The new capital of Egypt has no residents. It doesn’t have a local source of water. It just lost a major developer, the Chinese state company that had agreed to build the first phase. You might say the planned city in the desert 45 kilometers east of Cairo doesn’t have a reason to exist. Urban planner David Sims told the Wall Street Journal, “Egypt needs a new capital like a hole in the head.” 1
What the project has going for it is a president who likes to talk big. Five million inhabitants big. An amusement park “four times the size of Disneyland” big. Seven hundred hospitals and clinics, 1,200 mosques and churches, 40,000 hotel rooms, 2,000 schools — that kind of big. 2 Yes, and fast, too. Standing with the Emir of Dubai beside a model of the new city, in March 2015, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi declared that construction would proceed immediately. “What are you talking about, ten years?” He turned to his housing minister. “I’m serious. We don’t work that way. Not ten years, not seven years. No way.” 3
Listen to an audio version of this article below. Hear more at Audm.
Egypt would not be the first country to move its government — parliament, presidency, ministries, and embassies — to a capital city built from scratch, but it would be the first to spend US$45 billion doing so while bread riots are breaking out in the streets. 4 And that’s just the cost of the first phase. The larger plan is so outlandish that it seems fantastical: a luxury development of skyscrapers and artificial lakes that turns its back on Cairo and the Nile Delta.
When the crowds took to the streets to demand change, they were the biggest and loudest in the region. Is that why Egypt’s generals now dream of governing Cairo from a distance?
The project gained momentum last fall when two Chinese state companies stepped in to replace Emirati developers who had backed out the year before. Now one of the Chinese deals has fallen through, which means the financial risk falls to the Egyptian government and local contractors. 5 That’s a heavy burden for a country on the brink of economic collapse, propped up by foreign aid from gulf states and stringent loans from the International Monetary Fund. 6 And yet, plans for the new capital are advancing, shrouded in bombast and uncertainty. TV reports show pipe being laid, earth moved, apartment blocks rising on the windswept desert. The housing ministry says more than 17,000 units are nearly finished and sales will start next month. 7
As construction proceeds, fundamental questions remain unanswered. 8 What will it take to pump scarce water out to the desert plateau, and who will bear the cost? Who will persuade tens of thousands of public servants to relocate? Why the rush to build a new city when Egypt faces more immediate challenges like economic austerity and terrorism? Above all, why this determination to turn away from a vibrant cultural center at the heart of the Arab world? 9 Six years ago, the crowds of this city, when they took to the streets to demand change, were the biggest and loudest in the region. Is that why Egypt’s generals now dream of governing Cairo from a distance?
A Desert Obsession
The official line is that moving the capital will relieve congestion in the historic center — as if the only problem there were the number of people, not the inequitable allocation of resources or the disregard for public space. Greater Cairo is an energetic but dysfunctional megalopolis of 20 million people that suffers from grinding traffic, tragic pollution, and severe water stress. 10 For decades, planners have tried to decentralize the region, building satellite cities that specialize in higher education, manufacturing, or luxury living, rather than attending to problems in the urban core.
The unofficial truth is that the government finds it easier to finance blank-slate development and promote real-estate speculation in the desert than to invest in infrastructure that would serve the urban majority. There are no plans to build new metro lines or extend services to the city’s informal neighborhoods, the ashwaiyat where more than half the population lives, in tightly-packed brick buildings separated by dirt alleys. Instead, there are PowerPoint presentations of spacious, green, “modern” neighborhoods from which all of Cairo’s governance problems — and most of its population — have been scrubbed clean.
