Cairo is a crowded city. It is a truism that is easy to find in reportage about the city, which almost invariably begins with a description of Cairo as teeming, noisy, dusty, and polluted. Vendors and parked cars take over sidewalks for lack of space, while pedestrians walk amongst traffic. Shouts and car horns drown out everything else and traffic jams stretch on for miles. Numbers back up the impression: In 2006, just as the a long-term "visioning" exercise known as Cairo 2050 was beginning, the World Bank estimated Cairo’s population density at 37,136 per square kilometer, while CAPMAS, Egypt’s national statistics agency, more recently (2012) had the number at 45,000 per square kilometer, or about one-and-a-half times the population density of Manhattan. The 2008 JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) master plan claimed that, depending on how one defines "Greater Cairo," it may be the most densely-populated city in the world. It would seem obvious that this level of density is a problem, and that, as Minister of Housing Ahmed al-Maghrabi said a few months before the 2011 uprising began, the city will eventually explode.
However, the seemingly-commonsense notion that Cairo must be un-crowded if it is to be sustainable, is problematic in two senses: first, there are reasons to be skeptical of claims that Cairo's degree of population density actually is unsustainable and undesirable; and second, the assumption that Cairo is "too crowded" and therefore its people must be dispersed, allows state officials to disengage from the problems and concerns of the city and the people who live in it. Instead, the discourse around density contributes to and in a sense authorizes often-fantastical plans to colonize the desert.