Capital folly: Egypt’s monument to dictatorship

nac_screengrabYouTube

The new city is planned to cover 700 sq km Photo: Screengrab via YouTube

The grandiose plans to create a new capital city for Egypt are testament to Al-Sisi’s determination to prevent a repeat of the mass protests which led to revolution in 2011, argues Fareid Atta. Far from creating a sustainable new city to relieve the pressure of overcrowding in Cairo, housing in the New Administrative Capital will be only available to the rich.

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On 13 March 2015 at an economic conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt’s government set out its vision to the international community. Perhaps what shocked the audience most was the announcement of a New Administrative Capital (NAC). According to the plans, the NAC would be located 45km East of historic Cairo. At 700 square kilometres it would exceed the size of Singapore and accommodate 6.5 million people.

It was set to feature nearly 2000 schools and colleges; over 1000 mosques and churches; 600 hospitals; over 40,000 hotel rooms; an amusement park that dwarfs Disneyland, a public park double the size of New York’s Central Park, an airport as big as Heathrow, a green river over an area of 6,200 acres, solar energy farms totalling 17,000 football fields, at least six foreign universities and a finance centre with the tallest building in Africa.

The staggering superlatives, and vague and somewhat contradictory government reports on the finer details of the NAC have led some Egyptian commentators and foreign observers to speculate that the 65-year-old al-Sisi views the capital relocation as a means to establish his personal legacy.

The former general has been widely criticised for his pharaonic lifestyle including palatial residences at a military camp in Cairo and a new summer residence in New al-Alamein City on the North Coast.

He may not have yet taken the ultimate step of wearing a Neme around his head, but Al-Sisi’s concept of power is clearly authoritarian in the style of old Egyptian dynasties: unitary, personal, and unpredictable.

In order to gain public funds and support for his fortress, he has relied on the support of private and the public sectors within Egypt as well as substantial foreign investment from China.

Initially, the Gulf states were eager to fund the project. However, since 2015 confidence in the commercial feasibility of the scheme amongst international investors has massively deteriorated. The Gulf developers who pledged funding fought over terms and following this, abandoned the project.

Since 2016, the project has provided considerable opportunities for the regime and its collaborators, particularly in construction projects. Much has been supervised by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority and the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA).

In October 2015 the minister of housing (and chairman of the board of NUCA) declared that NUCA, which has its own finances independent of the government, would provide initial investments in the new capital and that there would be “no pressure on the general budget.”

Fast forward to June 2020, and over thirty storeys of the “iconic tower”, have been erected, with  swift progress made on the remaining towers, “Phase 1” is due to be finished by 2022, and the Government Quarter is already completed. As of June 2020, only two university campuses appear to have opened their doors to students in the NAC:

The University of Prince Edward Island, an umbrella organisation created to host degree programmes from select Canadian universities, and the University of Coventry. Coventry opened its doors to students in the NAC as of September 2019 to great fanfare.

Even Covid 19 has not significantly slowed progress on the project, with the Egyptian government claiming to have secured “the continuity of work on the sites while preserving the safety of the workers”. China State Engineering and Construction Company (CSCEC) has deployed its “epidemic prevention and control team,” as well as an on-site medical aid package worth 12 million EGP.  

Despite action to control the virus on site, on 4 April, the Presidential Office postponed the opening of “major national projects”, including the transfer of government officials to the new Government Quarter to 2021.

The official reason given by the government for the capital shift is the oft-repeated refrain that Cairo, with its twenty-two million inhabitants, is overcrowded and the population needs to be redistributed.

The minister of housing claimed that there is “no other solution to dealing with population growth, and to eliminate ashwa’iyat (informal housing areas).” It may be proposed that the decision to relocate from Cairo is driven by a desire to escape the long history of popular unrest in the old capital, and the seismic uprisings across Egypt in the winter of 2011.

This utopia will be nothing more than a dream to the majority of Egyptians.

Of course, congestion and overcrowding are serious issues in Cairo, and it is easy to imagine why its residents would dream of escaping the dust and the dirt of the capital and escape to a world of wide-open streets, orderly rows of housing and palm trees tickling azure skies. This utopia, however, will be nothing more than a dream to the majority of Egyptians.

Thus far the vast majority of the NAC housing has been undertaken by private developers, with a seeming bias towards middle and high-end compounds. Unit prices for a 1-bedroom studio flat start at over 1 million EGP, when we consider the average wage of an Egyptian government employee is around 4000 EGP a month, it is difficult to fathom how ordinary Egyptians will afford it.

When asked about the prices of private housing, the spokesman for the project, Khaled al-Husseiny, dodged questions about the provision for lower earners in the NAC and the average price of real estate: “Forget the numbers, they’re not important and not fixed, we have a dream, and we’re building our dreams now.”  The practical infeasibility of the city as a viable alternative for the informal housing dwellers of Cairo begs the question, why is it being built in the first place?

The answer might lie in the work of Ali al-Rigal, a researcher in political sociology, who suggests the decision to move government offices away from protests has a political and sociocultural underpinning. He suggests the government wants key state institutions to exist amongst the rich, upper classes, who tend to be more in support of the government.

