- The infrastructure push aims to galvanize the economy
- Sisi is committed to the plan of roads and bridges
- Some displaced people are unhappy about losing their homes
- Experts say structural economic problems persist
CAIRO, May 14 (Reuters) – On weekends, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is often driven to a road construction site in Cairo where he is pictured surveying stretches of recently poured asphalt and to be informed by workers.
The highways and bridges he inspects are the most visible part of a major infrastructure initiative meant to galvanize the Egyptian economy after decades of rapid population growth and unplanned construction.
Led by the government and the military, it includes several new cities and a million low-cost housing and has helped Egypt weather the economic shock of the pandemic and remain growing over the past year.
After overthrowing Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2013 and carrying out painful tax reforms, Sisi is invested in the success of the infrastructure campaign.
But there is a cost. Some 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.
East Cairo is an area of intense activity, where new roads and bridges cross urban sprawl to a futuristic desert capital being built and slated to open this year.
In the district of Ezbet el-Hagana, drills and excavators are setting up a crossroads that crosses cheap and informal housing, hundreds of units of which have been demolished to make way for the road.
During her visit in February, Sisi met ministers in front of unpainted brick apartment blocks and explained how half of Egypt’s population of 100 million lived in similar conditions. Subsequently, 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, 52, a father of four, said his home was not in immediate danger, but others could suffer if authorities act on the president’s suggestion to widen the neighborhood’s narrow streets.
“These changes worry people,” he said, adding that the business of his carpentry shop has slowed as people stop working on houses that are at risk of demolition.
Hosni Ali, a 34-year-old man selling tomatoes on a donkey cart, said a storage room he was renting was demolished because of new road works. “Everyone here is scared… everything is on hold,” he said.
In eastern Cairo and beyond, long-delayed road projects are advancing. Up to 1.1 trillion Egyptian pounds ($ 70 billion) will be spent on transport over the decade to 2024, a third of which will be on roads and bridges, the transport minister said.
Officials present road construction as part of efforts to develop informal areas across Egypt, connecting them to transport networks and basic services. They say the displaced people will be compensated or resettled.
Some of the displaced people from 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.
“Money is the problem and life is expensive,” said Sabri Abdo, a 75-year-old retiree, 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 out for him like there.
The governor’s office in eastern Cairo, which oversees the region, was not available for comment.
The wave of road building – social media posts refer to Egypt as a “republic of roads and bridges” – has sparked 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 graves, and in the distinguished neighborhood of Heliopolis, has alarmed environmentalists.
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 no longer walk in the street, they can no longer cross the street, they can no longer see the trees from their balconies every afternoon with the birds,” he said.
When asked for 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 – had not been neglected.
“We have to do it to make people’s lives easier, to reduce wasted time, people’s stress and the fuel used causing more pollution,” he said.
A 2014 World Bank study estimated the costs of congestion in greater Cairo at 3.6% of Egypt’s gross domestic product, far higher than 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 desert capital and a summer capital on the north coast at El Alamein, roads elsewhere are often under-maintained, limited public transport and uneven 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) for repair 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 obstacles to private sector expansion, said Yezid Sayigh, senior researcher at Carnegie Middle East Center. “Behind all the investments in real estate or in infrastructure, there is very little investment in the rest of the productive economy.”
Those with a background in the industry tend to get contracts from the military and other state agencies that are leading the infrastructure campaign and can get funding from banks, said Shams Eldin Yousef, chairman of Al. -Shams Contracting Company and member of the board of directors of the Egyptian Construction Federation.
His company has taken over business thanks to the road projects, but he wonders how long the boom will last.
“If a wheel that is moving at this speed and at this scale stops, it will be a problem,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mahmoud Mourad and Patrick Werr; Editing by Giles Elgood
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