New New Cairo: How to make sense of Egypt’s capital plans

If you have been following international news coverage about Cairo over the last few months, you know that headlines have been dominated by civil unrest. That was until last month when the Egyptian Housing Minister Mostafa Madbouly announced plans to build a new capital city not far from Cairo.


Isma’il’s plan for Cairo (old city in grey). Image: Abu-Lughod 1965.

Building, or rebuilding, capital cities is not a new idea: Cairo itself received a complete makeover and significant Western addition as recently as the 1860s. Ismai’l Pasha, Khedive of Egypt at the time, had grown fascinated by Haussmann’s designs for Paris with their sweeping avenues and grand concourses, and believed in their potential to open up and modernize the city. The unquestioning application of these European urbanist ideas to his Egyptian capital had mixed outcomes, according to urban sociologist Abu-Lughod — it definitely did not serve him well as head of state, and he was eventually removed from power by a United Kingdom leveraging exactly the debt accrued through his extravagant Cairo expansion.

As recently as the 1950s, a politically motivated new capital just outside of Cairo was birthed at Madinet Nasr, termed “City of the Revolution” and supposed to be built on the latest insight of urban science. Alas, within a few decades, the grand project had been incorporated into Cairo, swallowed up by a capital that did not need replacing after all. Urban scholar El-Shakhs discusses a failed attempt at a new administrative capital in Sadat City in the 70s and 80s. What will happen this time?

Whenever large construction projects like this one, so far without a name, are undertaken by a state, we have to wonder about the motives behind them.

The website of this particular enterprise, ironically named, cites the “pressing issue of population growth” as its first “inspiration” to create a new urban development. Yahia Shawkat, former head of the Housing Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, points out that there are plenty of vacant units in present-day Cairo and surrounds (albeit many of them outside the budget of the majority of citizens), casting doubt on this particular reason for building yet another new urban center in the region. He calls for “clear social [and] economic assessments” prior to any building taking place in order to avoid unintended outcomes.

The venue chosen for the announcement, the Egypt Economic Development Conference, belies economic considerations as another chief motivation for the venture. Dan Ringelstein, director of urban planning and design at SOM, a planning and architecture firm contracted on the design, has an optimistic outlook on this matter. In an interview with Mada Masr, he speaks about a development fully integrated with present-day Cairo. His vision centers around economic development, calling the plan a city that “can help preserve central Cairo as well as improve it by allowing growth to happen elsewhere”.

Slightly less cheerful, Al-Monitor recently wondered whether “Egypt’s new administrative capital [will] help its economy”, and cites former Minister of Economy Sultan Abu Ali calling the new capital a “costly undertaking” with no likely benefits to the Egyptian economy.

This lack of clarity and sense of doubt echoes in many of the articles and opinions published since the original announcement about the new city. The ambitious scale of the plan, with a $45 billion budget and a five-year timeline, has earned it the moniker “Castles in the Sand,” and has led internationally renowned scholars to employ strong language. Nick Simcik Arese, anthropologist at the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities, highlights the preprogrammed social inequalities of the new capital when he tells the Guardian that “People do want to abandon Cairo and live in their secessionary envelope. But to do that you need a car.” Nezar AlSayyad, Cairo-expert and Professor of Architecture at UC Berkeley, goes so far as to call the plan “farcical [without] any prerequisite of success,” and backs this claim up with a host of careful arguments in a recent interview with the Middle East Eye.

AlSayyad’s colleague Teresa Caldeira, urban theorist and Professor of Anthropology and Urban Planning, responded to a question regarding the proposed development with an abstract, but perhaps insightful explanation: “New cities like this one always come out of a desire for empire.” CityMetric, examining the same question of “Why?”, agrees with Caldeira that “the president wants to make a statement”. One can only hope that this project, heralded at a conference that led AlJazeera to ask whether Egypt is really “ready for international investment”, serves President el-Sisi better than its predecessor did for Isma’il over a hundred years ago.


Maitagorri Schade is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net. She is an urban traveler and scholar who is working toward her master’s degree at UC Berkeley and has a passion for informal transportation and community development in the global South.

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