Governing Cairo’s Fragmented Waterscape: Techno-politics and Informality

By Noura Wahby
Submitted to Session P5519 (Infrastructure and Power: Oil, Water, Energy, 2019 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Development; Political Economy; Urban Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The modern state has grappled with questions on how to effectively manage and distribute the public commons. Within mainstream development discourses, techno-managerialism has emerged as the solution to rationalising the role of the state in governing the commons. In the West state-led infrastructural investment has diminished with the fall of Keynesian developmental models and the rise of neoliberal ideology. The hollowing of the state has led to the private sector embracing an increased role as the supplier of public goods. The change in managerial strategies has resulted in the promotion of profit-making and cost recovery over equitable access and basic rights.

In the Global South, under the guise of “good governance” and technocratic rhetoric promoted by the development industry, privatisation efforts have been underway in the energy, transportation and water sectors. The latter, deemed the last public utility standing, has proven especially resilient with failed water projects across the hemisphere. The Middle East in particular remains the site of a spectrum of privatisation efforts as states persist in their monopolistic control over water.

In the case of Egypt, from the early 1990s, donor pressures, an enterprising state and business interests colluded in the re-organisation of utility bureaucracies, culminating in the creation of seemingly independent local water companies in 2004. Abandoning direct privatisation efforts modelled after Thatcherite reforms, donors and bilateral organisations have advocated for institutional reforms based on corporatisation principles. These include the establishment of profit-making public water companies, removal of subsidies, and local formalisation strategies of informal areas such as billing practices and disciplined metering.

This paper will trace the evolution of Cairo’s water sector from a monopolised public common, to a site of commodification and dispossession. I argue that local informal water governance emanates from a fragmented institutional framework developed by donor programs during the restructuring of the sector. Grassroots cases from Cairo will illustrate how national policy-making affects local implementation of equitable water access and the informal codes and norms that unmake apolitical governance paradigms

This case study exemplifies a local variant of infrastructure liberalisation efforts and illustrates the negotiation of global neoliberal agendas by states, elites and donors. In this paper, water serves as a material reflection of the changing power dynamics and interests of the state-business-experts nexus governing Egyptian utilities and shaping local technocratic expertise.