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.”