top of page
  • Writer's pictureGian Maria Bordin

Egypt’s New Administrative Capital – Urban Miracle or Megalomaniac Vanity?

The Mogamma is no more. Famous to some, opprobrious to others, the Tahrir Complex with its thousands of offices has become a ghost. As of August 2022, the building is meant to undergo transfiguration to become Cairo’s next world class hotel: The Cairo House. But where have the government officials moved? 48km outside of Cairo, the newest urban megaproject of the MENA region is in the making: Egypt’s New Administrative Capital. The Sisi administration claims the structure will facilitate government cooperation, battle the city’s congestion and overpopulation, and strengthen the country’s economic prospects. Will it be the trigger Egypt needs to exit the path of catastrophic economic decline, or is it just another vanity project unable to mediate an inevitable crisis? This article aims to recap the planning, implementation, and construction of the project and, in the meantime, shed some light on the processes of governance in the country.

A new government quarter hosting the parliament, ministries, the supreme council, diplomatic missions, and a new president’s palace. A brand-new airport larger than London Heathrow. An amusement park four times the size of Disneyland. Skyscrapers as tall as one full kilometre. A “Green Belt”, ten times the size of Central Park, imitating the course of the river Nile. And six wadian (residential quarters) housing up to 6.5 million people by 2030. The New Administrative Capital (NAC), announced to the public at the Economic Development Conference in Sharm ash-Sheikh on March 13th 2015, is without a doubt a breath-taking urban project, without even mentioning the supporting infrastructure. A remarkable project in various ways, absorbing enormous resources in terms of planning efforts, space, and money – the total investment by public and private sources was estimated as high as 500 billion US dollars. This figure is especially noteworthy, since Egypt faced severe economic problems in the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian revolution against Mubarak and the 2013 coup d’état against president Mursi, the effects of which were already tangible in 2015 and are still noticeable to this day.[1]

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for widespread criticism to be voiced. Critics pointed to the NAC’s high investment costs and size, and fuelled doubts about the social responsibility of the project that some said is meant to host only the richest members of the society, and to serve the government’s interests. However, Sisi and his ministers have pointed out several times that the NAC will encourage foreign investments, deepen international cooperation, and not cause any burden to the Egyptian taxpayer. But how is that possible? Let’s take a look at the socio- economic aspects of the project’s evolution.

In March 2015, Dubai-based businessman Muhammad al-Abbar was presented as potential investor by the Ministry of Housing, while two of Abbar’s companies were supposed to assume a large share of the project development. In June 2015, however, the cooperation stalled, officially due to his refusal to involve a third company as a guarantor of loans. The much more likely cause of said disruption were internal power struggles between the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Defence, which didn’t like to see itself excluded from project development. Ever since Gamal Abd an-Nasser tasked the military with land reclamation projects in the 1970s, the Ministry of Defence has retained legal ownership over all desert land. This exact rationale was subsequently used to push back on the Ministry of Housing’s claim on project development. Shortly after, Presidential Decree No. 446 allowed the Armed Forces Land Projects Agency to expand its commercial activity and form for-profit corporations, both on its own as well as jointly with national and international capital sources. Only now, the military was technically able to participate in the negotiations about the project’s development. This move greatly illustrates the close ties between top-level government and the economic complex of the Egyptian Armed Forces, influencing the country’s economic orientation for the last decade. Practical effects of this intertwinement surfaced roughly one month ago, when news broke that the government will pay 212 billion US dollars yearly to Administrative Capital for Urban Development (ACUD), a company owned and controlled by its own military. ACUD was previously tasked with the development and construction of several projects inside the NAC. Typically, such public projects are handed out on the quiet to state-affiliated, but semi-public companies. The Armed Forces especially benefit from cheap conscripted labour by their service-members and important tax exemptions, while they are free to rent out finished projects afterwards. This also includes other sub-projects in the city that will be rented out to public or semi-public sources. Thus, officially framing the NAC as a space of international investment opportunities has not only helped to counter public criticism but has also veiled the allocation of rents to the Egyptian military, which contributes to assuring the loyalty of the armed forces and is therefore vital to sustain Egypt’s continued ‘neopatrimonial’ political system of rule. In such a system of social hierarchy, patrons (Sisi and his regime in this case) use state resources to secure the loyalty of clients (the Armed Forces and other neoliberal players).

