Rendering of The Capital. All images via ​Capital City Partners

Egypt's Silicon Valley-Inspired Plan to Build a Utopian Capital to Replace Cairo

Egypt says it's going to build a brand new Capital city for five million people, from scratch.

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Mar 17 2015, 10:15pm

Rendering of The Capital. All images via ​Capital City Partners

Cairo is the capital of Egypt's past. The capital of its future is, well, "The Capital," a sprawling, $45 billion purpose-built city that is to be erected upon the barren sands due east of its predecessor. Over the course of the next five to seven years.

That is, without exaggeration, the Egyptian government's stated plan: To build an entire ultramodern megacity, capable of housing five million inhabitants, from scratch. The Guardian notes that that would make it the largest pre-planned capital in history—the size of Brasilia, Brazil's once-futuristic inland capital; Islamabad, Pakistan's 60s-built seat of power; and Canberra, Australia, combined.

The Capital—that's just the city's working title, but it's the name given the nascent metropolis in its marketing materials—is to be clean, dense, and walkable. It will replace Cairo as Egypt's seat of government. Those materials declare that the new Capital will be a "sustainable" "smart city," a "hub for innovation" that will propel a new "Egyptian Renaissance." It will boast a green space twice the size of Central Park and a theme park four times the size of Disneyland.

For its accelerated ambition, the proposal has brought a heap of skepticism from onlookers worldwide—Egypt has a poor record when it comes to prefab city-making, and generally, plans to relocate whole capitals rarely go well (Brasilia is a troubled, isolated curiosity, Burma's Naypyidaw, another modern build-a-capital, is notoriously and chillingly vacant). Doing it on an unprecedented scale, in just five years, seems absurdly optimistic, if not outright fantasy.

But even if The Capital never gets built, it is, I think, worth taking a careful look at the blueprints of that fantasy. This is probably the boldest, highest-profile metropolis-making proposal in modern history, and, if nothing else, it's an intriguing reflection of how some of the world's wealthiest developers and most desperate statesmen imagine an ideal city: A future-tinted utopia conceived upon a foundation of popular urban planning trends and the buzzwordy ideals of Silicon Valley.

"The new capital will make use of the sustainable technologies of today as well as be adaptable to future technologies," the Capital's website proclaims. No concrete examples are provided, but the text sits next to sun-glinted skyscrapers and some kind of giant egg-shaped orb in the city center.

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In the website's illustrated fictions, Egyptians are recreating in front of pencil-thin alabaster towers and curved, ark-like structures. There is an unmistakable impression of futurity, but it's not overwhelming.​

Businessmen, and the occasional woman, will congregate in gardened corporate gardens and ribbed glass domes.

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At night, the tetris-shaped architecture lights up, along with the circular sculpture of tomorrow.

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Getting around won't be a problem. The Capital will boast a "full network of transportation": "The city will be well-connected locally, regionally and internationally. The focus will be on promoting pedestrian-friendly choices throughout the city." Whether Egyptians can expect light rail, buses, or hyperloop remains to be seen (for the record, I reached out to the developers for more details, but haven't heard back).

The metropolis seems aimed to appeal to modern conservationists and Whole Fooders alike: "The unique ecology of the site will be protected and organic waste recycled in order to grow healthy, local food, resulting in the emergence of a park land." It's also interesting that when the blueprint for the world's biggest planned city mentions technology, it is accompanied by images of solar panels and other implements of cleantech.

The Capital also boasts a "Credo of Water": "The new city's infrastructure will be able to make, reuse and conserve water, thereby making it responsible and resilient to change." Again, there are no details as to how this might happen (mass rainwater catchment? desalination plants?), but it certainly makes for an appealing pitch to water-strapped Egyptians.

And that, of course, is what this is; a pitch for utopia. Because it's reliant on foreign investment, and will need a lot more of it. Egypt's government is explicitly positioning the Capital as a massive economic stimulus program—it is part of a "strategy for success" that includes "a series of development projects" that will create a "boost to the national economy" and yield a "flexible framework for the future."

Currently, most of that investment is coming from Emirati businessmen—The Capital is being spearheaded by Capital City Partners, which itself is headed up by Mohamed Alabbar. He's the billionaire megadeveloper behind the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, and King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, which, according to CPP, is a 168 square kilometer project that's currently one of the largest private developments in the region.

And that's the best evidence, beyond the preposterous development schedule and overambitious people-moving plans, that The Capital may end up closer to dystopia. For one thing, that name—I guess The Hunger Names never made it to Egypt. The government is literally proposing a glittering, high-tech hub full of luxury developments and amenities to house its elite, while the neighboring Cairo 1.0 swelters and overcrowds. Egypt's government claims that the new city will untangle congestion, but there are no new plans to speak of for public transit or organic food services to the old one.

Furthermore, there's nothing to speak of in terms of democratic reform, which is likely what Egyptians want most—here, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who overthrew the democratically-elected President Morsi, joins a long and storied tradition of embattled leaders using utopian development programs to convince their constituents that a better their future is just around the corner.

The Capital's blueprint may have all the buzzwords—it's innovative, it recycles, it's sustainable, it runs on clean energy, it will boost economic growth—but it doesn't have a single mention of municipal government or actual public services. In that way, the biggest capital utopia ever pitched reads a bit like a product conceived by a Silicon Valley startup—which probably isn't an accident. 

And it's being built by a company whose previous projects were erected on the backs of exploited migrant workers (another way Capital Partners is like Uber for utopias), in locales (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates) that deny their laboring underclass just about any basic human rights at all. There's reason to worry that Alabbar will import the labor practices that have helped make him unfathomably wealthy, that Cairo 2.0 could exacerbate inequality in a nation still simmering.

Yes, Egypt is actually going to try to build this thing. Egypt's housing minister, Mostafa Madbouly, told the Guardian that the first phase, building 100 square kilometers worth of Capital, is already approved: "We are committed for the first phase," he said. "We have already a very clear plan."

The plan itself isn't the problem—it lays out an admirable collection of ideals and that might make for a superb city. It's what the plan leaves out that makes The Capital more likely to end up a dystopia than a utopia. It usually is.

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