Special Edition “Egypt’s New Capital City”
CEDEJ – Media round up on the city
One of the main events of the Egypt’s economic conference hold in Sharm el-Sheikh on 13-15th March 2015 was the unveiling on the first day of Egypt’s new capital city. The plans to build a new city where government buildings, ministries and foreign embassies would be reallocated from central Cairo was first alluded by Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb in July 2014 in the aim to decrease traffic in the already congested city. Ahead of the conference, the UAE-based journal The National announced on February 25, 2015 that according to Ashraf Salman, Egypt’s investment minister, Egypt was “weeks away from signing up a major Arabian Gulf-based property developer to spearhead the development of the capital city”.
The new capital is to be built on the road to the Ain Sokhna, to the east of Cairo towards the Red Sea and the area of port city of Suez. The official web site of Egypt’s New Capital City, gives a general outline of the project that is planned to be built over 700 km² (about the size of Singapore) to which the Central Business District will be sized 5.6 km², house of five million residents and will provide 1.75 million permanent jobs, along with 663 healthcare facilities, 700 kindergartens, 21 residential districts and a theme park. Also, the city aims to be a Smart City that will “embrace an ethos of sustainability”. The Guardian underlines that in terms of population, the city would represents “the biggest purpose-built capital in human history“, almost as large as Islamabad (population estimated 1.8 million), Brasilia (2.8 million), and Canberra (380,000) put together.
Conflicting reports over the developer, the amount and the timing of the project:
On February 25, 2015 The National states that the investment minister declined to specify the name of the developer and only confirmed that UAE parties have been involved in the negotiations, that the Government “will incur zero cost in the city” and that the project will be “totally developed, master planned and executed by a private sector company”. However, once the project revealed, conflicting reports have emerged over the identity of the Emirati company. On March 13, 2015 it was first reported that the Emirati company Emaar Properties – one of the largest real estate development companies in the Middle East – was believed to “play a key role” in the construction of the new city. On March 15, 2015 Egypt’s Minister of Investment then announced that Abu Dhabi-based developer Eagle Hills had been contracted to build the new administrative capital before than Mohamed al-Abbar, executive officer in both of the comapgnies, told in a TV-interview that “neither Emaar nor Eagle Hills had signed the contract for the project with the Egyptian government” and that the company that signed the contract was actually Capital City Partners, of which he is a founding partner.
Conflicting reports also came in the size of the finances allocated for the scheme and its timeline. In his TV-interview, Mohamed al-Abbar sets the amount of the project at US$90 billion, in contrast to the widely-circulated cost of US$45 billion. For his part, Khaled Fahmy (see next section) asserts that during a rare sneak preview in preparation for the Sharm El-Sheikh economic conference, the Minister of Investment said that the new city will cost EGP500 billion (US$66 billions). On the matter of the timeline of the project, Egypt’s Investment Minister first announced that the project will take 12 years to build while but the BBC also reported that Housing Minister Mostafa Madbouly said that the project would take five to seven years to complete. During the conference, the President el-Sisi publicly shares his wish to see the completion of the city within 5 years.
A new capital in the desert: a mirage?
Khaled Fahmy, professor at the American University in Cairo opposes vigorously the project in its opinion paper “Chasing Mirages in the Desert” published by Cairobserver. He critics the cost of the project developed by the “Dubai-intoxicated political, military and economic elites” of the country and their fascination for a model of urban development unsuitable for Egypt and wonders what will happen to the old capital. He estimates that the cost of the new capital, that could cover the cost of building over thirty metro lines in Cairo, should rather be used to alleviate Cairo’s problems (potable water, health care, clean air, recreational facilities, transportation, housing, sanitation and garbage collection for instance). Another grievance for Khaled Fahmy is the absence of information, let alone of consultation, of the Cairenes and the Egyptians on the project as well as the fact that the announced occurred in front of word leaders and foreign investors rather than the Parliament or a local media. Consequently, he sets the new capital project as “the best illustration of [the] government’s insistence on ignoring [the people]” and an example of “complete lack of any effective, democratic institutions” on the matter of local power.
Still on Cairobserver, Khaled Tarabieh, PhD in city and regional planning and assistant professor at the American University in Cairo, published a rebuttal response on this perspective called “Finding hope in the Desert” where he nuances the lack of public opinion sessions prior the announcement as the plan can still be negotiable and that the unveiling of project on that timing aligned with the goals of the economic conference. He also disagrees with the underlying theory presenting the project to be just a “new Dubai” and considers that physical planning solution and respect to the architectural and planning profession are keys to the country’s development and future. To his view, the “mirage” could rather lies in investing in “squatter settlements and illegal shanty towns”. Consequently he asks for more time to “reflect, digest and analyze” on the matter.
In response Khaled Fahmy commented with a second article (in Arabic here) where he deplores the unwillingness of investors to pump money into projects that aim at solving the current problems of the capital and questions the new city location, too close to Cairo. In relation to that last point, we can look at the interview gave by Ahmed Zaazaa at Ahram Online on August 2014 where the urban designer, researcher, architect, and cofounder of the Cairo Urban Initiatives Platform, states that the construction of an important city – that “doesn’t even have to be called a capital” – exclusively for government and administrative activity could ease the traffic and pollution of Cairo only if it is both located beyond at least a critical distance of at least 100 km outside of Cairo and not constructed from scratch.
The Guardian also emphases on the rapid speed at which the city is intended to be built and its risk to “be a ghost town”. Indeed, since the 70s, Egypt has a history of building unfinished “satellite town” in the desert that for many reasons (cost of the housing, lack of infrastructures, transport) failed in relieving Cairo from its population and its traffic. Like in Davis Sims’s last publication Egypt’s Desert Dreams (AUC Press, 2015) we can question the becoming of the current “new-cities” and new districts in the outskirts of the Greater Cairo, especially the one of Futur City on the Ismaelia Road, that, like the announced-new-capital, is supposed to host an important number of administrative services. The overkill risk can be seen in the words chosen by Egypt’s investment minister himself that presented the yet-to-be-named city as “the new New Cairo”, the new-city at the east of which the new capital is planned to developed
Interview with the urban designers behind The Capital Cairo project
On March 18, 2015 Mada Masr published its interview with Dan Ringelstein, urban designers behind The Capital Cairo project (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), US-based) in which he answers to some of the concerns that have arisen since the announce. On the subject of consultation he states that he is hoping to have a dialogue with as many people as he can and is “eager to get feedback and integrate it in [the] plan”. Concerning the timeline he admits some confusion but explains that the 10-years-deadline first announced did not concern the delivery of the project but time to make it “a vibrant city”. He also asserts with a greater emphasis that airo will remain “the symbolic heart of the country forever”.