Controversy surrounds Egypt’s construction of presidential palaces

Even if Sisi’s construction projects fall short of corruption, they do reflect a poor placement of priorities.
Saturday 28/09/2019
An engineer works at the construction site of the future Light Rail  Train (LTR) project “Al-Salam – New Administrative Capital (NAC)” to link with 10th of Ramadan and the El-Salam district in east Cairo, July 9. (Reuters)
Challenged from abroad. An engineer works at the construction site of the future Light Rail Train (LTR) project “Al-Salam – New Administrative Capital (NAC)” to link with 10th of Ramadan and the El-Salam district in east Cairo, July 9. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi faced a huge controversy after a self-exiled actor accused the government of wasting millions of dollars and resources by building upscale hotels and presidential palaces in the new administrative capital even while the country struggles with poverty, deteriorating education and health care.

Mohamed Ali, an Egyptian actor and businessman who lives in Spain and accused by some Egyptian lawyers and politicians of being supported by Qatari and Turkish intelligence agencies, made the allegations in a series of videos in which he urged Egyptians to protest Sisi’s rule. Protests took place in several cities September 20

By September 15, the hashtag “#That’s_enough_Sisi” was trending on Twitter, recording more than 1 million posts in less than 24 hours.

The opposition seemingly grew further enraged after Sisi said in a September 14 speech: “Yes, we have built palaces and will build more but not for myself. I’m working to build a new Egypt.” Many saw this as an admission of corruption and likened Sisi to former President Hosni Mubarak.

The allegations against Mubarak and Sisi are different, however. Mubarak was deemed to have used public funds to establish palaces registered under his name and those of his family members. Sisi has overseen the construction of new palaces throughout the country, which was revealed by Egyptian authorities in February 2018, the properties are registered as presidential headquarters, not private property.

Ali, who claimed to have had close ties to the Egyptian Armed Forces’ Engineering Authority, which supervises the construction of new cities, roads and other projects, did not point to any new property Sisi constructed for personal use. Instead, they are designated as presidential headquarters or owned by the armed forces.

Even if Sisi’s construction projects fall short of corruption, they reflect “a clear imbalance in the order of priorities,” Hassan Nafaa, an opponent political science professor at Cairo University, said on Twitter, considering the “imbalance” is more stark because of “Egypt’s increasing national poverty, poor education and health care.”

Official reports state the percentage of Egyptians living below the poverty line increased from 25.2% in 2010 to 32.5% in 2019. However, in education and health care, Egypt improved seven positions to 122nd out of 137 in 2019, the Davos Education Quality Index indicated, and entered Deutsche Bank Healthcare Quality and Availability Index for the first time in 2019.

When Sisi first ran for president, he did not announce a detailed platform or specify projects. However, it soon became clear he would focus on the demarcation of Egypt’s governorates by constructing new cities and government headquarters in desert areas to ease population density.

This strategy would provide jobs, improve services and accommodate the country’s rapidly growing population, Sisi said.

Egypt’s population increases approximately 2.5 million people every year, making Cairo and other large cities among the most densely populated in the world, driving poverty and low quality of life and services, a 2016 UN study said.

Mahmoud El-Sayed, a lecturer of political sociology at Shorouk Academy, said Egyptians have been migrating to cities near ruling centres since the pharaonic era and that constructing new presidential palaces and ministries headquarters would create jobs and encourage population to relocate to new cities and reduce density in older cities.

The construction of the new administrative capital employs 500,000 Egyptians, the Minister of Planning said. Another benefit in creating new presidential palaces is evacuating archaeological areas, allowing the Ministry of Antiquities to have them included on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list, said Muhammad al-Baz, a TV presenter supporting the govenrment.

Relocating government headquarters dozens of kilometres from downtown Cairo could prevent state institutions from being embroiled in political or security crises that often hit central Cairo.

From 2011-13, protesters besieged the Interior Ministry, the cabinet building and presidential palaces several times. Other government buildings have been hit by terror attacks since 2013.

Many poor Egyptians are likely to continue criticising Sisi for building presidential palaces, especially with many pointing to the president’s admission in January 2017 that Egypt is “very poor.”

However, at the time of those comments, Sisi was working to secure loans from international lenders to ease Egypt’s financial crisis in 2016-17. The country’s growth rate increased from 4.2% in 2017 to 5.3% in 2018, giving it more funds for education, wages and health care by 24%, 31% and 49%, respectively, from 2016-17 to 2019-20, official public budgets details state.