Capital in the desert: this is the new Egypt

When I returned to Egypt for the first time in June 2022 after my last visit 15 years ago, I found it hard to know. In Cairo, along the Nile, the first 1.5 kilometers of the “People of Egypt Walk” has just opened, offering breathtaking views of the famous Corniche. The sprawling nearby neighborhood, known as the Maspero Triangle, was in the midst of a radical renovation; Dilapidated parts were razed to be replaced by luxury apartments on the banks of the river; As part of a plan to demolish 357 neighborhoods throughout Egypt’s 27 governorates. Hundreds of dilapidated or squatter houses were razed to “Al-Warraq”, a small island in the Nile, to make way for the construction of modern buildings such as hotels and other vital projects. The famous boats floating in the river were towed or dismantled respectively.

A city on the sands of the desert: A new capital is under construction 45 kilometers east of Cairo. This ambitious project aims to create a modern city home for more than 6 million people. One of the main motives for this was the resettlement of people from the densely populated “Nile Valley”.

I left the city on the Long Live Egypt Bridge – the world’s widest suspension bridge, which opened in 2019 and traveled north through a festive green flood of farmland, before reaching the desert surrounding Alexandria. The roads were so new that the asphalt was sticky; The main exits to the cities under construction on the coast are not yet complete. Established just four years ago, New Alamein City is a luxury beach resort located west of Alexandria. At an expected cost of $60 billion, when completed it will include three universities and a presidential palace. There is a luxury area called the “Latin Quarter” where four-bedroom oceanfront “chalets” are offered, at no less than a quarter of a million dollars.

Back in Cairo, I headed east to a city in its suburbs called “New Cairo”, filled with luxury office towers and opulent restaurants, most of which have grown up since my last visit from what was once the emptiness of the “eastern desert”. . This city exudes a richness and calm that is much closer to the suburbs of Dallas than to the hustle and bustle of historic Cairo. Another half hour’s drive east, along a completely unpaved highway, lies before my eyes the New Administrative Capital. This city, which is under construction, is at the heart of Egypt’s ambitious modernization plans. However, it has not yet been given a definitive name and has only a small number of its expected population of six million. In a year, or maybe less, what used to be a desert will sparkle with thousands of new homes. The spectacle would contrast with the daily chaos of Cairo. Here everything will be orderly and polished…and gigantic: the tallest office building in Africa; the continent’s largest mosque and largest cathedral; and a public gathering area twice the length of New York City’s Central Park. There will also be plenty of entertainment: museums, restaurants, shopping centers, a sumptuous marble opera house and a library with more than five million books. Visiting Cairo and the beach resorts from here will be easy thanks to a modern railway system with high-speed trains.

In this grand and modernized landscape, A unique and fully completed building stands out, the “Museum of Capitals of Egypt”. As the name suggests, the museum celebrates the cities that have served as the seat of government over the country’s 5,000 years of history. For simplicity, the museum’s exhibitions focus on the six most important capitals; They are in order: Memphis, just south of Cairo; Thebes, a symbol of the ancient dominance of the pharaohs; Tell el-Amarna, the cradle of monotheism in Egypt; Alexandria, the namesake of Alexander the Great; Islamic Cairo, symbol of Islamic influence; Khedival Cairo, in modern times, remained under Ottoman and British rule until independence in 1922. This visual account of Egyptian history includes the argument that the relocation of the capital is a major twist, but it is also somewhat familiar.
In fact, it is not just Egypt that has moved its capital lately. In 1960, the Brazilian government moved from Rio de Janeiro on the southeast coast to a more central location in the heart of the savanna, creating the city of Brasilia from nothing in 41 months. Four decades later, to ease congestion in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia moved its administrative and judicial offices to Putrajaya, 40 kilometers to the south. And in 2019, Indonesia’s president announced his intention to create a new capital in Borneo to ease the population pressure on Jakarta, which is slowly sinking because its wells pump so much groundwater. Each of these countries bet on moving its capital to create an opportunity for a modernist urban display that would capture the attention and admiration of the rest of the world.

As for why Egypt does this, the Capitals Museum offers one of the keys to the answer. In addition to the colossal marble statues of Egypt’s historic rulers prominently displayed on the first floor, a life-size bronze statue of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stands secluded on the second floor. It is easy to overlook the existence of this statue because it is not placed on a large pedestal and is far from the movement of passers-by. However, its presence is an indication that the Egyptian leader linked his legacy to the establishment of a new capital. Another telling scene is the position of the statue of Sisi directed outside the museum where his creation is located, carefully overseeing how contemporary Egypt was shaped and the way his story was told.

Sisi’s bold plan, which he launched in 2015, to move the government headquarters, embassies and the entire financial district to the desert, about 45 kilometers east of Cairo, has been in place for some time. About a tenth of the state workforce already lives in the new administrative capital; The president may move to the new palace there at the end of next year. This mass exodus urged by the government is part of a larger reconfiguration of Egypt led by Sisi, which includes the relocation of millions of citizens to newly built cities, and the creation of a sophisticated transport network connecting residents of Cairo with the agricultural areas of the Nile Delta and then all the extended areas Across the road to the Mediterranean coast, 225 km.

On the one hand, Sisi’s decision to move the capital from Cairo – the seat of government for more than a thousand years – stemmed from the sobering recognition that the city is a ticking time bomb, given its inability to to accommodate its 20 million inhabitants, not including the four million who commute daily. . Ahmed Zaki Abdeen, who was overseeing the construction works on the day of my visit, told me as we sat in his office between government ministries in the new capital. He said: “Our first objective was to reduce congestion and traffic. reduce. The population of Egypt increases by two million people annually. Building and expanding across the country is therefore essential.” But Abedin also reminded me with a smile: “We have been building for 5,000 years since ancient times.” Building civilization is the basis of the identity of Egypt’s 106 million people, as its new capital reminds us. And not just once, but many times.

Read the full details in the paper version of the magazine “National Geographic Arabia”.
Or via the digital version through the following link:

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