Writing by Patrick Keddie
THE SANDSTORMS that wrap, choke, and blind Cairo in a periodic haze are a reminder of the desert’s proximity. Driving west out of the city, free from the congestion of inner Cairo, it is a shockingly fast escape out of the metropolis on flyovers that traverse a brief ribbon of greenery, dissolving into the beige of the desert and the gauntlet of gaudy advertisements for hair gel, soap operas, and snacks that line the highway out toward 6th of October City.
In Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, the enormous tracts of desert are remote. In Egypt, the desert is right there: on the shoulder of the sea, abutting major cities and the Nile. Egypt’s desert, vast and near, is a tabula rasa that tempts projections, dreams, and fantastic panaceas.
At the Economic Development conference, in the coastal desert resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in March, housing minister Mostafa Madbouly announcedthe government’s latest megaproject in front of potential investors: a $45 billion plan to build a new capital city in Egypt’s desert.
The city would be home to about 5 million people, making it the largest purpose-built capital in the world. A scale model displayed at the conference revealed a metropolis of Gulf-state skyscrapers and tree-lined avenues, parks and fountains, mosques and low-slung apartment complexes, and a stadium containing tiny spectators. (Presumably the authorities are confident they will have resolved their deadly dispute with football fans in the five to seven years it will supposedly take to build the city from the desert up.)
This new capital is actually based on an old idea. The proposed site is east of New Cairo — one of several new towns already founded in Egypt’s desert — and fits squarely into Egypt’s longstanding policy of prioritizing desert development as a salve for the country’s ills. Overcrowding in the verdant valley and delta of the Nile is typically defined as Egypt’s root development problem, as 96 percent of the population live on four percent of the land. Egypt’s major resource is virgin, vacant space in superabundance — more than 95 percent of the country’s land is desert.
David Sims — an American economist and urban planner, based in Egypt for over 40 years — examines the evolution and the success of Egypt’s desert development in his timely new book Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster? The book’s subtitle is answered early and bluntly. Sims writes:
For over five decades, desert schemes have consumed massive public funds and private investments and continue to do so. Yet the Egyptian desert is virtually littered with still-born, anemic, and failed projects. In spite of a few successes, the amount of land reclaimed for agriculture remains tiny and its production feeble, most cities and settlements remain ghost towns or playgrounds for the rich, and most industrial areas remain sand-blown empty lots. Not a single proclaimed desert development target has been met, and most are several orders of magnitude out of sync. Moreover, these many efforts have hardly attracted anyone to live in the desert, and thus the national project of populating the desert and relieving the crowded [Nile] Valley remains a chimera.
Sims seeks to demonstrate how the apparent logic of desert development has been consistently confounded. His analysis inevitably features a political critique — exposing the corruption and chiseling of patronage networks and land-based favors — prompting further questions: How have Egypt’s uprisings altered desert development? Can desert development be salvaged, or has Egypt’s major asset been irremediably squandered? Have the country’s entire developmental prospects been hobbled?
[Read the rest of the article published by the LA Review of Books here]