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Egypt Aims at New Capital City Built from Scratch

SHARM EL-SHEIKH/EGYPT, March 25, 2015 – Egypt’s president Al-Sisi has announced the country will build a new capital city in the desert east of Cairo. While the dimensions and aspirations with regards to quality of life are ambitious, serious questions concerning the feasibility of the project stay unanswered. Funding and sustainable economic success remain doubtful.

by Lasse Lommel

At a regional economic conference in the popular tourist destination Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt’s president Al-Sisi, who is ruling the country on his own without parliament, proclaimed a new megaproject for Egypt: A newly constructed capital located between the existing Cairo and the Suez Canal. And the new city is not supposed to be another overcrowded city like Cairo. Instead, it is supposed to grow to be a pedestrian-friendly metropolis with urban green. Its features include modern “smart” infrastructure and a “multitude of economic opportunities” which “offer a distinct quality of life” as the official website boasts. In terms of numbers, “Capital Cairo” is going to be built for a population of five million people on an area of 490 km². 700 kindergartens and more than a thousand religious buildings are intended to create a living space not only for business men.

Resembling some large cities on the cost of the Persian golf, it is also going to be fitted with attractions like large shopping malls, a central skyscraper business district and a 4 km² theme park, which, as the creators stress, is more than four times the size of Disney Land. And for all concerned about the ecology of desert cities, the creators stress that Capital Cairo will protect the unique ecology of its surroundings, organic waste is going to be recycled and “healthy, local food” is going to be grown in what is to become a “park land” but currently continues to be a desert.

Capital Cairo map mock-up

"Capital Cairo" is to be built between existing New Cairo and the Suez Canal but still close to the Mediterranean Sea. | photo: Capital Cairo

Troubled Economy

New mega-projects like this one are supposed to help the struggling economy of the conflict-torn country. Besides the new capital city, a second lane in the Suez Canal, a 200m skyscraper and the country’s first nuclear power plant have been announced. Egypt’s economy urgently needs some new drive. The country is facing an unemployment rate of 40% among junior jobseekers and the state budget is tight. However, president al-Sisi did not announce the funding sources of the new planned city. The cost estimates of different government agencies vary between 45 and 80 billion US dollars and al-Sisi wants the city to be built in a possibly record-breaking five to seven years.

New city – new corruption?

Some funds are allegedly originating from neighbouring Middle East countries around the Persian golf like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. As Spiegel Online reports, rumours are that multiple construction projects have already been assigned to companies based in the United Arab Emirates. Public tenders nevertheless have neither taken place nor been announced.

Mock-up of Capital Cairo's business district

Pedestrian-friendly and a lot of urban green: Capital Cairo's imaginative business district. | photo: Capital Cairo

Overcrowded Cairo

Currently, 20 million people live in Egypt’s overcrowded capital of Cairo. Yet the infrastructure however is not ready for the population: Many of the city’s inhabitants are suffering from regular power cuts and the catastrophic traffic situation. However, Cairo has not always been the capital of Egypt; it only gained this status about 1,000 years ago whereas London, for example, has been the capital of the United Kingdom for the past 2,000 years. The new “Capital Cairo” will be ready for the forecasted 40 million inhabitants reports Mustafa Kamel Madbuli, the country’s minister for housing development. The parliament, the president’s palace, the ministries and the foreign embassies are supposed to move eastwards.

Artificial city – ghost city?

Capital Cairo would be a purpose-built city and not an outcome of natural economic activity and human migration. As former Vancouver chief planner Brent Toderian reports in the Building Specifier “Based on historic and global track records, trying to build a new city from scratch is a massive gamble. The most concerning thing to me was the speed at which this is intended to be built – five to seven years. That’s incredibly fast. And if you built it that fast, it will be a ghost town, like most other development plays have been.”

Brazil’s artificial capital Brasilia serves as a prominent example. It was designed and built in the 1950s and the following decades. Still, the economic powerhouses of the country are Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro with more than a 100 daily flights between each other while Brasilia remains a city of administration. During the time of construction, automotive individual transport was en vogue, which explains the large six and eight-lane streets of the capital. Today, large parts of the city constitute a nightmare for pedestrians. Besides, the layout, which follows the form of an aircraft, remains unnatural. Many leading politicians and administrators spend their weekends elsewhere and the city lacks a proper cultural life.

Thus, Egypt’s plans are ambitious if the country actually plans to have a “living” capital. Chances are that the artificial development of a new city in the desert will result in a failure rather than a fabulous new era for Egypt. Or the new Capital City – C.C. for short – will remain as a mere memorial of its founder and name-partner president Al-Sisi.