Egypt’s audacious plan to build a new capital in the desert

Egypt’s audacious plan to build a new capital in the desert

Published October 18, 2022

20 min read

When I returned to Egypt in June for the first time in 15 years, I struggled to recognize it. In Cairo, alongside the Nile River, the first mile of a promenade called the Mamsha Ahl Misr (“walkway of the Egyptian people”) had just opened, affording sweeping views of the famed waterfront. The sprawling nearby neighborhood known as the Maspero Triangle was in the middle of a drastic face-lift. Run-down sections had been razed, and pricey riverside condos will take their place—part of a plan to demolish 357 residential areas throughout Egypt’s 27 governorates. Hundreds of houses on Warraq, a small island in the Nile, have been bulldozed to make way for hotels. The river’s storied houseboats were being dismantled or towed off one by one.

Departing the city on the Tahya Masr Bridge—the world’s widest cable-stayed span, opened in 2019—I traveled north through a welcoming green burst of farmland before reaching the desert around Alexandria. The roadways were so new the asphalt was sticky; the main exits to towns under construction on the coast were yet to be completed. A posh beach resort to the west of Alexandria, New El Alamein, arose from the shore of the Mediterranean just four years ago. With a projected price tag of $60 billion, it will eventually include three universities and a presidential palace. An upscale area called the Latin Quarter was offering four-bedroom seaside “chalets” for as little as a quarter million dollars.

Returning to Cairo, I headed east to a satellite city, New Cairo, replete with shiny office towers and plush restaurants, most of which had sprung up since my previous visit from what had been the emptiness of the Eastern Desert. The city projected a sedate affluence, far more akin to suburban Dallas than to the clamorous pulse of historic Cairo.

Another half hour farther east, along a not yet fully paved highway, the New Administrative Capital sprawled before me. Still lacking a permanent name, with only a fraction of its projected population of six million living there, the city being built nonetheless lies at the heart of Egypt’s ambitious modernization plans. In a year’s time, perhaps less, what also had been nothing but desert will shimmer with thousands of new residences.

The spectacle will seem discordant with the everyday chaos that is Cairo. Here, everything will be orderly and polished—and gigantic: the tallest office building in Africa, the continent’s biggest mosque and biggest cathedral, a public gathering area twice as long as New York City’s Central Park. There will be plenty of diversions too: museums, restaurants and shopping malls, a sumptuously marbled opera house, and a library collection of more than five million books. Visiting Cairo and the beach resorts from here will seem effortless, thanks to a new high-speed rail system. (Egypt’s new billion-dollar museum is fit for a pharaoh)

In this Oz-like urban miracle, one rather idiosyncratic building, already finished, stands out: Egypt’s Capitals Museum. As the name suggests, the museum celebrates cities that have been the seat of government during the country’s 5,000 years of recorded history.

For simplicity’s sake, the exhibits focus on the six most consequential capitals: the first, Memphis, just south of Cairo; Thebes, the ancient dominion of the pharaohs; Tell el Amarna, Egypt’s birthplace of monotheism; Alexandria, namesake of Alexander the Great; Cairo under Islamic influence; and the modern era’s urban Cairo, under Ottoman and British rule until independence in 1922. Implicit in this narrative of Egyptian history is the argument that relocating one’s capital constitutes a momentous but also somewhat customary turn of events.

Indeed, Egypt hardly stands alone in having done so recently. In 1960, the Brazilian government relocated from Rio de Janeiro on the southeastern coast to a more central site in the savanna heartland, creating Brasília from scratch in 41 months. Four decades later, to relieve congested Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia moved its administrative and judicial offices two dozen miles south, to Putrajaya. In 2019, the president of Indonesia declared his intention to create a new capital on Borneo to relieve the population pressures in Jakarta, which is slowly sinking because its wells pump out too much groundwater. Each of these countries used the relocation as an opportunity to create a modern urban showcase for the world to admire.

