What future for Cairo’s satellite towns?

When news of President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall first washed over the crowds in Tahrir Square, protesters began to jostle in front of the watching TV cameras and hold aloft handmade signs. Amid a thicket of slogans, one stood out: “A kilo of meat costs 100 pounds, yet a square metre in Madinaty costs half a pound,” it read in Arabic. For most of the foreign journalists, those words meant nothing. For most Egyptians, they meant everything.

If you had to tell the story of Egypt’s popular revolt through one patch of land, that patch of land would be Madinaty – a dust-blown wasteland deep in the desert to the east of the capital, and eventual home to a $3bn commercial complex featuring 80,000 villas and townhouses, as well as new hotels, hospitals and schools.

Madinaty is just one of a rash of desert developments taking shape on Cairo’s sandy fringes, where signature Greg Norman golf courses sprout from some of the most arid land imaginable and Zaha Hadid-designed office blocks are winched skyward at addresses that can be expressed only in kilometre distance-markers. These are the satellite cities: half-built emblems of the country’s institutionalised corruption under Mubarak. Both the cities and the gated compounds within them mushroomed on the back of dirt-cheap land sales by the state; deals signed as food inflation spiralled and the most basic daily staples were put beyond the reach of millions of ordinary Egyptians.

“You may call them satellite cities, but they’re not satellites any more – now they’ve become the planets themselves,” claimed former minister Adel Naguib in an interview with the Guardian last year. At the time, he was senior vice president of Cairo’s New Urban Communities Authority. Twelve months on, most of Naguib’s senior colleagues are in jail, and, along with several other real estate developers, the firm behind Madinaty is being dragged through the courts.

Yet in a country where 42% of the population lives below the poverty line, glossy promotional catalogues for residential developments in the desert continue to proliferate, promising 14 different underfloor-heated bathroom configurations and urging prospective customers to buy into the surrounding desert and, more importantly, into the concept of an exclusive, secluded future.

For 14 centuries, Cairo grew only within the natural confines of the Moqattam clifftops to the east and the Saharan desert to the west. Now it is one of the densest urban areas in the world; today, Cairo – the biggest city in Africa and the Middle East – creaks under the weight of up to 20 million people, more than the populations of Libya, Lebanon and Jordan combined.

But over the past decade, the contours of this megacity have changed. Within the next five years, the two biggest hubs of desert development – 6th October City to the west and New Cairo to the east – are each set to house up to 5 million people. By 2030, when Greater Cairo’s population is predicted to top 30 million, government estimates suggest that half of those residents will live not in Cairo itself, but in a satellite city. No matter which direction you look out of Cairo, the pace of construction is breathtaking. “If you leave the area for two months and then come back, the whole place is unrecognisable,” says one project manager at a major New Cairo development. “This is probably the fastest-growing urban area you’ll see in your life.”

Next Move is Egypt’s biggest annual property expo, and last year’s event saw Ferraris, speedboats and string quartets wheeled out by competing companies looking to broaden their share of a real estate market that has been growing by 22% per annum in recent years and that contributes $16bn annually to the country’s GDP. Of the 67 major construction projects represented, only three were in Cairo “proper”, the rest lying in the desert beyond. Read More..


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