Egypt’s new capital is not a mirage in the desert anymore. But still. It’s far from being completed. Forging new capitals from scratch ain’t a new phenomenon: countries are used to build new cities. New capitals too. Either by not being able to chose – like Canada with Ottawa, located between Ottawa and Montreal, Australia with Canberra between Melbourne and Sydney –, or by some political vision. Nouakhchott became Mauritania’s capital in 1958, Brasilia became Brazilian capital in 1960 instead of Rio de Janeiro, Yamoussoukro became the second Ivory Coast’s capital in 1983 (next to Abidjan)… Last case : Astana, new Azerbaidjian’s capital since 1997, was rebranded in March 2019 as Nur-Sultan. Cities and countries happen to change. So, why not Egypt?
Egypt’s government expect to start running the nation from its new capital in the desert by mid-2020. But its $58 billion project is struggling to raise funds and needs to overcome other challenges after investors pulled out.
Workers are rushing to build core areas of the new city to replace Cairo, the existing capital on the Nile that has become a traffic-clogged, urban sprawl of more than 20 million people.
The project, launched in 2015 by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a year after he was first elected president, aims to offer a clean and efficient base for the government and finance industry, as well as homes for at least 6.5 or 7 million people.
But the project, which also seeks to lift an economy dented by political turmoil after 2011, lost a lead investor from the United Arab Emirates and is now being run by the Housing Ministry and the army’s Engineering Authority.
“There is very strong interest from the political leadership in the project,” said Ahmed Zaki Abdeen, a retired general who heads the company building the new city, told Reuters. He said: “The large scale of the work leads to large scale problems”, such as finding enough skilled labor to wire up the “smart city” and raising about 1 trillion Egyptian pounds ($58 billion) in financing over coming years from land sales and other investment.
A promotional video depicts a green city, running on cashless systems for transport and other services, that contrasts with Cairo, much of whose elegant 19th and early 20th century architectural heart has fallen into disrepair.
The new city, known for now as the New Administrative Capital, is eventually expected to cover about 700 square km. The first phase, covering about 168 square km, will have ministries, residential neighborhoods, a diplomatic quarter and a financial district. A large mosque and cathedral, as well a hotel and conference center, have already been built.
With parks and tree-lined avenues, the city will consume an estimated 650,000 cubic meters a day of water from the North African nation’s scarce resources. The new city aims to
At the construction site, about 45 km (28 miles) east of Cairo, diggers and cranes clutter the landscape and wide roads run between empty plots and part-finished buildings.
Workers for China State Construction Engineering Corp (CSCEC) lay foundations for the business district, where 21 skyscrapers including Africa’s tallest at 85 stories are planned.
Abdeen said he hoped a $1.2 billion electrified train link from Cairo to the city, also being built by a Chinese firm, would be ready in 18 months. Before then the city would be served by electric buses, he said.
However, a $20 billion deal for the second project phase agreed in 2016 with China Fortune Land Development Co. Ltd fell through over financial terms. The second and third phases had been “postponed”, he added.
Despite setbacks, Egypt’s general-turned-president has been keen to show off the project, taking visiting French President Emmanuel Macron on a helicopter tour of the site in January.
David Sims, author of Egypt’s Desert Dreams, a book on development projects, said the backing of Egypt’s presidency and military made the project “too big to fail”, although he said that did not guarantee people would want to live there. “It’s one thing to have an army of laborers and lots of machinery out there pushing dirt around but it will be another thing to see if it all comes together,” he said.
Struggling to fund its new capital
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is now pressing on with the new city despite the failure of two big development deals with Chinese and Emirati investors. Egypt borrowed some $4.5bn from China to build a central business district in the new city, with construction under way by China State Construction Engineering Corp, and to build a rail link to Cairo.
“We need very extensive financing and the state doesn’t have money to give me,” said Ahmed Zaki Abdeen, chairman of the New Administrative Capital for Urban Development (ACUD). The estimated $58bn is needed for the scheme, which was launched in 2015 and is intended to house 34 government ministries and be a new business, finance and cultural hub, with a population of 7 million people. But yet, no one wants to move there. Nor the foreign embassies despite Sisi’s pressure to do so.
At the time of the launch, the Egyptian government believed global capital would pour in to create a clean, futuristic business hub. But since then, talks with prominent investors, including Dubai-based Emaar Properties PJSC and China Fortune Land Development, have fallen through. Even if it’s too big to fail, problems occur in Sisi’s heaven.
Still waiting for the city’s name
Branding a new city also means picking up the right name for it. Waiting for it os almost over. ACUD – a 51% army-owned agency (as anything in Egypt) – launched a contest last July, asking for names expression the Egyptian identity, simple, not longer than two words… and nothing referring to religion or politics. Welcome to the Arab world. Competition was closed on August 17, we’re still waiting for the chosen name to add on the map.