I heard a rumour that the capital was moving when I was in Cairo in January. Now it’s announced.
My reaction then, and when I read the story yesterday, was one of anger. It’s easy to build a totally unEgyptian sub-clone of Dubai on a greenfield site, instead of taking responsibility for a city and dealing with the problems which are staring you in the face. Instead of planting trees and parks, recycling rubbish, building a subway system and schools, and restoring some charm to the banks of the Nile.
Tahrir Square has been a building site for decades because a corrupt state-owned contractor has not paid a corrupt official or vice versa. The traffic was worse in early 2015 than I have ever known it before.
If you ask the Egyptian middle class what it would like for a city, most will, I am afraid, say Dubai. That is how little imagination is in play here. They are embarrassed by Cairo. Let us not draw attention to it by improving it. Let us walk away from the messy place where people died in 2011.
The lower-class inhabitants of Cairo know that the city is not what it was. The narrative here is one which one is heard in other parts of the middle east and is often delivered in spiritual rather than planning terms. “This city was a paradise. People lived with each other. Christians and Jews and Muslims. They helped each other. You don’t understand what it was like. Now people are only interested in money.” A Dubai clone will intensify the holocaust of the human soul.
Sisi likes easy-to-understand announcements. The widening of the Suez canal is at least in an Egyptian tradition of grands projets (pyramids, Aswan dam). And this will be the first new Egyptian capital since the Shiite Fatimids built Cairo in the tenth century.
What will it be called? It will be near Cairo, but there is already a New Cairo. There are, in fact, many new Cairos with a small n, depending on your starting date: Zamalek, Downtown, Maadi, Garden City, Heliopolis, Dokki, Mohandessin, Nasr City, 6th of October City. New Cairo with a big n, east of the city, is adjacent to, or contains, a new business area called the 5th Settlement or 5th District, which takes over an hour to reach. It not so much sub-Dubai as like Delhi’s Gurgaon. And full of fourth-rate regional headquarters with tinted glass.
The city will be in this area. Perhaps it will be no more than an extension of the 5th Settlement and not really a new capital at all, with the rest hype. It will, of course, be “sustainable” (although two hours’ drive from the Smart Village, which is on the Alexandria Desert Road).
How will Cairenes react to the plan? With a feeling of bewilderment, of having been abandoned? Or will a popular élan which collapsed in 1967 return? Why would it? What will this new city have to do with ordinary people?
Then I started to reconsider. Perhaps old Cairo really is beyond repair. Perhaps it is too late, and nobody would invest there. This and the Suez project will at least generate employment. Perhaps having the capital adjacent to Cairo will allow some of its synthetic prosperity to trickle into the old city. What is wrong with turning over a new leaf, which Egypt urgently needs to do anyway? Perhaps this is less inhuman than abandoning Cairo altogether.
I write about Cairo because I have been there recently. I write less about east Asian cities because I no longer visit them often.