Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Another ‘white elephant’?

Gamal Nkrumah interviews US author David Sims about his books on Egypt’s new cities and the proposed new capital in the desert

Al-Ahram Weekly

“A desert is a place without expectation,” wrote Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. Yet, in Egypt, myths and reality collide in Cairo.

David Sims, the author of Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster? (2014) and Understanding Cairo (2010), muses that much of the literature written on the subject of urban development in Egypt gives the impression that a disaster is imminent.

Sims’s lucid accounts of Cairo have generated much interest in Egypt and abroad. In Understanding Cairo, he quotes a 2005 article written by the president of the Washington-based Population Institute: “In Cairo, the rooftops of countless buildings are crowded with makeshift tents, shacks and mud shelters.”

Says Sims, “Such images of Cairo, which instantly conjure up the cliché of a Third World megacity, try to inform the reader of an ominous and unrelenting megatrend with gripping stories from globalisation’s front-line.

“There may be something in the idea that there is a new 21st-century global urban phenomenon, but to roll all of this into facile generalisations doesn’t help anyone.”

Sims is also highly critical of the 2006 bestseller Planet of Slums by US author Mike Davis. He concedes that the book “contains a wealth of anecdotal information and startling descriptions” of megacities, but adds that the focus on “precarious marginal livelihoods and insalubrious housing” is inherently negative.

“Davis, like many academics, lays the blame squarely on the Washington Consensus club, whose dictates of structural adjustment, retrenchment of the state, and liberal trade and economic policies have been ‘an inevitable recipe for the mass production of slums.’

“Whether or not this blame sits well can be long debated, but the imaging of injustice and doom is strong, evoking the kind of hand-wringing despair that readers normally reserve for global warming,” he says.

More important, however, is Sims’s questioning of the relevance of such theses to Egypt. “Does Cairo sit comfortably within this picture?” he asks. Sims, in his Understanding Cairo, likewise refers to an article I wrote in 2008 in Al-Ahram Weekly, following the Duweiqa cliff collapse in Cairo, entitled “Living on the Edge.”

I had quoted Milad Hanna, former head of the Housing Committee in the People’s Assembly, and the then-director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Abdel-Moneim Said.

Sims can be dismissive of such “pundits”, so I was particularly interested in meeting him and was delighted when a mutual friend arranged an interview. We met in an informal setting and the interview commenced with the heated debate surrounding the construction of a new capital city for Egypt in the Eastern Desert.

The project was officially announced in March. Sims adheres to what some would consider to be unconventional views. “Contrary to common perceptions, there are practically no parts of the informal city in Cairo that exhibit the characteristics of the stereotypical Third World slum,” he says.

Perhaps this explains why, despite prodding from successive Egyptian governments, the poor are not always eager to move into the new desert settlements which they consider to be too far from urban centres. Transportation is a serious deterrent for those moving into the satellite cities. Only the wealthy elite with sturdy cars can afford to live in them, some feel.

The proposed new capital, to be located 45 km east of Cairo, is expected to cost $45 billion and is scheduled to be completed between 2020 and 2022.

“Why didn’t the new towns work in terms of population?” Sims asks. “It’s because people can’t afford to live in them. The excess supply of this desert stuff is outrageous,” he was recently quoted as saying in the UK newspaper the Financial Times. “Wouldn’t you rather think twice before you do the same thing, but on a grander scale, than you have been doing impressively unsuccessfully?” he adds.

His remarks, made earlier this year, startled me at the time. Sims’s Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster? had been published only a few months before the announcement of the construction of the new capital. Sims reiterated his view that the new capital was not a sensible idea and could be another “white elephant.”

I pressed on with my questions. The proposed new capital is to be constructed by Capital City Partners, a private real-estate investment firm led by tycoon Mohamed bin Ali Al-Abbar, chairman of Emaar Properties, who built the Burj Al-Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building.

Egypt has pinned its hopes on developing new cities in its deserts, including the proposed new capital. Although the new cities in the desert may not be as dreadful as some have felt, they certainly represent radical departures from the millennia-old tradition of Egyptians living as close as possible to the Nile. The results, according to Sims, are simply not worth it.

ARRIVING IN EGYPT: Born in the United States, Sims lived in Beirut from the ages of eight to 16. He went to university in the US, Yale as an undergraduate and Harvard for a graduate degree in city planning. Later, he started working as a consultant in various developing countries. This has continued for over 40 years in some 30 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, with half of his assignments in Egypt.

He first arrived in Egypt on an archaeological dig in 1969 at Tell Al-Amarna in Middle Egypt. “But I first worked professionally in Egypt in 1974 at the Ministry of Reconstruction,” Sims says. “There was lots of work on housing and urban planning in Ismailia over the next ten years. Then in 1984 I resettled in Cairo and have made it my base ever since.”

The desert is littered with stalled schemes, he says. Surely the most important question about the proposed new capital is whether it will be sustainable. Will it be like Nigeria’s Abuja, Brazil’s Brasilia or Australia’s Canberra? Only time will tell. Does Sims think the project is feasible?

