THE sun-bleached portrait of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in military regalia that marks the entry to the city he built is testament to its brief flourishing and steady decline.
What began in 1978 as a vision for a new administrative capital today has a population of about 150,000, smaller than many rural towns. The recreation area at its centre is unused and it’s not even linked to the national railway.
Four decades on, the latest Egyptian strongman to retire his uniform and rule as a civilian president, Abdel-Fattah El- Sisi, is taking another stab at building an alternative to congested Cairo. Featuring glass skyscrapers, landscaped neighbourhoods and a theme park, his $75 billion project is likely to be financed by funds from Gulf Arab monarchies.
Developers say building the new city will create more than a million jobs. It’s part of El-Sisi’s drive to revive Egypt’s economy through mega-projects, including an $8 billion waterway parallel to the Suez Canal. Much like Sadat’s, critics say, the grandiose ambition is as misplaced as the governing priorities it exposes.
“There’s an insistence in Egypt on undertaking these mega-projects. It’s a way to give the regime legitimacy,” said AbdelAziz EzzelArab, a political economy professor at the American University in Cairo. “The state assumes the role of the mother and the father, the shepherd, and the people like it. They feel we’re in big trouble and we need a big push to get out of it.”
Trying to shift Egypt’s population from the Nile Delta is especially challenging. Every president since the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy has tried and “they’ve all failed,” said Samey El-Alayly, former president of Cairo University’s urban planning department in an interview.
Sadat City: Building it proved the easiest part. Getting people to come and stay, has proved extremely difficult.
“Sure, Cairo has problems, but that’s because of years of bad management,” he said.
“Building the largest garden in the world or the tallest building shouldn’t be a priority for Egypt right now. How is that going to translate into bread-winning opportunities for the majority of the population?”
Sadat was assassinated in 1981, with his pet project unfinished. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, built new communities but failed to create an alternative to Cairo. He also tried, without much success, to lure millions to large swathes of land in Egypt’s western desert, reclaimed through water diverted by canal from the Aswan High Dam reservoir.
Since he led the army’s 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and won elections the following year, El-Sisi has pledged to revive an economy battered by four years of unrest. He said that requires at least $200 billion.
Unveiled during a March investors summit held at a Red Sea resort, the proposed capital would be the centrepiece of this national rejuvenation. Once the money is found to construct it.
“The state budget cannot cover the cost of building the new city,” El-Sisi said during a meeting with aid organisations on April 6. “It will be built through foreign investments.”
That is likely to mean the Gulf monarchies, which have ploughed billions of dollars into Egypt since the removal of Mursi, and private real estate company Capital City Partners, headed by Emirati real estate tycoon Mohamed Alabbar. The Dubai- based businessman, who is also chairman of Emaar Properties PJSC, led “ambitious mega-developments” valued more than $24 billion over the past two decades, according to Capital City’s website.
The government will provide land in exchange for a 24% stake. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the London-based architects behind Dubai’s Burj al-Khalifa and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Economic City, helped draw up the blueprint.
Planned for the desert between Cairo and the Red Sea port of Ain El-Sokhna, El-Sisi wants the new city to become home for more than 5 million people, about a third of Cairo’s population, over an area the size of Singapore. Then there’s an airport larger than London’s Heathrow and a green space double the size of New York City’s Central Park.
The plan was inspired “by successful cities like Barcelona which combine history and modernity,” Minister of Housing Mostafa Madbouly said in March. Residents will lead “a new quality of life,” he said.
The government says it has learned from past mistakes.
“Sadat City was just about moving government buildings and employees,” Assem El-Gazzar, head of Egypt’s state-run urban planning authority, said in an interview. “We are expanding Cairo and moving key activities and businesses out to solve problems of pollution and congestion.”
El-Sisi said in March he wants the city built as quickly as possible. Construction is set to start within three months of contracts being signed, with the first phase finished in seven years. Some of Cairo’s residents aren’t so enthusiastic.
In Bulaq El-Dakrour, a heavily populated district on the west bank of the Nile, Ahmed Abboud said he wouldn’t move to the new city even if he could afford to.
“There are lots of things I can do here,” the 31-year-old said. “I’m an electrician, but when there’s no work I drive a tuk-tuk and life goes on,” he said, referring to the three- wheeled vehicle he uses to ferry passengers along labyrinthine local streets that are too narrow for cars.
It’s hard to persuade people to move to these new cities, said David Sims, an Egypt-based urban planner and author of two books on Cairo, in an interview. “How are they going to have multiple jobs and find a million ways to make money?”
One of the largest and most densely populated metropolises in the world, Greater Cairo dominates Egypt’s economy, generating more than 50% of the nation’s wages.
It’s central to how Egyptians see their country, said El- Alayly, the former university urban planner. “Cairo was built over thousands of years in an organic manner,” he said.
The government promises the new city will include social housing and won’t be an exclusive playground for the rich. Abboud isn’t convinced.
“I don’t think I will have a place there,” he said.