Egypt’s new desert capital: metropolis or mirage?
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It may be a harsh and congested city, but the noisy jumble that is Cairo can still offer moments of beauty and pleasure that remind even the most jaded Cairenes of why they love their capital, and why Egyptians call it somewhat grandiloquently Om el Donia or “mother of the world”.
Sailing on a felucca on the broad stretch of Nile in the heart of the city, savouring stillness in the middle of the madness, is one such moment. The European-style buildings of central Cairo may be dilapidated and often obscured by clothes and shoe shops with garish fronts, but they still exude a faded charm, and the observant will see gold mosaic trimming, gargoyles, plaster rosettes, art-deco flutes and art-nouveau wrought-iron flourishes attesting to a time when the architects of the city were Italian and French.
Although there is the option of a speedier journey through the tunnel under Azhar street, I usually choose to drive through the car-choked road between elegant historic mosques and centuries-old markets, dodging pedestrians and quietly cursing pick-up trucks that block the traffic to load up.
Like other old cities, Cairo with its more than 1,000 years of history bears the imprint of every era and fashion it has lived through. While this makes for variety and a rich cultural heritage, no one can deny that living in this metropolis of about 19m people and navigating its streets is often hellish. The traffic, poor public transport, noise, chaos, lack of green space and rotting rubbish piled up on pavements can be oppressive. When rushing to a meeting you are not always in the mood to be charmed by the bakery worker weaving dangerously through the traffic on a bicycle while balancing a large board of freshly baked loaves on his head.
With so many people jostling for space in an overburdened city, the authorities are eying the desert for a new capital to be built 45km east of Cairo. They have come up with a grandiose vision for a 700 sq km metropolis which was launched in March at an international investment conference in the glittering presence of presidents and princes. The architect’s model on display showed a city centre of sleek skyscrapers more reminiscent of Dubai than Cairo, surrounded by acres of low-rise housing in tree-lined streets. As Mostapha Madbouli, Egypt’s housing minister, described the government’s plan, the phrase that repeatedly tripped off his tongue was that everything would be done “to the highest standard”.
The new city would feature the “biggest garden in the world”, 25 residential districts, a new international airport and an entertainment park “four times the size of Disneyland”. Yet the plans for what would become the largest purpose-built capital ever are so ambitious that many observers are sceptical that it will ever materialise. Cynics even claim that it is all a publicity stunt, aimed at stoking optimism over the regime of Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who ousted his elected predecessor in 2013. At best, some say, this will end up as a cluster of compounds for the wealthy who can afford to live far out of town and travel in SUVs.
Indeed, despite the political and media fanfare that accompanied the announcement, almost no details have been released about how the mega project will be funded, other than that it is a partnership between the Egyptian government and a Gulf company, Capital City Partners, a privately owned property vehicle founded by Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties of Dubai and the man behind Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. But to add to the confusion, Sisi, was recently quoted as saying the capital will place no burdens on the state budget. The Egyptian government will own 24 per cent of the project, according to Madbouli, presumably against providing the land.
The new city is being designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. If it were ever to be built, it will be 40 years in the making. It would eventually house 5m people and create 1.7m new jobs. The first phase, according to the minister, is due to be finished in five to seven years and will see the relocation of parliament, the presidential palace, ministries and foreign embassies to the as yet nameless metropolis. It will cost $45bn.
“Our hope is that [the city] will accommodate millions of the residents of Greater Cairo over the next 40 years,” said the minister who warned that the population of the existing capital was on course to double during that period.
The dream of starting from scratch in the desert may be enticing, but experts warn that Egypt has gone down that route before and the results have been severely disappointing. A series of costly satellite cities built in the desert over the past 40 years have failed to relieve population pressures on Cairo or to attract residents in anything near the numbers targeted by planners. Instead, thousands of apartment blocks stand empty while Cairo continues to grow and gobble up the countryside on its outskirts. The new cities have failed to take off because of poor transport links and the absence of the jobs and social networks that enable the poor to survive.
The planners behind the proposed new capital insist they will avoid the mistakes that bedevilled Cairo’s other alternative cities, but the authorities will not explain why they are building from scratch rather than reinventing existing cities. To critics, this is all part of the opacity surrounding the new venture about which there has been no public consultation.
Most of Cairo’s inhabitants live in what are called the informal areas, which have been illegally built by citizens in defiance of laws banning building on agricultural land. Dense forests of mostly unpainted red-brick apartment blocks, separated by narrow alleys, above which balconies almost touch, extend for vast distances in almost every direction around the capital. The state has no involvement in the construction process; zoning requirements and building permits are dispensed with and the only time an official shows up, it is to receive a bribe to look the other way as new floors are added or another piece of green land disappears.
Over the years, the government has extended utilities to the informal areas which are now home to millions of families — by some estimates 12m to 14m Cairenes, or up to two-thirds of the capital’s population. While policy makers and the elite may still think of the informal areas as marginal and commentators warn repeatedly that they are a “time bomb” that will explode in the face of society, the reality is that they are where the biggest chunks of society live. Studies have shown that Egyptians of a wide range of income levels, barring those in the upper echelons of the middle class, make their homes in these districts. Tellingly, however, these huge residential areas do not even figure on many maps of the city.
David Sims, author of the recently published Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster?, is an economist and urban planning expert who has long studied informal districts and the dynamics of housing in Egypt. He argues that another desert city is not the answer to Cairo’s woes. “Why didn’t the new towns work in terms of population? It’s because people can’t afford to live in them. The excess supply of this desert stuff is so outrageous,” he says. “Wouldn’t you rather think twice before you do the same thing — but on a grander scale — that you have been doing impressively unsuccessfully.”
Sims points out that, unlike the informal areas where bustling streets are lined with a range of small businesses providing employment, the desert cities have been built to higher standards and stricter rules about the ratio of green space to built-up areas. It is also forbidden to open workshops in residential areas. The dearth of jobs means inhabitants have to travel to Cairo for work, but transport links are bad and too costly for low-income families.
Despite the overcrowding and poor living conditions in Cairo’s informal suburbs — where there are no green spaces, the streets are too narrow to allow ambulances and fire trucks to pass through and the citizens who essentially subdivide fields to build on them leave no land for schools and other public amenities — the government has found it hard to convince residents to move to the new cities. As a result, occupancy rates are very low in these satellite urban areas. Sims notes that, nationally, up to 28 per cent of all Egyptian housing units are empty and the rate is even higher in the new cities.
It is not unusual to see in desert developments on the outskirts of Cairo rows upon rows of housing with exteriors painted and finished to comply with legislation but gaping holes for windows signalling that they are not inhabited. In the meantime, new construction in the informal neighbourhoods continues to grow both vertically and horizontally.
Ironically, while government planners speak of the billions that will be spent on the new capital, a new ministry for urban regeneration, recently created specifically to address the problems of poor and informal areas, has a budget this year of less than $100m.
“All regimes like to think big and to imagine that they have a clean slate,” says Khaled Fahmy, historian and professor at The American University in Cairo. “But the big question is, shouldn’t fixing Cairo be our national priority? I think the assumed answer [from policy makers] is that it is unfixable, and that is a political stance.”
Heba Saleh is the FT’s Cairo correspondent
Photographs: Doug Scott/Robert Harding; SOM; Steve Crisp/Reuters; kokoroimages.com/Getty Images
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