Cairo has been Egypt’s capital for over a thousand years, serving as the heart of the nation for millennia and holding special importance as a symbol of Ancient Egypt, housing the Pyramids of Giza, and Islamic Architecture and Culture, being know as “the City of a Thousand Minarets”. But it is also home to over 19 million people, suffering from huge levels of pollution and an overcrowded and congested traffic. With predictions pointing to its population more than double by 2050, Cairo simply doesn’t have the infrastructure necessary to sustainably maintain this level of population.
As such, a New Administrative Capital (NAC) has been announced, where the entire government will relocate to. This means that the Presidency, the cabinet, 37 ministries, Parliament, courts and foreign embassies will, in June 2019, move out of Cairo and into this mega-city, which is planned to hold the tallest tower in Africa and a theme park bigger than Disneyland. But building mega-cities is not a new idea, and one which doesn’t seem to always work out – New Cairo was such a project, built in 2000 and expected to house 5 million people (its current population is just about 200 thousand inhabitants). Will Egypt’s NAC succeed, or is it doomed to fail?
Egypt has always been a force to be reckoned with in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. With access to the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, controlling the Suez Canal and holding the key connection between Africa and Asia, Egypt has a privileged location. Its population also contributes to its relevance in regional politics, as it is the most populated country in the Arabic-speaking world, as well as serving as one of the few countries facilitating dialogue between Palestine and Israel. Egypt’s sizable military also contributes to its very powerful position amongst its neighbours.
However, Egypt has a history of political instability, which, combined with the autocratic tendencies and political repression of its ruling military, means it doesn’t occupy the top spot in Middle-Eastern politics, with countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iran disputing control for the region.
As such, the birth of NAC should be analysed not only as a way to relieve congestion and improve the quality of life of Cairo’s population, but also as a signal to the world that Egypt, after the troubled times of the Arab Spring, is back in the game.
Another key element of the inception of NAC is the creation, across the Red Sea, of another mega-city: Saudi Arabia’s NEOM city, an eco-friendly, technologically advanced economic area, built to overtake Dubai or Singapore as the model of the modern metropolis. The creation of these two cities, Egypt’s new capital and Saudi Arabia’s NEOM, could thus be seen as just another manoeuvre in the race for the supremacy in the region.
Egypt’s current internal political situation should also be considered: despite claiming to have left the stressful years of the Arab Spring behind, the military is still in power, and the new capital may well be a way for Egypt to rebrand and distance itself from the Mubarak administration. NAC is widely considered to be the great legacy of “strongman” President al-Sisi, showing the whole world that al-Sisi’s Egypt is not the same place it was and that it is now a place where business get done, thanks to al-Sisi.
Building a new capital from scratch is not a new concept; history is full of examples, some successful, others not. But NAC is going further: the city is planned to be the biggest planned city ever, with a business district, complete with 20 skyscrapers, a presidential palace eight times the size of the White House and a park double the size of New York’s Central Park. Stakeholders include the omnipresent Egypt’s military and Chinese and Emirati businesses.
However, concerns have been raised regarding the price of real estate in the new city, and how most residents of Cairo likely won’t be able to afford to move. Even if the predicted inhabitants do move in, they will mostly be the wealthiest Egyptians, leading to an even bigger financial inequality and rifting the country apart, with Old Cairo lagging behind and the NAC serving as the seat of the rich and powerful. Observers also note that the existing desert “ghost cities” have only served as a speculative real estate project, adding to the financial constraints of a country already in dire need of external aid.
Egypt’s new capital has the potential for accelerating the country’s development, improving the poor living standards in over-crowded Cairo, while simultaneously threatening to endanger the country’s weak economy and create a rift that leads to more socio-economic inequality. If done right, it can fulfil its mission, signalling to the world the return of a strong, stable Egypt able to compete with its neighbours. If not, this writer fears that, for the people of Egypt, burdened with foreign dept, the troubled times of the past are not yet gone by. It’s in President al-Sisi’s administration’s hands to successfully lead Egypt towards a more prosperous future.
“Egypt plans new capital adjacent to Cairo”; Al Jazeera; 14 Mar. 2015; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/03/egypt-plans-capital-adjacent-cairo-150314014400946.html
Bassou, Abdelhak; “The geopolitics of Egypt: Strengths, Opportunities, Constraints and Vulnerabilities”; Policy Center for the New South; 28 Jun. 2016; http://www.ocppc.ma/publications/geopolitics-egypt-strengths-opportunities-constraints-and-vulnerabilities
NEOM website; viewed on the 17 Feb. 2019; https://www.neom.com/
Bennett, Oliver; “Why Egypt is building a brand new mega capital city”; The Independent; 10 Sep. 2018; https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/egypt-capital-city-cairo-architecture-the-new-administrative-capital-a8521981.html