In the film The Yacoubian Building, Zaki – the film’s protagonist, played by Adel Imam – stumbles through Talaat Harb Square in the early hours of the morning, commanding people to come look at the "apartment buildings that used to be better than the ones in Europe."
Although Zaki’s comments are part of a drunken diatribe, he has a point: the iconic square is an aesthetic has-been, its once-white French neoclassical buildings browned by dust and smog and its streets teeming with motor and pedestrian traffic.
But it is not just Talaat Harb that has deteriorated. A multitude of other districts throughout Cairo are also far cries from their former selves.
Many attribute the decline of Cairo’s aesthetic lure to the ails of overpopulation – overcrowding, traffic, poor infrastructure and rampant garbage.
Speaking at a press conference in July, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab spoke of a possible solution to these issues that would relocate government ministries to an administrative capital outside of Cairo on the Cairo-Suez road, a move he said would loosen traffic congestion.
The proposal – one of many recent urban planning projects announced by the government to reduce overcrowding in the capital – has been touted by many as the solution to Cairo’s deterioration.
But is it possible for Egypt to take on another capital?
For Ahmed Zaazaa – urban designer, researcher, architect, and cofounder of Madd platform, an independent institution that works on issues related to urban development – the name "capital" in itself brings with it a stigma that is counterproductive.
"It doesn’t even have to be called a capital," the architect said, "it can be as simple as an ‘important city’ that is exclusively for government and administrative activity."
Zaazaa feels that while such an "important city" can thin the traffic and pollution that plague Cairo, its ability to do so depends on two requirements: being a critical distance of at least 100 km outside of Cairo and not being constructed from scratch.
The architect believes that government-sponsored urban development projects aimed at easing overpopulation in Cairo have historically violated these conditions on several occasions.
Over the past 60 years the government has planned various "city centres" within Cairo’s city limits meant to consolidate cultural, political, commercial and other government or business activities under one roof (see map provided by ZaaZaa).
Map of past City Centre projects.
Credit: Ahmed Zaazaa
Zaazaa explained that each of these projects were not only abandoned but "were not far enough outside of Cairo to have much of an effect on overcrowding.”
But even projects outside of Cairo can fail if constructed from scratch.
Take two relocation projects from the era of Hosni Mubarak – the Toshka New Valley Project and the Cairo 2050 plan. Both intended to address overcrowding by shifting millions of Cairenes to new desert communities that would cost millions of dollars to build.
“Such projects were never completed because of their impracticality,” Zaaaza said, explaining that they were “a waste of time and resources” that depended on unrealistic relocation and astronomical investment figures.
Although little information has been provided regarding Mahlab's July announcement, recent comments from former housing minister and prominent engineer Hasballah El-Kafrawi revealed a few details while indicating that the same poor planning may be at work.
El-Kafrawi called the current regime's plans for the new capital "naïve" when speaking to Al-Masry Al-Youm in early August, explaining that a new LE53 billion (about $7.5 billion) project to build a city 60 km outside of Cairo without providing the infrastructure for workers to reach it had been put forth by an "irresponsible government" without "convincing justification."
"For a project like a new administrative city to be seen through, it must be practical," the urban designer said, "that is the intention behind the two criteria I have suggested."
With this in mind, Zaazaa proposes creating "an important administrative city" in a place like Fayoum, a city of roughly 350,000 people around 100 km south of Cairo.
"Fayoum is already equipped with an existing community and resources like Lake Qarun that the government could rely on in developing an important city," he said.
"This project meets criteria and will have a real effect on pollution and traffic in Cairo without requiring millions in funding" he explained.
Has overpopulation been framed?
While many are convinced that Cairo’s beauty has waned as a result of overpopulation, Zaazaa believes a look into Egypt’s history may expose a different culprit.
The architect said that places like Talaat Harb square have not deteriorated so much because of overcrowding but because of "failed urban policy."
Zaazaa pointed to Boulaq Abul Ela – a now run-down, impoverished and overcrowded district in central Cairo – and explained that it was "actually more populated and better maintained" in 1890 than it is today.
"There is a policy failure here," ZaaZaa explained, "the government should be keeping up with maintenance and street cleaning and identifying historic areas as heritage sites."
He added that even when the government does choose to focus on identifying heritage sites and their restoration, its approach applies an artificial mask, leaving such a place devoid of its true character.
An example is the restoration of El-Moez Street, a main street in old Islamic Cairo that was restored in several stages between 1998 and 2008.
To ZaaZaa, the government’s LE5 million ($700,000) project on El-Moez Street was one that "simply cleaned streets" and renovated buildings.
While he agrees that the street is now "much better looking" he also feels the project eliminated the "organic bustle" that was such an important part of its character.
So for ZaaZaa, while now may be the time for Egypt’s new capital it is also the time for a renewed approach to urban policy which is practical and seeks to "preserve authenticity."
"If we can redesign urban policy in parallel with building up a city like Fayoum so that it accommodates all administrative activities, then we stand a real chance to preserve Cairo’s old grandeur."