“The regime seeks to isolate itself from the old city and its residential areas. It believes they’re a burden and a danger to it, due to this class’ political leanings, which tend to cut against the regime,” Rigal’s argument has merit when we consider the average prices of the units in the NAC.

The funding for the NAC, and dreams of self-sufficiency has, as has repeatedly been the case in Egypt’s development, been purchased at the price of dependence on foreign countries and/or the private sector. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) has pledged $3 billion over five years to establish a central business area in the NAC.

The Minister of Housing Assem al-Gazzar declared the first instalment of the loan will cover the expenses of designing and building seven tall towers on a total area of 600,000 square meters. The rest of the loan is expected to finance the remaining thirteen skyscrapers in the financial centre, including the “iconic tower.”

The Egyptians have evidently renegotiated a new loan deal, after the first fell through, but it is suspected there are strings attached, with the ICBC likely to have demanded a sizeable share of revenues from the financial district. As usual, information on the revenue expected to be generated from the towers is scarce, though it is highly unlikely the area will be a cash cow in the short term.  

The handing over of a portion of the city’s revenue also raises serious questions over the ethics of such loans from China, and whether Egypt is in fact, just the latest victim of China’s ignominious debt-trap diplomacy.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies, has described Beijing’s policies as a kind of “creditor imperialism.” The handing over of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port to China, is a chilling reminder of the dangers for emerging economies in defaulting on their debts to the superpower.

Egypt’s repayment on these new Chinese loans will begin as early as mid-2020, based on the 36-42-month downtime in the initial agreement in 2017. With the end of the three-years deferral period coming up Beijing is already applying upwards pressure.

Egypt’s economy has shown encouraging signs of recovery since its November 2016 IMF bailout, but Covid 19 is a significant threat to this fragile recovery.  National GDP is thought to be decreasing at a rate of between 0.7 and 0.8 percent (EGP 36 to 41 billion) for each month that the global crisis continues.

Abdel Khalek Farouk, an economist and director of the Nile Centre for Economic and Strategic Studies, criticised Egypt’s economic handling of the project in new loans: “How can such an indebted country as Egypt seek to obtain new debt in light of the massive internal and external debt it already has?” He also highlights the high interest rates attached to existing debts.

Chinese involvement was a fait accompli for the project, with a price tag of over $40 billion dollars, the country has the deep pockets Egypt desperately needs. The urban planner David Sims has claimed the whole programme may be too big to fail. There are “too many cheerleaders for desert development, and too many client groups to satisfy.”

China’s support is also of critical importance for al Sisi’s political base at home. The strengthening of Egypt’s economic, political and security ties with China — or at least the image of them, combined with much jet setting and hand-shaking with world leaders, allows him to present himself to an increasingly restless Egyptian public, as the vanguard of the country’s development.

Public support for such projects is one reason for the regime’s decision to relocate, but another is regime security. Since the ousting of the Brotherhood there seems to have been a concerted effort made to de-populate and remove government ministries from the iconic downtown area.

On 27 April 2016, Al-Sisi opened a new office of Egypt’s Interior Ministry in New Cairo, east of the capital; the original in Tahrir, was a lightning rod for the protests in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Historic Cairo, much like other capitals such as Paris or Beijing contains the legacies of protest. Cairo’s Tahrir square features some of the most significant symbols of Egypt: The Egyptian Museum, The Arab League building, and the Egyptian Parliament. In the 20th century it has been the de-facto centre of resistance to the state, during the colonial period and of course, most recently in the 25 January Revolution.

Chinese involvement was a fait accompli. With a project price tag of over $40 billion dollars, the country has the deep pockets Egypt desperately needs.

In fact, Tahrir became globally the largely uncontested centre of media attention, the symbol of a transformative spatial politics in the Arab world: as Ahdaf Soueif explains.

 “The people know that Tahrir was simply spectacle. They know that the revolution was won in the streets and the factories. But they also know that the spectacle is important in the battle of ideas, and if Tahrir falls, the dream falls. Tahrir is a myth that creates a reality in which we’ve long believed.”

The emotional power of spaces such as this pose an extraordinary risk for the regime. Their prerogative to turn downtown into “a heritage area” speaks volumes about the intent of Al-Sisi’s to erase the memory of the Revolution.

Relocation to the desert, forty-five kilometres to the East of Cairo, negates the possibility of mass demonstration by decreasing the connectivity and proximity of informal neighbourhoods to key sites. Should Cairo be brought to a standstill by public protests and demonstrations, Egypt’s military government in the NAC would remain unaffected.

The fact that the NAC is the brainchild of al-Sisi is significant. Al-Sisi’s radical project uses his country’s scarce resources, not only to assert the self-efficacy of the state and catapult Egypt back into the geopolitical chessboard– but to protect his regime by creating a totally new urban space that expresses the values that he envisions as constituting the “New Egyptian”, an identity that is both conservative and modern, globalised but isolated from complex historical legacies of Cairo.  

 

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