In March 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi announced at the Egypt Economic Development Conference the intent of the government to build a new capital for the country. Dubbed the New Capital Cairo Project, the conference convened to encourage international investment in an ailing economy. According to the project’s website, “Cairo Capital is a momentous endeavour to build national spirit, foster consensus, provide for long-term sustainable growth and address various issues faced by Egypt through a new city, which will create more places to live, work and visit.” The Egyptian government looks to the booming cities of the Gulf for inspiration in their desire to build smart cities fueled by renewable energy and controlled traffic congestion while reflecting Egypt’s unique geographical and geostrategic location. But Egypt is plagued by corruption and, despite the goals of the Arab Spring protests, an authoritarian government. International investors have taken to the project, seeing Egypt’s re-emerging role in the region as a boon for business. But only time will tell if this mega-project will have the intended effect of changing perceptions and situations for all Egyptians.
In late 2016, the Egyptian government announced new details on the project. The new capital will be located 28 miles (45 kilometers) to the east of Cairo and will occupy about 170,000 acres of land. The first stage should be completed within two years and will include the construction of the buildings of the ministries and legislative bodies, embassies, universities, “smart” villages, and a central park, “the largest in the Middle East.” The new capital is expected to house about 250,000 people downtown and about 5 million throughout the city. With this comes a need to address Egypt’s notorious traffic congestion issue. According to Youm7 news, the streets of the capital are expected to span about 124 meters over 6 lanes compared to Egypt’s maximum 90 meters across.
While the government claims it will be built 100% by Egyptians, there has been much interest from international investors, particularly from China. Despite hiccups with Dubai-based and Chinese investors earlier in the year, the project is now moving forward with China Fortune Land Development (CFLD). “The company is developing similar projects for China’s own planned new central government district in Xiongan as well as other locations in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and India. The Egypt project would be its first in Africa.” This is an important step for China, as it builds its influence in the region. While China’s competitors in the region–the United States and Russia–are embroiled in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the Middle Kingdom is looking towards a future beyond conflict. In 2016, China released strategy on engaging the Middle East. China’s focus on developing the “Silk Road Initiative,” which aims to develop the economic capacity of China and 60 other nations into an economic zone, extends to Egypt. “Although most of the mutual trade between China and Egypt is represented in Chinese exports to the most populous Arab country, China imports of Egyptian commodities in the first two months of 2017 have reached 159 million dollars, with a 326.25 percent year-on-year growth.”
The development of a new capital with modernised amenities seems like a dream for would-be Cairenes who grow weary of the grit and gridlock, but Egypt’s recent history of taking on mega projects without ample planning and forecasting may work against them. In the past two decades, the government constructed satellite cities around Cairo in hopes of encouraging people to move into less densely populated areas. Apartment complexes and shopping centers sprung up, but the move by city dwellers has been slow. Not only is there a lack of available public transportation to downtown Cairo other than the city’s populous “microbus” system, but housing and entertainment amenities are expensive.
While this project may appear to be the solution to Cairo’s problems, there are other issues that must be addressed to ensure that the new capital does not end up like the last one. Chief among them is financial mismanagement. The Egyptian pound’s value has been decreasing since the 2011 revolution and the government has struggled to secure loans to fund various economic reforms such as cutting subsidies. Corruption is another challenge. According to the U.S Department of Commerce, “Businesses have described a dual system of payment for services, with one formal payment and a secondary, unofficial payment required for services to be rendered.” Corruption runs deep and is one of the triggering factors of the Arab Spring protests. Unless these issues are addressed, Egypt’s grand new capital may flounder before it gets off the ground.