Cairo: In a bid to ease the rising population and traffic congestion in centuries-old Cairo, the Egyptian government has floated a plan to build a new administrative capital for this country of 85 million people, triggering a huge controversy.

The plan, discussed last week at a cabinet meeting, envisages relocating the ministries, the parliament and the presidential seat to a new city to be constructed outside Cairo, around 60 kilometres from the coastal city of Suez.

“The new administrative capital, being planned, is a development project aimed at creating an integrated and high-tech working environment supported by high-quality infrastructure facilities,” Housing Minister Mustafa Madbouli said.

According to him, the new city will house foreign embassies, business centres, technology complexes, universities, hotels and a residential community.

“All this will be constructed within a framework of sustainable environmental planning.”

Madbouli added that the planned capital is designed to ease the administrative stress on Cairo by relocating governmental agencies. “Thus Cairo will turn into a historical and cultural capital for Egypt, attracting more tourists.”

The government did not say how much the project will cost or when it will be completed. Reports in the media said its construction will be undertaken by the army and Egypt’s leading construction company, Arab Contractors.

In the early 1980s — when now-deposed president Hosni Mubarak was in power, a plan to relocate governmental institutions to a new city set up north east of Cairo fizzled out.

Prominent architect and political activist Mamduh Hamza says the latest plan is ill-timed. “If officials consider this project one of the major priorities of this stage, then they are in a state of confusion,” he said. “Time is unsuitable for this. This project will not benefit the national economy. On the contrary, it will increase domestic and foreign debts. It is better to spend the money allocated to it on areas of top priority such as education.”

The Egyptian economy has been in decline for the past three years due to political upheaval and street turmoil, with the vital tourism sector bearing the brunt.

Recently elected President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi has pledged to re-establish stability and rejuvenate the economy. Earlier this month, his government hiked up prices of petrol and electricity and cut energy subsidies to curb a staggering budget deficit.

Abbas Al Zafarani, a professor of urban planning, backed the government’s move. “The decision to build a new capital for Egypt is 100 per cent right, but the proposed location is 100 per cent wrong,” he said.

He called on the government to look for an alternative location around 250 kilometres south of Cairo.

The government said it has chosen the area on the north-eastern outskirts of Cairo for the construction of the new capital so that it will “complement” a massive-scale development project planned in the Suez Canal zone.

“The government should shift its sights southward so that the new capital would be secure from any military conflicts that may erupt in the future,” Al Zafarani said.

The city of Suez lies in the proximity of the Sinai Peninsula, which has been the battleground for four wars fought by Egypt against Israel in the second half of the 20th century. The vast desert peninsula has been the epicentre of insurgency since Mubarak’s 2011 ouster.