A new Cairo must lead to a new Egypt

Building a new city east of Cairo is a bold statement of intent. It should be applauded

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi (R) and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (C) view a scale model of the new Egyptian administrative capital (AFP PHOTO / Mohamed Samaaha)
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For a city as old as Cairo, Egypt’s capital has certainly been reinvented many times. The first attempt in the modern era was Masr El Gedida (“New Cairo” in Egyptian dialect), also called Heliopolis, then a city to the north-west of the centre of the city. Originally envisioned as a district away from the crowded centre, Cairo eventually expanded to consume Masr El Gedida.

At the beginning of this century, Egypt tried again. New Cairo was built not far from Heliopolis; a planned community of wide streets and residential compounds. Now Egypt’s president has proposed an even newer “New Cairo”, to be built far to the east of the current, sprawling capital. It is noticeable that each iteration has reflected the prevailing city model of success. Heliopolis was envisioned as a European city, New Cairo as an American one. But the new capital reflects very clearly the most successful big city in the Arab world: Dubai.

The clues are there. Not only will the new city be built by a company headed by the chairman of Emaar, but the model that was displayed in Sharm El Sheikh over the weekend looked very much like Dubai, a mix of glittering high rises, green spaces and villas. That is as it should be. Where once the Arab world looked to Cairo, now – as surveys of young Arabs repeatedly confirm – they look to Dubai as their ideal city.

There is much to applaud about this new project, with some caveats. It is bold, a statement of intent. It also ties Egypt closer to the Gulf states that have been most supportive of the post-Morsi era. But most of all, it suggests a willingness to think big, an essential component in fixing Egypt’s many woes. A city like Cairo, so vast, so sprawling, cannot easily be turned around. It takes bold thinking to reinvent the city.

At the same time, it is essential that New Cairo does not become a substitute for Cairo itself. The new city is envisioned to house around 7 million Egyptians, out of an urban sprawl that is sometimes estimated at 15 million. It cannot be only the richest 7 million. Developing a new city must be done in tandem with developing Cairo itself and forging close transport links between the two; it cannot be merely a property development for rich Cairenes and foreign speculators. Building New Cairo is only the first step: the real challenge will be building a new Egypt.