Movin’ Out: Egypt’s Plan for a New “Capital City”

Egypt surprised many of its own citizens at the 2015 Egypt Economic Development Conference when it announced its plans to construct a new “administrative capital” to relieve the stress on Cairo’s aging infrastructure.

The capital, which is still to be named, will allegedly be located in a plot of desert land located between where Cairo currently lies and the Suez Canal, and is estimated to cost USD$45 billion. According to Mr. Moustafa Madbouly, Egypt’s Minister of Housing, some of the highlights of this new capital city include:

  1. 270 square mile city size, overall
  2. The ability to house 5 million citizens;
  3. Almost 2,000 schools and colleges
  4. More than 600 health care facilities
  5. An estimated 1.7 million permanent jobs
New Capital Map
An artist’s rendition of what the new capital would look like from space (Top right) Source: Cairo Observer
The shining model of the proposed new capital highlights the ambitious nature of trying to change the face of Egypt's capital city
The shining model of the proposed new capital highlights the ambitious nature of trying to change the face of Egypt’s capital city (Source: Washington Post)

The plans for the new city were designed by Capital City Partners, a Dubai-based private real estate investment fund “focused on investment and development partnerships in high-growth international markets”. The company was founded by Mr. Mohamed Alabbar, who has previously designed numerous iconic landmarks such as the King Abdullah Economic City (Saudi Arabia) and Burj Khalifa Tower in Dubai.

Not the First Time a Capital City Has Moved

Capital cities in the developing world have long been known to suffer from poor city planning. The limited space and pre-established infrastructure often limit the ability to radically modify the layout of a city, and when you include the constant stresses of high traffic and congestion, it makes it difficult for any substantial construction work to be done.

It was these reasons that led other countries to create new capitals in past years to meet growing demands – including:

  • Nigeria (from Lagos to Abuja),
  • Burma (from Rangoon to Naypyidaw),
  • Russia (from Moscow to St. Petersburg, then back to Moscow),
  • Pakistan (from Karachi to Islamabad),
  • Brazil (from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia),
  • Kazakhstan (from Almaty to Astana),
  • Tanzania (from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma), and
  • Ivory Coast (from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro)

Yet, even though the idea of moving a capital city isn’t relatively new, not all attempts to move a capital city have been done successfully.

For example, take Burma’s experiment with moving its capital to Naypyidaw. Since its construction and anointment as Burma’s new capital in 2005, the gradual transition to the new city has sometimes made it look like a ghost-town rather than a bustling capital. In November 2014, a state visit by US president Obama showed an empty city devoid of life, a far cry from what its designers had in mind. While the idea of moving a country’s capital city may not be entirely new, it certainly carries with it important ramifications on the inhabitants of the country (and more specifically, the affected city) and could also devastate the local economy.

Finally, there is also the question of Egypt’s history with stalled mega-projects. The 1997 Toshka Project, which was Mubarak’s ambitious attempt to create a second Nile Valley in the desert to increase Egypt’s agricultural output, has stalled and its future has been put into question. Whether the new capital city will be pursued in conjunction with the Toshka project is a question that remains to be answered, but would almost certainly be a massive financial burden on all parties involved.

A map depicting the location of the Toshka Project, which was started in 1997 and remains unfinished as of 2015 (Source: NPR.org)
A map depicting the location of the Toshka Project, which was started in 1997 and remains unfinished as of 2015 (Source: NPR.org)

So one must ask the question: is there a plan for the sustainable growth and development of Egypt’s cities and infrastructure? And, if so, what is it?

What does Egypt’s Constitution Say?

The 2014 Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt states in Article 222 that the city of Cairo is the capital of the Arab Republic of Egypt. It also states that the House of Representatives and the Supreme Constitutional Court are to be headquartered in Cairo, although both are allowed to hold their sessions elsewhere in Egypt in “exceptional circumstances” or “in cases of emergency”.

Article 226 of the Constitution outlines the requirements that must be met before an amendment can be made. According to this article, an amendment can be requested by the President or one-fifth of the members of the House of Representatives. However, regardless of who requests the amendment, the amendment must be discussed by the House of Representatives within 30 days from the date of its receipt and issue its decision to accept the request in whole or in part by a majority of its members. If the request is rejected, the same articles may not be requested to be amended again before the next legislative term. Changes to the text of the articles must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the House of Representatives

Even if the amendment is passed through the House of Representatives, a public referendum must be held within 30 days from the date of approval to affirm the decision of the legislative branch and be passed by a majority of the population.

Has Egypt bypassed its own constitution?

As of right now, Egypt has not taken any steps in the legal process to move its capital. However, there are some important legal hurdles that must be taken into account as this move comes into effect. As per the text of the amending formula described above, any amendments to the Constitution must be approved by the House of Representatives after a “debate” on the amendment, and must also approve the text of the amendment. The Constitution does not limit the reasons as to why the House of Representatives may reject an amendment, so it may be perfectly legal for the House of Representatives to reject the moving of the Egyptian capital on non-legal grounds. In simpler terms, the House of Representatives may reject amending the Egyptian capital on the grounds that constructing a new capital is not a wise way to expend state resources.

Despite assurances that the new capital will not be built using state funds, there is still a concern about the use of state resources (e.g. labour) and the lack of consultation with various stakeholders in the construction of this new capital. Indeed, this is the most glaring omission in the plans introduced so far – no consultations, whether with the general public or with special interest groups, were allowed on this project. There is also no indication that there is an interest from the executive branch to have a public consultation process that would allow members of the public to have their say on what the new public should look like, or whether it’s even necessary. For example, Egyptian academic Khaled Fahmy argues that the money spent on building this new capital would be better spent on building and upgrading basic services for the inhabitants of the inner cities of Cairo (including potable water, health care, clean air, recreational facilities, etc).

In light of these criticisms, one could argue that there needs to be a public consultation process where members of the public (and more importantly experts) can voice their opinions and concerns about how the new city should be designed. And if this public consultation does not occur, then there would be strong grounds for the yet-unelected House of Representatives to reject amending the Egyptian Constitution to christen this new city as Egypt’s capital.

Final Thoughts

There is nothing wrong with having ambitious plans and big visions about where one should take the country. And there is certainly plenty of good things to say about the creating an Egyptian capital that reflects the splendor and majesty of Egypt and its culture. However, this plan must be revealed to all the stakeholders involved in it so that important decisions can be made with confidence and public support. This will not only benefit the public who will be the main beneficiaries of this new city, but also the government that is building it, as it will help them manage expectations of what the new city can offer Egypt and Egyptians.

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