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Egypt Builds A New Capital City


Cairo, the capital city of Egypt, is an ancient place. But it has some very modern problems, like traffic and pollution, and its population could double in the next 40 years. So Egypt has decided to build a new capital city nearby. NPR's Jane Arraf got a look at the city that's emerging.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: I'm in central Cairo. It's noisy and it's crowded, and the traffic is terrible. It can take two hours to get across the city in rush hour. Its Egyptian nickname is mother of the world. You either love or hate it. The city is more than 1,000 years old, and it's showing its age. So three years ago, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi ordered a whole new capital to be built. It doesn't have a name yet, but after two years of construction, the city is actually taking shape, rising out of the desert 30 miles from Cairo.

ABDUL HAMID NASSAR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Abdul Hamid Nassar (ph) is from the new capital commission. He shows us where he says more than 30 government ministries will relocate a year from now. A planned monorail is intended to bring employees to work from Cairo. In two years, they expect 1.5 million people to actually live here. Everything is planned on a monumental scale. A Chinese company has been contracted to build the tallest tower in Africa. A park twice the size of New York City's Central Park is planned to run through the capital. A palatial luxury hotel has already opened.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing call to prayer in Arabic).

ARRAF: And that call to prayer, it's coming from one of what will be hundreds of mosques that are being built here, along with hospitals, schools, banks - pretty much everything you'd need to never go into the existing capital again. The main mosque will have room for 12,000 worshippers. And following ISIS attacks on churches last year, Sissi ordered one of the biggest churches in the Middle East and Africa to be built here. Magdi Makramalla (ph) oversees the engineering.

MAGDI MAKRAMALLA: Yeah. I mean, we're building a new history here. This is a place where there were no people living here 10 years ago, or even five, six years ago. And now we're building a new city. So we're building a new history. So it's going to be nice.

ARRAF: So would you consider moving here?

MAKRAMALLA: No. (Laughter). It's a little bit expensive for me, at least for the time being. (Laughter).

ARRAF: And that's the problem. It's too expensive for almost anyone making a government salary.

NASSAR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Nassar takes us around one of the show apartments. He points out the ceramic tile floors, the three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It's expected to be priced at the equivalent of about $60,000, beyond the range of most middle-class Egyptians. And some urban planners say the new capital is just a bad idea, that the existing capital will just keep deteriorating while the government focuses on the new city. But, in his office, the spokesman for the new capital, army general Khaled al-Husseini (ph), says they're realizing their dream.

KHALED AL-HUSSEINI: It's a dream because we intend to make it smart, and we will make it modern enough for the Egyptian people.

ARRAF: He says the government is already providing affordable housing in other neighborhoods. And then he describes a much more orderly city where people and vehicles will be under constant surveillance.

AL-HUSSEINI: It's a unique city, a modern city. It means cameras everywhere. It means sensors for pollution, sensors for speed.

ARRAF: They're trying to make it safe enough to lure diplomats here from their lovely historic embassies. And safe enough to attract well-off Egyptians intent on leaving the noise, the grime, the chaos of a beloved but decrepit Cairo miles behind.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.