Egypt’s newest megaproject was born many times before, each birth with the same goals and sense of novelty; each birth with the same controversy and questions about its feasibility and implementation, but never with the same glamour or size.
T new administrative capital was officially reborn at Sharm El-Sheikh’s Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC), as the country’s latest sky-reaching project with a total cost of $80bn and an area of 700 square-kilometres, larger than existing countries. With the goal of reducing pressure off the centuries-old and over-congested capital Cairo, the unnamed project was dug up from decades-old archives of older governments, refurbished and represented to the world as new.
Upon its introduction to the world, officials’ fluctuating comments on deadline, size, and purpose was among many aspects which raised eyebrows in askance.
The miniature display of the new city at the EEDC had a design akin to New York City, with skyscrapers dotting its skyline and vast expansions of greenery and theme parks, offering a vibe much more modern, yet alien to the Egypt we know today.
The project will be developed by Capital City Partners, a private real estate firm chaired by tycoon Mohamed Al-Abbar, who is behind Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. His other firm, Eagle Hills, is involved in creating new cities in Serbia, Nigeria and Bahrain.
The city’s master-plan was made by US’ Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM), an architectural, engineering and urban planning firm with over 70 years experience, and several large projects in each continent.
But do such prominent names, massive cheques, and mega plans have the answer to Egypt’s problems? The Daily News Egypt surveyed the opinions of several experts.
According to David Sims, a Cairo-based urban planning consultant with a long experience in Egypt, the new city resembles previous failed attempts by former Egyptian governments to build new satellite cities from scratch.
“The project will not serve to absorb a large part of Egypt’s population,” said Sims.
“The record of other desert cities is very weak in this respect, and why would this project, which aims more than ever at a Dubai clientele, be any different?” he asked.
Egypt has founded no less than 22 new settlements since the seventies, all with the aim of diffusing a crowded Cairo that has a current population of over 18 million, and expanding an urbanised space of only 4% of the country’s total area. With predictions that the capital’s population will double by 2050, and with a rundown infrastructure that fails to serve its current inhabitants, consecutive governments saw it best to branch out into the desert and start anew.
But all previous attempts have failed, drawing only a fraction of the targeted population. Cairenes found it laborious to commute daily between their jobs and the new jobless cities, resulting in ghost towns.
Not any different in purpose, but larger in scale, the new city will be built east of Cairo, and aims to be home to five million people. It is expected to host most government institutions and the parliament, over 600 hospitals, 1,250 mosques and churches, 2000 schools, an airport, hotels, solar energy farms, millions of jobs, 200 square-kilometres of preserved natural areas and one of the largest city park systems in the world.
“Past experiences show that the target of five million people in seven years is totally unrealistic,” said Sims. “The project is very similar to other mega projects like Toshka; big pronouncements, huge scale, but very little hard information,” he added.
He was referring to a project that was dubbed as Hosni Mubarak’s “pyramid”. The implementation of Toshka, or the New Valley, commenced in 1997 with the aim of attracting 20% of Egypt’s population, by digging a 240 kilometre canal from Lake Nasser to irrigate at least 210,000 hectares of the barren Western Desert.
Many years later, a mere fraction of the area was turned into farmland. None of the facilities were built, and it remained unclear how much money was lost, albeit reports cites Accountability State Authority figures as saying that over EGP 6bn were squandered.
“It is not efficient to concentrate government establishments 70 kilometres from the centre of Cairo,” Sims said. “It will only increase the number and distance of passenger trips and will contribute to traffic congestions in the whole eastern quadrant of Greater Cairo.”
Nevertheless, according to Minister of Housing, Utilities and Urban Development, Mostafa Madbouly, the city’s nearness to Cairo guarantees its success. “Other experiences of capitals further away from the original capitals have failed,” he had said in an interview.
Omnia Khalil, an urban researcher and co-founder of 10 Tooba, a service providing applied research on the construction environment, said the new project resembles further prejudice against the poor.
