Egypt’s bold plan to build a new capital in the desert
The apparition that I saw When I arrived in the new capital, there was more oversized construction area than functional city, which required some stretch of the imagination. The St. Regis Almasa, where I stayed, is still the only hotel. Connected to it is the City of Arts and Culture by a long pedestrian walkway, a stunning, nearly completed 127-acre complex of manicured gardens, grand performance halls, art galleries and artists’ studios. Otherwise, the eerie silence of the desert town, interrupted intermittently by the roar of construction machinery, underlined the degree of difficulty of the project.
Only a few freshly planted trees stood in the barren vastness that would eventually become Central Park. His shops had not yet opened. The monorail’s elevated guideways wobbled on the dusty streets like concrete skeletons. The shells of beautiful residential communities with international-sounding names such as El Patio Oro, La Verde and Celia stood empty in rows. The iconic 77-story ebony tower was without tenants or, for that matter, without fixtures or finished walls. As I rode the construction team’s creaky elevator to the 52nd floor, I got a clear view of the new capital’s planned quarters – for business, for diplomats, for parliament, for government ministries. and for the president. One way or another, by the end of the decade, this view would also encompass millions of people.
For now, the capital’s inhabitants consist mainly of construction workers, including thousands of Chinese, since the Chinese state-owned construction company is the contractor for the iconic tower. The Egyptians have unrivaled experience in building monumental capitals, but this time around they have chosen to enlist help. A French company will manage the electricity network, while a German company will operate the water and sewage systems. “We use all kinds of foreign expertise, without any shame,” Abdeen said.
However, the project suffered some setbacks. Shortly after our conversation, Abdeen quit, apparently for health reasons, but amid reports of costly flaws in some buildings.
The government has revealed few details about the construction, including where all the money for this construction boom is coming from, except to insist that it will cost Egyptian taxpayers nothing. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have invested heavily – and indeed, the main artery of the city is called Mohammed bin Zayed Road, named after the President of the United Arab Emirates.
Besides, the sparkling postmodern cityscape of the new administrative capital will look aesthetically familiar to anyone who has visited Dubai. Yet the city’s designers were careful to reflect Egyptian history. At the entrance to the City of Arts and Culture, an obelisk from the reign of Ramesses II has been moved from the ancient capital of Tanis to this one, in a recently restored state. It’s impressive but pint-sized in comparison to the soon to be built Oblisco Capitale. At a height of one kilometer, it will be the tallest tower in the world. In the lobby of the Drama Hall, large images of pharaohs playing senet, a precursor to chess, and enjoying musical performances remind visitors that familiar aspects of contemporary culture have taken root here. And when I peeked into the 1,200-seat concert hall to see its organ – the largest in the Middle East, of course – I was told by my guide that the pipe organ had been invented in Alexandria.
My guide for the City of Arts and Culture happened to be its principal engineer, Ahmed el Daly. Having overseen its construction shortly after excavations began in January 2018, El Daly took pride in the fact that the outside world knew almost nothing of the prodigious work of the construction team. “Thirteen thousand workers, all with phones, but no photos! he said with relish. “We have a saying: work in silence and let the success speak.”
Of course, the other reason to work in silence in the new capital is that all its construction takes place under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense. Any development project involving the seat of government has security implications, but it can rightly be said that the administration of El Sisi – Egypt’s former defense minister, who took power in 2013 by a coup – seeks to maintain a firm stance taken on how the country is portrayed. The president’s press officials aggressively sought to control how this story would portray Egypt. I was not allowed to roam the new city unescorted.
This same heavy hand has also sought to project an image of enlightenment and tolerance – decreeing, for example, that the new capital’s Al Fattah Al Aleem “mega-mosque” will open on January 6, 2019, the same day as the cathedral. of 9,200 squares in the city. of the Nativity was inaugurated.
Egypt’s new smart city will focus on green energy and cashless payment systems. And it will be decidedly crime-free – with a government protected from protests like those in 2011 that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak – thanks to a city-wide surveillance system designed by the American company Honeywell.
Above all, the New Administrative Capital will be full of life, if not necessarily by choice. A large number of Cairenes will see their lives turned upside down. “My cousin is a nurse who was forced to go to work in her new hospital,” a 56-year-old woman who identified herself by her Arabic nickname, Umm Abdu, told me. “It’s a very difficult ride for her.”