To be sure, the new capital is an object of propaganda for the president and his regime. Sisi has ruled the country since 2014, when he led a coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsi, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood who was narrowly elected after the spectacular uprising that ended the 30-year reign of Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak. Since then, Sisi has presided over the worst wave of repression in Egypt’s modern history: protesters killed, journalists persecuted, and thousands of political enemies jailed, disappeared, or tortured. Yet he presents himself as a savior who rescued the country from political chaos, Islamism, and foreign meddling. 11 He favors megaprojects, like the expansion of the Suez Canal, that generate dubious economic returns but make grand pageantry. 12
But the new capital is not merely a nationalist projection. Egyptian leaders have long indulged a stubborn fantasy of the desert as “a remedy to every problem, real or imagined.” Sims gives an exasperated account of the official obsession with “reclaiming” the arid lands outside the Nile Valley. Since 1976, authorities have established 21 new desert cities, with a combined target population of 20 million residents. (The new capital would make it 25 million.) Yet, by 2006, these “New Urban Communities” had attracted less than one million people, mostly in the areas close to central Cairo. 13 It turns out that few Egyptians are willing to forego the social networks, jobs, and transit in the urban center.
Absurdly, this failure has barely dented the enthusiasm for building new cities in the desert, which constitutes 96 percent of Egypt’s land area, nearly all of it owned by the state and army. As Sims explains, elites see the desert as a tabula rasa where they can build modern, orderly, affluent cities, and turn a profit while they’re at it. One former prime minister lamented the government’s tendency to see the desert as a basbousa, a sweet semolina cake, to be handed out in slices. 14
One former prime minister lamented the government’s tendency to see the desert as a basbousa, a sweet semolina cake, to be handed out in slices.
In addition to the government-planned cities, huge swaths of desert land are sold — in some cases, practically given away — to private developers who build gated districts with names like Utopia, Dreamland, Belle Ville, Hyde Park, El Rehab (“Spacious”) City, and Palm Hills. Billboards along freeways in central Cairo depict smiling (sometimes foreign) families frolicking on grassy slopes — a vision of suburban life that is barely recognizable to most Caireans. Years ago, there was a sign above a dilapidated building in the city center that said, simply, “Why Are You Here?” Of course, only a wealthy minority have the choice to be anywhere else.
So the new capital is part nationalist symbol, part desert reclamation project, and part suburban fantasyland. After more than a year of being known as “New Administrative Capital,” the development finally has a name, Wedian, bestowed by the consortium of prominent architectural and engineering firms that have emerged as its would-be designers. Wedian is the plural of the Arabic wadi, a small desert valley that gathers water during the brief rainy season. But water here will be a permanent feature. An artificial river, bordered by extensive parklands, wends through the planned city. Thirteen districts known as wedian, each centered on its own smaller green space, are zoned by function: a knowledge wadi for the university, a justice wadi with the courthouses, a culture and arts wadi, and so on. The plan calls for abundant open spaces, greenery, a segregation of uses, and a near-total reliance on private cars. In other words, it is the opposite of traditional urban development in Egypt, which is compact, dense, and mixed-use; adapted to a climate of very hot summers and sandstorms; and built to maximize transportation links, social contacts, and small, informal business opportunities.
Most troubling of all, the new capital cleaves the government from the city — and from its people — in order to forestall a popular uprising on the scale of January 25, 2011, which culminated in the eighteen-day occupation of Tahrir Square.
To stand in Tahrir Square that morning was to have double vision, to witness a new reality so intense it made the city shimmer with strangeness.
On January 28, huge crowds converged upon Tahrir from different starting points across the city and, after battling all day with police, broke into the square. I followed a march that started after noonday prayers in the neighborhood of Dokki and walked at dusk across the Nile in its wake. Tahrir was aglow with fire and smoke and tear gas. Young men holding bars and bats and abandoned police gear ran around in the dark, ragged and jubilant. Cars exploded like fireworks.
The headquarters of the National Democratic Party was still burning the next day. An old man outside raised his hand, a bird in flight, and said gleefully, “The government’s taken off.”
To stand in Tahrir Square that morning was to have double vision, to witness a new reality so intense it made the city shimmer with strangeness. People returned downtown, dazed and elated and ready for a fight. All of Cairo seemed to have been lifted off its axis, inclined a few inches at a new angle — floating, unstable, transformed.
For the eighteen days of the occupation, I could lean out my balcony and see the crowds marching down Kasr El Aini Street to Midan Tahrir. I went there many times, making my way through the strangely quiet streets, the neighborhood checkpoints manned by thin-skinned, self-important teenage boys; past the impassive soldiers, the cinder-blocks, the tanks; and through very polite volunteers, searching bags and pockets, and the welcoming committees, rows on either side, singing: “Here come the Egyptians! Here they come, here they come!”
