A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, March 13, 2015

Egypt Unveils Plan for "New Capital City" East of Cairo

Locator map from the website
To accompany the launch of a much awaited economic development conference in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt unveiled plans for a "new capital city" and administrative center to be located to the east of the existing metropolis. The website is here.

The idea to create a new government center outside the center city has been discussed for some time, but this is the first time details have been released. The new capital city would continue the expansion of the metropolitan area further eastward into the eastern desert, at a point midway between the core city and the Suez Canal. As the map shows, it would lie to the east of New Cairo, a satellite city developed since the early 2000s and home to AUC and other universities, sporting clubs, etc.

Many urbanologists have criticized the growth of satellite cities since the 1980s as encouraging the segregation and isolation of political and economic elites in gated communities far from the urban core, which is bypassed by a growing number of ring roads and bypasses.

A Dubai in the desert?
The publicity claims that the new capital will be a city of five million with a diversity of land use and employment. This post at CairoScene and this one at Egyptian Streets take fairly positive approaches, largely repeating the official publicity.

But not everybody is on board. At the always interesting CairObserver, AUC historian Khaled Fahmy's sharp critique is unsparing:
The website also links to Capital City Partners, a private real estate investment fund led by Emirati Mohamed Alabbar. Alabbar is one of the main advisors of Muhammad bin Rashed al Maktoum, the governor of Dubai. He is also CEO of Emaar, a leading construction firm which built the iconic Burj Khalifa in Dubai and which already has extensive business in Egypt.
I won’t dwell on the fascination with Dubai as a model for urban development and how unsuitable this model is for Egypt whose GDP per capita is 8% of that of the UAE. Nor will I dwell on the deep political and social inequalities that lie beneath the glittering veneer of Dubai, and the serious political implications that this model bodes for the new proposed capital of Egypt. I also won’t dwell on the meaning and significance of announcing such a momentous decision not in front of parliament (for we have no such institution due to a legal fracas that delayed the elections to an unspecified future date) and not to the local media (despite the fact that whatever independence this media might have once enjoyed has evaporated in thin air), but to a group of word leaders and foreign investors who claim to be  “focus[ing] on efforts to promote shared prosperity in Egypt and the region” (in the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry).
I just wonder what will happen to Cairo, Egypt’s capital for more than a thousand years? What will happen to the metropolis that is home to close to 20 million inhabitants? Where do they fit in the government’s plans for the new capital? The website says that it is hoped that the new city will attract 5 million inhabitants when it is finished. Assuming that the aim of building a new administrative capital is to alleviate the pressure from downtown Cairo where the majority of government offices are located, and assuming, for argument’s sake, that the 5 million inhabitants will actually be moved from overcrowded city, what will happen to the rest of us?
But do read the whole piece, "Chasing Mirages in the Desert."

I will also look forward to seeing how David Sims, whose new book, Egypt's Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster? was recently published by AUC Press, reacts to these plans. I haven't read the new book, but he summarized it in this interview last month.

(For my appreciation of Sims' earlier book, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, see my 2011 post on essential readings on Cairo.) 

I imagine I and others will have more to say about this in coming days.

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