“Egypt Desert Dreams” — Dispelling the myth of desert development in Egypt

Author(s) David Sims
Publisher The American University in Cairo Press
Year 2015

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That is an accurate description of desert development policies and practices in Egypt over the past 50 (and counting) years and is shown time and time again in David Sims’ Egypt Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster (AUC Press, 2014).

Diverting population growth from the narrow Nile Valley to the desert has been — and continues to be — the government’s key solution to the problems experienced in Egyptian cities and the raison d’être for “conquering” the desert through different development projects as a gateway to modernity and unprecedented economic growth. The persistence of the Egyptian state’s desert dream, irrespective of the ruling political ideology and economic conditions, is quite astounding. Mismanagement scandals and failed mega projects are dealt with as if they have no relation to public policies and practices. As an official in the New Urban Communities Authority declared in 1990, “We have to complete our plans. We cannot look to see if people come or not. They will come” (Sims, 2014: 126).

Throughout Desert Dreams, Sims examines desert development policies and projects in Egypt since the fall of the monarchy in 1952, and identifies desert development trends up to 2014 (the publishing year). This historical perspective contextualizes the economic, political, social, and environmental analysis presented later in the book.

Sims is an economist and urban planner who has worked on an impressive list of projects and consultancies in Egypt and the Middle East over the past 40 years. His earlier book Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City out of Control (AUC Press, 2010) is an essential read for anyone interested in a comprehensive urban understanding of modern Cairo.

In Desert Dreams, unlike many urban researchers who examine urban desert expansion, Sims contextualizes urban expansion in the desert within the bigger desert development story. Through his simple and jargon-free writing style, he critiques mega agricultural projects, new urban communities, and mega economic projects, such as the Desert Development Corridor, special economic and industrial zones, and tourism-centric coastal development. This diversity and wealth of information makes the book beneficial beyond the typical audience of urban researchers.

A recurring theme in the book is the discrepancies between government accounts and official data on achievements of desert development projects on one hand, and actual results on the ground on the other. These discrepancies are also evident between data provided by different government agencies.

The book succeeds in discounting the continuous government “achievement” accounts in its array of mega desert development projects. The analysis of desert agricultural projects dissects how the government has been selectively reporting progress and impact. Sims shows the subtle terminology nuances, which are not understood by the average person, that the government uses to inflate actual achievements (e.g. “reclaimed” vs. “cultivated” vs. “reaching productive capacity”). He also uncovers the overestimated reported economic gains of these projects — and other mega economic projects — whether in relation to the employment opportunities they create or their contribution to the country’s GDP. This manipulation of information shared with the public for decades cemented a positive public perception of these projects that could not be further away from reality, on the economic, environmental, or technical levels.

Attributing Cairo’s (and other Egyptian cities’) ills to its high population density and the Malthusian narrative of the inevitability of the collapse of the city if the urban population does not expand into the desert is a narrative the government has been using for decades to continue its desert development efforts. The decades-long de-densification and population redistribution efforts have been controversial and continue to garner much criticism as well as blinding support for being the saviour to all modern urban problems. Many observers view the demonization of high density as ungrounded: a scapegoat used by the government to absolve itself from addressing problems in existing cities and focusing on building housing units — not even well-functioning cities — in the desert.[1]

So how have new urban communities established in the desert over the last 40 years fared in attracting populations from existing cities? With the most successful new city (6th of October City) reaching less than a third of its target population after over 30 years of being established, Sims discusses how the “new city craze” and the billions of Egyptian pounds allocated for pubic investments are facilitated by the ideal conditions for land speculation and corrupt deals created through misguided policies.[2] He also discusses how the obsession with building desert cities limited the development of secondary cities which have a higher potential in succeeding to attract new populations.

An important dimension not thoroughly discussed in the book is the difference between the governance structure in existing and new cities. The governance of new cities garners many unanswered questions regarding the influence of business interests on the development of new cities, and the impact of the governance structure on the planning and provision of public services.

Sims irrefutably shows that the “any desert project whose justification is moving large numbers of people out of the Valley should be laughed out of the room” (292). The failure of these projects can be attributed to a list of technical, planning, political, and institutional issues. However, Sims singles out the “fatal flaw” and root cause as the “disastrous management of public lands” (261). The state controls approximately 90 percent of Egypt’s land, making the policies managing this resource all the more important (261). Sectoral land allocation mechanisms, investor-friendly policies, and vague land sale control mechanisms, led to ‘giveaway land pricing policies’ and corrupt deals that cheated the state out of billions of Egyptian pounds and contributed to a market for land speculation and a decades-long housing crisis. Sims also unravels the institutional and legal framework of public land management, and the political economy supporting it.

Sims ends the book by recommending eight principles to guide desert development. These include policy recommendations and legislative reforms for a more comprehensive desert development system that addresses the main issues identified in the book. His recommendations address issues such as disenfranchised projects, uncontrolled sale of public land, a practically non-existent inventory of land ownership, land speculation, and other crucial problems. The cornerstone of this policy reform is the legal recognition that public land is owned by the people and that the state should be managing it for the benefit of current and future generations, not business elites through crooked deals. This rights-based approach is a crucial foundation for the use of public resources in a sustainable matter.

It has been over two years since Sims’ book was first published, and with the 2015 announcement of the construction of a new administrative capital in the eastern desert periphery of Cairo, in addition to tens of other new cities, there is little indication that the government’s vision has been swayed by the evidence presented in Desert Dreams. More recently, Egypt launched its Sustainable Development Strategy Egypt Vision 2030. The Urban Development Pillar of this vision includes “promoting the population settlement in the new development areas” among its success indicators to achieve “[a] balanced spatial development management of land and resources.”[3] This comes as no surprise as there are strong economic and political interests in keeping the status quo.


TADAMUN: The Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative is a research project based on the belief that all residents have an equal right to the city, as well as a shared responsibility towards it. TADAMUN works with stakeholders at different levels to build alliances and coalitions to encourage change and introduce realistic alternatives and solutions for existing urban problems. Through its website and other dissemination platforms, TADAMUN provides a wealth of knowledge on urban governance in Egypt, analyses of failed urban policy practices that persist to this day, and showcases of successful urban initiatives that already take place on the ground that can and should be scaled up to the national level.


[1] For more on the use of population density as a scapegoat for urban problems in Egyptian cities and the unlikelihood of new cities solving these problems, read Jon Argaman’s article on Jadaliyya “Cairo: The Myth of a City on the Verge of Explosion.”

[2] Public investments in new cities is through the New Urban Communities Agency (NUCA), a subsidiary of the Ministry of Housing and Utilities. NUCA spent EGP 33.2 Billion in investments in new cities in 2015/2016, almost four times the total public investment in the national education sector, and more than five times the total public investment in the health sector during the same year (TADAMUN, 2015).

[3] For more analysis on Egypt’s Sustainable Development Strategy and its relation to urban development, read TADAMUN’s article “Egypt’s National Assessment of Progress Towards Sustainable Development Goals.”



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