What began as a protest against police brutality became something larger. People would summon their reluctant friends by phone: You have to come here. You have to see.
Whatever disputes arose had to be resolved on the spot, more or less collectively. It was far from perfect, but, after years of cynicism and resignation, it was deeply exhilarating.
Much has been written about “the free republic of Tahrir”: about the emergency clinics, collective art projects, and volunteer street-sweepers; about the witty chants, the jubilant solidarity, the mixing of men and women, Christians and Muslims, young and old. Some of it is idealized. There was also violence and suspicion, confusion and disagreement in the square. But whatever disputes arose had to be resolved on the spot, more or less collectively, in a rough-and-tumble form of civic debate and participation. It was far from perfect, but, after years of cynicism and resignation, it was deeply exhilarating.
As Mohamed Elshahed wrote in Places in the midst of that revolution, Egyptians discovered “that their fight for democracy [was] inseparably linked to their ability to assemble in urban space.” 15 But if the people knew this, the authorities knew it too. As protests continued after Mubarak’s ouster, the military surrounded Tahrir with barriers and checkpoints, enormous cinder-block walls that cut off entire streets. The subway station was closed for years. After Sisi came to power, there was a fierce crackdown on public expression throughout the capital. Authorities forbid demonstrations, shut down street theater and outdoor concerts, erased graffiti, raided cafés, and harassed cultural venues such as art galleries and publishing houses — anywhere that people (particularly young people) might congregate.
I lived in downtown Cairo from 2002 to 2014, in neighborhoods that had many government buildings. Now, staring at glossy renderings for the new capital of Egypt, I have a hard time envisioning protestors transported deep into the desert, occupying the “People’s Piazza” below the new presidential palace. The Wedian plan conceives open space as décor for political pageantry, or as a suburban amenity, rather than as a contested public realm. The new capital will be so far from the urban center, and the spaces within it so vast, that it’s hard to see how citizens could ever congregate in large numbers to express political demands.
What the regime has produced is a desert spectacle, deliriously contemptuous not only of geography, history, and weather, but of the lived realities of most Egyptians.
But of course that’s the point. The new capital is meant to embody the president’s will, and to underscore the preeminent role of the institution that brought him to power — the army — in guiding the country. The project is run by a joint company formed by the housing ministry and the army, and the land will be leased, not sold. It is yet another example of the military’s aggressive move into the private sector via the logic of “rent extraction.” 16 The way the project was designed and announced — without any public consultation, accountability, or transparency about public costs and environmental impact — reinforces the regime’s authoritarianism. And what the regime has produced is a desert spectacle, deliriously contemptuous not only of geography, history, and weather, but of the lived realities of most Egyptians.
A City Searching for a Center
While Cairo has existed for millennia, the modern city dates to the 19th-century reign of Khedive Isma’il Pasha. Enriched by the cotton trade and inspired by his visit to the Paris Expo in 1867, the khedive decided to radically “improve” Cairo ahead of the opening of the Suez Canal. He invited Baron Haussmann, the architect of modern Paris, to design a grid of wide avenues and squares west of the old city of Cairo, and he commissioned the Ezbekiyya Gardens and founded the neighborhood of Ismailiyya, which is today’s downtown. Plots in these new quarters were granted to “anyone who would construct a building with a European façade.” 17
Those interventions permanently changed the urban scheme, but they bankrupted Isma’il and the country. The khedive’s “financial advisers” summoned troops to enforce their interests, and that began the 70-year British occupation of Egypt. The new quarters, expanded by colonial powers, became the Belle Epoque downtown. The much older neighborhoods, known today as Islamic Cairo, were viewed as a dirty and disorderly relic of the past and abandoned by the country’s elites.
