In Egypt, a huge “new administrative capital” is being built, about 45 km (28 miles) east of Cairo, on a strip of desert the size of Singapore.
If you walk or stroll through Cairo, you may be tempted to think that the Egyptian government embarked on this multimillion-dollar project to meet an urgent need.
In fact, current capital hardly works. Ministries and embassies surrounding Tahrir Square in central Cairo are blocking the city’s arteries. With many streets blocked to ensure the safety of these buildings and their occupants, it is sometimes impossible to go from A to B in the city. In addition, the 22 million inhabitants of the already overcrowded capital are expected to double by 2050.
Therefore, it is easy to believe that the new administrative capital, which is expected to house embassies, government agencies, parliament, 30 ministries, a spiraling presidential complex and about 6.5 million people when completed, is a necessity. It seems that not only will he relocate administrative buildings from Cairo, but he will also create much-needed housing. In addition, the government promised to allocate 15 square meters of green space per capita to the new development. The new capital will have a central “green river,” a combination of open water and vegetation planted twice the size of New York’s Central Park. Therefore, the project is also sold as an effort to fight pollution and make Egypt “greener”.
But if you look below the surface and, above all, follow the money, you will see clearly that this project is much more than an altruistic effort by the government to decongest Cairo and improve the living conditions of the city’s inhabitants.
The army pays, the army benefits
The new administrative capital is expected to cost about $ 40 billion. Fifty-one percent of the administrative capital for urban development (ACUD), the company overseeing the project, is owned by the Egyptian army and the remaining 49% by the Ministry of Housing.
The huge role of the army in funding the project is further proof of the merger of civilians and military in a country ruled by a former army general: current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power following a “coup” that ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
And the military doesn’t just “pay” for the project. You will also reap huge financial benefits from this ambitious endeavor. The ACUD, in which the military has a majority stake, is in charge of selling housing units in the new capital. In addition, the company is also responsible for selling or operating buildings in Cairo that will become vacant after agencies, ministries and embassies move to their new locations. Some of these buildings are located in the heart of Cairo, overlooking Tahrir Square, and have significant value.
This means that the army will get huge financial returns once the new capital is finished. In addition, these gains will not be inspected by a civilian authority, as the government has little oversight over the finances of the military.
The constructive effort itself is a great economic opportunity. To build a new city you need not only funds, but also cement, bricks, appliances, carpentry, security equipment and, above all, labor. Therefore, this project is an opportunity to create much-needed jobs and rejuvenate major Egyptian industries, such as construction.
But there are fears that the project will not only help the country’s backbone industries and struggling companies recover, but will also allow the military to extend its tentacles into the Egyptian economy. The military, for example, has the capacity to supply much of the steel and cement needed to complete construction of the new city. In addition, he has access to cheap labor in the form of poorly paid recruits. As such, it is likely that the military will gain the most advantage from this unprecedented constructive impetus.
A new city for the privileged few
Nor is it clear who will be able to live in the new capital once it is over. Homes there are sold at very high prices. A two-bedroom apartment in the new capital costs about $ 50,000, a huge amount that is beyond the reach of many in a country where gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is about $ 3,000.
Thus, it seems that the new administrative capital will serve as another closed community for the rich and will do little to meet the housing needs of the poor and disadvantaged residents of Cairo.
If the government does not take urgent measures to ensure that the gates of this new city are also open to the poorest citizens, this new project will do little to help disadvantaged Egyptians. That is why the new administrative capital is already seen by many as a colossal waste of resources. Critics say the money spent on building the new capital should have been used to improve living conditions in the impoverished parts of what would soon become known as “old Cairo”. In response to these criticisms, the government said the city will also include social housing, but did not provide details on when these units will be built and made available to those who need it.
All this is reminiscent of the regime of Hosni Mubarak and his fall. The last decade of the Mubarak government was based on the rise of rich capitalist cliques that helped grow the economy, but at the same time blocked the benefits of this growth from reaching the poorest sectors of society. And one of the most prominent slogans of the January 2011 protests that overthrew the Mubarak regime was “social justice”. With this project, which will likely make the country’s rich richer, the military stronger, and contribute to the ever-increasing misallocation of resources, el-Sisi seems to be repeating the mistakes that led to the fall of Mubarak.
