Egypt’s military regime is building a new capital city in the desert, where the “People’s Piazza” will be a pale shadow of Tahrir Square.
The new capital of Egypt has no residents. It doesn’t have a local source of water. It just lost a major developer, the Chinese state company that had agreed to build the first phase. You might say the planned city in the desert 45 kilometers east of Cairo doesn’t have a reason to exist. Urban planner David Sims told the Wall Street Journal, “Egypt needs a new capital like a hole in the head.”
What the project has going for it is a president who likes to talk big. Five million inhabitants big. An amusement park “four times the size of Disneyland” big. Seven hundred hospitals and clinics, 1,200 mosques and churches, 40,000 hotel rooms, 2,000 schools — that kind of big. Yes, and fast, too. Standing with the Emir of Dubai beside a model of the new city, in March 2015, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi declared that construction would proceed immediately. “What are you talking about, ten years?” He turned to his housing minister. “I’m serious. We don’t work that way. Not ten years, not seven years. No way.”
Egypt would not be the first country to move its government — parliament, presidency, ministries, and embassies — to a capital city built from scratch, but it would be the first to spend US$45 billion doing so while bread riots are breaking out in the streets. And that’s just the cost of the first phase. The larger plan is so outlandish that it seems fantastical: a luxury development of skyscrapers and artificial lakes that turns its back on Cairo and the Nile Delta.
The project gained momentum last fall when two Chinese state companies stepped in to replace Emirati developers who had backed out the year before. Now one of the Chinese deals has fallen through, which means the financial risk falls to the Egyptian government and local contractors. That’s a heavy burden for a country on the brink of economic collapse, propped up by foreign aid from gulf states and stringent loans from the International Monetary Fund. And yet, plans for the new capital are advancing, shrouded in bombast and uncertainty. TV reports show pipe being laid, earth moved, apartment blocks rising on the windswept desert. The housing ministry says more than 17,000 units are nearly finished and sales will start next month.
As construction proceeds, fundamental questions remain unanswered. What will it take to pump scarce water out to the desert plateau, and who will bear the cost? Who will persuade tens of thousands of public servants to relocate? Why the rush to build a new city when Egypt faces more immediate challenges like economic austerity and terrorism? Above all, why this determination to turn away from a vibrant cultural center at the heart of the Arab world? Six years ago, the crowds of this city, when they took to the streets to demand change, were the biggest and loudest in the region. Is that why Egypt’s generals now dream of governing Cairo from a distance?
A Desert Obsession
The official line is that moving the capital will relieve congestion in the historic center — as if the only problem there were the number of people, not the inequitable allocation of resources or the disregard for public space. Greater Cairo is an energetic but dysfunctional megalopolis of 20 million people that suffers from grinding traffic, tragic pollution, and severe water stress. For decades, planners have tried to decentralize the region, building satellite cities that specialize in higher education, manufacturing, or luxury living, rather than attending to problems in the urban core.
The unofficial truth is that the government finds it easier to finance blank-slate development and promote real-estate speculation in the desert than to invest in infrastructure that would serve the urban majority. There are no plans to build new metro lines or extend services to the city’s informal neighbourhoods, the ashwaiyat where more than half the population lives, in tightly-packed brick buildings separated by dirt alleys. Instead, there are PowerPoint presentations of spacious, green, “modern” neighbourhoods from which all of Cairo’s governance problems — and most of its population — have been scrubbed clean.
To be sure, the new capital is an object of propaganda for the president and his regime. Sisi has ruled the country since 2014, when he led a coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsi, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood who was narrowly elected after the spectacular uprising that ended the 30-year reign of Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak. Since then, Sisi has presided over the worst wave of repression in Egypt’s modern history: protesters killed, journalists persecuted, and thousands of political enemies jailed, disappeared, or tortured. Yet he presents himself as a saviour who rescued the country from political chaos, Islamism, and foreign meddling. He favours mega projects, like the expansion of the Suez Canal, that generate dubious economic returns but make grand pageantry.
But the new capital is not merely a nationalist projection. Egyptian leaders have long indulged a stubborn fantasy of the desert as “a remedy to every problem, real or imagined.” Sims gives an exasperated account of the official obsession with “reclaiming” the arid lands outside the Nile Valley. Since 1976, authorities have established 21 new desert cities, with a combined target population of 20 million residents. (The new capital would make it 25 million.) Yet, by 2006, these “New Urban Communities” had attracted less than one million people, mostly in the areas close to central Cairo. It turns out that few Egyptians are willing to forego the social networks, jobs, and transit in the urban center.
Absurdly, this failure has barely dented the enthusiasm for building new cities in the desert, which constitutes 96 percent of Egypt’s land area, nearly all of it owned by the state and army. As Sims explains, elites see the desert as a tabula rasa where they can build modern, orderly, affluent cities, and turn a profit while they’re at it. One former prime minister lamented the government’s tendency to see the desert as a basbousa, a sweet semolina cake, to be handed out in slices.
In addition to the government-planned cities, huge swaths of desert land are sold — in some cases, practically given away — to private developers who build gated districts with names like Utopia, Dreamland, Belle Ville, Hyde Park, El Rehab (“Spacious”) City, and Palm Hills. Billboards along freeways in central Cairo depict smiling (sometimes foreign) families frolicking on grassy slopes — a vision of suburban life that is barely recognizable to most Caireans. Years ago, there was a sign above a dilapidated building in the city center that said, simply, “Why Are You Here?” Of course, only a wealthy minority have the choice to be anywhere else.
So the new capital is part nationalist symbol, part desert reclamation project, and part suburban fantasy land. After more than a year of being known as “New Administrative Capital,” the development finally has a name, Wedian, bestowed by the consortium of prominent architectural and engineering firms that have emerged as its would-be designers. Wedian is the plural of the Arabic wadi, a small desert valley that gathers water during the brief rainy season. But water here will be a permanent feature. An artificial river, bordered by extensive parklands, wends through the planned city. Thirteen districts known as wedian, each centered on its own smaller green space, are zoned by function: a knowledge wadi for the university, a justice wadi with the courthouses, a culture and arts wadi, and so on. The plan calls for abundant open spaces, greenery, a segregation of uses, and a near-total reliance on private cars. In other words, it is the opposite of traditional urban development in Egypt, which is compact, dense, and mixed-use; adapted to a climate of very hot summers and sandstorms; and built to maximize transportation links, social contacts, and small, informal business opportunities.