Day 6

Bye bye Cairo: Egypt is spending billions building a brand new capital in the desert

The government promises a modern, luxurious city of the future, but who will be able to afford to live there?

The government promises a modern, luxurious city of the future, but who will be able to afford to live there?

A graphic of the new Egyptian capital shows completed residential districts, as well as the planned tallest building in Africa at 345 metres high. (Administrative Capital for Urban Development)

Egypt is building a new capital city.

For nearly one thousand years, dating back to the time of Saladin, Cairo has been Egypt's capital.

But in the eyes of the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Cairo is old and worn out.

By this time next year, the government intends to unveil a sparkling new capital — a mega city in the desert approximately 45 kilometres east of Cairo.

The government is promising a fresh start: a modern, green and luxurious city.

But there are a lot of unanswered questions, including who among Cairo's 20 million residents will be able to afford living there?

Freelance writer and Cairo resident Ruth Michaelson visited the site and wrote an article about the planned city's future for The Guardian.

She describes what she saw to Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Labourers work at the construction site of the new planned Egyptian capital, some 40 kms east of Cairo in August, 2017. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

Brent Bambury: You have been to the site of this planned shining capital a couple of times. The last time you were there, what did you see? Can you describe it?

Ruth Michaelson: I was last there in October of last year. I went on a press trip that was designed to sort of 'wow' a group of foreign journalists here in Cairo. What we saw was construction on a large, flat, dusty desert plain, which is about 40 to 45 kilometres from the east of Cairo.

We saw the building site of the new presidential complex, which, as I understand, is quite far along now if not almost finished. And they made much fanfare of showing us the site of the new church, which is meant to be the largest in Egypt.

We also saw some other things that were a little bit confusing. The first part of what's meant to be the so-called 'Green River' that runs through the entire new capital, which is a sort of mixture of planted turf, planted shrubs and open water — which is a bit of a strange choice for something in the desert. And so one of the stranger things that we saw was this open pond, just waiting to evaporate into the desert.

A map in Arabic of planned transport links to the new planned capital city, shows Cairo on the far left. (Administrative Capital for Urban Development)

BB: It sounds like you were not 'wowed,' as was the intention. There are billboards in Cairo though, that are really impressive, they're advertising this new city in the desert. What do they reveal about what this project is really about?

RM: They're not big on specifics, but it's much more about an idea. It's about a new lifestyle and a new community. These rather glossy billboards that present something as a shinier facade than Cairo. It's probably worth noting the price of what it takes to live in some of these developments.

I looked at some of the real estate listings and you can get a two-bedroom apartment with a view of water, private gardens and a maid's room. And this will set you back somewhere close to $78,000 CAD.

A delegation looks at a scale model of the new Egyptian capital displayed at the congress hall in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2015. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

BB: So they're not cheap. How would that work for the average person making the average salary in Cairo now?

RM: There is a wealth divide that's quite severe in Cairo, as we see globally. The developers and the company behind this project — which is 51 per cent owned by the Egyptian military — say that they are building this new governmental district. There [are] going to be 20 Chinese-built skyscrapers. There [are] going to be all of these things that will attract people to move there.

And they say that if you are a government worker who works in one of these governmental buildings, you will get discounts on these houses. But it costs about 8,000 to 9,000 Egyptian pounds per square meter to buy a house in this new capital. It's not particularly affordable for the average government worker who would make something like that in a year.

A view of a traffic jam in central Cairo in January 2013. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

BB: Right. So why is this happening, why is Egypt doing this?

RM: The developers behind the project say that the existing capital lacks the kind of urban planning to make it a comfortable living space for the residents; that it is overcrowded, that there is too much noise and too much pollution. And that, in their words, the way to solve this problem is to build an entirely new city in the desert. And this way you can start from scratch.

But the problem is that doesn't necessarily solve all of the problems that plague Cairo in the first place. And actually, you find that the new capital is drawing resources from the existing capital, things like water and electricity, which sometimes the existing capital has issues with.

A woman walks past a campaign sign for Egyptian President and former Army general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, one day before the presidential elections on March 25, 2018 in Cairo, Egypt. (Salah Malkawi/Getty Images)

BB: Well it sounds like some people have given up on Cairo altogether. The title of your article is 'Cairo has become ugly.' This is according to the spokesperson for the project in the desert. You live in Cairo. How ugly do you find it?

RM: I don't think it's ugly at all. I do think it's congested and I think that's a huge problem. But, you know, downtown Cairo has beautiful Belle Époque buildings that are sort of Italian-style with terraces built in the early 20th century. Nearby there's an area called Garden City, which has some rather beautiful crumbling old buildings that were built around that time as well. So there are many architecturally gorgeous things about Cairo, but you don't see those reflected in the new capital.

BB: If this is a massive development being funded by the Egyptian military, how suspicious are Egyptians about the possibility of fraud and corruption?

RM: I would hesitate to speak for the average Egyptian, but at the same time there is an enormous amount of trust in the military. It's very highly regarded institution. At the same time, we've seen over the past few years that there has been a growth of the military into other areas.

Egyptian drivers are stuck in congestion by the open air market of El Ataba in Cairo on March 23, 2018. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

The military was already extremely prominent in the construction industry, and so they stand to potentially make some money out of the construction of buildings — whether or not people go to live in them. But I think for the average person, they're thinking more about how they can't afford to live in the new capital, and then perhaps a little bit about who stands to make money from it. And the organization that does stand to make money potentially is the Egyptian military.

BB: You mentioned congestion in Cairo. Can you imagine what the traffic will be like on the expressway to the new capital when it's finally open and operational?

RM: Really very bad. Optimistically two to three hours a day. And if you are government worker not making very much money, forced to take the micro bus, that's maybe six hours of your day getting to and from work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Ruth Michaelson, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.