A farewell to Cairo: Why Egypt is relocating its capital to a deserted desert city

The Egyptian government has had enough of Cairo and is leaving.

They plan to relocate the country’s entire administrative apparatus to a new capital, springing up in the desert about 30 miles away.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi wants it all up and running by the end of next year.

The desert project is incredible in both scale and ambition. Already Egypt’s biggest mosque and church are complete. Eventually you will be able to look down on them from the tallest skyscraper in Africa.

Increasing traffic overload in Cairo has stalled the city's progress. Credit: On Assignment

The new capital is intended to become a home for more than five million people. It’ll be about the same size as Singapore.

Cairo is a city of more than 20 million people. In 2017 alone its population increased by half a million.

At any time of day the vast majority of Cairenes seem to be on the road. The city’s traffic congestion is chronic. Cairo is grinding to a halt under its own weight.

John Irvine bids Cairo's capital status farewell. Credit: On Assignment

The government argues that the move will ease the pressure on Cairo and provide Egypt with a new capital to be proud of – a smart, efficient city the world can look up to.

Critics say the money being spent on the city in the desert would be better spent renovating the city of the Nile and the Pyramids.

Critics also fear the new capital will be a city for the rich only. They claim the move will people-proof the government because it will be out of reach of the masses.

The roadside billboards promise Egyptians a bright future in the new capital. Credit: On Assignment

President Sisi is all too aware of the power of the street. Mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square and outside government ministries in Cairo were the pretext for the coup that elevated him to Egypt’s leader in 2013.

Two years earlier it was also people power and street protests that brought about the overthrow of long-time president Hosni Mubarak.

The new capital will have space for more than 100 foreign embassies, but if you ask diplomats about relocation they are non-committal. There are mutterings about a ghost town.

The new capital is intended to become a home for more than five million people. Credit: On Assignment

However investors don’t see it that way. Homes in the new capital have been selling fast even though most haven’t been built.

So far about 30,000 dwellings are complete, but no-one is living in them yet.

The majority stakeholder in the whole thing is the Egyptian Army, which is also supervising the private companies doing all the construction work.

Identikit homes are being built for the new city population. Credit: On Assignment

The military is consolidating its already immense power in Egypt.

Purpose-built capitals – like Canberra or Ottawa – have a reputation for being boring and in fairness no-one here believes Egypt’s new capital will attract many tourists.

Smart and efficient it may well be, but for the rest of the world Cairo will remain this country’s signature city, as it has been for almost a thousand years.

The Egyptian Army is supervising the private companies doing all the construction work. Credit: On Assignment

Watch John's report in full in the new series of On Assignment, which begins on Tuesday 14th May at 10.45pm on ITV