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“Out with the old, in with the new” – Egypt’s new financial and administrative capital to replace Cairo – Sanet Madonsela

September 12, 2019

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“Out with the old, in with the new” – Egypt’s new financial and administrative capital to replace Cairo

by Sanet Madonsela

 Volume 7 (2019), Number 13 (September 2019)

Former general and head of military intelligence, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, came into power after orchestrating a coup d’etat in July 2013 and has been ruling the country with an iron fist since then. Despite his attempt to sanitize his regime through a sham election, there has been an escalation in the campaign of intimidation, violence and arrest against political opponents, civil society and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists. This crackdown has resulted in both individuals and groups being listed on the government’s terrorism list and others sentenced to death. In 2017, Egypt had the sixth-highest number of executions and the third-largest number of death sentences globally. Cairo justifies this under the guise of combatting terrorism. The diverse numbers of Egyptians from a variety of political persuasions, however, belie the terrorist label. Indeed, the only thing they have in common is opposition to the military junta. In addition to that, the country’s military operations have also escalated. In February 2018, the regime announced a new campaign against an Islamic State-affiliated group in the Sinai Peninsula in a desperate attempt to regain control of the region from the militants. This operation has resulted in hundreds of hectares of farmland and at least 3,000 houses destroyed. Additionally, the state has proven incapable of protecting women and children against sexual and gender-based violence.

The Egyptian government has also been struggling to attract foreign investors. This led to Sisi accepting a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Sisi has indicated that the country would need a minimum of $1 trillion to improve its conditions as the current state budget cannot accommodate the demands of rapid population growth and attendant urbanisation. The country’s population has increased from 20 million in 1950 to approximately a 100 million in 2019. The country’s capital, Cairo, is bursting at its seams as one-fifth of the total population resides there. Cairo’s population is expected to rise to at least 40 million by 2050. It is important to note that 50% of Cairo’s neighbourhoods lack access to the sewerage system and that its public service is failing. Some municipal councils operate on as little as $4 per capita per year. Given the collapsing infrastructure, the country’s middle and upper classes have moved out of the city into gated communities in search of a better quality of life.

In 2015, Egypt announced that it would be replacing the ancient city of Cairo with a new financial and administrative capital. The new capital is located on a flat stretch of desert between the Suez Canal and the Nile River. This smart city will become home to 6.5 million people.  Government ministries and agencies is set to move to this new location. The smart city will cover an area of 7,000 square kilometers and will include a new parliamentary complex, a convention center, 663 hospitals and clinics, 1,250 mosques and 40, 000 hotel rooms. Its estimated value is US$45 billion. This is expected to solve Cairo’s crowding, pollution and rising house price problems.

It is argued that the aesthetic character of the development could make housing unaffordable and unattainable to the majority of Cairo’s inhabitants, as this new city is built on a high modernist approach and does not allow for the informal enterprises and activities that most Egyptians rely on. While government has policies in place to regulate the price of land in the area, it is important to note that the value of the land has already increased. The smallest apartment in the new capital is 1.3 million pounds, making it unaffordable for even mid-level bureaucrats. The new city is said to be a cashless city, as it will cooperate with MasterCard’s global expertise in the field of electronic payment technology. This suggests that Cairo may soon witness the exodus of its wealthier residents, holding calamitous consequences for revenues of the city.

One of the most fascinating aspects about the project is the Chinese interest. It is important to note that the China State Construction Engineering Corporation has replaced the UAE based Capital City Planners; while the Chinese Fortune Land Development Plan and another Chinese state company also contributed towards the project. They invested $20 billion and $15 billion respectfully. Thus, funds for the project from Beijing has facilitated the realization of Sisi’s dream of a new capital. It is, however, not only the Chinese that are involved in the construction of the new capital. A US-based firm, Honeywell, has been contracted to provide a citywide surveillance system that will involve security forces, police and medical staff. The company will install 60,000 wireless cameras to monitor crowds, detect theft and observe suspicious people and behaviour.  The security dimensions are emphasized by the fact that the Egyptian army is said to main command and control of the new city from the Integrated Command and Control Centre. Demographics and Cairo’s own crumbling infrastructure alone do not explain the push for a new capital. Security considerations seem to be uppermost in the concerns of Egypt’s new Pharaoh.

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