White Elephants

White Elephants

As governments have changed in Egypt, the commitment to corrupt grand development projects has stayed the same.


In March, the Egyptian government pinned its hopes for the country’s future on a maquette. It was a far cry from the heady days of 2011, when Egyptians took to the streets to demand the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and many imagined a different future after his fall. In the pages of freer and new media, and in workshops hosted by ambitious new architectural “labs” and research organizations, writers and architects sketched out a revolution in how cities like Cairo would be planned and governed, responding to popular demands rather than elite interests. One architect, Nairy Hampik­ian, dreamed of another Cairo, a more open city that escaped the “(un)holy secrecy of past urban planners as they made decisions related to the fate of the twenty million Cairenes.”

The maquette offered no escape. It was unveiled at an international investor conference in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where—amid speeches by various Persian Gulf monarchs promising billions to Egypt—the organizers promoted the sprawling model of a new capital city, complete with a high-rise downtown skyline punctuated by the giant obelisk of a skyscraper. If its working name, “The Capital Cairo,” was vague, the promotional material was outlandishly precise: The new capital, situated on a stretch of desert east of Cairo, halfway to the Suez Canal and past New Cairo (just the most recent in a string of failed satellite cities to pop up around Cairo since the late 1970s), would supposedly include 21 residential neighborhoods, 40,000 hotel rooms, 663 hospitals and clinics, 700 kindergartens, 1,250 mosques and churches, 1.5 square miles of theme parks, a park twice the size of Central Park, and 1.1 million homes for at least 5 million people. Estimated to cost either $45 billion or $80 billion (the government couldn’t get its story straight), New New Cairo would be the size of Singapore.

Although Egypt’s strongman, the general turned president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, presented this fantasy as his own, the brawn behind the plan is Capital City Partners, a self-described “private real estate investment fund by global investors focused on investment and development partnerships in high-growth international markets.” It’s run by the Emirati real-estate tycoon Mohamed Alabbar, the founder of Emaar Properties, one of the largest real-estate companies in the world, which built the Burj Khalifa—the world’s tallest building—and much else in Dubai’s construction spree, from the Dubai Mall (also one of the world’s largest) to the Dubai Marina, an artificial waterfront district that is home to a thicket of high-rise residential towers. Alabbar, as his biography on the Capital City Partners website proudly proclaims, has also devised outsize urban plans for other Arab countries, most notably King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, billed as “one of the largest private-sector developments in the Middle East.” You couldn’t find a better champion of privatized urbanism in the Arab world than Alabbar, who has amassed a real-estate portfolio in Egypt worth almost $7 billion.

The media coverage, in Egypt and abroad, gawked at the plans for the Capital Cairo, with some commentators invoking the pitfalls of other capital cities built from scratch, like Brasilia and Naypyidaw. But the most telling detail surfaced in an interview that Alabbar gave with an Egyptian television anchor: He denied that Emaar Properties played a role in the project, insisting that Capital City Partners was independent, and revealed that the Egyptian government had given his company the land for free. In June, there were conflicting reports of tension between Alabbar and the Egyptian government in negotiations, apparently over the government’s stake in the project and Alabbar’s plans to secure financing from abroad rather than from Egyptian banks. But the housing ministry insisted that the project would go forward; a spokeswoman told an Egyptian daily, “Negotiations are still ongoing secretly with the presidency.”

There is no shortage of reminders that Sisi’s regime is a return to—if not worse than—that of Hosni Mubarak, which came to an end after 18 days of popular protest in February 2011. Many of the uprising’s activists languish in jail, in nominal violation of a harsh new law against “unlicensed” public protests. More than 41,000 Egyptians have been arrested and jailed during Sisi’s crackdown, which has targeted mostly Islamists but also journalists, students, and any other brave critics. In May, Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood–aligned elected president whom Sisi ousted in a 2013 coup, was sentenced to death. Meanwhile, the convictions against the 87-year-old Mubarak have been systematically overturned. The ex-president is now living in a cushy military hospital awaiting retrial, even as his sons, his former internal-security chief, and various other officials and regime cronies have been released from prison.

