While Egypt’s economy stumbles due to coronavirus, construction of a new capital east of Cairo continues at full throttle after a pause to adjust working practices, officials say.
The level of activity at the desert site – where trucks rumble down newly built roads and cranes swing over unfinished apartment blocks – reflects the new city’s political importance even as government grapples with the pandemic.
Known as the New Administrative Capital, it is the biggest of a series of megaprojects championed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a source of growth and jobs.
Soon after coronavirus started spreading, Sisi postponed moving the first civil servants to the new city and delayed opening of a national museum adjoining the pyramids to next year.
Productivity dipped as companies adapted to health guidelines and labourers stayed home.
Officials sought to keep the megaprojects going to protect jobs and after 10 days of slowdown construction resumed at the new capital on a shift system, said Amr Khattab, spokesman for the Housing Ministry, which along with the military owns the company building the city.
“The proportion of the labour force on site doesn’t exceed 70%, so workers don’t get too close,” he said showing the R5 neighbourhood, which includes 24 000 housing units. “We work less intensively, but we do two shifts.”
Sisi, who publicly quizzes officials responsible for infrastructure projects about timetables and costs, launched the new capital in 2015.
Designed as a high-tech smart city that will house 6,5 million people and relieve congestion in Cairo, it includes government and business districts, a giant park and a diplomatic quarter as yet unbuilt.
A senior official said last year the cost of the project was about $58 billion. Some Egyptians see the new capital as a source of pride for others it is extravagant and built to benefit a cocooned elite.
‘RUNNING ON TIME’
“We have clear instructions from the president that postponement of the opening is not a delay to the project,” said Khattab. “The project is running on time.”
Disinfection and other protective measures are visible at the construction site 45km east of the Nile, though some workers were ordered to don masks when journalists started filming and others drove by. Egypt confirmed more than 1 ,000 coronavirus cases none at the new capital.
Delays in payments to contractors and imported suppliers were additional risks, said Shams Eldin Youssef, a member of Egypt’s union for construction contractors. Khattab said government had contractor payments in hand.
The Housing Ministry expects to deliver two residential districts by late 2021, while the business district should be finished by early 2022, said Ahmed al-Araby, deputy head of the new capital’s development authority. Private developers and the army are building six other neighbourhoods.
In the government district, which Khattab said was 90% complete, ministry buildings fronted with vertical strips of white stone and darkened glass lead to an open area being planted with palm trees and mini obelisks in front of a domed parliament building.
To one side a large, low-rise presidential palace is under construction.
Sisi urged people seeking work to head to new cities being built around the country, including the new capital, which Khattab said employs 250 000 workers.
Critics question diversion of resources from existing cities, including Cairo, parts of which are in slow decay.
“The question about how rational this is – whether it makes sense economically, whether it is doable, whether it’s the best course of action – this is not even asked,” Ezzedine Fishere, Egyptian writer and senior lecturer at Dartmouth College in the United States, said.
On the other side of Cairo at the new museum next to the Giza pyramids, work also continues at a slower pace.
In mid-April staffing levels dropped to 40%, with plans to recover gradually to 100%, said General Atef Muftah, who oversees the project.