Some talk about the aesthetics of pharaonic futurism, but it is definitely megalomania. We are talking about the new Egyptian capital.
New cities emerging from the desert are nothing new in Egyptian history. Ideas for expanding Cairo into the desert date back to the 1950s, during the time of President Nasser. Since 1976, when President Anwar Sadat embarked on such a project, 23 have been built, mostly around Cairo, but also in the Nile Delta and near Alexandria. It is supposed to attract millions from the overpopulated cities, of which less than 800,000 people live. The ever-renewing efforts to relieve overcrowded and chaotic cities like Cairo and Alexandria have been called Egypt’s national campaign or even a crusade in The Nation.
A city of superlatives halfway between Cairo and the Suez CanalThe last stage of this crusade is therefore the new administrative capital, located 45 kilometers east of Cairo, halfway to the Suez Canal. This new city includes, among other things, the tallest skyscraper in Africa (by the way, 20 skyscrapers are/were built by the Chinese), hotel capacity for 40,000 rooms, 663 hospitals, 1,250 mosques and churches, 21 residential neighborhoods or 1.1 million apartments for at least 5 million (it appears also figure 6.5 million) inhabitants, a park twice the size of Central Park, almost 4 square kilometers of theme parks – all this on the size of Singapore.
The competition for the name of the new city was launched years ago, but everyone is still talking about the new administrative capital. Even the current title suggests that the city will include the presidential palace, premises for ministries and foreign embassies. Data from May indicate that 14 ministries have already moved to new premises.
The city, which with its airiness and cleanliness should represent the antithesis of crowded Cairo, should be made even more attractive by, for example, artificial lakes and green areas; the open water together with the greenery was called the ‘green river’. Of course, the question of water consumption arises, also because the amount of water in the Nile is decreasing, among other things supposedly due to the huge dam in Ethiopia. When the project is completed, the new city is expected to use as much as 1.5 million cubic meters of water per day, taking away part of the water that flows into other nearby satellite cities of Cairo.
Since the style of ‘pharaonic futurism’ has already been mentioned, let us mention that the new capital evokes the pharaonic past with a crystal pyramid and motifs inspired by the Egyptian gods. Whether all this will attract Egyptians to move to the new city is not clear. Many believe that anything can happen that the new administrative capital will become a ghost town, such as many found in China. The reason is also said to be real estate prices, which are said to be a challenge for the new middle class and state officials, who were the ‘target’ of investors.
As far as investments are concerned, the role of the military is extremely interesting. As much as 51 percent of ACUD (Administrative Capital for Urban Development), which controls the project, is owned by the military, while 49 percent is controlled by the Ministry of Housing. ACUD also plays a role in managing vacant buildings left behind by officials who move to a new city. Although it is not yet entirely clear what they will do with this real estate fund. There was even an idea to turn them into hotels.
How much money the construction of the new administrative capital will end up swallowing is not yet known. The first estimates in 2015, when the plan and even the model of the new city were presented, predicted a little less than 30 billion euros. 6 years after the start of the project, the estimated price has grown to more than 68 billion euros. This is a big burden for Egypt, as the country is not doing well financially. In a few years, the national debt quadrupled, and in 6 years, the country received three loans from the International Monetary Fund with a total value of almost 19 billion euros. Under President el-Sisi, the country went heavily into debt for his mega projects (among other things, for the expansion of the Suez Canal, which does not bring in the anticipated money) as well as for the purchase of weapons.
Egypt was further affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which led to higher interest rates and rising inflation. The whole thing even led to the fact that the government ordered shopping centers, stadiums and other public facilities to reduce the operation of air conditioners and slightly ‘smoky’ lighting, so that the saved energy could be exported.
But official Egypt sees the real estate sector as an important, if not essential, engine of economic growth. Thus, despite the sad appearance of new cities in the desert, construction continues to be encouraged. Here, too, it is possible to find a comparison with China and draw attention to what has been happening recently with the Chinese real estate sector and giants among investors. Moreover, it is typical of Egypt that several governments use (alleged) development projects in the desert as a (false) promise of development, as a means of diverting attention from real problems in a country where GDP per capita is around 3300 or 3400 (depending on the data source ) euros.
It seems that they do not problematize this in Egypt, but it should be noted that the new city is being ‘advertised’ as a smart city. This should also mean a safe place and at the same time cameras and sensors on every corner. Everything should be controlled from a central control center.
In addition to the already mentioned skyscrapers, the new administrative capital is characterized by several other monumental constructions: the largest cathedral in Egypt and the Middle East, which is supposed to serve Coptic Christians; the largest mosque in Africa and the second largest mosque in Egypt; the Octagon or Ministry of Defense headquarters; a new airport; the second largest stadium in Africa; the aforementioned iconic skyscraper, the tallest building in Africa…
Unequivocally, Cairo needs new housing capacities. Officially, it currently has just over 22 million inhabitants and is considered the fastest growing city in the world. The data is a few years old, but still telling: in 2017 alone, the number of inhabitants grew by half a million. By 2050, the number of inhabitants is expected to reach 40 million.
Ambitious plans for the modernization of Cairo also come into conflict with the protection of cultural heritage. Here we must mention the large-scale construction of highways. The project aroused unusual indignation of the people in Egypt, when they began to demolish or remove, for many Egyptians, the holy place of the dead. As reported by the Associated Press (AP), hundreds of tombs and mausoleums have already been removed. The historian, identified only as Omar, told the AP: “We always thought that no matter what happened elsewhere in Cairo, the city of the dead would be safe. Now we see that this is not the case.“
We can only wonder what the next grandiose project will be, the development of which will probably demonstrate a disdainful attitude towards history and tradition. During the election campaign, President el-Sisi promised 26 new tourist cities, 8 airports, 3 ports, a free trade zone, a new industrial city in the north of the Sinai Peninsula, and the transformation of more than 4 million acres of desert into agricultural land. If nothing else, we can ask where the sufficient amount of water will come from for the entire planned program…