However, this intertwining between the military and government does not have to be a bad thing for the country’s socio-economic sphere, per se. The military provides jobs and an income to approximately 1,5 million Egyptians (920’000 military staff and 440’000 civilian personnel). Additionally, Egypt’s demographic issues are not to be underestimated, as the country’s population reached 104 million in 2021, and is projected to break the 150 million mark as soon as 2024, according to the United Nations. In the meantime, the Greater Cairo Metropolitan Area is estimated to grow by 25% from 21 million to 28 million by 2035 alone. So, will the NAC at least bring relief to the congested streets of Mohandiseen or Garden City? Probably not. Official sources set the prices per square meter in the NAC on average to 12’600 Egyptian Pounds for apartments and 20’100 EGP for villas, counting in at 660 and 1050 US dollars respectively. At that rate, not even the ministries’ lower-to-mid-level staff will be able to afford housing in the city itself, forcibly falling back to Badr City, Madinaty or New Cairo.

An additional possibility to provide relief to the hyper-urbanisation and pauperisation of Cairo might have been to repurpose the newly deserted ministry buildings in Downtown and Khedivial Cairo. The huge Tahrir Complex alone, 14 stories tall and workplace to approximately 20’000 state employees until recently, could house thousands in subsidized housing for the poor. Furthermore, experts believe that this complex, known as Mogamma to the Cairenes, could be responsible for up to 75% of traffic congestion recorded in the area. However, in early 2022, news broke that the Egyptian government was working to repurpose the complex, in order to benefit on several financially lucrative levels. On December 6th of 2021, the Sovereign Fund of Egypt signed an agreement with a consortium of international developers and investors to develop and repurpose the building as hotel, commercial centre, and business hub, with investments exceeding 200 million US dollars. Established in 2018, this Sovereign Fund of Egypt is the country’s leading institution that is tasked with attracting private investment and promoting joint ventures in state-owned assets in order to maximize their value and support the Egyptian economy. These were some of the measures enforced as conditions for loans by the International Monetary Fund, of which Egypt had to take out several with a total value of over 20 billion US dollars in the last couple months alone. While the regime claims to need said loans to stabilize food prices, the poorest of the poverty-stricken population are already left eating palm leaves.[2]

So, can the NAC’s realisation be a silver lining for the country’s economic, spatial, demographic, and social issues, as government officials promised? Perhaps. Only time will tell, if the neoliberal reforms undertaken by the Sisi government will be able to stimulate foreign investment and lead to trickle-down economic success.[3] The NAC’s role is to stimulate a sort of upscale Bilbao Effect[4], in sight of recent development, more aptly named Dubai Effect. However, in the short-term, the New Administrative Capital will offer housing only to the richest of Egypt’s population, forcing low-to-mid-level state employees to populate the surrounding areas, further increasing demographic pressure on the already existing Cairo Metropolitan Area. Thus, it seems more probable that one big cauldron will form, all the way from the Nile to the New Administrative Capital 48 kilometres to the east, with heightened urbanisation issues such as congested roads, air pollution, and poor sanitary and infrastructural conditions.

Alternative locations for the New Administrative Capital would have been possible and, arguably, even more feasible from a technical standpoint. The government’s choice of position for the NAC entails several spatial and technical issues, such as streamlined mobility, drinkable water provision, and structural overheating, which were further exacerbated by design and architectural choices made. There is a saying in urban development circles: do not try to implement what wouldn’t appear naturally. For example, keeping the Green Belt green in the arid environment presented by the Egyptian desert alone will consume immeasurable amounts of water. This is water that will evaporate – and thus leave the closed cycle a sewage system might offer – and will have to be reintroduced from the Red Sea, where the government is building huge desalination plants, impacting local ecosystems and entailing further ecological issues. Furthermore, as luxury is generally connotated with European or American style elements in Egypt’s upper class, the city’s housing districts were designed in French, American or English suburban styles, with huge windows and open spaces, thus presenting a nightmare for energy consumption. Alternatively, different locations closer to the Nile, the country’s lifeline for millennia, and further south, could have resolved countless of these problems while also offering developmental stimuli for under-developed regions of the country, strengthening its overall future economic outlook. We can conclude that neither socio-economic, spatial, nor demographic reasonings stand behind the NAC’s construction. However, it does not seem to be a coincidence that structural measures were taken to attract only the top-level Egyptian society and powerful foreigners to the city. Why would you invest 60 billion US dollars into constructing something entirely new, when you could invest it favourably to fix and modernize existing infrastructure? Why would you ante up such an enormous amount of resources to plan an entire city from scratch, when you could also upgrade or update one of countless pre-dating urban projects?