With dissent quashed, Sisi moved on to the next phase, which was what the investment conference in Sharm el-Sheikh was all about: showing that Egypt is open for business, and also to giving special privileges to gulf magnates like Alabbar. Sisi has pinned most of his ideas for economic growth on the sort of grand projects and overblown development plans—including an expansion of the Suez Canal, recently completed—that Egyptian leaders since Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s have used to establish their legitimacy. But much like Mubarak—and, indeed, like Morsi—the president has made real estate, and especially gulf-investor funding, the object of his desire. Sisi’s New New Cairo couldn’t have made that any clearer.

* * *

Few observers of Egypt’s political and economic milieu are better suited to comment on Sisi’s capital fantasia than David Sims, an economist and urban planner who has worked in the country since 1974. His 2010 book, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, is the definitive account of the Egyptian capital’s recent history and, since it was published just before the 2011 uprising, of the role that urban planning played in Mubarak’s rotten regime. The former autocrat mismanaged and neglected Cairo, a city of some 18 million people: His fixation was selling tracts of state-owned desert land on the city’s periphery to crony speculators in sweetheart deals that fueled rampant corruption and led to the proliferation of half-built and sparsely occupied compounds with names like New Giza and Uptown Cairo. The latter is on a choice stretch of land atop the Moqattam Hills overlooking central Cairo; the army, which owned the land, sold it to Uptown Cairo’s developer—none other than Emaar—under a suspiciously noncompetitive bid.

“It’s just a bunch of crazy figures,” Sims told The Guardian of the Capital Cairo plan. “The scale is huge, and there are questions like: How are you going to do the infrastructure? How are you going to get the water? How will they move all these ministries? In other words, I think it’s just desperation.” He explained to the Associated Press that the plan was “more like a scripted media event than a serious proposal, reflecting the current government’s obsession with foreign gulf investments somehow coming to Egypt’s rescue. Real estate is now considered the engine of Egypt’s growth, and what better way to stimulate it, in spite of the dismal record of new desert towns to date, than to proclaim a colossal new capital?”

Sims’s well-timed new book, Egypt’s Desert Dreams, amounts to an extensive indictment of Sisi’s development plans—and the Capital Cairo isn’t the only one. During the presidential campaign, Sisi promised 26 “new integrated tourist towns,” eight new airports, three new seaports, a free-trade zone, and a new industrial city in northern Sinai, along with over 4 million acres of desert land “reclaimed” for agricultural use. This makes him only the latest in a string of Egyptian leaders to hitch his political and economic agenda to half-baked development plans.

This sad history stretches from the so-called reclamation projects—most notoriously Toshka, a massive Mubarak-era scheme to siphon water from Lake Nasser in order to turn a huge swath of the Sahara north of Sudan into another Nile Valley—to the many ghost towns on Cairo’s edges, to the countless resorts on Egypt’s once-pristine Red Sea and Mediterranean beaches. Successive governments have used desert development (whether housing, agriculture, industry, or tourism) as a false promise, a distraction, and a piggy bank, all while ignoring the majority of Egyptians and depriving them of necessary resources. Yet despite this government neglect, the vast majority of Egyptians still live in the dense cities, towns, and villages of the Nile Valley. While the government sees this density as a problem, Sims says that it actually has many advantages, if only the planners would notice them, including close transportation links and proximity to various kinds of employment, and especially the intricate family and job networks through which most Egyptians support themselves. Cairo is within a three-hour drive for over two-thirds of Egypt’s 88 million people—five, if you take various kinds of formal or informal public transportation.

Even so, “the Egyptian state has enshrined desert development as a national imperative and one of its overriding strategic objectives,” Sims notes, despite the enormous costs and repeated failures—which, as he points out, are virtually inevitable given the poor planning, accounting, and land management. Because it was published before the Capital Cairo project was announced, Sims’s book doesn’t mention it directly—­but it doesn’t have to, so closely does the plan fit into the larger history of what he calls “a collection of huge white elephants.”

* * *

Whereas the story of Cairo’s mismanagement and malfeasance is often told anecdotally and without much skepticism or clarity, Egypt’s Desert Dreams is a well-organized story with an abundance of detail. That’s no small feat when crunching Egyptian census figures and tracking the country’s byzantine bureaucracy. Consider the following: Since the 1970s, the Ministry of Housing in Cairo has variously included “reconstruction,” “development,” “new communities,” and “utilities” in its title—but at the same time, it shouldn’t be confused with the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA), the National Center for Planning of State Land Uses (NCPSLU), the General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP), or the General Authority for Reclamation Projects and Agricultural Development (GARPAD), even though their remits often overlap, and it isn’t always clear who has authority over whom or what.

