The Pharaoh's Dream Sisi Wants a New Capital City for Egypt
Cairo is an unruly urban sprawl that has spun out of control. Now, officials want to build a new capital in the desert -- a potent symbol of President Sisi's regime. But will it ever happen?
The road ends abruptly. The search for Egypt's new capital city leads into the desert, primrose beneath the hazy sky. Workers speed past a white container in the midday heat, a crane rises into the air, and tire marks can be seen in the sand. "You can't get any closer," says Sayyad al Sabagh, pointing into the distance. "From here it's about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) to the right." A dune swells on the horizon.
Sabagh is 60 and has worked as a civil servant with Egypt's Building Ministry for the past 24 years. He is sitting inside a red pickup truck, map in hand, and says the highway leading to the new Cairo will eventually have four lanes. "Inshallah," God willing. For now, the asphalt covering the ground will have to suffice as proof. But it is clear the dream has begun. Getting out of the vehicle is forbidden, as is photography.
'A Global Capital'
The Egyptian government has decided to build a new capital city east of Cairo, smack in the middle of the desert. "A global capital," the building minister announced at a conference on the Red Sea in March. At the event, investors from the Gulf states, China and Saudi Arabia gathered around a model of the new metropolis, admiring the business quarter, with its Dubai-style skyscrapers, the small residential homes in greenbelts and the football stadium. The city is to be situated on 700 square kilometers of land, with an airport larger than London's Heathrow. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi even wooed investors himself. He recently announced that construction would begin in January.
It is to be a capital created in accordance with the wishes of the country's leadership elite. It may not fit well with the country as it currently exists, but it will conform to their vistions of Egypt's future -- a planned, manageable city conceived from the top down in the same way the pharaohs once created the pyramids. The new Cairo will be a beautiful place, an "innovation center," environmentally sustainable, with a high quality of life, city planners are pledging. They want it to be a city where people can breathe without having to cough.
A model of the planned new capital for Egypt, as presented at an investment conference in March in Sharm el-Sheikh.
It is a city of contradictions, created from the bottom up, even though that had never been the intention. It has been growing wildly since the 1960s -- from 3.5 million back then to 18 million now -- against the will of the country's rulers. Fully 11 million people live in structures that were built illegally and new residential districts continue popping up around the city like weeds in a field. The city center is becoming increasingly dense, to the point that, in one of the city's largest cemeteries, people have even converted burial chambers into their living quarters. Cairo is dirty and chaotic, and, of course, it's a city that gave birth to a revolution.
A Capital for 5 Million People
On the drive back, Sabagh, the Building Ministry representative, a small man who wears a pen in his shirt pocket, explains the trouble with Cairo: "Too many Egyptians." The more people there are, the more trouble. In the coming decades, the population is expected to double to as many as 40 million people, which is why officials want to move people out of the city. The new capital is being planned for up to 5 million people, and all government ministries and embassies are expected to make the move.
There's a logic behind Sisi's fondness for major projects. Only recently, a new Suez Canal was christened with considerable hoopla after being completed in record time, even though experts question whether it will ever be profitable. The government largely financed the project by selling sovereign bonds, with money flowing into a fund called "Long Live Egypt." Historian Khaled Fahmy calls it "something to play around (with) for Sisi," since the funds don't have any parliamentary controls attached to them. But given that Egypt's poor economic situation is weighing on all Egyptians, such mega projects bolster the government's reputation and increase its legitimacy.
The people no longer appear to be important in the country now that it has fallen back into its old patterns following the revolution. Parliamentary elections are currently underway, and yet few are bothering to vote. Turnout in the first round was initially reported at 2 percent, despite the government giving civil servants a half a day off so they could cast their ballots -- though in the end, the official figure given was 27 percent. Sisi, the former military leader who was elected president by an overwhelming majority, changed the election law after entering office. Now, two-thirds of the new parliament will be comprised of individual candidates who are running as independents and have their own money to bankroll their campaigns. The new rules favor the rich elite, which tend to be pro Sisi. Important opposition movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the revolutionary April 6th Movement, have been banned.
Regardless whether or not Sisi ever goes ahead with construction, it is clear that Cairo itself will remain the city of the people. The idea of building a new capital from the top down alone jibes well with the logic of a dictatorship.
A Top-Down Tradition
The idea of rethinking the country on the drawing board is hardly novel. Indeed, Sisi is simply following a long tradition. As far back as the 1970s, autocratic Egyptian governments began building satellite cities in the desert. They carried names like Sadat City or Sixth of October City. A New Cairo has existed since 2000. Officials seemed to believe that the construction of new cities could solve all their problems. More than 90 percent of all Egyptians are packed into the Nile Valley, which represents just a fraction of the country's total land. The official aim had been for a quarter of the population to live outside the Nile Valley, but today less than 2 percent do, says American economist and urban planner David Sims, a researcher who has written several books about Cairo. Because billions flowed into these projects, there was little left over to invest in old Cairo.
