CAIRO IS KNOWN as the city of a thousand minarets. Its replacement started with just four, the spindly white towers of the Fattah al-Aleem mosque (pictured), a showpiece project in the new purpose-built capital rising in the desert 49km east of Cairo. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the president, unveiled the mosque this month. But no one lives in the city yet. Students from Cairo University, vetted by the government, were bused in for the first Friday prayers on January 18th. Like the mosque, Egypt’s still-nameless new capital is grandiose, empty and tightly controlled.
Mr Sisi is not the first Egyptian ruler to move the capital. The pharaohs had Thebes and Memphis, to name just two. Alexandria was the heart of Greco-Roman Egypt. The modern capital dates back to 969AD, when Fatimid conquerors commissioned a walled city to mark their triumph. A millennium later the “city victorious”, as it is known, has become a city tumultuous: a congested sprawl of 23m people. In his later years Hosni Mubarak, the dictator deposed in 2011, preferred to govern from the idyllic Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Five years after he took power in a coup, Mr Sisi is preparing his own move. When (and if) it is finished the new city will stretch over 700 square kilometres, about the size of Singapore. Instead of Cairo’s teeming slums and cramped alleys it features wide boulevards and neat rows of high-rises. Alongside the mosque is the region’s largest cathedral. A state-run Chinese firm is building a business district with Africa’s tallest skyscraper. The city is meant to ease the pressure on Cairo—and, some say, boost Mr Sisi’s ego.
No one knows what all of this will cost (the initial estimate was $45bn) or how Egypt will pay for it. The project has been plagued by financial problems since its start in 2015. Contract talks have stalled with Emaar, a Dubai property giant, and with a second Chinese firm meant to build $20bn worth of facilities. As ever in Egypt the army stepped into the breach. It owns 51% of the firm overseeing the project, with the rest controlled by the housing ministry.
A modest first phase opens this year. Parliament hopes to move as early as this summer. About 50,000 bureaucrats (less than 1% of public-sector workers) will soon follow. But foreign embassies are reluctant to move while the city is still deserted. They also worry that, confined to a city with an army “command centre”, they will be cut off from what remains of civil society. Mr Sisi’s government warns that it cannot (or will not) secure embassies in Cairo.
The bigger question is whether Egyptians themselves will move. Since the 1970s the government has littered the desert with planned cities meant to ease congestion. One called New Cairo, east of old Cairo, was supposed to attract up to 5m residents. It has less than one-tenth of that. The new cities often lack jobs to draw residents. Many have become havens for rich Egyptians fleeing Cairo’s traffic and pollution.
The new capital will have jobs, but few civil servants can afford to live there. On average they earn 1,247 Egyptian pounds ($70) a week. Last year the housing ministry listed apartment prices in the city at more than 11,000 pounds per square metre. State employees will receive a discount, and plans call for 285,000 low-cost housing units. Neither will provide adequate housing for the 2.1m bureaucrats in Cairo or the other workers needed to run the city.