Mostly private efforts, especially in downtown Cairo, have revived some of the city’s prime real estate, such as this building pictured on Feb. 3, 2019 Image Credit: NYT

Cairo - If the famed pyramids of Giza are the epitome of ancient Egypt, the chaotic road that brings tourists to the famed complex offers a bracing and authentic taste of the modern country.

The Ring Road, a 68-mile belt of rutted tarmac, is Cairo's suburban speedway, eight lanes of churning traffic with a hint of Mad Max.

Souped-up clunkers and overcrowded buses, liberated from the clogged traffic of central Cairo, hurtle down the road, weaving perilously between lanes. Speed limit signs are treated as ornaments. Cars travel up ramps in the wrong direction. Motorists compare the drive to a thrilling video game.

But it is the view from the Ring Road that most concerns President Abdel Fattah Al Sissi: the endless lines of rough, red brick buildings, smeared in dust and grime, that line the road as it swoops over the ashwariya, informal settlements where perhaps two-thirds of the 22 million residents in greater Cairo live.

Apartment buildings line the Ring Road, a freeway that loops around Cairo Image Credit: NYT

In January, Al Sissi ordered all such buildings across the country be painted in a uniform color. They look "uncivilized," Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly declared. A first priority is the ashwariya along the Ring Road.


Muhammed Circa, a resident of one red brick building, sipped a cup of tea the other day in the cramped first-floor office of a lawyer friend that overlooks the Ring Road. He considered Al Sissi's grand plan to prettify his shabby neighborhood.

"It will never work," he declared.

Circa was unhappy about government plans to make residents like him pay for their own paint job - or risk prosecution. His skepticism stood in sharp contrast to the priorities of el-Sissi, a strongman leader who greatly values appearances.

Al Sissi has repeatedly lectured Egyptians for being overweight, urging them to exercise more. His military is building a gleaming new administrative capital in the desert outside Cairo, to draw Egyptians from the dilapidated city center.

His desire for a red brick makeover was evidently prompted by a visit to the Grand Egyptian Museum, a sprawling $1.1 billion project under construction near the pyramids. Al Sissi plans an extravagant gala opening for next year, attended by world leaders, and he wants to spruce up Cairo before they arrive.

Exposed brick buildings, like these pictured on Feb. 3, 2019, dot the Cairo landscape in low-income neighborhoods. Image Credit: NYT

Circa's chief concern, though, is not the great pyramids of Giza pyramids but their smaller cousins: tiny stone models of sphinxes, Pharaohs and pyramids that he manufactures at a small workshop that has fallen on hard times.

Since the Arab Spring of 2011, tourist numbers slumped while the stone to make his trinkets tripled in price. Now Al Sissi wants him to paint his home, on his own dime. It was a step too far.

Manshawi can afford to be bullish. He works in real estate, a thriving corner of Egypt's otherwise moribund economy.

Across Cairo, giant billboards advertise luxury compounds aimed at the rich: gated compounds with lush grass, glimmering glass and decidedly un-Egyptian names like Palm Hills or Hyde Park.

But 40 percent of Egypt's 98 million people live in neighborhoods more like the one they were sitting in, dust-blown locales with broken roads and tottering, often illegally constructed, buildings.

Circa refused to pipe down.

"I don't care," he said. "They're telling me to paint my house and I have no money. What am I supposed to do?"

Not long ago, painting projects were a mark of exuberance and hope in Cairo.

After the Arab Spring, energized young Egyptians partnered with foreign artists to paint the satellite dishes that dot their rooftops and create a sprawling mural across dozens of buildings in a neighborhood famous for its garbage collectors.

Some schemes were overly creative.

Last summer, a private zoo in Cairo became a laughingstock after customers realized it had painted white stripes on donkeys in an effort to pass them off as zebras. The giveaway was the fake zebras' floppy ears and smudged stripes.

The details are still being hammered out, but officials have suggested that buildings in Cairo would be painted in earthy tones, while towns facing the sea will go blue.

Al Sissi's government says the plan is part of a bigger effort to upgrade such areas. Last year it announced, rather ambitiously, that it would eradicate all slums from Cairo by the end of 2019. Some have been skeptical, and the criticism is not appreciated.