Egypt's Sisi plans to build new capital east of Cairo: Here's what you need to know about the new administrative capital

An opulent presidential palace, a brand new parliament, a regal opera house and spacious parks are all part of the vision for a New Administrative Capital (NAC) rising up out of the Egyptian desert.

FP Staff November 16, 2021 15:36:02 IST
Egypt's Sisi plans to build new capital east of Cairo: Here's what you need to know about the new administrative capital

This picture taken on March 13, 2020 shows an aerial view of ongoing construction development at Egypt's "New Administrative Capital" megaproject, some 45 kilometres east of Cairo. AFP

In Egypt, a huge “new administrative capital (NAC)” is being built, approximately 50 kilometres east of the 1,000-year-old capital Cairo on a swath of desert equal to the size of Singapore, as construction workers race to finish the project.

An opulent presidential palace, a brand new parliament, a regal opera house and spacious parks are all part of the vision for a NACrising from the Egyptian desert. The new buildings herald the arrival of its new leader - President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

While the plan was to unveil this new capital on June 30,  the date marking the anniversary of 2013 mass protests that toppled the divisive rule of late Islamist president Mohamed Morsi,  the launch was postponed because of Covid-19. After a series of false starts, Sisi issued a directive this month for civil servants to relocate to the new capital in December for a "six-month trial period".

The city is forecast to cost around $45 billion and has been touted as a solution to overpopulation in the sprawling metropolis of Cairo, home to more than 20 million people.

After being first elected in 2014, Sisi anointed the new capital as "the birth of a new state ... and republic".

'Room for two million'

Sisi has staked his legacy on massive infrastructure projects, and the ground has also been broken in other new cities including on the Mediterranean Sea at El Alamein, in the fertile Delta near Mansoura and in the south near Aswan.

In 2019 Sisi inaugurated a massive mosque in the new capital with a capacity for 3,000 worshippers, as well as the largest cathedral in the Middle East for the Copt population, seeking to enhance his image as the country's self-proclaimed unifier.

And the capital remains "the biggest project among all other projects undertaken by the state", Khaled al-Husseini, the spokesperson for the main construction firm building the capital, told AFP.

Why are they shifting the capital?

According to Al Jazeera, it is believed that the NAC— which is expected to house embassies, government agencies, the parliament, 30 ministries, a spiraling presidential compound and some 6.5 million people when completed — will help ease the troubles faced by the already overcrowded Cairo.

As per Candian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, one of the primary goals of the project are to house all of the government’s ministries, including the parliament – 34 buildings over 800 acres.

It seems that the new capital will not only move administrative buildings out of Cairo, but also create much-needed housing.

The first phase "will span 250 kilometres squared and can accommodate up to two million citizens". Real estate firms are advertising new units with mortgage payments divided over more than 10 years — a rarity in a country where payments are upfront.

Husseini boasted the new "smart city" will provide a better lifestyle, with state-of-the-art hospitals, schools and universities. Around 50,000 civil servants are expected to move in, with the number doubling in the next three years.

Affordable housing units in nearby satellite settlements aimed at state employees have been built by the government. And a $4.5 billion monorail project will connect Greater Cairo and the new capital, with two trains already delivered by French firm Alstom.

'Isolating the ruler'

But the staggering construction costs have triggered criticism about Egypt's spending priorities, with one in three of the 102 million people living below the poverty line.

Most people won't be able to afford apartments and villas in the new city, said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyed, a political science professor at Cairo University.

"The (government's) vision of what is dubbed modernity is just a transfer of the manifestations of Western modernity to Egypt," he said.

"It means having skyscrapers, wide roads and advanced technology," he added.

"But modernity, in reality, is about a government being accountable to its people" such as providing good education, he explained.

Kadi added that since the time of the pharaohs "administrative capitals were established for the purpose of isolating the ruler from the people".

Some believe the new city will not compete with Cairo in the same way as Brazil's new capital Brasilia and even risks eventually being swallowed up by its huge neighbour.

"The new capital for me is a mystery," said Galila El-Kadi, an urban planning professor and director of the Marseille-based Research Institute for Development.

"It's already on the edge of Cairo without anyone moving there yet and within a few years, it will expand and fuse into Cairo. This will only increase problems of managing human density of such magnitude," she told AFP.

Residents of several settlements and low-income areas have already been evicted or moved to government housing — sometimes in remote areas — as part of the urban development plans.

Sayyed said Sisi wanted to build a legacy, as past presidents had done, highlighting Gamal Abdel Nasser's Aswan Dam project.

"Sisi wants history to remember him by moving the centre of power from Cairo to a place that will immortalise him."

With inputs from agencies

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