As to why Egypt has elected to do so, the Capitals Museum offers a clue. In addition to hulking marble likenesses of historic Egyptian rulers displayed prominently on the first floor, a life-size bronze statue of President Abdel Fattah el Sisi stands in solitude on the second floor. The statue is easy to miss, in that it doesn’t loom from a great pedestal and is away from the pedestrian flow. Still, its presence is an indication that Egypt’s authoritarian leader has tied his legacy to the founding of a new capital. Also telling is how El Sisi is depicted facing outward, toward his creation—attentively presiding over how contemporary Egypt will be shaped and how its story will be told.

El Sisi’s audacious plan—one that he inaugurated in 2015 without first addressing the public, much less putting the matter to a referendum—to relocate the seat of government, embassies, and the entire financial district out into the desert some 30 miles east of Cairo has been set in motion. About a tenth of the government workforce already resides in the New Administrative Capital; the president may move to the new presidential palace there at the end of next year. This government-induced mass migration is part of El Sisi’s greater remaking of Egypt, which involves relocating millions of citizens to newly constructed cities and developing an elaborate transportation network that will connect residents from Cairo to agricultural districts in the Nile Delta and all the way to the Mediterranean coast, 150 miles away.

In one sense, El Sisi’s decision to move the capital from Cairo—the seat of government for more than a thousand years—was born of the sober recognition that the city is a ticking time bomb, unable to accommodate its 20 million inhabitants, much less the four million who commute in and out daily. “Our number one goal was to relieve the overcrowding and the traffic,” Ahmed Zaki Abdeen, who was overseeing the development at the time of my visit, told me as we sat in his office, situated among the government ministries in the new capital. “Egypt’s population is growing by two million every year. Construction and expansion all over the country is essential.”

But with a smile, Abdeen also reminded me: “We are the builders, from ancient times, 5,000 years.” Basic to the identity of Egypt’s 106 million people, as its new capital reminds us, is civilization building—not just once but many times over.

The apparition I beheld when I arrived in the new capital was more supersize construction zone than functioning city, requiring some exertion of the imagination. The St. Regis Almasa, where I stayed, is still the only hotel. Connected to it by a long pedestrian skyway is the City of Arts and Culture, a stupefying and mostly completed 127-acre array of manicured gardens, grand performance halls, art galleries, and artist studios. Otherwise, the eerie silence in the desert city, broken intermittently by the growling of construction machinery, underscored the project’s degree of difficulty.

Just a few freshly planted trees stood in the arid vastness that eventually will be the Central Park. Its boutiques had yet to open. The elevated guideways for the monorail lurched over the dusty streets like concrete skeletons. The shells of handsome residential communities with international-sounding names such as El Patio Oro, La Verde, and Celia stood vacant in rows. The 77-story ebony Iconic Tower was without tenants or, for that matter, appliances and finished walls. Taking the construction crew’s creaky elevator to the 52nd floor, I had a clear vantage of the new capital’s planned districts—for businesses, for diplomats, for parliament, for the government’s ministries, and for the president. Somehow, by the end of the decade, this view would also encompass millions of residents.

For now, the capital dwellers consist principally of construction workers, thousands of whom are Chinese, since China’s state-owned construction firm is the contractor for the Iconic Tower. The Egyptians have unsurpassed experience when it comes to building monumental capitals, but this time around they have chosen to solicit assistance. A French company will manage the electrical network, while a German one will operate the water and sewage systems. “We’re using all kinds of foreign expertise, without any shame,” Abdeen said.

The project, though, has suffered some setbacks. Not long after we spoke, Abdeen resigned, ostensibly for health reasons but amid reports of costly flaws in some of the buildings.

The government has revealed few details about the construction, including where all the money is coming from for this building boom, except to insist that it won’t cost Egyptian taxpayers anything. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have invested significantly—and indeed, the city’s main thoroughfare is named Mohammed bin Zayed Road, after the U.A.E.’s president.

For that matter, the gleaming postmodern cityscape of the New Administrative Capital will seem aesthetically familiar to anyone who has visited Dubai. Still, the city’s designers have taken some pains to reflect Egyptian history. At the entrance of the City of Arts and Culture, an obelisk from the reign of Ramses II has been moved from the earlier capital city of Tanis to this one, in newly restored condition. It’s impressive but pint-size in comparison with the soon-to-be-constructed Oblisco Capitale. At one kilometer in height, 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 took root here. And when I peeked into the 1,200-seat concert hall to view its organ—the largest in the Middle East, of course—I was informed by my tour guide that the pipe organ was invented in Alexandria.

