Urbanism and the Arab Spring

Posted By Imron Bhatti, JILP Member, Feb 27, 2012

        I just finished Instant City by NPR’s Steve Inskeep. The book delves into the history and development of one of the world’s most populous cities: Karachi, Pakistan. A quick disclaimer: I have a particular interest in Karachi - my parents spent most of their formative years there, and I visited the city last spring for first time since I was in grade school. Even if urban development and rule-of-law issues in South Asia don’t typically get you riled up, however, you should check out this book. Inskeep provides deep, balanced insight into our (pseudo) ally, and there are revealing parallels to be drawn between Karachi and the capitals of the Arab Spring.

        Inskeep portrays Karachi as a textbook example of an “instant city,” one that grew at an astonishing rate - thirty-fold in Karachi’s case - during the latter half of the 20th century. Inskeep traces Karachi’s post-colonial shift from a religiously and ethnically diverse British entrepôt to an overwhelmingly Muslim national capital heaving with refugees. As the Cold War bore on, American-funded utopian plans to house the endless stream of refugees gave way to autocratic planning worthy of the Soviet Bloc as the floundering democracy succumbed to the grip of the generals. As the military government and American aid streamed north to newly-constructed Islamabad and the roiling Afghan border, the city experienced more acutely what Pakistan as a whole experienced to some degree: a collapse in governance and property rights and a lapse in the rule of law. In this vacuum, sectarian interests came to dominate an ever-factitious dystopia where political rallies routinely give way to killing sprees and Al-Qaeda notables issue directives un-detected.

        The Arab capitals we’ve been watching this spring are, like Karachi, “instant cities.” Cairo, Tunis, Algiers, and Amman have experienced explosive demographic changes - from the rapid urbanization of Cairo to the streams of Palestinians settling in Amman. None of these cities can lay claim to Karachi’s unique brand of dysfunctionality, yet there are more moderate similarities. All of these cities have experienced top-down, autocratic attempts to direct investment and growth that focused on grand schemes at the expense of the masses. All of these cities play host to similar disparities in living conditions and all of these cities are facing streams of migration that show no signs of abating.

        The nascent democratic governments of Egypt and Tunisia and the seemingly reform-minded King of Jordan would do well to create livable spaces for the urban poor. As in Karachi, while the far-slung slums of these unwieldy agglomerations breed extremism, Inskeep reminds us that there is enormous potential for the disenfranchised in the city through education and employment as long as they are mainstreamed and not alienated.

         Inskeep’s musings on Karachi can more broadly serve to illustrate the strategic importance of combating extremism through promoting the rule of law. Well-managed cities can uplift masses; poorly managed cities will continue to breed divisions that extremists prey on.

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