When the Egyptian government announced plans last year to build a new capital in the desert 28 miles east of Cairo, analysts were skeptical. Not only were the components of the city extravagant—a green space twice the size of Central Park, an airport larger than Heathrow—but the basic idea seemed ludicrous. The Cairo-based urban planner David Sims told the site Africa-Middle East, “Egypt needs a new capital like a hole in the head.”
What’s in it for Egypt? The country’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and his government have worked—often through repressive, violent means—to secure their position since Sisi took power after a 2013 coup that ousted former president Mohamed Morsi. Yet Sisi’s stock is down. Tourism and foreign direct investment have lagged, a currency crisis is afoot, and attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups call security into question.
“Support for Sisi is even eroding among the country's upper classes, which have been a reliable base until recently,” says Amr Kotb, an Egypt specialist with the Washington, D.C.-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Sisi is not only aiming to boost Egypt’s flagging economy through the new capital—the government has said, for instance, that the city will generate almost two million jobs—but also to enhance his own legitimacy.
At first, the plan didn’t seem likely to come to fruition, particularly with funding in doubt, despite some pledges from Arab Gulf investors. But now large-scale construction is looking more probable due to a different funding source: China.
This past week, the China Fortune Land Development Company pledged $20 billion of the $45 billion needed to complete the first phase of the as-yet-unnamed, Singapore-sized city. This comes on the heels of a $15 billion pledge from China’s state-owned construction company in January.
China’s financing bolsters its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which seeks to increase investment and infrastructure along both the land and maritime routes of the old Silk Road, on whose western end Cairo sat. Today, China has become Egypt’s largest trade partner. In addition to the new capital, China is investing in such projects as Egypt’s Suez Canal industrial zone as a way to encourage more Chinese business in the region. Such investment thus serves China’s interests by giving it a stronger foothold in an area in which it aims to expand economically.
Egypt has ambitious plans for its new capital. Yet if the history of building projects in the desert around Cairo is any indication, the city will likely end up as more of a ghost town than the thriving metropolis that is envisioned.
Since the 1970s, urban planning in Cairo has focused on making the city less dense and moving its poorer population to the outskirts. This population is substantial: A recent report by 10 Tooba, an organization of architecture and engineering professionals, found that up to a third of Cairo-area households are deprived of necessities such as safe water and sanitation.
The government’s philosophy has not been to address these problems in the neighborhoods where they occur, but to relocate those areas’ inhabitants to far-flung desert “new cities.” However, the reality has been that these suburbs are too expensive for the average Cairene, and, due to their lack of public transport, are only practical if one owns a car—a luxury only a small percentage of Cairo’s residents enjoy. These settlements have become sparsely populated enclaves for the well-to-do, while the disadvantaged areas of the city have continued to expand.
The new capital appears to be yet another iteration of these suburban new cities—only much more ambitious. As the University of Pennsylvania lecturer and urbanist Jon Argaman noted in Muftah,
…[M]uch like its predecessors, the project’s primary target audience is not the five million or so Cairenes the government would like to draw out of the Nile valley. Instead, it is meant to appeal to an international audience of investors and donors and a relatively small number of Egyptians who aspire to leave Cairo’s problems behind...
Instead, the government should tackle the needs of those not wealthy enough to live in the new cities, say Argaman and others, such as Yahia Shawkat, co-founder of 10 Tooba. Allocating more funding for those needs, as well as giving more power to on-the-ground local authorities, who better understand their communities’ needs, would be a good start.
“The government must address the roots of Cairo’s problems in the existing city,” says Kotb. “It’s avoiding them by going elsewhere.”