The story of pre-war Cairo was the story of this double city, its two sides adjacent but opposed: modern versus backwards, rich versus poor, foreign versus local, planned versus informal. The fraught passage between the two halves of Cairo can be understood through the literary works of writers like Naguib Mahfouz and Youssef Idris, whose characters find freedom and affluence in the new neighborhoods, but also inequality and alienation. The urban divide was as much cultural as geographic; anthropologist Janet Abu-Lughod called it “a rent in the social fabric,” the consequence of imposed modernization and colonialism. 18
Despite this contentious history, downtown Cairo became the city’s cultural heart and Tahrir its greatest public space. When demonstrators occupied that square in the winter of 2011, they were not merely protesting against the government but reclaiming the shared right to see and be seen. 19 For in the years before Mubarak’s ouster, a vacuum had formed at the center of the city, as a result of the expansion of informal neighborhoods and gated suburban estates. Cairo, like other large capitals in the developing world, was beset by the “secession of the middle class”; 20 those who could afford to escape the urban pollution and chaos sought refuge in the new satellite cities. Meanwhile, millions lived in informal neighborhoods, which they built themselves to meet their most basic needs, in open defiance of national law but often with the collusion of local officials. They struggled to obtain water, electricity, paved roads, and public services. Their neighborhoods were left off maps and stigmatized as hotbeds of crime and extremism. When planning authorities reluctantly acknowledged their existence, it was usually to propose clearing them. Thus, the capital grew ever more divided between an affluent minority that dreamt of escape and a struggling majority that was told it didn’t belong.
Open spaces were privatized and policed. Civic gardens were padlocked, squares fenced off, public land sold surreptitiously to developers.
Under Mubarak’s regime, open spaces were privatized and policed. Civic gardens were padlocked, squares fenced off, public land sold surreptitiously to developers. New expressways and flyovers served tourist buses and suburban commuters, but they destroyed and disfigured central neighborhoods. In some areas, the freeway was built so close to buildings that drivers could look straight into someone’s living room. Meanwhile, public gatherings were tightly monitored and demonstrations illegal. Hamdy Abu Golayyel, a novelist who wrote about living in the slum of Manshiyat Nasr, told me at the time that it didn’t make sense to talk about “marginalized” neighborhoods in Cairo. Nobody, no matter where they lived, had “the power to make political decisions,” he said. “Mubarak is the core, and the rest of us are all marginalized.”
And yet Cairenes subverted the heavy hand of the state whenever they could, and they adapted to crowded quarters with endless resourcefulness. One of the city’s great charms was the impromptu creation of small congenial spaces. A row of plastic chairs on a bridge became a café with an extraordinary view. Families picnicked in the traffic median late at night.
After the January 25 revolution, people were eager to reach across social and geographic divides to repair their city. Grassroots initiatives flourished. Cairo was in a state of constant but optimistic uproar. (Re-reading emails from that time, I found the sign-off: “A lovely weekend, marches, teargas or whatever you are up to.”) Street vendors set up wherever they liked. Boys rode motorcycles on the sidewalk. Everything was political: Artists set up galleries in poor areas and led walking tours of ashwaiyat. Activists held open-air screenings of news footage the government was censoring. Neighbors organized themselves to demand that authorities collect garbage in poorer areas. They took charge of their own governance and infrastructure, building their own freeway off-ramps, police stations, and railroad crossings in the informal neighborhoods. Progressive architects and planners hoped that, finally, they might see a more equitable approach to urban development. One of their first victories was the demise of the Cairo 2050 Plan, 21 a Mubarak-era vision for redeveloping the Nile waterfront that would have required the eviction and resettlement of as many as 12 million people. 22 For a few short years, the density of Egyptian cities was accepted as a fact, and even a potential asset.
In 2012, I began attending a working group on public space organized by a leading human rights group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). Urbanists, artists, researchers, and journalists presented their work and exchanged ideas. In one lecture, architect Fady El-Sadek showed a picture of people praying in Tahrir, their rugs packed in as tightly as pomegranate seeds, next to a picture of informal housing. Both, he said, were examples of “organically maximizing space.” As Sadek observed, Cairo’s density has been at least 40,000 people per square kilometer (four times that of New York City) since the Napoleonic invasion. 23 Density is the defining feature of urban space in Egypt.
