Egypt’s new capital city is under construction. The new city (a proper name has yet to be assigned) will replace the Nile-side Cairo. Cairo has been the ancient nation’s seat of power for more than 1,000 years.
Billboards in the existing city advertise luxury home options to come. They claim “breathtaking” views in planned compounds with names like “La Verde” or “Vinci.” But what lies behind the billboards reveals the reason the wealthy want a new desert oasis. Cairo is inundated with overcrowded neighborhoods. They comprise shoddily built homes and dirt roads flooded with sewage. Addressing the many issues that led to such poverty and decay is a vast job. It would take decades to make a positive impact. So a movement began to start over.
The new capital city is the $45 billion brainchild of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. He took office in 2014, launching mega-projects from new roads and housing complexes to expanding the Suez Canal. But the new city is by far the biggest of his attempts.
Senior officials boastfully compare el-Sissi’s aspirations to monuments like Egypt’s Giza Pyramids—one of the world’s greatest wonders and landmarks.
With Babel-like confidence (Genesis 11:4), Egypt’s Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly proclaims that the current Egyptian projects will earn its leaders a new place in world history books. “History will do justice to this generation of Egyptians,” he says. “Our grandsons will remember its achievement.” He calls the mega-projects “a wave of construction unprecedented in modern-day Egypt.”
Already, a movement of Cairo’s wealthy has begun. Thousands have fled the city for gated communities in suburbs. There, they live free from witnessing the poverty and squalor that plagues the city. When the new city is complete, a larger exodus of the well-heeled is expected. As state offices and foreign embassies move to the new capital, they will take with them thousands of employees. Retail and support services that provide for that large community will go as well. Old Cairo will remain a slum of neglect and decay.
Critics call the new capital a vanity project. They argue that the money could be used better in rebuilding the wrecked economy and refurbishing Cairo—for the good of both wealthy and poor. El-Sissi’s opponents also see his actions as evidence of authoritarianism. He is known for lashing out at those who question him, with little interest in discussion or debate. He tells Egyptians to listen to him, saying he’s answerable to God alone.
Political analyst Hassan Nafaa doubts el-Sissi’s record will be as glorious as the president hopes. “Maybe el-Sissi wants to go down in history as the leader who built the new capital. But if Egyptians don’t see an improvement in their living conditions and services, he will be remembered as the president who destroyed what is left of the middle class.”
The new city will cover 170,000 acres about 28 miles east of Cairo. That’s nearly twice the land area of the current capital, promising far less population density. Cairo’s estimated population is now over 20 million and is among the fastest growing in the world. The new capital is predicted to have just 6.5 million inhabitants. The first of the new city’s residents are scheduled to move there next year.
The city will house the presidency, Cabinet, parliament, and government ministries. Planners promise a 21-mile-long public park, an opera house, and a sports complex. There will also be an airport and Africa’s highest skyscraper at 1,132 feet.
Madbouly denies the new city will attract only the well-off. He says it is “for all Egyptians.” But the cost to live there tells a different story. The smallest apartment planned will be just under 1,300 square feet—comparable to a modest three-bedroom home in America. That unit is expected to sell for 1.3 million Egyptian pounds, or about $73,000. The price is far out of reach for the average Egyptian. Even a mid-level government bureaucrat could not afford it on the typical salary of about $4,800 per year.
If the goal of the new capital is to escape from the run-down aspects of the old, the solution will likely be short-lived. Illegal construction around the existing Cairo continues to expand. The creeping footprint of poverty’s effects will spread, layer by layer, toward the new city unless solutions to low incomes, decaying housing, and infrastructure failure are found.
Jesus said in John 12 that His followers would always have opportunity to help the poor. Eliminating poverty is a job that won’t end until after He comes again. But it is a task that His followers are to take seriously until we do finally live with Him in the “city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10)