Recurrent closures of Sphinx Airport: Corruption and poor planning dwell in Egypt’s public investments

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Only three months after its reopening, the Egyptian government closed Sphinx International Airport (west of Cairo) to international and domestic flights for maintenance work. This is the second time the airport has been closed for maintenance since it was built four years ago, which has surrounded it with numerous questions and suspicions of corruption or gross negligence in its implementation process.

Quick implementation with low quality

The story of Sphinx Airport, which the government media describes as “the lung of West Cairo”, began in December 2017 when the Minister of Interior approved its establishment for entering and exiting the country legally. The proposal to establish the airport came from Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who believed the country’s capital needed a new airport in its west to relieve pressure on Cairo International Airport in its east. The airport was built at kilometre 45 on the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road, on the part of the West Cairo Military Air Base, with a cost of 300 million pounds ($17 million at the exchange rates of that period). The Armed Forces supervised the implementation of the airport in cooperation with the Egyptian Company for Investments. Its construction was scheduled for two years but was completed in only one year as Sisi ordered it. At the beginning of 2019, the trial operation of the Sphinx International Airport began. The “experimental” phase lasted for more than a year and a half without a declared reason, and in June 2020, Sisi officially inaugurated it.

Barely a year has had passed since the official opening of Sphinx Airport when the civil aviation authorities decided to close it and stop it from operating for three months, arguing that it has to be more developed and expanded to increase the capacity of passengers. This was the officially announced reason, but a communication mistake from officials revealed difficulties during operation related to aircraft arrival and coordination with air control units at Cairo Airport, passenger traffic routes, and the entry and exit of cars. The closure period of Sphinx International Airport was extended from 3 months to 17 months. Then the Ministry of Civil Aviation announced in November 2022 it is reopening after developing and expanding it at the cost of EGP 2 billion ($127 million) provided through borrowing. But again, and only three months after its reopening, Air Cairo, affiliated with the Ministry of Civil Aviation, announced that it would stop its flights at Sphinx International Airport from February 2 to 20, claiming that it was “conducting some maintenance work and closing it international and domestic flights.” Data from the “flightradar24” website, which monitors and tracks the movement of aircraft, shows that there has been no aircraft activity at Sphinx Airport for days.

No feasible studies

“According to my estimation, in Egypt, if you relied on feasibility studies and made them the decisive factor in resolving issues, we would have achieved only 20-25% of what we have achieved, and this does not mean neglecting the scientific aspect,” thus Sisi has stated in the African Forum 2018. He expressed on more than one occasion his disdain for studies within projects. This has caused the failure or limited success of many of his projects. Sphinx International Airport is one of these.

The airport is the idea of the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which, like all of his thoughts, are dealt with like orders that do not need review or study, and the airport construction schedule has been compressed from two years to one year by direct orders from Sisi. This led to the emergence of severe defects at the airport and its closure for long periods of a year and a half after four years. In addition to the period during which it worked, there was no demand for it, the operating traffic was irregular, and most were private flights. Damietta’s Furniture City is another example of what Egypt gained from Sisi’s lack of faith in feasibility studies and his continuous interference in the implementation process. The city, which was inaugurated in 2019 and described by the government as “a quantum leap and a global city for the furniture industry and the largest in the Middle East”, is currently doomed to ruin due to the refusal of the owners of furniture workshops in Damietta (the capital of furniture in Egypt) to move their workshops to it due to its distance from their homes and families, and due to the high prices of workshops (The cost of a medium-sized workshop is 700,000 pounds.)

On one rare occasion, Sisi himself admitted a few months ago the failure of the Furniture City project in Damietta, and the waste of 3.6 billion pounds, due to “feasibility studies.” Sisi said, “We said we would do a furniture city in Damietta to transfer the furniture industry in Egypt to another region, and it would remain an institutional work and support from the state. We did everything according to what we thought could succeed. Did our people in Damietta accept that? No. Why? Because the study of the subject and the environment says that the man who sits at home goes to work in the workshop under its house and asks for tea and lunch in the same place, and if he gets a little tired, he goes to sleep. So, we can see that other elements of the project’s study were not present nor used.” Sisi, however, continues to move forward with his policies unchanged. He still makes weekly rounds to inspect the government’s construction and does not hesitate to issue orders for modifications and changes to project designs and pressure implementation periods.