Ancient tombs have been shattered. Gardens have vanished, and with them many of Cairo’s trees.
A growing number of historic but shabby working-class neighborhoods have all but disappeared, too, handed over to developers to build concrete high-rises while families who have lived there for generations are pushed to the fringes of the sprawling Egyptian capital.
Few cities live and breathe antiquity like Cairo, a sun-strafed, traffic-choked desert metropolis jammed with roughly 22 million people. But President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is modernizing this superannuated city, fast.
He is trying to buff its unruly complexity into a place of efficient uniformity — the traffic tamed, the Nile River promoted as a tourist attraction, the slums cleaned up and their residents rehoused in modern apartments. And he considers the construction as one of the major accomplishments of his tenure.
“There is not a single place in Egypt that has not been touched by the hand of development,” Mr. el-Sisi proclaimed in a recent speech.
So the old stone and brick must go, paved over by concrete. New elevated highways undulate over ancient cemeteries, riding skinny struts like giant gray roller coasters. A freshly built walkway lined with fast-food joints runs along the Nile, the entrance fee out of reach for many Egyptians, with consumer inflation running at about 38 percent annually.
New roads, overpasses and offramps materialize so quickly that taxi drivers and Google Maps alike can barely keep up. And Cairo is not just being made over, but replaced: Mr. el-Sisi is erecting a supersized new capital, all right angles, tall towers and luxury villas, in the desert just outside of Cairo.
The estimated cost of the new capital alone is $59 billion, with billions more going to other construction projects, including roads and high-speed trains meant to link the new capital to the old. Most of it was paid for by debt, the sheer mass of which has crippled Egypt’s ability to handle a deep economic crisis set off by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A few weeks ago, the modernization efforts reached Fustat, the city’s most ancient district, founded as Egypt’s capital centuries before Cairo was even a thought.
A district official knocked on the door of the artist Moataz Nasreldin and told him to start packing up Darb 1718, the popular cultural center he founded in the neighborhood 16 years ago. The government would be widening the road behind it to build an elevated highway, Mr. Nasreldin, 62, said the official told him.
Darb, along with some of the nearby pottery workshops run for decades by local craftsmen and some nearby housing, would have to go.
As often happens nowadays in Egypt, where stories abound of government excavators and bulldozers appearing on private property with barely any notice, information about the decision was scant. Mr. Nasreldin and the owners of the pottery workshops said local officials had not presented a written demolition order or any other paperwork.
“Every day, you wake up and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Mohamed Abdin, 48, who owns one of the workshops slated for destruction. He said his family has been making pottery in the area since the 1920s.
Some Cairenes are proud of the construction, seeing it as tangible evidence of progress.
“These are the developments that the country had to see,” a pro-Sisi TV presenter, Ahmed Moussa, said on his program recently.
Others say they no longer recognize their own city.
“If you were being invaded, all what you’d care about is your monuments, your trees, your history, your culture,” said Mamdouh Sakr, an architect and urbanist. “And now, it’s all being destroyed, without any reason, without any explanation, without any need.”
Most of the time, Egyptians simply submit, powerless before the state. But not Mr. Nasreldin, who sued to stop the destruction and raised a fuss on social media. The municipality said it was reconsidering the plans, but did not say when a final decision would be made or who would make it.
Construction of roads, bridges and major projects such as the new capital is usually overseen by Egypt’s powerful military. It was the military that elevated Mr. el-Sisi, a former general, to power in 2013 amid mass protests demanding the ouster of the country’s first democratically elected president, who took office after the country’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
Cairenes, as this city’s residents are known, who have contacted government officials to push back against the development say those in charge tend to wave off experts’ advice and dismiss the concerns of local residents. Only in isolated cases have preservationists managed to save historical monuments.
The proliferation of military-led projects has given rise to a sarcastic phrase, “the generals’ taste,” implying a certain drab boxiness, a monotony occasionally spritzed with glitz.
The style is exemplified by the gleaming new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, not far from Darb, where ancient Egypt’s most famous royal mummies are housed. Bulldozers and heavy machinery have nosed around the surrounding district for years, demolishing housing in working-class neighborhoods, apparently to make way for new construction.
A new lakeside restaurant next to the museum boasts the Frenchified name “Le Lac du Caire.” While diners enjoy the greenery around the water, trees elsewhere have been felled one by one.
It might be a stretch to call Cairo lush. But Egypt’s 19th-century rulers adorned their capital with public gardens, importing greenery that now seems inseparable from the city itself, like the flame trees that flare with bright red flowers every spring.
Many of those gardens and trees have disappeared in the past few years, reducing what little public space Cairo once had — usually without any environmental review, and often over the objections of local residents.
In their place have come fast-food stalls and cafes, new roads and military-owned gas stations, lining the once-green Nile banks and leafy neighborhoods like Zamalek and Heliopolis.
Amid unrelenting bad press at home and abroad over the demolitions, the prime minister, Mostafa Madbouly, recently said new gardens, parks and roads would be built where large swaths of the ancient cemeteries known as the City of the Dead have been leveled. A new “Garden for the Immortals” will house the remains of some historic figures whose original tombs were razed “due to urgent development needs,” as a state-owned newspaper, Al Ahram, put it.
So far, only the roads have appeared.
Locals say modernization is not unwelcome, but wholesale destruction is.
When Mr. Nasreldin and a few other artists started working and living in the area near Darb in the 1990s, it was a crowded jumble of illegally, often unsafely built housing. It has only grown bigger and unrulier since.
Hearing that the government had its eye on the neighborhood, he envisioned better housing, maybe designed by an architect with an eye for preservation and community needs, definitely with reliable electricity and running water. Smoother roads. More businesses opening to serve food to those who came to Darb from around Cairo and beyond for concerts, film screenings and exhibitions.
Not the wrecking of what, to him, was drawing more life and economic activity to the area: art studios, cultural ferment, a symbiotic relationship between the traditional pottery workshops and the artists who came to Darb from Egypt and elsewhere.
“There should be 100 Darbs all over Egypt,” Mr. Nasreldin said. “To me, this is not a very wise decision at all.”
One of the homes slated for demolition belongs to Mohamed Amin, 56, a former construction worker turned jack-of-all-trades at Darb.
Yes, the neighborhood was unprepossessing, he said, but it was home, and had been for generations. Yes, the housing was illegally built. But, he argued, the government had refused to issue building permits, forcing residents to take matters into their own hands.
In such cases, the government usually offers new subsidized apartments. But they tend to be a considerable distance away from the original neighborhood and, in many cases, ultimately unaffordable.
Clearing everyone out for the new highway meant that while some people would be able to reach the new museum more easily, former residents of the area would now have to make an exhausting commute across Cairo to get to work, if their livelihoods survived.
“Everyone is scared,” said Mr. Amin, adding that no one in the neighborhood had been told what the plan was. “Why are you suffocating us like this?”
Vivian Yee is the Cairo bureau chief, covering politics, society and culture in the Middle East and North Africa. She was previously based in Beirut, Lebanon, and in New York, where she wrote about New York City, New York politics and immigration. More about Vivian Yee
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