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  • This is Cairo.

  • Egypt's largest city and its capital.

  • For decades it's been home to Egyptian rulers and their palaces.

  • The Parliament has met in this building for over 150 years.

  • And this public square in the heart of Cairo has been the site of several revolutions.

  • But in 2015, the Egyptian government announced the capital would move

  • about 50 kilometers away...

  • To this patch of empty desert.

  • Which is quickly shaping up to be the New Administrative Capital of Egypt.

  • This is where a new presidential palace will go...

  • the new Parliament building and a new public square.

  • Egypt's government, led by president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi

  • claims this new city will solve a specific problem:

  • Cairo's overpopulation.

  • But the country has a long history of building new cities to decongest Cairo.

  • Many of them sit outside the city today.

  • So, why is Cairo's population still considered a ticking time bomb?

  • And what's the real reason behind this new capital?

  • There's a population counter outside one of the ministries.

  • It's mundane, but it also

  • it's red, flashing lights with these colors is almost always like telling people...

  • A little too many of you are here.

  • This is Mohamed Elshahed

  • an architectural historian who studies urban development in Egypt.

  • And I find this to be quite a dangerous narrative especially since that's actually not the case.

  • Egypt's home to more than 100 million people.

  • And about 20% of them live within the boundaries of Greater Cairo.

  • The city has one of the highest population densities

  • in the world

  • with 153,000 people per square kilometer at its peak.

  • That's higher than New York, London, and Shanghai.

  • What we know as Cairo, today, was officially founded on the banks of the Nile

  • in the 10th century, as the capital of the Arab Fatimid Caliphate.

  • The city had to be built near the river

  • because the rest of the region was barren desert.

  • Over the next several centuries, each ruler built expansions of Cairo

  • close to the fertile banks.

  • The Ottomans built these areas...

  • and the British added these suburbs during their decades-long occupation of Egypt.

  • In the 1950s, when the British left and Egypt became a republic

  • Cairo was by far the biggest city.

  • In the 50s, 60s and 70s, millions of impoverished Egyptians from the countryside

  • moved to Cairo in search of opportunities and better living conditions.

  • But the city that was built haphazardly along the river

  • wasn't equipped to house more people.

  • The city sort of was already kind of shaped and demarcated

  • and the green areas around it were left agricultural.

  • And it's those areas that were cheap

  • and close enough to those amenities that allowed then people to step in.

  • Since the housing that was available was completely not sufficient.

  • So farmers started selling small slices of their agricultural land to the migrants.

  • A lot of people have to build for themselves with little money.

  • So together, so entire families would go vertical on a small plot of land.

  • These were the first informal and technically illegal neighborhoods.

  • It's informal because it's not, you know, given licenses for construction.

  • It's built outside of the economy, that is theofficial economy".

  • And I think this is actually the result of the fact that

  • the economic system really excluded the majority of the population.

  • For decades, Egypt's government failed to build affordable housing

  • or invest in public services and infrastructure to support the explosive growth

  • in Cairo's density.

  • And that meant these unplanned and informal neighborhoods

  • continued to get more and more crowded until it became a crisis.

  • "Egypt's capital is bursting at the seams."

  • "Cairo is equipped to handle around 3 million, in fact,

  • it's home to 8 million."

  • "Housing is an area of desperate need."

  • "Many people in Cairo live in makeshift shacks

  • in the city's center and in much worse conditions in the suburbs."

  • Today, these informal neighborhoods are home to 60% of Cairo's population.

  • Most of them are inhabited by the poor

  • but many have evolved into middle class neighborhoods.

  • Collectively, these are the most crowded areas of Cairo.

  • And Egypt's government, under Sisi, points to them

  • as the real problem behind Cairo's overcrowding.

  • I find this to be a very problematic narrative because then we take a question of

  • let's say, bad design or bad management from a state perspective

  • and turn the blame on actually the people who are suffering

  • from the bad design and the bad policies

  • and say, there's just too many of you.

  • In fact, the government still considers them illegal, referring to them as slums.

  • From the point of view of the state, calling an area a slum facilitates its removal.

  • In 2019, the government announced it would eradicate Cairo's slums by 2030.

