A Egyptian woman walks past a banner that reads 'Egyptians are rebuilding Egypt' in Tahrir Square in Cairo on August 30, 2011. Since then, many are unhappy with plans to remake the city. Photo:/AFP/Khaled Desouki

CAIRO – When Ahmed Zaazaa recently took a taxi to the Cairo neighborhood where he grew up, all it took was a momentary glance away at his smartphone for him to suddenly find himself lost.

“I looked down and looked up – and I couldn’t recognize anything,” he told Asia Times. “It took a long while, too, before I realized I was actually outside my own house.”

This urban bewilderment is not uncommon these days, amongst residents of some of Cairo’s most historic districts. 

A massive program of road and bridge building, street widening and demolition is completely changing the landscape of one of the world’s oldest cities.

Whole populations have been displaced and architectural gems marooned in the middle of freeways, in a manner that many also say goes straight to the heart of contemporary Egyptian politics. 

“It’s like a microcosm of broader military rule,” Hafsa Halawa, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told Asia Times, “with very little innovation, creativity or flare.”

Giant military-linked construction companies are remaking the urban environment very much in their own image – and, critics argue, with very little regard for the existing city or its inhabitants.

“The regime is taking a top-down view of everything,” Riccardo Fabiani, Project Director North Africa for the International Crisis Group, told Asia Times. “They want to build massive projects, rapidly and military style, without caring about the costs and benefits – or what it will do to neighborhoods and the people who live in them.”

Re-wiring the city’s roads to connect with a brand new capital, now taking shape 35 kilometers away in the desert to the east – and to a cluster of new skyscrapers along the River Nile – has meant eviction for many residents of central Cairo.

Such moves cause much resentment amongst ordinary Egyptians – and have even sparked occasional protests. 

Yet, with billions of dollars and a great deal of the powerful military’s political capital now sunk in a growing network of new concrete, many fear it is already too late to halt Cairo’s new radical remake. 

This picture taken on July 26, 2020, shows the derelict dome of the Mamluk Sultan Abu Said al-Zahir Qansuh al-Ashrafi (AD 1498-1500) amidst ongoing roadworks at the historic City of the Dead necropolis of Egypt’s capital Cairo. Photo: AFP/Khaled Desouki

New cities for old

Plans for redeveloping Cairo – a thousand-year-old megacity of more than nine million people – are not new.

In the 1950s and ’60s, then-ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser launched a rebuild on socialist lines around the re-named Tahrir – or “liberation” – Square in the old city center. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, population expansion led to an effort to create a multi-center metropolis, easing overcrowding in the downtown.

Indeed, “while Cairo is a big city, its core is relatively small,” Yahia Shawkat, an urban researcher and co-founder of the 10 Tooba research studio in the city, told Asia Times. 

In 2008, former-President Hosni Mubarak launched the Cairo 2050 redevelopment plan, which aimed to further spread the city out. 

While the 2011 revolution led to the plan being shelved, the military’s return to power in 2013 saw the new prime minister, Mostafa Kamal Madbouly – one of Cairo 2050’s original advocates – relaunch the plan.

“Egypt has more wonders than any other country in the world, and provides more works that defy description,” Madbouly said back in 2015, when unveiling one of Cairo 2050’s key projects – the construction of the $30 billion new capital.

If ever completed, this will cover a 700 square kilometer site and house all government institutions. Some 1.1 million new homes will also be built there, housing about five million people.

Many of the government institutions – and workers – set to move there are leaving premises in Cairo’s old heart.  

As a result, “hundreds of thousands of jobs in central Cairo are at risk of disappearing,” says Fabiani.

Partly in their place, “the city core is being proposed as a new business district to attract investment,” says Zaazaa. 

A 2km stretch of downtown, from Tahrir Square and along the River Nile, will become home to a forest of glass towers if plans are fully realized. Some 200,000 current inhabitants will be removed to make way for them.

Some of those people now live in what the government describes as unsafe or illegal housing. 

Indeed, “illegal buildings have mushroomed over the last 20 years,” says Fabiani, “and now the government wants to clamp down on them.”

Under emergency laws initiated by Egypt’s current ruler, former general President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, military prosecutors and troops have been deployed to evict residents of illegal buildings and demolish their homes.

Egyptian policemen secure the area around the New Cairo court, on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital. Photo: AFP/Khaled Desouki

Build it and they will come

The military is also a key player in Egypt’s real estate and construction business.

A law passed after the army came to power in 2013 suspended normal tendering procedures for government contracts, allowing military-linked companies to gain a swathe of lucrative building contracts. 

By the time that law was suspended in 2017, these military companies – also able to leverage free labor from army conscripts – had pushed out private-sector rivals. 

Now, most of the new construction work is being done by these military-linked entities.

In 2014, too, a new regulation allocated all land in a 40km strip around the nation’s highways to the military.

The army also owns the land the new capital is being built on, while the biggest developer in Egypt is NUCA, a state-owned enterprise run by the Ministry of Housing.

Top down or bottom up?

Unsurprisingly, the way that these redevelopments are taking place has caused major consternation for many Egyptians.

“Many people are in total shock about how much the city has changed,” Halawa says. “There is a feeling among them that their city is being stolen from them without any discussion, debate or explanation as to why.”

Protests have broken out, yet, with the country still under emergency rule, they have been sporadic, isolated and rapidly suppressed.

Social media remains one avenue where protest can be mounted, however, with campaigns on this sometimes acting to halt the bulldozers.

One example was the Cairo Eye, a plan to build a giant Ferris wheel on the Nile island of Zamalek. 

Outraged residents of this wealthy district used Facebook to petition the city governor against it. The project now appears to be halted.

Other, poorer areas, however, have much less clout with the regime. For those whose homes are in the way, too, the choices are often stark. 

A new apartment in a social housing project many kilometers away is one option, as is a one-off payment of €5,000 (about US$318). 

“Many accept the money, as it would cost them too much to commute from their new apartment to where they work,” says Zaazaa.

Not knowing where you are in Cairo these days, then, “is not just about some romanticized loss of urban memory,” he adds. “It’s also about the possibility of increasing poverty. A lot of people don’t consider themselves belonging to the new city. I’ve often heard the sentence ‘it’s not for us’.”

Who it is for is a question many are now asking, across this ever-expanding metropolis.