Drawing on extensive research and Google satellite images, Sims navigates the ins and outs of desert agriculture and mining plans and exposes the proliferation of government-built “new towns” and private desert compounds across Egypt, which have done little more than enrich their developers. Seen from a satellite, many of these projects look like sad imitations of Robert Smithson’s built environments: an agglomeration of winding, half-paved roads, sketchy cul-de-sacs and drab, New Urbanism–inspired subdivisions, still awaiting buildings—and people—and surrounded by desert.

As problems mounted in the Nile Valley, from housing shortages to decreased industrial output, Egypt’s governments looked to the desert for their solution. “Unlike Algeria, Morocco, and other countries with large desert tracts, in Egypt the desert begins abruptly and is enticingly near to the core of the country,” Sims writes, especially Cairo and Alexandria, the two largest cities. But thanks to its proximity, government officials and planners also view the desert as a panacea for the nation’s ills, representing no less than “Egypt’s future itself as an orderly, modern society. The desert becomes the frontier, and Egypt is magically transformed into a pioneering frontier society with all of the rhetoric and symbolism this entails.”

From Nasser’s first ideas for desert extensions of Cairo in the 1950s, and his bankrupt plan to reclaim over 600,000 acres west of the Nile Delta, to Sisi’s latest proposals, successive regimes have treated the desert as “the playfield where a new Egypt can be created to counter the backward, chaotic, overcrowded, and hopeless mess that the old Nile Valley and Delta represent.” This continuous failed march into the desert is Egypt’s “national crusade.”

Mubarak elevated the exploitation of the desert to another level of personal enrichment. His proposals since the 1990s to expand the urban area of Cairo and spread its population out through the construction of satellite towns in the desert were really about propping up patronage networks—from state-controlled construction companies to the military, which owned much of the land sold for development—as well as a massive corruption wheel that made billionaires of ministers and bureaucrats. To this day, Sims explains, the government’s desert schemes are about “coddling client groups (including gulf investors) and creating projects whose main value lies in their sheer pronouncement.” Even so, no one raises any serious questions about these plans, despite “the almost total lack of hard information…and a glaring omission of any feedback on what has actually succeeded or failed.”

Consider the 23 “new towns” that have been built by the government since 1976, when they were launched by then-President Anwar Sadat—mostly around Cairo and Upper Egypt, but also in the Nile Delta and near Alexandria. They were conceived as mass people-moving projects, intended to attract millions from the Nile Valley into residential life in the desert. NUCA, the unaccountable planning authority behind these towns, has always overestimated its population targets. Using census figures, Sims estimates that NUCA’s total target population for the towns was more than 20.5 million people; in reality, they are home to a little over 783,000—just 3.8 percent of that unreal target number. NUCA promoted the towns as job engines too, much as the government has done for every other kind of desert project, from industrial parks to “reclaimed” farms and beach resorts. But Sims doubts that all of these projects combined have created more than 1.2 million direct, permanent jobs over the course of half a century.

Despite their abject failure, the new towns were built and expanded because the policy behind them, in Sims’s words, has “been steered by an opaque and self-serving dirigiste bureaucracy whose only idea of ‘reform’ is to be ever more beholden to business elites and private capital and whose style is to plunge ahead regardless, converting more and more public land into sterile subdivisions full of ‘dead capital’ that practically no one lives in.” If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again—and so the government has: In the second half of the 20th century, Egypt launched more new cities than any other country on earth.

“In a way this is ironic,” Sims writes. So many Egyptians look “in vain…to the desert as a solution to practically all of the country’s problems, whereas by looking at the desert and its failures one can gain a better understanding of just what Egypt’s problems actually are.”

* * *

The Capital Cairo fits right into this critique. Its planners hope to move some 5 million Egyptians into the desert. As usual, they offer no details on how this would actually happen, beyond some sweeping proclamations about sustainability, modernity, and a bridge to the future. One of the architects behind the plan, from the huge international firm Skidmore, ­Owings & Merrill, has said that they crafted a vision for the city “by looking at the history of Egypt and Cairo.” But the fact that only glossy renderings have been made available thus far suggests otherwise. One is a distorted aerial shot of Egypt at night that seems to say: “Look, compared with the delta and the Mediterranean, this new capital is actually close to Cairo!”