  • Many neighborhoods will be redeveloped as affluent housing

  • while thousands of residents will be forcibly pushed out of their homes

  • and into affordable housing outside the city.

  • But instead of focusing on sufficient affordable housing

  • they invested billions of dollars in a whole new city elsewhere.

  • And it's not the first time an Egyptian ruler

  • has tried to solve the crisis by starting fresh in the desert.

  • "A building boom is in progress."

  • "New apartment blocks are going up at a greater rate

  • since the start of Nasser's Revolution."

  • The concept of a new city as a solution for Cairo's growing population began in the 1950s.

  • The first attempt was under President Gamal Abdel Nasser

  • who ordered the construction of a new city called Nasr City.

  • It was also designed to be a new capital at the time.

  • There would be space for government buildings, markets, and a huge new stadium.

  • But there was a big flaw.

  • The plan didn't involve affordable housing

  • for the people in Cairo's most crowded areas.

  • The need was for a lot of lower class housing.

  • But that wasn't going to be placed in the new capital.

  • Nobody wants to build a shiny new capital and then fill it with low cost housing.

  • So it's sort of a trend that already starts there.

  • By the 1970s, Egypt had a new leader, Anwar Sadat

  • who didn't end up moving the capitol to Nasr City.

  • But he really leaned into the trend of building 'desert cities'.

  • Starting in 1976, Egypt's government built 8 new cities

  • in the desert around Cairo.

  • Each time they claimed the goal was to alleviate overcrowding.

  • But, most included only expensive housing.

  • And barely any featured public transportation

  • making them inaccessible for anyone without a car.

  • That's why today, many of these desert cities are only partially occupied.

  • Most who have moved here are Cairo's middle and upper class residents.

  • That means that the majority of the population that's squeezed in the little green belt

  • that's now urbanized around the Nile are kind of X'd-out of these developments.

  • So we're looking at a condition that's a result of

  • I would say, 3 to 4 decades in particular of

  • misguided policy that

  • looks to the outside of the city.

  • President Sisi is continuing that trend with his new capital.

  • These areas are designated for housing, but mostly

  • for middle and upper class residents.

  • Those people are not moving in with handouts.

  • They're buying their those properties.

  • And so the main target audience is, again, a moneyed class.

  • I think the housing for low-income communities will be included in the capital

  • but definitely very limited.

  • All of this land will be used for government buildings

  • and this section will be a business district

  • featuring this soon-to-be-tallest building in Africa.

  • So, if this new capital isn't really about solving Cairo's population density crisis

  • why is the government so determined to build it?

  • In 2011, protests erupted in Egypt over police brutality.

  • And they quickly evolved into widespread calls

  • for the resignation of Egypt's ruler of 30 years,

  • Hosni Mubarak.

  • Demonstrations took place all over Egypt.

  • But the biggest were in Cairo.

  • Specifically, Tahrir Square.

  • It's been the epicenter of many political demonstrations

  • since the early 20th century.

  • Largely because it's so close to Egyptian government buildings, including the Parliament.

  • In 2011, millions of people occupied Tahrir Square for 18 days.

  • They set up roadblocks...

  • and battled with police.

  • On February 11, thousands marched from Tahrir Square

  • to the presidential palace, 10 km away

  • where they ultimately forced Mubarak to step down.

  • The ability to control Tahrir Square and inner Cairo

  • allowed the protestors to effectively paralyze the government.

  • Making their presence and their demands impossible to ignore.

  • Sisi remembers that.

  • He was the head of Egypt's powerful military when he seized power in 2013

  • on the heels of the revolution.

  • Barely a month after taking power

  • he commanded his soldiers and police to crack down

  • on protestors who opposed him.

  • The brutal raid killed more than 800 people.

  • Ever since, he's been systematically trying to prevent

  • a revolution that could topple him.

  • His government has shut down political dissents, punished journalists, and hindered free speech.

  • Now, they are redesigning several aspects of Cairo

  • to make the city harder to protest in.

  • They've widened dozens of streets

  • making it more difficult to erect road-blocks.

  • And they plan to add 40 bridges

  • which will give the military and police easier access to the city center.