Built as the new capital for the once powerful Muslim empire of the Fatimids, Cairo has provided a potent symbol of Egypt’s rich history for over a millennium. A stone’s throw from the great pyramids and bursting with ancient monuments and historic Islamic architecture, Cairo continues to inspire awe in visitors from around the world. From its imperial origins, Cairo has swelled both geographically and demographically and is now home to up to 20 million people, making it one of the 15 most populated cities in the world. As is common with any mega city, pollution and congestion are major problems, and Cairo’s aging metro system, one of only two on the African continent, has struggled to cope with over 1 billion annual passengers. However, Egyptian’s were left shocked last Friday when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi revealed his ambitious plan to tackle Cairo’s traffic problem; the construction of a $45 billion new capital to the east of the current capital.
Above: Cairo citadel, constructed by Saladin in 1183 CE, seen here in the 19th century.
Expected to be roughly the same size as Singapore, with a park double the size of New York’s Central Park, a theme park four times the size of Disneyland and an airport larger than London’s Heathrow, the extremely ambitious project is slated to be completed in a mere five to seven years. Ordinary Egyptians were conspicuously absent from the announcement at a conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, where the plans were presented to an audience of potential investors and over 30 foreign emirs, kings and presidents.
The currently unnamed city will be built in partnership with a private developer from the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, led by businessman and property giant Mohammad Alabbar, famous for the construction of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The Egyptian government hopes that the city will house 5 million people in 21 residential districts, and contain 663 hospitals and clinics, 1,250 mosques and churches and 1.1 million homes. If successfully completed, the project will be the largest purpose built capital in history, nearly as large as Islamabad, Brasilia and Canberra combined.
However, critics have questioned the viability of the project, suggesting that it is little more than a propaganda stunt to attract foreign investors and draw attention away from the Sisi regime’s appalling human rights record. Egypt has a history of unsuccessful city building programs, many instigated under the cripplingly corrupt Mubarak regime; 22 ‘new towns’ house little more than a million residents, and ‘New Cairo’, a purpose built suburb on the outskirts of Cairo is still only home to a few hundred thousand after more than a decade. Corruption, a lack of infrastructure and an absence of interest mean that many of these purpose built projects have been left as half built ghost towns in the middle of the desert.
Above: a woman walks along a deserted New Cairo street. Originally intended to attract several million residents, only a few hundred thousand now call New Cairo home.
When asked to comment on the newly unveiled plans, Nezar al-Sayyad, Professor of Architecture, Planning, Urban Design and Urban History at University of California, Berkeley, was unconvinced. “It is laughable” he asserted “to leave a city that is already 20 million and build another city that is meant to be twice its size for only 5 million with money that you don’t have on land that doesn’t even have water and in an area that is very distant from any kind of existing urbanisation.” Consequently, many Cairenes believe that the project is yet another example of the government’s refusal to address the concerns of Egypt’s 82 million citizens. Historian Khaled Fahmy, writing for Cairobserver, a blog about the capital, pointed out that the sum earmarked for the project is enough to build over 30 new metro lines, suggesting that the proposed city demonstrates that the “deeply corrupt elites” who make up the Egyptian government are “willing to turn their back to their own people.”
Since coming to power in a military coup that toppled the democratically elected former president Mohammed Morsi, President Sisi has ruthlessly suppressed dissent and cracked down on basic freedoms, imprisoning journalists, staging show trials and ordering hundreds of executions. The Egyptian police have rounded up and arrested alleged homosexuals and the army has repeatedly opened fire on peaceful protestors, killing hundreds. Despite the oppression, unrest continues to simmer in Egypt; five bombs exploded in Cairo the night before the economic conference where the new capital was announced, and Washington based think tank Tahir Institute estimates that there are now an average of 1.75 explosions in Egypt every day. In light of this evidence, the glitzy new capital city project seems a calculated move, intended to symbolize national renewal after years of social division, economic stagnation and political unrest. President Sisi seeks to quite literally draw a line in the sand between the old Egypt, represented by the haphazard disorder of Cairo, and his vision of a new Egypt clearly inspired by the shimmering postmodern towers of Dubai.
Above: A scale model of the proposed capital at the economic conference in Sharm el-Sheik
Whether the project will be successful remains to be seen. With a projected population of 40 million by 2050, something must be done to alleviate Cairo’s overpopulation. However, building an entire city, particularly such a colossal undertaking as the one proposed, may not be the best answer. Behind the success of purpose built capitals like Dubai, Islamabad and, perhaps most famously, Washington D.C, lie the ghost towns of Naypyidaw in Myanmar and Ordos in China, and the Egyptian government will have to strive to fend of the corruption that has stalled previous attempts at city building. With most of the new desert towns built in Egypt being marketed towards wealthy elites craving relief from Cairo traffic, there is a risk that the new capital could follow the same example, leaving Cairo’s urban poor, who suffer disproportionately from the city’s problems with little hope for relocation. As the Sisi government continues to refuse the Egyptian people a part in choosing the future of their country, millions of Egyptians are being left wondering, as Fahmy puts it, “what will happen to the rest of us?”