My guide for the City of Arts and Culture happened to be its senior engineer, Ahmed el Daly. Having overseen its construction since shortly after excavation began in January 2018, El Daly considered it a point of pride that the outside world knew next to nothing about the building crew’s prodigious labors. “Thirteen thousand workers, all of them with phones—yet no photos!” he said with relish. “We have a saying: Work in silence, and let the success do the talking.”

Of course, the other reason to work in silence in the new capital is that its entire construction is taking place under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense. There are security implications to any development project that involves the seat of government, but it can be fairly said that the administration of El Sisi—Egypt’s former minister of defense, who took power in 2013 by means of a coup—seeks to maintain a firm grip on how the country is portrayed. The president’s press officials energetically sought to control how this story would depict Egypt. I was not permitted to wander the new city unescorted.

That same heavy hand also has sought to project an image of enlightenment and tolerance—decreeing, for example, that the new capital’s Al Fattah Al Aleem “mega-mosque” open on January 6, 2019, the same day the city’s 9,200-capacity Cathedral of the Nativity was inaugurated.

Egypt’s new smart city will emphasize green energy and cashless payment systems. And it will be a resolutely crime-free one—with a government protected from protests like those in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime—courtesy of a citywide surveillance system designed by the U.S. firm Honeywell.

Most of all, the New Administrative Capital will be full of life, if not necessarily by choice. A huge number of Cairenes will have their lives upended. “My cousin is a nurse who was forced to go work in its new hospital,” a 56-year-old woman who identified herself by her Arabic nickname, Umm Abdu, told me. “It’s a very hard commute for her.”

We were sitting in her fast-food shop in the Bulaq district of old Cairo, a bustling hub of secondhand-clothing stands and makeshift auto-repair shops. Within the next few years, Bulaq will be demolished and most of its inhabitants relocated to new, fully furnished, free housing units in the Al Asmarat projects several miles away. Already, Umm Abdu’s shop had been chased out of one swiftly razed neighborhood, although the government had compensated her. “The new places look quite nice,” she said. “But take a look around—we’re in the heart of the city. Everything I could want is here.”

To Umm Abdu and other natives of Cairo, the thousand-year-old city was anything but disordered. Its pedestrian maelstrom and cluttered streets were thoroughly comprehensible, the result of an organic agglomeration that had outlived a succession of autocrats and was therefore a thriving governing force of its own. It was not Riyadh. Cairo’s character was both welcoming and confounding, a spirited tempest of humanity, an irreplaceable feat of architecture. A visitor like me could not help but be awed by it.

Umm Abdu considered the new look of her country. “I can’t believe this is Egypt,” she said. “It seems more like Europe.”

Deeper into the neighborhood, I encountered two middle-age sisters, Magda and Fattem, who tended a tiny grocery store where residents dropped by throughout the day to grab whatever they needed and returned at midnight to pay their bills in cash. Suspicious of the media in a country that does not exactly embrace the virtues of a free press, they declined to tell me their last name, but Fattem poured me some tea, and they described with chagrin how Bulaq had changed.

“Slums are all behind this building,” Magda said. “They’re built out into the alleys so that you can reach out your window and shake your neighbor’s hand. There are drug dealers and pickpockets with knives. Dirty, dirty.”

Despite having lived in the neighborhood all their lives, the sisters viewed its imminent destruction as a blessing.

“It has to be done,” Fattem said. “Just like the new capital. It will clear out the traffic. Life will be so much easier.”

But, I asked, would all this newness rob Egypt of its allure?

“Never,” said Fattem, as her sister nodded. “Here is the origin. Here is the history. It will always be here.”

Contributing writer Robert Draper previously traveled to Egypt for National Geographic in 2007 to report on the empire of the Nubian pharaohs.

This story appears in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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