Egypt’s New Planned Capital: An Analysis

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President and De Facto Military Dictator of Egypt

When picturing the center of a nation’s government, one typically imagines a proud, booming city in which citizens aspire to live. Now picture Cairo, Egypt: traffic remains congested all day, the streets are full of beggars and the destitute, building regulations are minimal and left unenforced: not the ideal image of what a capital city of a 5,000-year-old nation should be. Faced with the aforementioned issues, president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decided changes must be made. So, to combat this problem, he proposed the building of a brand new capital, completely from scratch and in the middle of the desert.

The need to change capitals is not without merit; the city that el-Sisi decided to move from is no longer the desirable city it once was. Egypt has a high national poverty rate of 27.8%, and nearly 1/5 of this comes from Cairo alone. About 20% of Cairo’s population has no access to running water and the sewage systems are incredibly outdated with upwards of 3 million lacking access to proper sewage and 100 new sewage problems daily. A World Bank Report states that Cairo’s traffic problem results in about a 4% loss of the nation’s GDP each year. And, as the population of Cairo continues to expand, these problems only worsen. 

Sadly, the majority of these issues have been overshadowed by the internal power struggle of Egypt. In 2013, a successful coup d’état was staged and Egypt’s first freely elected president was overthrown. In his place, current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took over and has been in charge ever since. Although largely supported by the Egyptian public, el-Sisi’s use of power has often been called into question. He has been known to meet his political opposition with excessive force, often resorting to travel bans, imprsionment, and even torture. As a result of this, many people question whether or not his government is truly democratic, and see him as a dictator rather than an actual president.

A Typical Street Scene in Cairo

Instead of looking inwards to fix Cairo’s problem, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi believes the best way to fix Cairo’s problems is by diverting the traffic from Cairo to this new capital city. Endowed with a futuristic and utopian vision for what the new capital should look like, the president plans to start construction 30 miles from Cairo – just far enough to ignore its debilitating problems. He promises to create the first smart city in Egypt, with a smart traffic system, a green space larger than New York’s central park, and many other various projects. One of Egypt’s biggest churches is already completed, as well as the Al Masa hotel run by the military, a clear indication that the President is fully set on seeing this figment of his imagination come to fruition.

Besides simply diverting traffic from Cairo, Egypt’s new capital could provide numerous other potential benefits as well – at least that’s what el-Sisi says. First, Egyptian analysts predict huge economic benefits, luring tourists and citizens alike to pour money into their economy. Also, the city has potential security advantages as well. Fearing a coup d’état similar to the one only 7 years ago, the army would be able to control and manage the whole city through a command center located in the center of the city, easing the president’s worries.

A Diagram of the New Planned Capital Released at an Official Expo

While in theory, all of these sounds like great ideas to modernize and stabilize Egypt as well as attract new people, various problems will probably manifest themselves sooner or later. Also, financial problems present themselves as well through Egypt’s new capital. While Egyptian experts do predict economic gain, other analysts predict the exact opposite. Projected costs of the new capital range between $45 and $58 billion. Recently, Egypt has been plagued with financial challenges, including a decrease in tourism, unemployment, and inflation. So, experts raise the question of whether or not it’s worth it to embark on such a great economic undertaking, and if the president may be building this new city as a way to divert attention away from the struggling economy. Critics cite a similar situation which occurred in 1997 when Kazakhstan moved its capital. Although they initially predicted this move would cost a total of $400 million, this number only increased. And, as the president focused on moving the capital, the economy plummeted and unemployment and poverty rose.

Hypothetically, let’s say el-Sisi does manage to keep the total cost of construction between the estimated range of $45 and $58 billion and can complete all of the projects he has promised thus far. There’s still no guarantee that the Egyptian people will actually move to this new city. Although the Egyptian government has yet to attempt anything to this big of a scale, The Economist states that since the 1970s, the Egyptian government has been building new cities throughout the desert, in an attempt to ease congestion. However, while promising in theory, these cities lacked tangible appeals for residents, like well-paying jobs and affordable housing. One of these cities was even titled “New Cairo”, and was intended to lure upwards of 5 million residents away from Cairo – sound familiar? It only managed to attract around 500,000 citizens or one-tenth of the predicted figure. 

Another issue is spatial segregation – the idea that this new capital city will only serve as a way to separate the different social groups. A prime example of this issue is in Brazil when their military dictatorship decided to move their capital to Brasília in 1960. Although this promised many benefits as well, it now only exists as a shell of its former self. While the upper 10%, made up of the wealthy and intellectual elites, live in the center of the city, the other 90% live in the outer half. This leads to de facto segregation and polarization, where the residents on the outer half have a harder time finding work and being involved with their society. 

The fear is that history could repeat itself in Egypt’s new capital. It promises public facilities, transport infrastructure, and affordable housing, all items that help combat spatial segregation. However, figures predicted by experts continue to contradict el-Sisi’s promises. The average price estimates for housing are still well above the paygrade of the average public worker. On average, Egyptian civil servants make around 1,247 Egyptian pounds, which equates to about $70 a week. With the housing ministry predicting apartment prices at around 11,000 Egyptian pounds per square meter, very few civil servants would be able to afford housing. And, it’s predicted that the prices of housing will only increase towards the center of the city. This would lead to the middle and lower class families searching for housing on the outer half of the city, with far fewer economic and social opportunities, the same issue of spatial segregation that plagues Brasilia to this day. Since Cairo is currently dependent upon upwards of 2.1 million bureaucrats and numerous public workers as well, it’s hard to imagine that this new city, well out of the financial reaches of these people, will manage to attract the people needed for a successful and sustainable society.

According to president el-Sisi, Egypt’s new capital looks to revolutionize Egypt. However, despite his various promises, experts continue to predict the opposite. Will el-Sisi manage to avoid repeating history and construct a city that Egyptian’s are proud to call their new capital? Maybe, but let’s not get our hopes up.