: World-class. Secluded. Secure. Private. Superior.

Those are the same themes used by the truly endless billboards and TV spots encouraging upper class Egyptians to buy real estate in gated communities. Why, then, did this particular ad cause the reaction that it did?

More than anything, what made this ad stand out compared to others is its lack of pretense. While most such ads, though arguably also insensitive, and offering equally or perhaps even more exclusive settings, turn to subtlety and visual enticement to bring the message across, the presumptive residents in this Madinaty ad boast about what is undeniably class segregation.

Possibly the most criticised part of the ad’s script was one where a young woman boldly states that people in Madinaty are all alike, and that the community is “very nice”. While this may sound benign at face value, it is a euphemism used by exclusive groups to signify the absence of those they mean to separate from.

One of the most noticeable claims that are repeated in a variety of forms in the ad is that Madinaty is an entirely self-sufficient city. A presumptive resident even goes so far as claiming that he could stay inside for a year without needing to exit the walls of the mini-city.

The writers of the ad did not miss out on the opportunity to pepper the script with English words to describe Madinaty and its various benefits, considering it a status symbol, at times, in the view of the ad’s critics, entirely unnecessarily.

It should be a universally accepted position that class segregation is not something to boast about, especially as these boasts will fall on all ears, not just the ears of those who are willing and able to simply pack their bags and leave society to create a new, apparently Utopian, Truman Show-esque life.

Many of the ad’s critics were also provoked by a minute or so towards the end of the ad, where the presumptive residents sing praises of TMG and an unnamed ‘he’. This unnamed he can only be Hisham Talaat Moustafa, son of the company’s late founder, and its current head, a figure generally considered controversial in Egypt.

Hisham Talaat Moustafa

In an interview on Egyptian media figure Amr Adeeb’s talk show Al-Hekaya, Moustafa responded to the backlash by calling his critics “disturbed spirits”, a description that seemed rich to many, who were reminded of some less than flattering episodes in Talaat’s own life, particularly the fact that he was convicted of murder and imprisoned, only to be given a presidential pardon 7 years into his sentence.

In the interview, Moustafa also spoke of his philanthropic contributions, especially in low-income housing projects, claiming that all countries are “built on large corporations”. The people they employ and the taxes they pay keep states going, according to Moustafa.

Such a statement ignores the fact that that TMG bought the land of the first Madinaty compound in New Cairo – directly and without a public auction as is the usual procedure – at the price of only 7% of its actual housing units. The deal was first pronounced void by Egypt’s High Administrative Court in 2010, as it was sold at less than the land’s market value, a ruling that has been appealed and is still lingering in courts.

The Trouble With Gated Communities

Poverty-stricken home in Egypt. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But the provocative themes in the ad do not exist in a vacuum. The material good they are selling is in demand, but as is the concept of a secluded, private space, walled away from society as a whole and most harsh and unflattering realities lived by the majority of Cairo’s inhabitants.

Although class segregation is an old factor in urban development, the trend of gated communities in Egypt began in the 1990s, when the satellite cities of New Cairo and 6 October began being built. The emergence of these areas was a result of a variety of factors, among them the crowdedness of Cairo, a mega-city whose population has doubled in the last 30 years.

Initially meant to dilute and ease the pressure on the increasingly over-populated Cairo, these satellite cities became only affordable to well-to-do Egyptians, and within them emerged Gulf-style gated compounds, created to escape society and all the potential inconvenience that could come with it.

Alongside the growth in the popularity of gated communities grew the popularity of other exclusive amenities such as schools, universities, and places of leisure and recreation such as athletic clubs, holiday resorts, and seaside villages. Increasingly, a segment of society and their children were able to consistently remain unexposed to the rest of society.

An inevitability that ads like TMG’s fail to show is that for a compound to offer the services that distinguish it, thousands of working class Egyptians must be available to serve them. Not only does this mean that the harsh dream of total segregation is unattainable, but that the reality that replaces it will further deepen the chasm and create disdain and hostility between classes in Egypt.

I was particularly struck by a quote written by Khaled Hanafy Ali for Ahram Online in 2019:

“The term gated community is an oxymoron, however. Community implies the idea of interaction and connection among people to achieve individual and collective goals that create shared dependency and bolster values and trust as the pillars of social capital. But gates or walls prevent interaction with the rest of society to protect those within from imagined threats from the outside. These gates and walls are also more than simply physical; they are symbols of the closed values of those within the walls who refuse to merge with the rest of society.”

As Utopian a picture as ads like this one paint, they are in fact offering a reality that is far more comparable to one of the most common tropes in dystopian stories such as Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s ironically named and award-nominated Utopia, or Suzanne Collins’ best-selling young adult series The Hunger Games: stark separation of societies among class lines, where walled-off communities become a center by exclusion and create a new periphery – a periphery which they, perpetually and by definition, fear – to escape, oppress, and be served by.

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Writer and Internship Coordinator at Egyptian Streets. Communications Officer at the American University in Cairo. Holds a master's degree in Global Journalism from the University of Sheffield, where she wrote a dissertation on the effect of disinformation on the profession of journalism. Passionate about music, story-telling, baking, social justice, and taking care of her plants. "If you smell something, say something." -Jon Stewart, 2015

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