Egypt's New Potemkin Capital

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has announced plans to replace Cairo with a new city built to its east. But the money would be better spent elsewhere.

A model of a planned new capital for Egypt. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

The teeming, maddening, and indescribably charming city of Cairo has served as Egypt's capital for 1,000 years. When it emerged it was perhaps the most important cultural center in the Arab world.

But the city's days as Egypt's capital could be numbered. On Friday, the Egyptian government announced that the country will build a new capital from scratch, carving out a piece of the desert between Cairo and the Suez Canal. The project, which is being dubbed "the Capital Cairo," is slated to cost an estimated $45 billion and host Egypt's sprawling government bureaucracy, universities, tourism facilities, hospitals, and a new international airport.

Appearing at an economic development conference in Sharm al-Sheikh, a popular resort town, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi framed the new capital as a major step forward for his country, which has endured decades of economic stagnation.

But the immense cost of the project—$45 billion is slightly more than a sixth of Egypt's GDP—has some Cairenes wondering why the government doesn't invest in the capital that they already have. Writing in the Egyptian Observer, the academic and Cairo native Khaled Fahmy argued that the money spent on the new capital "could solve the problems of Cairo's inner cities where 63 percent of the city's inhabitants live. We could provide them with all the basic needs that they have been deprived of over the past 50 years: potable water, health care, clean air, recreational facilities, and much more."

"Loving Egypt cannot just be words," he said. "We are behind, and those that are behind must either speed walk or run. Even running will not be enough in our case."

The government, at least, likely won't bear the cost of the project. The al-Sisi regime has hired a Dubai-based "private real-estate investment fund" called Capital City Partners, whose founder, Mohammed Alabbar, built Dubai's iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper, to build the new capital. In addition, according to Gulf Business the United Arab Emirates government has apparently pledged almost $4 billion in aid to Egypt; in turn, a major part of the new city is expected to be named after one of the UAE's leaders.

The project's relationship to Dubai is no accident: According to Fahmy, the glistening Gulf metropolis fascinates Egypt's authoritarian leaders. But a better comparison to the effort might be found in distant Burma. In 2005, the Southeast Asian nation moved its government from Rangoon, Burma's largest city, to an uninhabited patch of land in the country's center. (According to rumor, Burma's then-president Than Shwe chose the location on the advice of his astrologer.) A decade later, the new capital, Naypyidaw, is a ghost town—a monument not to clever planning but to megalomania.

Will Egypt's new capital meet the same fate? The government believes that the city, which at 150 square miles will be about the same size as Denver, will eventually be home to 5 million citizens. According to Egypt's Housing Minister Moustafa Madbouly, present-day Cairo, which spreads across roughly 175 square miles, is simply too small to handle a population expected to double in the coming decades. But according to Khaled, overcapacity has little to do with the decision. Instead, he sees an authoritarian government operating without scrutiny from Egypt's muzzled media and embarking on a corrupt and unneeded venture.

"The very manner in which the decision to move the capital outside Cairo has been taken," he wrote, "is the best illustration of our government’s insistence on ignoring us."