“There is close to no transparency with regards to this project, but the little we know about it emphasises a key problem in Egypt: unjust distribution of wealth and governments’ multiplied urge to serve the rich,” she said.
Citing the state’s budget, Khalil said: “Egypt spends 23 times the amount it does to develop slums on building new cities, which has proven repeated failures. In 2006, the total number of residents in all these cities was around 600,000 people, nothing in terms Egypt’s population, nothing in terms of their targeted population.”
On 12 February, Housing Minister Madbouly said the budget for the New Urban Communities Authority increased 100% in the current fiscal budget to EGP 28bn. This compares to a budget of EGP 500m allocated by the state for the Slum Development Fund.
“Another walled compound?”
“Has the government conducted socio-urban pilot studies prior to launching this project? Are the poor people of Egypt being taken into consideration? Or is this another high-scale, walled compound, but larger in size?” Khalil asked, expressing her fears that price tags on housing units will be out of the reach of around Egypt’s poor population, who make up over over 25% of the country, according to CAPMAS.
Similar concerns were expressed by other urban planning experts, despite repeated affirmations by Madbouly that the new city’s 1.1 million housing units, spread between 23 different residential districts, will cater to all classes, including low-income families.
“There are no discussions or debates. We’re basically being informed of what is happening to our country, without the people having any say in it,” she said.
The Housing Minister previously said Egypt’s presidency and government found no need to debate the matter, as it was repeatedly discussed over the past 10 years.
“The city is not a standalone”
Meanwhile, CEO of Remal Foundation for Urban Development expressed his support for the project, saying that critics need to look at the broader strategy which the new city is part of.
“The city was decided to be an eastern extension of Greater Cairo to overlook the logistics and financial businesses that are set to be part of the Suez Canal Development plan in progress. This project needs an administrative hub near it, and together will be a main source of employment for residents of the new city,” she said.
Bahy also referred to industrial zones, which are also part of Egypt’s development plans on its eastern banks, over areas of 6,000 sqm extending from Safaga to Qena in Upper Egypt.
“These projects are also in tandem with other measures taken along the delta, all over Egypt, which would eliminate internal immigration contributing massively to the overpopulation of Egypt,” she said.
During the three-day conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt signed over $60bn worth of memoranda and agreements for projects across the country. Examples of such are the two agreements collectively worth $6bn to build a global logistics hub for grain and food in Damietta and a commercial city in Suez as well as a $4bn project in the coastal El Alamein City.
” This is a nationwide strategy, and the city is part of it. We can’t discuss it separately,” she added.
“Centralisation is the problem”
For his part, Saleh Hegab, honorary President of the Egyptian Society of Urban Planning Engineers, said the problems of any new city will persist as long as centralisation continues.
“Cairo’s problems do not lie in its planning, but in the deviation away from all that was planned for it,” he said, adding that “holding onto centralisation of all government institutions in any city will render it doomed”.
Cairo is the destination of all Egyptians in the country who seek to do any paperwork, as it hosts all governmental institutions. Cairo’s better healthcare and educational services as well as more job opportunities, makes it more attractive to residents of the more neglected cities.
Between two and three million people move in and out of the capital each day to run errands, according to studies conducted in 2009.
Commenting on the architectural aspect of the city, Hegab wondered how much it suits Egypt’s needs. “The names associated with the planning are extremely well-reputed, but do they know the nature of those who inhabit this city, their needs, and how to meet them? he said.
“It’s a realistic solution”
CEO of Sabbour Engineering Consulting Hussien Sabbour, saw the city as a more realistic solution to Cairo’s problems, compared to other proposals like ending centralisation. “This country has been ruled this way for thousands of years. Centralisation won’t end by 2050,” he said.
Numbering several reasons that make the new city an answer to Cairo’s overpopulation and aging infrastructure, Sabbour said “this is a chance to benefit from Egypt’s vacant land, building a new comprehensive city, without paying a dime”.
