Mega cities in the sand

Egypt – The highway
west out of Cairo used to promise relief from the city’s chaos. Past the great
pyramids of Giza and a final spasm of traffic, the open desert beckoned, 160
barren kilometres to the northwest to reach the Mediterranean.

That, at least, was
the case until recently. Now, the microbus drivers and commuters driving from
Cairo cross 32 kilometres of nothingness to encounter a new city suddenly
springing from the sand. A distressingly familiar jam of cars and a cluster of
soaring high-rises herald the metropolis that is designed to relieve pressure
on the historic centre of Cairo, which city planners have deemed overtaxed
beyond repair.

Welcome to the new
Cairo, not entirely different from the old one.
Cairo has become so crowded, congested and polluted that the Egyptian
government has undertaken a construction project that might have given the
Pharaohs pause: building two mega cities outside Cairo from scratch. By 2020,
planners expect the new satellite cities to house at least a quarter of Cairo’s
20 million residents and many of the government agencies that now have
headquarters in the city.

Only a country with a
seemingly endless supply of open desert land – and an authoritarian government
free to ignore public opinion – could contemplate such a gargantuan
undertaking. The government already has moved a few thousand of the city’s
poorest residents against their will from illegal slums in central Cairo to
housing projects on the periphery.

Few Egyptians
seriously expect the government to demolish the makeshift neighbourhoods that
comprise as much as half the capital, although many critics accuse the
government of transferring Cairo’s historical inequalities to the new cities.

But on one point
almost everyone seems to agree: It is too late to change course.

Enormous subdivisions
have sprung up in the dunes outside of Cairo, on an almost incomprehensible
scale. Already a million people have moved to 6 October City, due west of
Cairo, named for the date of the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel still hailed
as a seminal Arab victory. A similar number have moved east of the city, to a
settlement unimaginatively dubbed “New Cairo.”

The government’s
original plans – which are widely considered more wishful than literal –
conceived of 6 October City’s expanding to 3 million by 2020 and New Cairo to 4
million, primarily as havens for working-class Cairenes. So far, however, the
overwhelming majority of new residents come from Egypt’s uppermost economic

“These settlements
represent the greed of the rich,” said Abdelhalim Ibrahim Abdelhalim, an
architect known for incorporating historic Islamic aesthetics into his
contemporary public buildings and parks. Abdelhalim designed the American
University of Cairo’s new eastern campus, but he no longer works on elite
housing projects.

The Egyptian
government has spent untallied millions of dollars building new roads and power
and water lines to the desert areas it designated for future development. It
has sold huge parcels of land to developers in opaque deals, and built some
low-income housing. But it has relied primarily on private developers to put up
the cities’ more expensive villas and condos, as well as the malls and offices.

Some of the earliest
arrivals in the new cities are affluent Egyptians like Nisrine Alkbeissi, 29,
who chose suburban quality of life over urban convenience. “I was torn between
staying in Cairo, close to everything, or moving out here,” said Alkbeissi on a
recent weekend at Dandy Mall, a rare public space in 6 October City, a patchwork
of luxury compounds and lower-income housing complexes that still is a city in
name only.

Other pioneers
include some of the richest Cairenes, who buy villas on golf courses and in
gated compounds. They have been joined by some of the poorest, drawn by factory
and construction jobs, or to serve the rich. Other poor people are shuttled in
against their will by the government to isolated tracts of row houses.
The juxtaposition of rich and poor is one of Abdelhalim’s greatest concerns.
The new cities, he says, tend to highlight Egypt’s already striking imbalance
between rich and poor, and could sow the seeds of future troubles.

Consider Haram City,
the first affordable housing development here built by a private company. Phase
1 was just completed this summer, and 25,000 people have moved in. When it is
complete in two years, Haram City will house 400,000 people – a single project
with the population of Miami.

Haram City was
conceived as an affordable neighbourhood for lower-middle-class professionals,
but the government has bought hundreds of units and is filling them with some
of Cairo’s poorest inhabitants – importing the city’s historic class tensions
to the replacement 6 October City.

A few kilometres
farther out in the desert is the extreme side of replacement Cairo: an
exclusive golf course community called Allegria, already half built, and the
planned luxury development of Westown, flanking the main highway from Cairo to
Alexandria. Developers are building a replica of downtown Beirut, which will
serve as an urban hub for all the gated communities and other developments
proliferating in the desert.

Well-off Egyptians
who have moved to the desert cities rave about their new suburban lifestyles.

“Cairo is hot and
packed,” said Noha Refaat Elfiky, 33, a market researcher who moved a year ago
to Palm Park from Heliopolis, itself built as a leafy getaway from downtown
Cairo in the 19th century, but now swallowed by the city. “There will be
nothing lost and much gained as everybody moves out of the city.”

Nevertheless, Elfiky
still spends a night or two a week in her family apartment in Cairo.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I miss the smell of pollution.”