Egypt’s new capital on a operatic scale - figuratively and literally

EGY190209JW003CAIRO - Since 2950 BC, Egypt’s pharaohs, sultans, and kings have moved the country’s capital 25 times in an attempt to restructure governance, reflect geo-political changes, or reinforce an image as a transformative leader.

Now 23 centuries after Alexander the Great transferred Egypt’s seat of power from the Nile city of Memphis to Alexandria in the north, President Abdel Fattah el Sisi is building a massive $45 billion national administrative center in the desert 50 miles from downtown Cairo.

Critics call The New Administrative Capital grandiose and unsustainable. However, supporters say construction has helped drive unemployment to below 10 percent– the lowest since 2011 when a popular rebellion toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.

"Cairo’s infrastructure is really old, and the government had two choices,” said Mohamed Abdalla, president of Coldwell Banker, Egypt. “Either fix the old water, transport, and other systems in a 1,000-year-old city or start building something that can absorb the growth and make us competitive with the rest of the world.”

Egypt’s population is rising at the staggering rate of two and half percent annually, producing more than two and a half million people every year. That means this nation of 101.17 million must accommodate a population roughly the size of Houston annually.

The sheer force of its population growth will likely place Egypt at number seven in the world’s top 10 economies by 2030, according to a Standard Chartered Bank survey released in January.

Meanwhile, traffic congestion in Cairo alone costs Egypt 3.6 percent of its annual GDP, according to the World Bank. And the UN’s Water Development report found that 35 percent of the city’s water is leaking out of dilapidated pipes.

“I had my doubts about the project when the government first started talking about it,” Abdalla admitted. “But I’m much less worried now seeing how things are developing.”

As contractors rush to build highways, offices and housing many say there is a new energy in Egypt over the project.

“As a matter of fact, it is bringing a lot of excitement to the real estate market,” said the Coldwell Banker executive as officials here point to the completed construction of the first 10,000 housing units

Developers surveyed by the Cairo real estate researchers Investgate reported last month that they had sold 24 percent of the available single-family homes, 40 percent of the condos and 100 percent of the available duplexes and townhouses in the new city.

And the sales figures drive an argument that el Sisi needs to build even more new cities to accommodate exponential growth in Africa's third largest economy.

The new capital’s first phase extends over 65 square miles–Washington D.C. is sixty-one square miles – and 80 percent of that land has been sold to developers since President el Sisi committed to the project in 2015.

Eventually some 20 residential areas will be built to accommodate 6.5 million people.

A three-phase plan foresees a 270 square mile city–the size of Singapore – for 36 government agencies, foreign embassies and major companies.

“The Egyptian government is the largest employer in Africa,” said Cairo management consultant Hesham El Abd. “By forcing the civil servants to move, el Sisi can reduce the bloated bureaucracy and finance this game-changing project. Local and international investors are happy to see him meet both of these goals.”

Fifty thousand civil servants –of nearly 5.5 million public sector employees – were notified in January that by next year they will be reassigned from their downtown Cairo offices to freshly built buildings in the new city.

“Once the ministries move, their downtown facilities become a revenue stream for the state which can sell or rehabilitate them for housing or commercial use,” said Ahmed El Helay, government relations coordinator for Administrative Capital for Urban Development (ACUD), the state-owned corporation building the new city.

ACUD’s shares are allocated in a 49 to 51 percent split between Egypt’s Housing and Defense ministries.

Last month Egypt’s president dedicated the new capital's grand mosque which can hold 16,000 worshippers. The Al-Fattah al-Aleem mosque is now Africa’s largest– and is inscribed with el Sisi’s middle name.

Next month the president is scheduled to inspect the administrative capital’s opera house– a multiplex the size of 42 rugby fields with theaters, a contemporary art museum and a huge library.

Some Cairo residents say their megacity of nearly 30 million people – is being sacrificed for an easy fix: They point to decades of neglect of the city's infrastructure, historic buildings and a lack of rules and vision to maintain affordable housing.

10 Tooba, an urban studies think tank, has published reports demonstrating that the same amount of state funds are allocated to the desert suburbs where only 2 percent of Egyptians live as on the infrastructure for existing cities in the Nile Valley – including Cairo – which house 98 percent of the population.

“The New Capital siphons away financial and technical resources which can be redirected to serve local communities where they already live,” said Omnia Khalil, a planner and urban anthropologist at 10 Tooba. “It’s being built for certain social classes and excludes the majority of ordinary people who should be the target of development.”

Open debate over the new capital and other megaprojects has become increasingly restricted after the Egypt’s parliament passed a broad censorship law in June banning websites deemed to "compromise national security or the national economy."

But foreign critics including Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington have slammed the new city as another authoritarian measure by el Sisi who is on course to push through constitutional amendments allowing him to stay in power for another 12 years.

“It might be that by 2020 or thereabouts, Sisi will ensconce himself in his new gated Green Zone, surrounded by just enough military officers, civil servants, and foreign diplomats to create a faint hum of traffic, but far enough from the jostle and bustle of Cairo that he need never worry about another angry crowd protesting outside the presidential palace,” said Dunne.

Back in Cairo, Gamal Bekheet, a 65-year-old year poet says he supports the idea of building a new capital city.

“And above all else I wonder how the city can bear this dry name, The New Administrative Capital," he said. "It clashes with everything that is beautiful about it.”

Photo: New Administrative Capital, Egypt - February 9 2019 - Fifty thousand civil servants – out of nearly 5.5 million public sector employees –were notified in January that by next year they will be reassigned from their offices in and around downtown Cairo to freshly constructed buildings in the new city.
Credit: Jacob Wirtschafter/ARA Network Inc. (02/09/2019)

Story/photo publish date: 03/07/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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