He added: “The theme park to be built in the city will also attract millions of tourists. Think of Disney Land in Paris or Singapore, and the number of people who come in from all around the world.”
Citing government plans for the Suez Canal zone to account for a third of Egypt’s economy in 10 years, Sabbour said the city’s location is ideal, in terms of the future.
“Emptying Cairo is a necessity”
Professor Mohamed Gabr, head of urban planning department in the Faculty of Engineering at Ain Shams University, said the new city is of a great importance as “Greater Cairo has become a challenge”.
“The capital is sinking under the weight of a massive population and is crumbling. Opening new channels to empty it is a necessity, and the idea of a new administrative capital is nothing new,” he told the Daily News Egypt.He noted, however, that the new city’s nearness to Cairo should be reconsidered. “Egyptians’ understanding of branching away from Cairo is undeveloped, which is why satellite cities end up merging back with the capital. Therefore, it is best to go further away.
He added that the new capital could serve as a transition stage to decentralisation, giving the state the opportunity to handle challenges facing other governorates.
As for fears that the new city will be restricted to the rich, Professor Gabr said one of several theories to analyse the possibilities is that “flocking capitals and investments will create jobs for the poor, and thus improving their standards.”
“Consecutive governments failed at resolving the poor’s’ problems. Perhaps this could work,” he said.
|Successful shifts of capital cities
Russia: Moscow was the capital from the 14th century to 1712, then St. Petersburg became capital due to its nearness to Europe. In 1918, Moscow was made capital again.
Brazil – Brazil moved its capital from a jammed Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia in 1961, in a shift that was hailed a success and is an inspiration to many countries around the world.
Nigeria – Seen as a more balanced option for the country’s ethnic groups, central Abuja was made capital in 1991, instead of overpopulated Lagos.
Kazakhstan – When the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the southern city of Almaty was the capital. In 1997, the northern city of Astana was made capital, away from threats of earthquakes and potential unrest in newly-born states.
Belize – Following the massive destruction caused by Hurricane Hattie in 1961 to the original capital of Belize City, the inland city of Belmopan was made the capital in 1970 to eliminate future risks of another hurricane.
Pakistan – In 1959, Pakistan decided to move its capital from the southern city of Karachi to Islamabad in the north, to better reflect the diversity of the Pakistani nation. Karachi remains the biggest and main city.
|Unsuccessful shifts of capital cities
Tanzania- Dodoma was completed in the mid-1980s to be the country’s new capital. The shift was not deemed successful, since most government institutions and foreign embassies remained in the old capital of Dar Es-Salaam.
Myanmar (Burma) – In 2005, the country’s military ruler ordered the move of the capital from Yangoon, to 320km its north, after he was advised to do so by his astrologer to avoid a foreign military attack. The multi-million dollar city, Naypyidaw, stands deserted today.
Ivory Coast – The original capital of Abidjan was the country’s largest city, and continues to be the main economic hub. In 1933, President Felix Houphouet-Boigny decided to make his birth city, Yamoussoukro, the capital, where he spent $300m building the world’s largest church.
|Minister of Housing Mostafa Madbouly’s comments on the new city:
· “The project is self-financed and will not cost the state anything, apart from water and sewer grids to serve eastern urbanisation, which the state was committed to doing beforehand.”
· “The UAE developer will fund the first phase of the project spanning 105 sqm. Other phases will be carried out through partnership with other developers.”
· “The state’s share of returns is 24%.”
· “The overall project will be completed over the next 40 years.”
· “The first phase will create a minimum of 400,000 job opportunities.”
|Sadat City, the first administrative capital
In 1975, a plan to create an administrative city situated in the Menufiya governorate called Sadat City came to existence. Construction of buildings to host governmental institutions began, and continued after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, who it was named after. At least EGP 25m were spent at the time, and many years later, the buildings remain uncompleted or used for other purposes after it appeared that the move is not possible.