Egypt’s new mega-mu­seum set to open in 2020

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

CAIRO — On the Giza Plateau out­side Cairo, thou­sands of Egyp­tians are la­bor­ing in the shadow of the pyra­mids to erect a mon­u­ment wor­thy of the pharaohs.

The Grand Egyp­tian Mu­seum has been un­der con­struc­tion for well over a decade and is in­tended to show­case Egypt’s an­cient trea­sures while draw­ing tourists to help fund its fu­ture de­vel­op­ment. But the project has been sub­ject to re­peated de­lays, with a “soft open­ing” planned for 2019 scrapped in fa­vor of a more tri­umphant in­au­gu­ra­tion in 2020. Costs have mean­while soared from an ini­tial $650 mil­lion to well over $1 bil­lion, with most of the fi­nanc­ing com­ing from Ja­pan.

It’s the lat­est megapro­ject to be cham­pi­oned by Pres­i­dent Ab­del-Fat­tah el-Sissi, who is wa­ger­ing that mas­sive in­vest­ments in in­fra­struc­ture will re­vive an econ­omy weakened by decades of stag­na­tion and bat­tered by the un­rest that fol­lowed the 2011 upris­ing.

The mu­seum is a se­ries of tow­er­ing con­crete halls that will even­tu­ally hold some 50,000 ar­ti­facts, in­clud­ing the famed mask of Tu­tankhamen — pop­u­larly known as King Tut — and other trea­sures cur­rently housed in the cen­tury-old Egyp­tian Mu­seum in Cairo’s con­gested Tahrir Square. The hope is that tourists will stay awhile, and pro­vide the for­eign cur­rency Egypt needs to but­tress its econ­omy.

“It’s a place where you can linger to en­joy an­cient Egypt,” project di­rec­tor Tarek Taw­fik said on a re­cent tour of the site, which will also in­clude a con­fer­ence cen­ter, a cin­ema, 28 shops, 10 res­tau­rants and a bou­tique ho­tel. Giant win­dows open onto the 5,000-year-old pyra­mids, and the mu­seum will fea­ture an in­tact wooden ship and a tow­er­ing statue of Ram­ses II.

Taw­fik de­scribes it as “a fan­tas­tic ex­pe­ri­ence of an­cient Egypt in a very mod­ern build­ing that pro­vides all kind of mod­ern, com­fort­able func­tions.”

That would mark a ma­jor change from the cur­rent setup, in which tourists vis­it­ing the pyra­mids and the Sphinx are rou­tinely has­sled by touts and cameldrivers.

Tourists are grad­u­ally returning to Egypt, but the in­dus­try has yet to re­cover from the 2011 upris­ing, which top­pled long­time au­to­crat Hosni Mubarak and ush­ered in a pe­riod of in­sta­bil­ity, cul­mi­nat­ing in the mil­i­tary over­throw of the coun­try’s first freely elected pres­i­dent, an Is­lamist whose brief rule sparked mass protests.

El-Sissi, who led the over­throw of Mo­hammed Morsi in 2013 and was elected the fol­low­ing year, has presided over an un­prece­dented crack­down on dis­sent. Po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tions, heav­ily re­stricted un­der a 2013 law, are now un­heard of. A Si­nai-based in­sur­gency that gath­ered steam after Morsi’s over­throw has car­ried out a se­ries of at­tacks in re­cent years, mainly on se­cu­rity forces and Chris­tians, but has only rarely tar­geted for­eign tourists.

El-Sissi has mean­while sought to use large-scale projects to bol­ster the im­age of the state — with mixed re­sults. A trum­peted ex­pan­sion of the Suez Canal in 2015 has yet to de­liver the soar­ing rev­enues the gov­ern­ment promised, as global trade has eased. A grandiose new ad­min­is­tra­tive cap­i­tal un­der con­struc­tion out­side Cairo is still in the early stages, with neg­li­gi­ble for­eign in­vest­ment and for­eign em­bassies not keen to move so far out into the desert.

Egypt’s pharaonic her­itage re­mains a ma­jor draw, how­ever, and Taw­fik ex­pects the mu­seum to at­tract 8 mil­lion peo­ple a year once it opens. An es­ti­mated 8 mil­lion tourists will have vis­ited Egypt in 2018, an in­crease from pre­vi­ous years but well be­low a peak of 14.7 mil­lion be­fore the 2011 upris­ing.

Egypt’s multi­na­tional con­struc­tion giant Oras­com built the mu­seum, with ini­tial loans from the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment of $320 mil­lion in 2006 and $450 mil­lion in 2016. The Ja­panese con­tinue to ad­vise on the mu­seum’s de­vel­op­ment and ar­ti­fact restora­tion, but it is un­clear who will pro­vide the ad­di­tional fi­nanc­ing for the project, with costs now es­ti­mated at $1.1 bil­lion. A bid­ding process is un­der­way to find some­one to op­er­ate the site.

Much of the fi­nanc­ing may end up com­ing from the mil­i­tary or af­fil­i­ated com­pa­nies, which play a ma­jor role in the econ­omy and have been heav­ily in­volved in other megapro­jects. The As­so­ci­ated Press spent sev­eral weeks seeking per­mis­sion to visit the mu­seum, which was ul­ti­mately granted by the mil­i­tary.

Taw­fik said the mil­i­tary is help­ing with “value en­gi­neer­ing” — the sourc­ing of lo­cal com­po­nents like stone cladding and ma­te­ri­als to re­duce re­liance on more ex­pen­sive im­ports. Egypt floated its cur­rency in 2016 in order to se­cure a bailout from the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund, lead­ing to a de­val­u­a­tion that has taken a heavy toll on poor and mid­dle-class Egyp­tians.

“Today, de­spite all the in­creases in costs and the float­ing of the Egyp­tian pound, it’s quite amaz­ing that the project will be com­pleted, thanks to good man­age­ment and value en­gi­neer­ing,” he said.

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