By Nadeen Ebrahim and Aidan Lewis

CAIRO (Reuters) – At weekends, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is often driven to a road construction site in Cairo where he is pictured surveying stretches of newly poured asphalt and be informed by workers.

The highways and bridges he inspects are the most visible part of a major infrastructure push intended to galvanize Egypt’s economy after decades of rapid population growth and unplanned construction.

Led by the government and military, it includes several new towns and one million low-cost housing units and helped Egypt weather the economic shock of the pandemic and stay growing last year.

After overthrowing Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2013 and pushing through painful tax reforms, Sisi has invested in the success of the infrastructure campaign.

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But there is a cost. Some of those displaced by new roads are unhappy to lose their homes, others to see their neighborhoods suddenly transformed. Analysts wonder what difference the infrastructure boom can make as structural economic problems persist.

One area of ​​intense activity is eastern Cairo, where new roads and bridges cut through urban sprawl to a futuristic capital under construction in the desert and due to open this year.

In the neighborhood of Ezbet el-Hagana, drills and diggers carve out a crossroads through cheap and informal housing, hundreds of which have been demolished to make way for the road.

During Sisi’s visit in February, he met ministers in front of unpainted brick buildings and explained how half of Egypt’s population of 100 million lived in similar conditions. Afterwards, Sisi announced that she would be renamed “Hope City”.

But residents of Ezbet el-Hagana, many of whom have left rural areas and built apartments and livelihoods, say they are worried about the uncertainty.

Ali Abdelrehim, a 52-year-old father of four, said his home was not in immediate danger, but others could suffer if authorities implemented the president’s suggestion to widen the neighborhood’s narrow streets .

“These changes are worrying people,” he said, adding that business at his carpentry shop had slowed to a frantic pace as people stopped working on houses that were in danger of being demolished.

Hosni Ali, a 34-year-old man who sells tomatoes on a donkey cart, said a storage room he rented had been demolished due to new road works. “Everyone here is scared…everything is on hold,” he said.

Across east Cairo and beyond, long-delayed road projects are making great strides. As many as 1.1 trillion Egyptian pounds ($70 billion) will be spent on transport in the decade to 2024, a third of which will be on roads and bridges, the transport minister said.

Officials present the construction of the road as part of efforts to develop informal areas across Egypt, connecting them to transportation networks and basic services. They say the displaced will be compensated or resettled.

Some of those who left Ezbet el-Hagana have been allocated furnished accommodation in Ahlina, a new neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo with a youth center and playgrounds, and locals say 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 Sabri Abdo, a 75-year-old pensioner whose son is a rickshaw driver. “Before that, I lived on my own property and didn’t pay rent. No one knows my son here, so things don’t work for him the way they did there.”

The Cairo East Governor’s Office, which oversees the region, was not available for comment.

The wave of road construction – social media posts dub Egypt “the republic of roads and bridges” – has raised concern for other reasons.

The construction of bridges and roads near the pyramids, around Cairo’s “cities of the dead” where people live among old family tombs, and in the distinguished district of Heliopolis, has alarmed conservationists.

Travel to and from Heliopolis has become faster, but the character of the neighborhood has changed for residents, said Choucri Asmar, head of the Heliopolis Heritage Foundation volunteer group.

“They can’t walk down the street anymore, they can’t cross the street anymore, they can’t see the trees from their balconies every afternoon with the birds anymore,” he said.

Asked about a response 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 need to do this to make people’s lives easier, to reduce wasted time, people’s stress and fuel used causing more pollution,” he said.

A World Bank study in 2014 estimated the costs of congestion in Greater Cairo at 3.6% of Egypt’s gross domestic product, far more than in some other major cities – although it warned that the building more roads and bridges would not solve the problem.

While tens of billions of dollars are spent on roads in eastern Cairo, the new capital in the desert and a summer capital on the north coast at El Alamein, roads elsewhere are often undermaintained, limited public transport and spotty public services.

Like other motorists, Hesham Abu Aya, a 51-year-old taxi driver with three daughters, said new roads eased the traffic crisis, but he had to pay 7,500 Egyptian pounds ($480) to fix his car after hitting a pothole.

“If I want the state to spend on anything other than bridges and roads, it would be health care,” he said.

Egypt suffers from a lack of research and development and barriers to private sector expansion, said Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Behind all the investment in real estate or infrastructure, there is very little investment in the rest of the productive economy.”

Those with a track record in the sector tend to get contracts from the military and other state agencies that direct infrastructure development and can secure financing from banks, said Shams Eldin Yousef, chairman of Al- Shams Contracting Company and board member of the Egyptian Construction Federation.

His company has picked up business thanks to the road projects, but he wonders how long the boom will last.

“If a wheel that’s moving at this speed and scale stops, that’s going to be a problem,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Mahmoud Mourad and Patrick Werr; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.

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