Over the weekend, Egypt unveiled plans to build a wholly new capital. The new city would lie somewhere to Cairo’s east, closer to the Red Sea. It would sprawl across some 150 square miles and potentially be home to as many as 7 million people. Projected to cost $45 billion, it was announced at a summit in the seaside resort of Sharm El-Sheikh aimed at boosting the country’s flagging economy. A flashy Web site outlining the proposal hails it as “the catalyst for an Egyptian renaissance” and “a momentous endeavour to build national spirit, foster consensus and provide for the country’s sustainable long-term growth.” Cairo, Egypt’s teeming capital of 18 million people, is routinely criticized for its creaking infrastructure and horrendous traffic. The project would help ease congestion and overpopulation.
The proposed new city — which has no name yet — would be built in partnership with a prominent private developer from the United Arab Emirates and supposedly would take only five to seven years to complete, according to Egyptian Housing Minister Mostafa Madbouly. The economic summit where the project was announced attracted some $12 billion in investment pledges from an array of wealthy Gulf states. It’s all in keeping with the mantra of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the former army man who came to power in a 2013 coup, ruthlessly quashed the country’s Islamists, and has since entrenched his rule through the ballot box. Sissi has insisted the priority for Egypt is economic uplift, and he invokes the imperative of guaranteeing stability when dismissing criticism of the country’s shocking human rights record during his rule.
“We have been making sure Egypt is attractive to investment through ensuring stability. This is of the utmost importance,” he said last week in an interview with The Washington Post. “Just give us a chance to develop.” Unsurprisingly, some Egyptians aren’t that impressed. “We, Cairenes and Egyptians, were not informed, let alone consulted about this move,” writes historian Khaled Fahmy, in a Facebook post. He said the vast amounts of money lavished on this new project ought, instead, be used to “improve the living standards of millions of Cairenes and of Egyptians who, at best, are dealt with as second-class citizens in their own country.”
The impulse for a leader to create a new capital is as old as history itself. Nothing is more symbolic of the centralizing authority of a new regime than a shining edifice, built in its supposed image. That’s why an array of countries in the mid-20th century — from Brazil to Nigeria to Pakistan — constructed new capitals from scratch, eager to replace legacies of division or colonial rule with soaring modernist visions of unity and the future. In 1999, Malaysia shifted its capital from Kuala Lumpur to the planned city of Putrajaya, some 25 kilometers to the south, in a bid to ease overcrowding and congestion.
More curiously, in 2005, the Burmese junta quit the capital at Rangoon, a former British colonial center, for Naypyidaw, a new city built literally out of the jungle. To this day, the capital is widely described as an artificial “ghost town.” WorldViews documented Naypyidaw’s eerie emptiness last year. The world, of course, is littered with the ruins of forgotten capitals, abandoned after the facts on the ground outweighed the dreams of their architects. Cairo itself is an amalgamation of old and older cities, built by various rulers eager to leave their mark.
And there’s no guarantee this latest project will be anything close to a success, as the Guardian reports: “The scale is huge, and there are questions like: how are you going to do the infrastructure? How are you going to get the water? How will they move all these ministries?” asks Cairo urban-planning expert David Sims. “In other words, I think it’s just desperation. It will be interesting to see if anything comes of it, but I rather doubt it.”