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Egypt to give Cairo's historic downtown major facelift

The project is part of a wider plan to develop Cairo’s downtown area to boost tourism and the economy.
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Egypt is moving ahead with plans to revamp Cairo’s historic downtown area, with projects on the ground expected to begin within months.

The government-owned Sovereign Fund of Egypt is finalizing the plans to revitalize the area after most government ministries have been relocated to the new administrative capital, 45 kilometers (28 miles) east of Cairo.

“We're getting done with the paperwork and from then on you'll be seeing boots on the ground,” the fund’s CEO, Ayman Soliman, revealed to Reuters on Wednesday.

The plan includes the repurposing of buildings and new development in the area as well as creating parking garages and weekend pedestrian zones. Soliman added that a building permit system will preserve the area’s ancient architecture.

Earlier in January, Soliman revealed to the parliament’s Planning and Budget Committee a plan to add 2,600 hotel rooms to downtown Cairo as part of the development project as well as 15,000 square meters of green space.

This picture taken on February 23, 2021 shows a view of the Francis Papazian watchmaker's shop in the central Attaba district of Egypt's capital Cairo. - Time seems to have stood still at Papazian's, the Armenian watchmaker shop that has stood in Cairo's Attaba Square since 1903 under the arcade of an old Haussmann-style building built in the downtown district's heyday and currently surrounded by street vendors. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP) (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)
A view of Francis Papazian, a watchmaking shop, in Cairo's central Attaba district, Feb. 23, 2021. (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Dozens of ministries and government institutions that were headquartered in downtown Cairo moved to the new administrative capital last year along with 48,108 state employees, according to government data.

The new capital, which has been under construction since 2015, is built in a desert area as part of the country’s sustainable development strategy, Egypt Vision 2030.

The Sovereign Fund of Egypt has already taken over 11 former ministry buildings and three vacated properties in the area under a decree published in the official gazette last week.

The three properties are the colossal Mogamma building on Tahrir Square, formerly the headquarters of Egypt's sprawling bureaucracy; the Interior Ministry compound and its 10 separate buildings; and the site of the former headquarters of the former ruling National Democratic Party on the Nile corniche. The NDP building was burned during the 2011 revolution and later demolished.

The fund will work with private companies to finance and develop projects in the area. Speaking to Reuters, Soliman said the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and two international advisers are helping draw up the plan, which can be expected “over the course of the coming weeks.”

TOPSHOT - This picture taken on March 8, 2019 shows a view of the central Talaat Harb square in the Egyptian capital Cairo's downtown district. Cairo's unique downtown district, with its elegant centuries-old, European-designed buildings, is wrestling to preserve its cultural heritage as the government prepares to move offices to a new desert capital. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP) (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)
A view of Talaat Harb Square in Cairo's downtown district, March 8, 2019. (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Downtown Cairo, built in 1863, was designed by Khedive Ismail, who drew inspiration from French architecture. The downtown area is often called the “Paris of the East.”

Tourism boost

The Egyptian government has been working for years to modernize and develop downtown Cairo and the surrounding areas as part of its effort to boost tourism and promote economic development.

The tourism sector is one of Egypt's main sources of foreign currency. Tourism revenue reached a record high of $13.6 billion in the 2022/23 fiscal year, up from $10.7 billion in 2021/22, according to data released by the Central Bank of Egypt in October.

The tourism industry has been slowly recovering from a massive slump. The political and security turmoil that swept Egypt during and after the 2011 uprising took a heavy toll on tourism. The sector took another nosedive with the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns. Russia’s war on Ukraine, which broke out in February 2022, has also impacted tourism. Russian and Ukrainian tourists made up the majority of visitors to Egypt before the war erupted. More recently, the Red Sea resort towns witnessed a spike in trip cancellations after the Israeli war on Gaza erupted in October.