CAIRO — Since 2950 B.C., Egypt’s pharaohs, sultans and kings have moved the country’s capital 25 times in an attempt to shake up the government, balance shifting political dynamics or simply flaunt their power as transformative leaders.
Now 23 centuries after Alexander the Great transferred Egypt’s seat of power from the Nile city of Memphis to Alexandria in the north, authoritarian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is overseeing the construction of a massive $45 billion national administrative center arising in the desert 50 miles from downtown Cairo.
Critics call the “New Administrative Capital” grandiose and unsustainable, but the government says densely packed Cairo no longer works as a seat of government and that construction has helped drive the unemployment rate below 10 percent. That is the lowest jobless rate since 2011, when a popular rebellion toppled President Hosni Mubarak and set into motion the chain of events that put Mr. el-Sissi, the head of the military forces, on the road to the presidency.
“Cairo’s infrastructure is really old, and the government had two choices,” said Mohamed Abdalla, president of Coldwell Banker affiliates of Egypt. “Either fix the old water, transport and other systems in a 1,000-year-old city or start building something that can absorb the growth and make us competitive with the rest of the world.”
Egypt’s population is rising at a staggering rate of 2.5 percent annually, producing more than 2.5 million people every year. That means this nation of 101 million must find accommodations, education and employment each year for a population roughly the size of Houston.
The sheer force of Egypt’s population growth will likely place the country firmly in the world’s largest 10 economies by 2030, according to a Standard Chartered Bank survey released in January.
Meanwhile, traffic congestion in Cairo alone costs Egypt 3.6 percent of its annual gross domestic product, according to the World Bank, and the United Nations World Water Development Report found that 35 percent of the city’s water is leaking out of dilapidated pipes.
Relocating the center of power is a favorite move for governments looking to solve other political problems, including the decision of the fledgling United States to pick a stretch of land along the Potomac River to build from scratch a new capital city in the 1790s.
Nigeria moved its capital from Lagos to Abuja in the 1990s to move it closer to the fault line between the country’s Christian and Muslim communities. Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, is more centrally located than the old capital, Yangon, and easier for the country’s powerful military junta to control.
The shift from Cairo to the new site is proving equally polarizing.
“Egypt needs a new capital like a hole in the head,” Cairo-based urban planner David Sims told The Wall Street Journal when asked about the relocation plan in 2016.
But others are warming to the idea as the center takes shape in the desert.
“I had my doubts about the project when the government first started talking about it,” Mr. Abdalla said, “but I’m much less worried now seeing how things are developing.”
As contractors rush to build highways, offices and housing, the country has a new energy, many say.
“As a matter of fact, it is bringing a lot of excitement to the real estate market,” the Coldwell Banker executive said as officials point to the completed construction of the first 10,000 housing units.
Developers surveyed by the Cairo real estate researchers Investigate reported last month that they had sold 24 percent of the available single-family homes, 40 percent of the condos and 100 percent of the available duplexes and town houses in the new city.
The sales figures drive an argument that Mr. el-Sissi needs to build even more cities to accommodate exponential growth in Africa’s third-largest economy.
The new capital’s first phase extends over 65 square miles, just slightly smaller than the District of Columbia, and 80 percent of that land has been sold to developers since Mr. el-Sissi greenlighted the project in 2015.
Some 20 residential areas eventually will be built to accommodate 6.5 million people.
A three-phase plan foresees a 270-square-mile city — the size of Singapore — that would house 36 government agencies, foreign embassies and major companies.
“The Egyptian government is the largest employer in Africa,” said Cairo management consultant Hesham El Abd. “By forcing the civil servants to move, el-Sissi can reduce the bloated bureaucracy and finance this game-changing project. Local and international investors are happy to see him meet both of these goals.”
Fifty thousand civil servants out of nearly 5.5 million public-sector employees were notified in January that they will be reassigned from their downtown Cairo offices to freshly constructed buildings in the new city by next year.
“Once the ministries move, their downtown facilities become a revenue stream for the state, which can sell or rehabilitate them for housing or commercial use,” said Ahmed El Helaly, government relations coordinator for Administrative Capital for Urban Development (ACUD), the state-owned corporation building the new city.
ACUD’s shares are allocated in a 51 percent to 49 percent split between Egypt’s defense and housing ministries.
Last month, Egypt’s president dedicated the new capital’s grand mosque, which can hold 16,000 worshippers. The Al-Fattah al-Aleem mosque is now Africa’s largest and is inscribed with Mr. el-Sissi’s middle name.
Next month, the president is scheduled to inspect the administrative capital’s opera house, a multiplex the size of 42 rugby fields with theaters, a contemporary art museum and a huge library.
Some Cairo residents say their megacity of nearly 30 million people is being sacrificed for an easy fix. They point to decades of neglect of the city’s infrastructure, historic buildings and a lack of planning to provide affordable housing.
10 Tooba, an urban studies think tank, has published reports demonstrating that the country’s arid hinterlands, which hold about 2 percent of the population, receive the same amount of state funds as the cities, including Cairo, that cluster along the Nile, which represent 98 percent of the population.
“The New Capital siphons away financial and technical resources which can be redirected to serve local communities where they already live,” said Omnia Khalil, a planner and urban anthropologist at 10 Tooba. “It’s being built for certain social classes and excludes the majority of ordinary people who should be the target of development.”
But open debate over the wisdom of the new capital and other megaprojects has become increasingly restricted since Egypt’s parliament enacted a broad censorship law in June banning websites deemed to “compromise national security or the national economy.”
But foreign critics, including Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have slammed the new city as another authoritarian measure by Mr. el-Sissi, who is on course to push through constitutional amendments allowing him to stay in power for another 12 years.
“It might be that by 2020 or thereabouts, [Mr. el-Sissi] will ensconce himself in his new gated green zone, surrounded by just enough military officers, civil servants and foreign diplomats to create a faint hum of trafﬁc but far enough from the jostle and bustle of Cairo that he need never worry about another angry crowd protesting outside the presidential palace,” Ms. Dunne said.
In Cairo, Gamal Bekheet, a 65-year-old poet, said he supports the idea of building a new capital city.
“And above all else, I wonder how the city can bear this dry name, the New Administrative Capital,” he said. “It clashes with everything that is beautiful about it.”