There are few things that shock me in foreign affairs anymore, but observations from a friend who just returned from holiday in Egypt sent shivers down my spine. I hadn’t heard that the regime of General Fattah al Sisi had started building a new capital city about 35 km outside of Cairo called New Cairo, which is to be the seat of government and the military. New Cairo, which is an empty work in progress, already has soldiers guarding it, and sentries posted in guardhouses almost every 200 meters.
Alarm bells or let’s say sirens started going off in my head, as I realised immediately what had precipitated such a move. I had seen it all before in Myanmar. Some years back the military regime in Myanmar had started building a new capital city, Naypyidaw, in secret in order to move the seat of government and military barracks away from the bustling capital of Yangon, to a secure guarded location in the centre of the country. The perimeters of the new city had been concealed over the six years it took to construct, with the local population unable to even access the area.
To be honest, Naypyidaw is the most “creepy” place I have ever visited. If there is a place that exudes a negative energy that makes you want to run the other way, it is Naypyidaw, and I am not alone in that observation. Much to my relief, the official delegation was moving out of the new capital of Myanmar by nightfall, and we never had to actually sleep there. My private tour of the “fake” capital city that day had left me shell-shocked. It was the audacity of a regime to create a false city from scratch for the sole purpose of ensuring that the regime could never be overthrown and that its key institutions would be under maximum security, away from any potential popular revolt.
The poor civil servants of Myanmar were given just a few weeks notice to relocate their families from Rangoon to Naypyidaw. Resistance was futile, and unlike foreign diplomats, civil servants were forced to relocate to the ghost-like city of 16 lane roadways with guard houses at every intersection just a few hundred meters apart – just like the New Cairo.
Driving down a 16 lane roadway with no other cars in sight in the middle of the day, with four sentries watching you at regular intervals was a scene out of something approximating George Orwell’s 1984, although even Orwell couldn’t have imagined something that extreme.
There was a fake tourist tower overlooking the city, an empty amusement park, a military museum that stretched for blocks built to glorify the junta’s rule, and neighbourhoods of mansions built for the governing elite.
The military barracks were in an inaccessible part of the city, and the new “parliament” looked like a fake castle right out of Disney world. I have often wondered how Aung San Suu Kyi has so willingly become part of this fake democracy, operating in this Disney-like parliament, all designed to legitimate the continuation of military rule behind their new puppet with limited powers.
It seems that the Egyptian regime has taken a leaf right out of the Naypyidaw fairytale, and found a way to ensure that the people could never encircle the seat of government or military through another Arab spring uprising. New Cairo will ensure that the country’s administrative buildings no longer overlook Tahrir square.
Under the guise of developing a “smart city,” and alleviating congestion in Cairo proper, Sisi is ensuring that his military elite is encased in a new walled city, with each entry point heavily guarded, and sentry posts adorning the length of the perimeter walls. The massive new city is equipped with a brand new water and power supply and guess what, yes those empty 16 lane highways have been constructed through the desert.
This seems to be the new way to circumvent peoples’ power and real democracy.
* Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor.