Cairo: Suburbanizing the Desert

by Natalia Echeverri

Construction booms and real estate speculations were a global phenomenon in the past decade. Under neoliberal policies, governments encouraged private entrepreneurs to develop mega projects. In many cases these projects had no ecological or social concerns and were often allowed to violate city regulations and to fence-in public space. The free market unevenly concentrated investment, growth and redevelopment in certain areas, while other areas became increasingly abandoned and marginalized.

In Cairo, large investments from other Arab countries fueled this process, and a good part of the resulting benefits ended up lining politicians' pockets. While governments in developing countries have given incentives for construction to create jobs, especially for unskilled workers, many times these subsidies end up in the wrong hands. After a crisis in 1990, the IMF required Egypt to apply neoliberal policies. Only 5% of the citizens, benefited from the resulting privatizations and subsidies.

Alegria development, Six of October, Cairo.

Now, in a time of oil and water crises, President Mubarak is creating new cities in the desert--luxury suburban oasis--which are sprouting up several miles outside of Cairo on former military or state lands. The government has sold this cheap, dry land to developers, invested and constructed modern highways for the new car-owning suburban dwellers and subsidized water for their luscious desert lawns.

These new cities, which include Sixth of October and New Cairo, recreate the American suburban typology: they are not walkable and lack a decent public transportation system. These new 'cities' are composed of shopping malls and gated communities that offer safe and unpolluted environments away from the city, as well as exclusivity, green landscape and, of course, golf courses.

Alegria and Dreamland developments, Six of October, Cairo.

Speculative builders profiting from the government subsidies doubled the size of these new cities by marketing foreign and bogus green lifestyles that are completely unsustainable. Coincidentally, one of the luxury suburbs, called Alegría, is owned by the father-in-law of President Mubarak’s son. In other words, president Muberak’s son is married to the daughter of one of the biggest developers in Egypt.

Despite the construction boom, only 25% of the units in the desert suburbs are occupied. In the rest of Cairo, there is a massive housing crisis affecting a large population that is living in overcrowded, illegal settlements without running water or sewer systems. People are living in the worst conditions. There are squatters on rooftops, people living in cemetery mausoleums (City of the Dead) and the city continues to sprawl out, with four to five storied informal constructions.

   City of the Dead and Historic Center, Cairo.

Regardless of this urgency for housing, the government has created incentives for the construction of luxury housing while limiting the construction of low-income housing. The misuse of government funds indirectly benefiting the high-end construction market is more widespread than one may think and distorts the very concept of laissez-faire, which is central to neoliberal policies. This distortion is causing the decay of the center of the city as the upper and middle classes leave it to its fate as it fails to attract private or public investment.

Credits: Images by Natalia Echeverri. Video of "Cairo, A Divided City" from The Arabist.


  1. Thank you for raising these issues. It's crazy how neoliberal development can be so non-laissez-faire. Then when you consider the expansion of slums, it's even more troubling. How can these scenarios be changed?

    There was a story on NPR recently about conservation-oriented development in a Cairo slum called Manshiyet Nasser. I know these kinds of projects could feed into neoliberal visions of NGOs taking care of the poor and allowing government to help those who are already well off, but they also show how slums are such vital sources of innovation.

    If government could support these kinds of efforts instead of inefficient new construction, it seems we could get somewhere in reducing poverty and making better use of resources.

  2. Machado and Silvetti Associates did a presentation at Harvard this summer on an "Urban Oasis" they were designing in the desert 50 miles outside of Cairo. The presenting designer admitted that the entire project was completely unsustainable. I asked him, given that admission, why his firm agreed to the project. He told me that Cairo expects its population boom to continue and that those people will need to live somewhere. It seems to me that if elite urban planning + design firms banded together and came up with some "rules of engagement" they would be able to nudge governments toward sustainability.

  3. Is the "breading of terrorist plicy and Islamists" a symptom of the flight to a more comfortable way of living or is the reason for the flight? Look at the clothing of the individuals in cairo's center vs. the people in the suburbs. Certainly there must be something there.

  4. Marc Mack, Michael Graves and Arquitectonica are the architects of the Alegria development mentioned in the post.

  5. The lack of respect for zoning laws, corruption and population explosion have destroyed the great old residential neighborhoods, rendering Cairo unlivable, a city about to collapse. In 1906 the Belgian engineer Baron Empain started the new city of Heliopolis in the desert ten kilometers from the center of Cairo as an upscale suburb equipped with all conveniences. Today it's a self sustained city. Sixth of October city is becoming sustainable. So it can work. The problem is that all the issues that led to the disintegration of Cairo have not been addressed and are being repeated in the new suburbs.

  6. Corruption, mismanagement, poor planning--that's Cairo for you. Within the city, buildings are going up at a panicked pace (unclad brick, sheets for windows, & unserviced [no elec., water, or sewer]); no way these neighborhoods can be sustained with a modicum of safety or livability. (Visitors can see it most easily from the Ring Road just east of the pyramids, but it's widespread.) Cairenes are escaping to the periphera--they're even leaving Heliopolis for Dubai-style developments in the desert, in New Cairo and well beyond. (El-Sherouk City feels like someone's vision for a post-apocalyptic suburban utopia--but it's a third of the way to Suez!)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.