Egypt’s road construction drives traffic jams but leaves some unhappy by Reuters
© Reuters. An aerial view of streets and houses near Nasr City, a suburb of Cairo, is pictured through the window of an airplane in Egypt on April 10, 2021. REUTERS / Amr Abdallah Dalsh
By Nadeen Ebrahim and Aidan Lewis
CAIRO (Reuters) – Over the weekend, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is frequently driven to a road construction site in Cairo, where he overlooks stretches of recently poured asphalt and is taught by workers.
The highways and bridges he inspects are the most visible part of a major infrastructure surge that is set to spur the Egyptian economy after decades of rapid population growth and unplanned construction.
Under the leadership of the government and the military, it includes several new cities and a million cheap apartments, and has helped drag Egypt through the economic shock of the pandemic and continue to grow over the past year.
After the overthrow of the first democratically elected President of Egypt in 2013 and the implementation of painful tax reforms, Sisi has invested in the success of the infrastructure.
But there is a cost. Some of those displaced on new streets are unhappy about losing their homes, others are unhappy that their neighborhoods have suddenly changed. Analysts ask how much of a difference the infrastructure boom can make while structural economic problems persist.
One area of intense activity is eastern Cairo, where new roads and bridges lead through the urban sprawl towards a futuristic capital that is under construction in the desert and slated to open this year.
In the Ezbet el-Hagana neighborhood, drills and excavators are creating an intersection that cuts through cheap, informal housing, hundreds of units of which have been demolished to make way for the street.
When Sisi visited in February, he met ministers in front of unpainted brick houses and discussed how half of the 100 million Egyptians lived in similar conditions. After that, Sisi announced that it would be renamed “Hope City”.
However, residents of Ezbet el-Hagana, many of whom have moved from rural areas and built homes and livelihoods, are concerned about the insecurity.
Ali Abdelrehim, a 52-year-old father of four, said his home was not in immediate danger, but others could suffer if authorities implement the president’s proposal to widen the area’s narrow streets.
“These changes are worrying people,” he said, adding that business at his carpentry shop has slowed to a trickle as people stop working on homes that are at risk of demolition.
Hosni Ali, a 34-year-old who sells tomatoes from a donkey cart, said a storage room he had rented had been demolished because of new road works. “Everyone here is scared … everything is on hold,” he said.
All over eastern Cairo and beyond, protracted road projects are racing ahead. Up to 1.1 trillion Egyptian pounds ($ 70 billion) will be spent on transportation in the decade to 2024, a third of that on roads and bridges, the transport minister said.
Officials are showcasing road construction as part of an effort to develop informal areas across Egypt and connect them to transportation networks and basic services. They say the displaced will be compensated or relocated.
Some of those who moved from Ezbet el-Hagana have been given furnished apartments in Ahlina, a new district on the outskirts of Cairo with a youth center and playgrounds. The residents say the conditions are good. But they have to pay rent and some have lost access to work.
“The problem is money and life is expensive,” said 75-year-old retiree Sabri Abdo, whose son is a motor rickshaw driver. “Before, I lived on my own property and didn’t pay rent. Nobody knows my son here, so things don’t work for him as if they were over there.”
The East Cairo governor’s office overseeing the area was unavailable for comment.
The surge in road construction – social media posts refer to Egypt as the “Republic of Roads and Bridges” – has sparked unrest for other reasons.
The construction of bridges and roads near the pyramids, around Cairo’s “Cities of the Dead”, in which people live between old family graves, and in the upscale Heliopolis district have alarmed conservationists.
Commuting to and from Heliopolis has gotten faster, but the character of the neighborhood has changed for residents, said Choucri Asmar, leader of the Heliopolis Heritage Foundation volunteer group.
“They can no longer walk in the street, they can no longer cross the street, they can no longer see trees from their balconies with the birds every afternoon,” he said.
When asked to respond to complaints about the Roads and Bridges program on television earlier this year, Sisi said no sector – including health, education, agriculture and manufacturing – has been neglected.
“We have to do this to make people’s lives easier and to reduce the loss of time, people’s stress and fuel consumption that cause more pollution,” he said.
In a 2014 study by the World Bank, the cost of traffic congestion in the greater Cairo area was estimated at 3.6% of Egypt’s gross domestic product, far higher than in some other major cities. However, she warned that building more roads and bridges would not solve the problem.
While tens of billions of dollars are being spent on roads in the east of Cairo, the new capital in the desert and a summer capital on the north coast of El Alamein, roads in other places are often underserved, local transport limited and public services inconsistent.
Like other motorists, Hesham Abu Aya, a 51-year-old taxi driver with three daughters, said new roads had eased the traffic crisis, but he would have to pay 7,500 Egyptian pounds ($ 480) to fix his car after a pothole.
“If I want the state to spend anything other than bridges and roads, it is health care,” he said.
Egypt suffers from a lack of research and development as well as obstacles to private sector expansion, said Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Behind all the investments in real estate or infrastructure, there is very little investment in the rest of the productive economy.”
Those with a record in the sector usually get contracts from military and other government agencies who control the infrastructure and can secure funding from banks, said Shams Eldin Yousef, chairman of the Al-Shams Contracting Company and board member of the Egyptian Building association.
His company did business through the road projects, but he wonders how long the boom will last.
“When a wheel that is moving at this speed and on this scale stops, it’s a problem,” he said.