A billboard advertises properties available in New Cairo, one of numerous new communities that have popped up in Cairo's periphery as urban sprawl continues.
Are all the buildings here empty, I ask?
"Most," says Sabagh.
"Many people can't afford the homes. Besides, they want to live where they work, in Cairo."
So what's the point of building a new capital city?
"That's not my responsibility," he says. You'll have to ask somebody higher up.
'I Love My Neighborhood'
Or perhaps lower down. In a narrow alley in the actual capital, a man sits on a plastic chair. The district is called Ramlet Bulak and it has the reputation of being one of the worst parts in the center of Cairo, a real slum. Karam Ahmad is drinking a tea and smoking a cigarette. His blacksmith shop is located just across the street, and next to it, the entrance to his apartment. His grandfather lived here, his father and his brothers lived here and now his own children call it home. When asked if he can imagine moving to the desert, he Ahmad answers, "Never."
The plaster is crumbling, the window bars are bent, a street vendor sells fruit and vegetables from a donkey cart. "The homes here may be a little bit run down," Ahmad says, "but I love my neighborhood."
One street away, trash is piled up in a rear courtyard, while due to the lack of space, structures are being built on the roofs of buildings. Ahmad says the neighbors here have agreed not to throw their trash out into the streets and, if need be, he's also perfectly willing to pick up a broom to do some cleaning. While we talk, a cluster of people has grown behind him. "We're lacking the simplest of things," a man in the crowd calls out. "All we want are good streets and schools."
Particularly on the periphery of Cairo, unplanned illegal residential districts are growing rampantly, with millions of people living there. The government largely ignores them and invests little in public infrastructure. Although most of those who live in such slums have access to electricity and water, few other services are offered and sewage and garbage collection are insufficient. Still, Cairo's impoverished districts aren't directly comparable to those in other major cities because there is less crime and less filth here -- in part because local residents have come together to address some of the problems on their own.
'Economic Renaissance' or 'Fiasco'?
But community efforts to organize solutions aren't given much support by the government -- on the contrary. Cairo residents don't even have the right to elect their own mayor. Under the Egyptian system, the office is appointed by the government. "There are not too many people in Cairo nor is there a lack of funds" says historian Khaled Fahmy. He says the problem is a lack of good management and efficient democratic institutions. He argues that building a new capital would be a "fiasco" and that it is exactly the wrong thing to do. "The idea is an expression of contempt for the people and history of Cairo," he says.
The government says the new Cairo will trigger an "economic Renaissance," with the primary aim being that of attracting foreign investment into the country. Egypt is currently suffering from an acute financial crisis because it has used up a large share of its foreign currency reserves. Investments tend to serve the wealthier class, major construction companies and the many companies belonging to the powerful military. Historian Fahmy refers to it as "legal corruption," that is of little benefit to the populace at large.
Cairo, meanwhile, continues to exude a revolutionary air. Despite policies of repression that have resulted in the arrests of thousands, students still continue to protest in front of government buildings. And although the masses of protesters, drums, tents and political graffiti at Tahrir Square have disappeared, the urbane, unruly and well-networked populace here still poses a threat to any autocratic ruler. That's what makes the escapist dream of a desert capital so alluring. Sisi needs a more secure city, one that can be brought under control more easily. He can't leave a behemoth like Cairo to its own devices.
In the evening, the streets in central Cairo are clogged with thousands of cars. Even though only 14 percent of the city's residents own vehicles, traffic remains one of Cairo's greatest unresolved problems. The public transportation system is far from adequate and the city's metro system desperately needs additional lines, but there is currently no concrete plan to build them.
A security guard shakes his head, saying the minister isn't in and hasn't been since this morning. The minister hadn't answered interview requests for weeks and when I ask the guard if anyone can provide me with information about the new capital, he calls a higher-level official.
"I'm not authorized to speak," he says.
"I can't talk about a fish in the sea," says the next.
In the end, a spokeswoman for the minister agrees to talk. In the internal courtyard, a convoy of black Mercedes can be seen parking while inside, cats roam the corridors. Wafaa Bakry's office is ice cold. In hot Cairo, an official's spot in the hierarchy can largely be determined by the intensity of air-conditioning in the office -- and Bakry must be pretty close to the minister. She keeps anti-bacterial spray on her desk.
The new Egyptian capital city, shown as a model here, would also be home an airport bigger than London's Heathrow.
When asked if money has already been found for the project, she says, "None whatsoever so far." She says she also has no idea where it might come from.
Asked if she thinks the new capital will ever actually get built, she responds, "Absolutely. One-hundred percent. The president has announced it, so it will happen."