Political ecologies of a university and land at Cairo’s urban periphery

The American University in Cairo's suburban desert campus

Article appearing in Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space

  • Co-Author:
  • Danya Al-Saleh with Mohammed Rafi Arefin
  • Publisher: Sage Journals
  • Date: September 28, 2023
Nature and Space journal

In 2008, the American University in Cairo (AUC) moved from its downtown campus in Tahrir Square to the center of New Cairo. Through an analysis of AUC’s historical land acquisitions at Cairo’s urban periphery, this article examines how the university sought to influence land use over the past century. We argue that AUC’s relatively recent role in New Cairo is an expression of the institution’s century-long aspirations to acquire land on Cairo’s periphery for a permanent suburban style campus. Drawing on the tools of political ecology and critical university studies, we trace how a suburban desert campus is consistently envisioned as a mechanism for the institution to play a significant role in influencing land politics and use in and beyond its campus. We highlight two key ways that AUC has historically situated itself in the city’s development. First, purchasing land in order to relocate to the outskirts of the city has been central to AUC’s strategy for accumulating wealth to ensure its long-term presence in Egypt. Second, acquiring large tracts of land for a suburban desert campus has been instrumental to AUC’s educational mission to shape its student body, Egyptian society, and the political ecology of desert land in Egypt. Through archival research, we show how AUC’s relationship to land positions the university as a significant institutional force in Cairo’s rapidly urbanizing desert periphery. This situated case study contributes to an emerging body of scholarship examining the fraught historical and contemporary relationship between universities, land, environmental knowledge, and uneven urbanization in the Middle East and beyond.