Egypt: American University opens in desert. New Cairo to follow?

The American University in Cairo opened a $400-million, 260-acre campus in a desert east of Cairo. Developers hope this 'New Cairo' will one day be home to 2 million.

Frederick Deknatel
American University’s new central plaza.

CAIRO – In the desert east of the city, off the highway to the Suez Canal, is the new 260-acre campus of the 90-year-old American University in Cairo (AUC). It opened last fall at a price tag of more than $400 million, a quarter coming from USAID. University administrators and developers hope New Cairo will one day be home to some 2 million people. It’s a model of Cairo’s present and future urbanism, a profitable solution to congestion and overcrowding in one of the world’s largest and most polluted cities. Faculty and administrators are split on the changes.

“We should not immediately approve of this kind of transformation without asking about the wider context of privatization and how a university relates to society,” says Hanan Sebea, an assistant professor of anthropology.

In the face of Cairo’s crowded infrastructure, the development answers for years have looked to the possibilities of building elsewhere. AUC is keeping part of its old, eight-acre campus on Tahrir Square.

“Central Cairo is overloaded with lots of pressures that are beyond the capabilities of its infrastructure,” says Ashraf Salloum, the university architect who oversaw the large design team behind the campus. “If we want to really help the development of the city, we need to give the city space to breathe.”

AUC will be an “anchor for development” in this stretch of desert, he says. But are new, world-class facilities enough, even at the loss of a central urban site?

“Space is very symbolic, but it’s not only about infrastructure,” Ms. Sebea says. “Downtown, presence is very important, and it goes beyond fieldwork. It’s accessibility and the interest of the university to interact with society.”

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