Excessiveness is not limited to the Pharaohs’ kingdom. That is at least the message that Egyptian authorities are putting out regarding their New Administrative Capital project. This, as of yet unnamed city, will be the biggest city in the world ever built from scratch. Beginning June 2019, the 700 sq km city situated 60 km East of Cairo will slowly be able to start housing up to 6.5 million residents. Among other things, the city will also boast; a presidential palace, a parliament, a central bank, the tallest tower in Africa, as well as the tallest bell tower and minaret in Egypt.

A Continental Trend

President Sisi’s willingness to build does not come out of nowhere. Egypt has already built about 30 cities since the 1960s. An AFP report shows that many of these cities did not fulfill their promise. Notably there is the 6th of October city was built in the 80s to host 6 million residents. Today, only 500,000 live there and many of its apartment buildings are empty, even though it holds many companies from the technology and industrial sectors.

Other titanic projects have followed the idea of the new capital. New Cairo, for example, built in the early 2000s to declutter Cairo, now hosts 1,5 million residents as well as banks and offices. In the same AFP report, urban planner and architect Ahmed Zaazaa even says: « We can compare the new capital to New Cairo. » But he does see the bad in New Cairo, « its malls are hard to reach without cars, and with its lifeless streets, it is not a perfect example for the new city. » He sees in the project another megalomaniac wish coming from yet another Egyptian director. However, this time it will not only be a new city, but a futuristic capital, a seat for ministers, the president, and deputies.

This project is a continent-wide trend, because many countries, including Senegal, are already working on improving their capitals. Following suit, they are working to declutter Dakar and have moved some Senegalese ministers to the new city of Diamniadio. In an article published by Jeune Afrique, Amarou Oury Diallo explains how Senegal are ambitious to turn it into a smart futuristic city run on technology. « Which consists of building and organizing the city by anticipating its medium and long-term future needs in a sustainable manner. »

Modernising Egypt’s image with a smart city?

Apart from decluttering Cairo, which is considered necessary due of its traffic and overpopulation issues, this project will « embody Egypt’s future » according to this France 2 report. For that to happen, the new capital needs to be a smart city, which means a city in which development and infrastructure are founded on information technology and communication, according to Egyptian architecture professor Heba Safey Eldeen.  Khaled el-Husseiny Soliman, who is the project’s supervisor, has indeed explained that the megapolis will be using the latest in technology. NBC News has cited among other things, smoke and fire detectors able to independently alert emergency services, as well as systems that can manage road traffic in a smart way. Camera networks will also make the city safer.

It is not a mistake that comparisons to Singapore, but mainly to Dubai are spreading. Apart from the promised resemblance to the emirate World City, the future Egyptian capital has the ambition of being at the peak of technology in order to incarnate the country’s revival. To this end, a campus dedicated to science and technology will be erected in the city’s center. 20 skyscrapers are also promised for the project that is co-directed by both Egypt’s ministers of Defence and Housing, and will host offices and State agencies. About 60 km from the new capital, Cairo will still be the most populated city in Egypt and will be able to load the new city’s towers. These will mainly be the thousands of workers that will make their daily commute to Cairo thanks to a monorail as well as a state of the art train system servicing Cairo, The Guardian tells.

A conduit for development and stability

The new city’s real objective, whose cost was estimated at 45 billion dollars, is to modernise Egypt’s in order to attract tourists, investors, and international companies. According to Daniel Ringelstein, Urban Design and Planning Director at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, « The future city will strengthen and diversify Egypt’s economic potential by creating attractive new places to live, work, and welcome the world. » Neither is this a bet for Egypt’s future, as companies from China and the Persian Gulf are already trying to sign contracts for the new city: in October 2017, the China State Construction Engineering Corporation committed itself to building a business district there, to benefit from proximity to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.

Apart from its economic aspect, an article from The Independent explains that this is also a political project, proposed by president Sisi who wants more authority. It will develop the economy, which is struggling at the moment, as well as give more control over the population and institutions. Khaled el-Husseiny Soliman, who is in charge of the project, explains to NBC that Army staff will be located in the city, and will be able to completely control the capital. Moreover, from June 2019, all institutions including the parliament and all 34 ministers will be transferred near the new presidential palace, which will be three times bigger than the White House.

As well as reinforcing political power, the new capital will also strengthen many inequalities already present in Cairo. On The Conversation’s site, urban researchers Nuno Pinto and Aya Badawy warn about this danger and use Brasilia, a city reserved for officials and the rich, as an example. These inequality risks are strengthened by the current situation in Cairo. CNN cites Kareem Ibrahim, who works for the Tadamun NGO and explains that 50% of Cairo’s districts do not have a proper sewage system. Many Egyptians are criticising this titanic project, and judge it as being disconnected from their reality and only benefiting the rich.

In that case, the new project represents a big challenge for Egyptian authorities. The colossal investments could give President Sisi more authority all the while boosting his country’s economy. But there is a risk that this megapolis might become a ghost town or a suburb for the rich. The end of the project’s first phase, announced in June 2019 with the arrival of national administrations, should give us more information on the new capital’s fate.

Written by Côme Allard de Grandmaison. Translated by Glenn Bastide. Cover: SOM.