Since the end of the nineteenth century, Cairo looked as though it was dying – and no one seemed to have the power to save it. It had a huge body and a tough face.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, Cairo looked as though it was dying – and no one seemed to have the power to save it. It had a huge body and a tough face.

Its inhabitants knew that its face told stories of deceptions and conspiracies, as is common in the capitals of collapsing powers. It was a ‘city without a heart’, as the famous 60-year-old poet Ahmad Abdul Moti Hijazi described it. A seam of hardness was mixed with a tempting beauty, derived from its long history and ancient ruins including pharaonic, islamic, and coptic buildings. As well as these relics, the city was enlivened by the indigenous customs of people who, regardless of their religious affiliations, made it a city that never sleeps.

It was a city of power and culture, artists and dancers, devotees and drunkards, located in a country of Romans, Arabs of all sects, public-money robbers, wanton women, mosques and minarets. Cairo is called ‘Egypt’ by people in other governorates, perhaps because it has something they miss.

Traffic chaos

Beauty has withered away, vanishing as new buildings grow at an unregulated pace to house a population that expands beyond government control. The entire city is engulfed in cars and factory fumes as if it were ‘Gotham City’ in the grip of an evil hand. Garbage is everywhere, travel is tortuous, with decrepit vehicles held up in endless traffic jams.

Cairo, in brief, is no longer a place fit to live in. All the complaints that resonate in daily talk shows, conferences, seminars, and TV interviews have yielded nothing. There are no solutions are in sight. The city has lost its faith in itself and has stopped being a source of inspiration. Its admirers are not as enthusiastic as they used to be. Cairo has turned into a nightmare for citizens and government alike.

The plans that were imposed to solve Cairo’s problems could not stop the deterioration. The neighbourhoods that sprang up on the peripheries have become fused with the already exhausted city, adding up to its burdens. The first-generation cities, built to reduce the increasing pressure on Cairo, including the governorates of Giza and Qalyubia, which are already overcrowded. They have blatantly failed to solve the problem.

These cities, including 10th of Ramadan City on the desert Cairo-Ismailia highway, 46 km from Cairo, which administratively belongs to Al Sharqia Governorate, Al-Sadat, north of Egypt, which administratively belongs to Monufia Governorate, and 15th May city, south-east of the industrial city of Helwan, 35 km from Cairo, have all turned into ghost cities. No one wants to move to there. They have been isolated urban areas right from their inception.

City in the desert

Amid this bedlam and at the dawn of the third millennium, the city of New Cairo emerged. Over the years, this new city has grown roots, not only as a residential area, but also as a vibrant neighbourhood. The new township, commonly known as “El-Tagamu”, has introduced unusual cultural, urban and consumer values that can be compared with new Egypt neighbourhoods created over one hundred years ago by the Belgian Baron Edward Empain (1852-1929).

Right from the start, New Cairo had its own fabulous character. Companies and entrepreneurs were acutely aware of the suffering of old city residents. Therefore, the new project had arrived like a dream. Adverts focused on the ugly face of ancient Cairo, projecting an image of a citizen who was suffering from traffic jams, pollution and lost ethical values of the old city. This reality was then juxtaposed with the harmonic swathes of land featuring residential areas with wide streets and green stretches of land, where people picnic in public gardens. Faces smiled and security prevailed behind the walls and gates. For the first time, New Cairo appeared on official TV screens as it really is, without retouches or cosmetics. It appeared at its finest, to the sounds of music and patriotic songs.

It was not a publicity campaign as much as a vision of a promised land. It was not difficult to distinguish the discriminatory nature of those campaigns. Some opposition voices quietly tried to defend the old city and their cherished memories. But they sounded too romantic and were drowned out by the hustle bustle and noise of construction equipment.

By then, Egypt had entered an era of an unstoppable capitalism. It was the era of Gamal Mubarak, Ahmad Ezz and their cronies. Millions of dollars were funneled out of the country, marking the end of the public sector and the state’s abandonment of the poor. The era was dominated by films and trashy songs made to the taste of youngsters at the expense of the generations who had controlled the market for decades.

The official documents of New Cairo revealed it was built in accordance with presidential decree No. 191 in the year 2000. It covers nearly 70,000 acres and is located at the eastern arc of Cairo, an area with a strong military presence and near the airport.

Sand to snow

Three quarters of its area sport panoramic views of so-called ‘Cairo Al-Moezz’ (Islamic Cairo). It is about 350 meters above sea level, and 100 meters above Muqattam Mountain. The city is characterized by its nice moderate weather in the summer and very cold winters. Two years ago the local newspapers reported that snow covered the entire city. One headline read “European weather sweeps through New Cairo”. That news had come as a surprise because snow is a rarity in Egypt. It has also fit into Egyptians’ view that New Cairo fits in with the best European city planning standards.

A special relationship has developed between New Cairo and ‘El-Tagamu,’ as many Egyptians prefer to call it, and the ancient historic city. El-Tagamu has no history of its own, and has borrowed names of streets and areas from the old city, like Talat Harb Square in New Cairo city center. Many other squares and streets have also been named after prominent Egyptian leaders. The compounds, designed for the affluent classes, carry names unfamiliar to many Egyptians, like ‘Al Andalus’, ‘Mountain View’, ‘Al Rehab’ or ‘Lake View’.

High prospects

It is less than 10 years since its creation and real estate prices have risen to highs that can only compare to the affluent neighborhoods of Heliopolis, Maadi, Nasr City, and Zamalek. In another five years real estate experts expect it will deliver the highest prices in all of Egypt. Many believe that those who seized the opportunity at the beginning were the luckiest. This too is portrayed in the adverts which mirror reactions on the street, portraying an expansive desert devoid of life and a citizen refusing the opportunity offered to him. Years later, he was pictured in a state of remorse, stuck in the unregulated part of the city.

The law laid down for the city has been implemented almost without any violations, which is considered a miracle in Egypt. Thanks to that law, the city was completed as planned, because the first clause states that construction had to be completed within a specified time after receipt of the land. It also stated that spaces and green areas must be left between buildings, taking into consideration that the colour and shape of each compound must be the same. These rules applied to all buildings, those belonging to affluent owners as well as the housing units built by the government for medium-income people, known as ‘youth housing’.

The result is social harmony, accompanied by good quality public utilities and wide streets that cope with the city traffic given a low population density. The new city is far from its mother city’s pollution and noise but close to fast ring roads which leading to the main hub.

It was in this city that the early settlers came to set up their own ‘utopia’, although as wise people say, there is no paradise on Earth.