But if the project will not help the people and increase their support for the government, why is al-Sisi moving forward with this huge effort?
Stability, legitimacy and legacy
Egypt’s new administrative capital may not help ordinary Egyptians much, but it will provide some key benefits for President el-Sisi.
First, this new project will help bring Egypt’s powerful businesses alongside El-Sisi. The private sector had a major economic and political influence in Egypt during the Mubarak government. But after El-Sisi came to power, most have been ousted by the military and reduced to a supporting actor.
In neoliberal economies like Egypt, authoritarian governments need the support of the private sector to maintain stability. And el-Sisi knows that a great constructive effort, like building a new capital, is the best way to win business.
While the military is likely to benefit most from the construction of the new administrative capital, the project is so large and so lucrative that it will also create opportunities for the private sector.
For example, one of Egypt’s largest construction companies, Talaat Mustafa Group, has laid the groundwork for “Noor City,” a “smart city project” in the New Administrative City. These projects give incentives to the private sector to support the government and also provide significant tax revenue. Noor City, for example, is expected to generate an estimated $ 7 billion in tax revenue.
The new capital will also give Sisi much-needed legitimacy.
Personality cults have long been an important aspect of Egyptian politics. Over the years, Egypt’s rulers have repeatedly tried to demonstrate the legitimacy of their authority by naming cities, buildings, roads, and bridges. There is a city named after former Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, and dozens of bridges and roads named after former President Hosni Mubarak.
Although the new administrative capital is not named after el-Sisi, it is its flagship project and legacy. His regular visits to the city are being obsessively covered by state-controlled media. It is impossible to think of the new city without thinking of al-Sisi. The main mosque of the new administrative capital is called “Al-Fatah al-Aleem” [the opener, knowledgeable], two names of God, but some take them as connotative references to the president, whose first name is Abdel-Fatah.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the new project will help al-Sisi control any future revolt against his regime and consolidate its power.
In 2011, in Egypt we were all clear that Mubarak lost power by the time he lost control of the strategic Tahrir Square.
Protesters seized the square on January 28, 2011 and created what they called “the Republic of Tahrir.” They appointed ministers to a symbolic cabinet, created their own security apparatus, and burned the headquarters of the National Democratic Party that dominated the square. Suddenly, the Mubarak regime had no legitimacy.
And in June 2012, the day of his election, Morsi went to Tahrir Square, greeted the crowds and unbuttoned his jacket, showing people that he was not wearing a bulletproof vest and, as his representative, not the I was afraid. He had control of Tahrir Square and therefore of Egypt.
A few months later, Morsi’s opponents filled the same square to demand first and then celebrate his retirement from power.
With all this, el-Sisi no doubt took notes and realized that Tahrir Square is the key to gaining and maintaining power in Egypt.
Therefore, after taking power, he immediately began working to remove the square from its status as a stage where the legitimacy of Egyptian regimes is decided.
It is now impossible for people to take over Tahrir Square and challenge the legitimacy of the El-Sisi regime. His government sprayed the space with pharaonic monuments and private security guards to ensure it could not be filled with anti-government protesters.
Now, to further reduce the importance of the plaza, it is moving the country’s center of gravity, its major institutions and places of power, to a fortified oasis in the artificial desert about 45 km (28 miles) away. .
On February 11, 2011, the people of Egypt marched from Tahrir Square to Mubarak’s presidential palace to force him to resign. Once the president moves to the new administrative capital, however, this demonstration of public will will no longer be possible. The state has already confirmed that the new capital will be well secured with state-of-the-art electronic control systems. And most importantly, it will be miles from Tahrir Square and any other public stage where Egyptians can meet to express their grievances with those who rule over them.
In short, the new administrative capital will help the military and the government consolidate their power. It will help the private sector make money and strengthen its relations and loyalty to the government. It will allow el-Sisi to give legitimacy to his regime and build a legacy. But the government’s responses to these claims are also true: this project will make a tangible difference in the lives of ordinary Egyptians living in the country’s congested capital, and the great constructive effort will boost the national economy. So what about the new administrative capital? As the project will take years to complete, the jury is not yet present.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.