In order to take advantage of density, though, a city needs political mechanisms to ensure that resources are distributed fairly. 24 One of the biggest problems in Cairo is the lack of investment in public transportation, even as the government builds massive highways in the desert. 25 Only about 13 percent of Egyptians own a private car, 26 and yet the urban plan favors cars over other transit modes, producing astonishing gridlock and pollution.
In 2013, as Egyptians were debating the reinvention of their country, Sadek proposed dividing Cairo into 20 districts of about 100,000 residents each. Each district would be governed by a committee of local representatives and central planners who would choose one street that was served by public transit, close to a green or open space, and lined with businesses. This main street would be pedestrianized and enhanced with features like seating, shade, and fountains. The government would build new community centers, to be the nodes in a future expansion of public transit.
What they really wanted was to go back in time, to a moment of extraordinary but fleeting leverage, when they had all stood at the center of history.
Sadek’s proposal, like many creative planning reforms from that era, never saw the light of day. The bureaucracy was paralyzed, as it waited to see who would ultimately win political power. Those who participated in the January 25 protests said time and again, “We need to go back to the midan.” And they did go back, more than once. But what they really wanted was to go back in time, to a moment of extraordinary but fleeting leverage, when they had all stood at the center of history.
As first the Muslim Brotherhood and then Sisi’s military regime rose to power, those dreams of a better city were lost. Tahrir Square became dangerous. Protesters there were killed by army and police, and women were assaulted. The organs of civil society were too busy defending basic rights, and their own existence, to focus on anything else. The ebullient dissent of the post-Mubarak years was stamped out. Today, many of the EIPR staff have quit or left the country. Its founder, Hossam Bahgat, is facing trial, alongside some of the country’s best-known human rights activists, on charges of illegally receiving foreign funding.
No Politics in the City
So pervasive is the climate of repression today that many people living in Egypt are reluctant to directly criticize the president’s pet project on the record. Some newspaper columnists have ventured timid reservations, arguing that this is not a good time for such an ambitious and expensive enterprise. 27 Privately, many architects and planners are dismayed. But last year, an Egyptian-American architecture professor who ridiculed it as “Sisi-land” in a Facebook post was held for questioning at the Cairo International Airport. 28
What does the “People’s Piazza” represent in a country that in 2013 criminalized all assembly and protest? 29 In a country that turned the original people’s square — Tahrir — into a battleground, suffocated with tear gas, splattered with blood, sealed off with blast walls, and policed like a crime zone?
In the new capital, authorities won’t need to take the extreme precautions that they do in downtown Cairo. Today at the end of Kasr El Aini Street there stands a large metal gate, painted with the Egyptian flag, that the government can close as needed to prevent marches towards Tahrir Square. The street leading to the parliament building has been closed for years. Blast walls surround most ministries and embassies, less to guard against terrorist attacks (although there is that too) than against protesters.
Whatever the outcome of the plan to move the capital, it has already revealed the government’s twisted vision of the ideal city: minutely planned, shiny, ordered, self-contained, and insulated from the population. An anti-Cairo.
The regime seems to view public space as it views governance: a choice between total chaos or total control. There is no middle ground in which to negotiate interests, to discuss the distribution of resources. There is to be no politics in the city. Whatever the outcome of the plan to move the capital, it has already revealed the government’s twisted vision of the ideal city: minutely planned, shiny, ordered, self-contained, and insulated from the population. An anti-Cairo.
Surely, something will be built in the desert, and someone will profit. Whether the government will move there, and whether anyone will follow, are open questions. Nasr City, a socialist suburb planned in the 1950s, was meant to house Egypt’s ministries, but the move never happened. 30 Likewise, officials in Mubarak’s government repeatedly broached the subject of relocating government agencies, but never followed through. The desert around Cairo is littered with half-finished, half-empty cities and developments.
For now, the new capital serves a rhetorical purpose. The government and media can talk about this chimera rather than what is really happening on the streets of Egypt. They can act like they are trying to solve the country’s problems, not avoiding (or, in fact, aggravating) them. As one architect confided, this is a project “for those who want to believe that things are moving forward and the government is doing something for their benefit.” The truth is, “We’re spending a lot of money moving dirt in the middle of the desert.”