“I think now is hardly the time to embark on such a venture,” he replies. “As I point out in Egypt’s Desert Dreams, the record to date in creating new cities and settlements in the desert has not been promising, and better means of managing such huge projects are needed if the mistakes of the past are to be avoided.

“The eight existing new towns around Cairo have failed so far to absorb even a fraction of their intended ultimate populations and are characterised by vacant housing, empty sites, and speculative real-estate ventures.

“It seems logical to make these new towns work better before slicing off another huge chunk of remote desert for what will be a very expensive venture that, in spite of pronouncements, will cost the government immense sums of money,” he says.

“Funds are in very short supply these days, and they would be better devoted to improving existing Cairo, especially its public transport and its informal settlements where the majority live. In the long run, such a satellite administrative centre might make sense, but what is the hurry?” he asks.

Sims is well travelled and has visited many nations all over the world. Why did he choose to write two books on Egypt? “Egypt is my second home, or I should say my first home, a place to which I am very attached, and a country whose people deserve better lives. Plus, I have acquired considerable information, knowledge, and contacts in Egypt, meaning I can speak with some authority about it, unlike many short-term experts, the so-called ‘parachutists’, who attempt to write about Egypt,” comes the prompt reply.

 “Among the many ways Cairo can be imagined is that of the typical exploding developing world metropolis. This is what many see as an increasingly unstable and unequal urban world where a vast disfranchised humanity is warehoused in sprawling slums, and these slums are seen as volcanoes waiting to erupt, the combat zones of the future,” Sims says.

Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster? is partially about abandoned projects, and forlorn dreams: new cities, new farms, new industrial zones, new tourism resorts and new development corridors — all have been promoted for over half a century in order to resolve the crisis of overpopulation in the Nile Valley and “megacities” such as Cairo.

I ask Sims what he considers to be the most important difference between the two books, even as they tackle similar topics. There is a significant difference, as Sims explained.

“Understanding Cairo was an effort to describe in detail how Greater Cairo grew and evolved from say 1950 to now, and in doing so to correct the many misconceptions and myths of surface portrayals — mainly journalistic but also academic.

“One factor that has dominated this growth has been the rise of informal settlements around the formal core of the city, to the extent that today at least two thirds of the inhabitants live in these ‘out of control’ areas.”

He continues, “Even though some of these areas represent pockets of deterioration, most informal areas are well-built, vibrant and affordable. They suffer, however, from high densities and, especially, government neglect. Since the 1970s, the government has put its faith in creating new towns in the desert around Cairo as the solution, but the record to date in attracting both low and average-income families has been very disappointing.

“Other dimensions of the city covered in the book include housing, transport, the economy and real estate ventures. In effect, the book is a diagnostic of the very recent history of Greater Cairo that emphasises its urban dynamics and helps explain how it got to where it is and where it is going.”

DESERT DREAMS: “On the other hand, Egypt’s Desert Dreams looks at the potential of the 95 per cent of the country’s surface area that is in public ownership and pretty much uninhabited. It shows how, since the 1960s, successive regimes have tried to ensure their legitimacy as agents of development by proclaiming and launching development schemes — to make the desert green, to create new cities and settlements, to open up tourist zones and to create industrial clusters,” Sims says.

“In doing so, the ostensible aim has been to provide a future for the country’s youth and to alleviate overcrowding in the Nile Valley through massive migration out into the desert. The problem is that few of these schemes have worked, and none have reached anywhere near the targets intended.

“But it seems that lessons are never learned and that mistakes, mainly in the management of this public land as a scarce resource, are repeated. The book is an attempt to provide a rational perspective and thus a rethink of the whole desert project,” he explains.

“Over the years, it has grown evident that the desert has been becoming a receptacle for dreams,” notes Sims. He recounts the failures of government schemes in Egypt’s Desert Dreams and has grave reservations about successive Egyptian governments’ ever-grander schemes to construct new cities in the desert.

These megaprojects have been favoured by the country’s elite. Al-Katameya, Al-Shorouk, Al-Rehab and 6 October City, for instance, are now convenient and functioning suburbs of Greater Cairo. Perhaps they are not as bustling as Cairo or Giza, but they have many of the features of the suburbs of cities in North America or Europe.

 “The desert allows the government and a whole raft of cheerleaders to concentrate on the desert and ignore the reality of existing urban pressures,” Sims says.

There are also plans afoot to attract tens of millions of Nile Valley dwellers to a new life in the desert. But without a second stint in office, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s ambitions to construct a new capital in the desert may be left unfinished. For this grand design to become reality, political will is sorely needed as funding alone is not sufficient to make the desert bloom.

 Earlier plans for the construction of a new capital by past presidents and prime ministers have foundered. Local and foreign investors have lined up for slices of a growing pie in the wastelands enveloping Greater Cairo.

Ethical investment can metamorphose into its unethical antithesis, both as a result of officials dragging their feet and unscrupulous contractors. The imperative today should be to improve amenities for those at the bottom of Egypt’s economic pyramid.

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