If the planners had read Sims, they would know that moving people to the desert “simply doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked to any extent in the past, and under any conceivable scenario it will not work anytime in the future.” Sims’s biting conclusion is hardly subtle: “Any desert project whose justification is moving large numbers of people out of the Valley should be laughed out of the room.”

But there’s more to Sisi’s grand projects than a devotion to old, broken development ideas in order to boost his legitimacy and attract crony investment. Sims is right that “the same blind faith in this bankrupt program continues more or less unabated” since Mubarak’s ouster, but there’s arguably something else at play: power politics and the settling of longtime internal regime rivalries, as well as the emergence of new ones.

It was widely suspected that Egypt’s generals bristled at the neoliberal economic program accelerated under Mubarak, especially as his son Gamal rose through the ranks of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and was groomed as his heir apparent. It’s not that the generals were necessarily opposed; they have thrived for decades on their own semiprivate economic empire, buttressed by billions in US aid, which the army has used to pay for other perks, including a lavish hospital and a fleet of luxury Gulfstream jets. Rather, the generals were concerned that Gamal and his ilk, with their investment-friendly agenda, would become too much of a rival to—and sap on—their own influence.

While acknowledging that “a few generals are rumored to have become rich,” Yezid Sayigh, an expert on the Egyptian military, has argued that its off-the-books businesses guarantee “a separate income stream that is off-limits to government auditors or parliamentary oversight…to ameliorate the impact of a rapidly privatizing economy on the living standards of officers.” This is part of a longer rivalry among the military, the internal-security forces, and political leadership dating back to the Nasser and Sadat eras, and stoked under 30 years of Mubarak—a history that Hazem Kandil outlines in his boldly revisionist Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt (2012)—and it may also explain why the generals abandoned Mubarak so quickly during the uprising of 2011. Egypt’s generals have slowly plotted their reformation of the regime ever since, capped by Sisi’s 2013 coup and his election a year later as president.

“The Egyptian Armed Forces and the Remaking of an Economic Empire,” a recent report by Shana Marshall for the Car­negie Middle East Center, explores how the army “has gained unprecedented power since overseeing the ouster of two Egyptian presidents” by rebuilding its commercial empire and becoming “the primary gatekeeper for the Egyptian economy.” Marshall stresses that a temporary alliance between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood “broke down” when Morsi “tried to sideline the military on megaprojects such as the Suez Canal development plan and 
Toshka” (Mubarak’s white elephant in southern Egypt, which Sisi is planning to revive).

The economic program hasn’t really changed. But now it is Sisi, a general from a younger generation, who presides over the prestige projects and sells them to investors, rather than Gamal Mubarak—an aging autocrat’s son who inspired little confidence among the leaders of the army, which has been the backbone of Egyptian regimes since the Free Officers took power in 1952. A $4.9 billion stimulus package last year, mostly from the Emirates, “has predictably gone to fund major infrastructure contracts awarded to companies affiliated with the military,” Marshall notes. In the first 10 months after Sisi’s coup, “the military landed nearly $770 million in contracts, and over $1 billion in no-bid government contracts over the course of three months in fall 2014.”

The groundwork was being laid before Sisi. The country’s Illicit Gains Authority investigated high-profile Mubarak cronies after his ouster but stayed clear of any military interests, because it couldn’t establish jurisdiction over them. Under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled until Morsi’s election in 2012, private-equity firms tied to the army continued sealing millions in new deals, while firms “without a history of doing business with the military”—namely those associated with Gamal—“were less fortunate” and instead got targeted by government auditors.

The generals’ sidelining of certain sectors of the late Mubarak order increasingly looks like its own kind of Corrective Revolution (the name that Sadat gave to his 1971 purge of Nasser loyalists); only this one rode in on the back of a popular uprising that the generals turned to their advantage and quickly leveraged into a counterrevolution.

One of the landmarks of the 2011 protests is the former headquarters of Mubarak’s NDP, which was torched during the uprising and has existed as a burned-out hulk on the Nile Corniche near Tahrir Square ever since. Gamal had a plush office there. Ahead of the economic conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Sisi and his generals had the building draped in a giant banner that proclaimed: investment is the key to egypt’s welfare. Soon after, the government announced plans to finally tear the building down. Demolition began in May.

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