At the economic conference Egypt hosted last weekend, officials had a surprise announcement: they plan to build the country a new capital. And it is going to be fantastic:
The scale of the plans certainly defy historical norms. If completed, the currently nameless city would span 700 sq km (a space almost as big as Singapore), house a park double the size of New York’s Central Park, and a theme park four times as big as Disneyland – all to be completed within five to seven years.
According to the brochure, there will be exactly 21 residential districts, 25 “dedicated districts”, 663 hospitals and clinics, 1,250 mosques and churches, and 1.1m homes housing at least five million residents.
The plan has unsurprisingly generated some skepticism. Egypt has a long history of failed, delusional, top-down urban planning:
I won’t dwell on the fascination with Dubai as a model for urban development and how unsuitable this model is for Egypt whose GDP per capita is 8% of that of the UAE. Nor will I dwell on the deep political and social inequalities that lie beneath the glittering veneer of Dubai, and the serious political implications that this model bodes for the new proposed capital of Egypt. I also won’t dwell on the meaning and significance of announcing such a momentous decision not in front of parliament (for we have no such institution due to a legal fracas that delayed the elections to an unspecified future date) and not to the local media (despite the fact that whatever independence this media might have once enjoyed has evaporated in thin air), but to a group of word leaders and foreign investors who claim to be “focus[ing] on efforts to promote shared prosperity in Egypt and the region” (in the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry).
I just wonder what will happen to Cairo, Egypt’s capital for more than a thousand years? What will happen to the metropolis that is home to close to 20 million inhabitants? Where do they fit in the government’s plans for the new capital? The website says that it is hoped that the new city will attract 5 million inhabitants when it is finished. Assuming that the aim of building a new administrative capital is to alleviate the pressure from downtown Cairo where the majority of government offices are located, and assuming, for argument’s sake, that the 5 million inhabitants will actually be moved from overcrowded city, what will happen to the rest of us?
It has also garnered quite a bit of genuine support, driven, I imagine, by the undeniable fact that central Cairo is such a brutal, and worsening, urban environment. It's not that the capital doesn't urgently need drastic new measures to solve its pollution, transportation problems, traffic, overcrowding, poor public services. I spent a year after the uprising going to weekly meetings at an Egyptian NGO where experts and activists from dozens of different fields talked knowledgeably about the city's problems, argued over solutions, and proposed many creative, worthy ideas. But none of these ideas ever get anywhere near government offices, where denial (of the 2/3 of the city that consists of informal housing, to star with), bad taste and bad faith reign supreme and no one can admit the obvious: Cairo's fundamental problem is governance.