In his article, Rethinking Egypt’s ‘Failed’ Desert Cities: Autocracy, Urban Planning, and Class Politics in Sadat’s New Town Programme, Adam Almqvist suggests an interesting approach to autocratic urban development. Spanning from 1974 through 2022, he questions Egyptian desert and new urban development and comes to an interesting conclusion, stating “what is puzzling about the apparent appeal that desert development has to Egyptian autocrats is that despite the grand ambitions and hefty investments, the schemes have always failed to deliver on their primary stated rationale.”[5] This conclusion led him to a different approach, analysing these desert development programs as societal drafting tables, as opportunities to create ideal tools to promote their vision of what the society should look like. Early on, the desert cities aided the regime in managing Egypt’s transition from state socialism, where the public sector dominated the economy, to a state-centred capitalist economy, promoting huge manufacturing areas. “In geographically isolated urban enclaves, the regime amassed heightened bureaucratic capacity that it utilized in pragmatic and innovative ways, such as creating uneven regulatory environments and closely supervising labour in gridded, master-planned cities.” Lately, the regime’s economic alignment shifted to statist neoliberalism, promoting mostly real estate. Where new towns targeted middle-class individuals only, large chunks of government-serviced land are sold off to private real estate businesses in newer projects, in order for these to plan and profit from ventures, now targeting high-class individuals. As a result, state expenses on such projects are cut, however, future revenues are also harder to estimate and market-reasoning largely devoid of socioeconomic considerations takes over. Obviously, such “gridded, master-planned” cities are politically problematic, as the society is excluded from the creation of the urban space and consequently will never be able to reappropriate the urban space, as it should. To put it in Henry Lefebvre’s words: a dichotomy between the espace conçu and the espace vécu develops.[6] While neither the conceived nor the experienced space ever cease to exist or interact, master-planned cities force inhabitants into subaltern use of the space. As a result, such cities tend to create an estrangement between its inhabitants and the government.

The literal distancing of the NAC from Cairo also translates to a figurative distancing between the government and Egyptians. Journalist and political analyst Maged Mandour commented the urban megaproject in 2021, saying “In essence, the New Administrative Capital is a clear attempt to move the centre of political and economic power away from troublesome Cairo, with its propensity to revolt…Effectively, the regime is physically separating itself from Cairo and its narrow streets, where policing is more difficult and the mass of urban poor can destabilize government operations, either through strikes, occupation of urban spaces, or violent confrontation with the security forces.”[7]This comment picks up on themes in Almqvist’s analysis, such as the easy policing in master-planned cities, and matches the old bonmot, that leaders coming to power by coup d’état or revolution are painfully aware of the masses’ power and will distance themselves from them. Just as Louis XIV did with Versailles, when fear of the Fronde forced him to leave the Louvre and move into Versailles Castle, away from troublesome Paris. And thus, Sisi’s advice to eat palm leaves brings back memories to Marie Antoinette’s comment on Paris’ population’s inability to afford bread, to which she said: “let them eat cake”.

Gian Maria Bordin studied History and Middle Eastern Studies in Zurich, Strasbourg and Geneva. His current research focuses on space, democracy and authoritarian resilience. Gian is an independent author writing for Ishtar MENA Analytics from Geneva and Tel Aviv.

[1] Loewert / Steiner: The New Administrative Capital in Egypt: The Political Economy of the Production of Urban Spaces in Cairo, in: Middle East – Topics and Arguments, 12:1 (2019). [2] MEMO. Middle East Monitor: Sisi suggests Egyptians eat tree leaves as prices soar, May 23rd 2022. [3] Dill, Brian / Khalil, Heba: Negotiating Statist Neoliberalism. The Political Economy of Post-Revolution Egypt, in: Review of African Political Economy, 45:158 (2018). [4] Named after the Spanish city of Bilbao, where the building of a franchise unit of the Guggenheim Museum by star-architect Frank Gehry was projected to stimulate local development, aiding with the transition from secondary to tertiary sector economy. [5] Almqvist, Adam: Rethinking Egypt’s ‘Failed’ Desert Cities: Autocracy, Urban Planning, and Class Politics in Sadat’s New Town Programme, in: Mediterranean Politics (2022). [6] Lefebvre, Henri: Le Droit à la ville, 1968. [7] Mandour, Maged: The Sinister Side of Sisi’s Urban Development, in: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 10th 2021.

73 views0 comments


bottom of page