However in recent decades Cairo has continued to grow to such a degree that it is almost out of control and certainly unrecognisable to someone of an earlier period. I have visited Cairo several times and really love the city and its tired buildings and streets, drowning in a mixture of sand, pollution, detrius, people and cars.
It’s well known that breathing in the Cairo air for a day is just as good for you as breathing in a packet or two of cigarettes and for better or worse a few years ago the Egyptian government decided action had to be taken and a new capital city was to be built a few dozen miles from one of the greatest cities in the world.
Billboards promising another way of life have long clustered alongside the clogged highways of central Cairo. Advertisements for gated housing developments that sounds like they might be in Britain or the USA called “Regent’s Park”, “Beta Greens” or “Uptown” promise “360-degree greenery” and open spaces. One, on a busy and polluted central road, invites onlookers to “just breathe”.
The promise of escape from the congestion of central Cairo to a new life 40km away on the city’s outskirts is a dream come true for those able to afford it. Nowhere is this more clear than on the billboards advertising real estate in “Entrada”, a housing and commercial property development in Egypt’s new administrative capital, which is currently without a name. “Welcome to a supreme community,” proclaims one. The development is touted as “the entrance to a new city, a new lifestyle, a new community and a new worldwide centre of attraction”.
At almost 700 sq km, the new and still nameless capital would be almost as large as Singapore, and is intended to house a total of five million people. The plan shows an expanse of high-rises and residential buildings as well as a “government district” all stationed around a central “green river”, a combination of open water and planted greenery twice the size of New York’s Central Park. There will be the tallest buildings in Africa at around 345 metres in height.
The project is designed to wipe clean the problems of Cairo, and build a glistening new future. Most government buildings, as well as those occupied by the Egyptian president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, are scheduled to move there in June 2019. Foreign embassies are also encouraged to relocate, and businesses will be lured to a central business district of 20 Chinese-built skyscrapers. But what will happen to the old city once the new capital becomes established?
If the government’s plans are successful, the move will leave behind a network of empty buildings, all owned by the same umbrella company as the new capital, and for which there is currently no plan. For the government, the new administrative capital represents a fresh start – but one that will draw wealth from the existing capital.
“Cairo’s already-existing desert ‘cities’ mostly serve the much higher end of the spectrum economically,” says Mohamed Elshahed, an Egyptian urbanist and the editor of the Cairo Observer. “All of these include social housing as part of their developments. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a tiny per cent of a much larger speculative real estate project, which is what this new capital is really about.”
El-Husseiny, however, is determined that his vision alone will entice enough new residents, including foreign embassies and those working there. “We will give them benefits not available in the old Cairo, wide streets and a smart city,” he says, going on to outline something quite dystopian: “A smart city means a safe city, with cameras and sensors everywhere. There will be a command centre to control the entire city.” A spokeswoman for the British Embassy in Cairo says that while the Egyptian government has located space for embassies, they are currently “assessing the move”.
“Cairo isn’t suitable for the Egyptian people,” says El-Husseiny. “There are traffic jams on every street, the infrastructure can’t support the population, and it’s very crowded. Without any specific masterplan, it has started to become ugly … there’s no humanity.”
There is no doubt that Cairo’s congestion makes residents fantasise about escape, although wide streets, double-glazed windows, open water and pruned topiary seem more like the dreams of suburban London than ideas well-adapted to the desert plain.
But El-Husseiny is adamant. “We need a landmark, a new capital. We have the right to have a dream and this is our dream.”
Some might think that it is merely an attempt to separate the government from the people, making it harder for Egyptians to hold another successful revolution when the levers of power are far away in a modern city with broad streets well suited for defensive military vehicles and equipment when faced with thousands of rioting civilians.
Egypt is far from the only nation to move it’s capital city. Though the United Kingdom has never changed the capital, the earlier home nations of England, Scotland and Wales have each done so with England having several capitals such as Bamburgh, Colchester, Dorchester, Rendlesham, Winchester and York before London came to pre-eminence.
Initially, Lagos was the capital city of Nigeria before Abuja was made the capital of the country. Although it was the most populous city, Lagos was not the ideal seat for the Nigerian government since it was muggy, crowded, hot and politically divisive. The Nigerian government officials started making plans on establishing a new capital in Abuja about 300 miles northeast of Lagos throughout the 1980s. Abuja was preferred because it had a sparse population density, higher elevation, and was centrally located. The capital city of Nigeria was moved from Lagos to Abuja in 1991, but some of the functions remain in Lagos.
The capital city of Brazil was moved from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia in 1960. The move to change the country’s capital had been under negations for decades because Rio de Janeiro was overcrowded and was far from the other parts of the country. To encourage the move, the establishment of Brasilia as the country’s new capital began in 1956. Brasilia experienced a very rapid growth making the change a successful one that inspired other countries to alter the locations of their capital cities.
During the 19th century, Australia comprised of two of the country’s largest cities which were Melbourne and Sydney. Both cities were contesting to be the capital of Australia, and neither would give up. To keep the peace, the government of Australia opted to establish a new capital city altogether. Following extensive survey and search, a piece of land in New South Wales was grafted, becoming the country’s new capital. Canberra became the new capital city of Australia in 1913 and is situated midway between Melbourne and Sydney. However, Canberra is not a coastal city.
Washington DC, United States
The US Congress held meetings in eight different cities which included New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia during and after the American Revolution. The US constitution highlighted the construction of the nation’s new capital in a separate federal district. The former US President George Washington selected the new site for the country’s capital near the Potomac River. Both Maryland and Virginia donated land. In 1800, a new capital was designed and established in Washington, DC. The main reason Washington, DC was chosen as the US’s new capital is that the site was a compromise involving the northern states that were advocating for the repayment of war debts and the southern states that had economic interests on slaveholding. Initially, New York served as the capital of the United States from 1785 until 1790.