Egypt prides itself on being a civilization thousands of years old. But assuming it survives its current political turmoils, that civilization may face a new kind of crisis: Just 6 percent of the Egyptian landmass, on the fertile soil of the Nile Valley and the Delta, holds nearly all its 85 million people. As the population grows and builds more housing, the country is burying its key arable land under a layer of concrete.
Farouk El-Baz, an Egyptian-born professor of electrical engineering and archeology at Boston University, believes he has a solution. And his plan, which he's been formulating for 30 years, proves that Egyptians haven't stopped thinking about infrastructure on the scale of the pharaohs.
"Egyptians live on a very limited amount of land, and people have to live on top of each other," he says. "There is no space for them to breathe." The solution, he says, is to make space: a new 750-mile-long corridor of development in the currently empty desert west of the Nile, stretching all the way from Sudan in the south to the Mediterranean coast in the north.
The secret to Egypt's development, he believes, is its geography. El-Baz directs Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing, which uses satellite and ground images to study geology and water resources. Trained as a geologist, he also helped NASA select landing sites for the Apollo program.
He proposes to build and develop what is in essence a second Nile Valley, parallel to the current one, with an eight-lane superhighway instead of a river. For a water supply, the corridor would take advantage of the gently downward-sloping plateau west of the Nile from Aswan to the Mediterranean, drinking from Lake Nasser, Egypt's immense southern reservoir.
He envisions the corridor built in stages, to attract poor Egyptians from the clogged cities to open land. Step one, El-Baz says, will be to expand the big cities along the Nile westward, one mile at a time. Once a dozen or so large cities have spilled into the desert, the government should build the superhighway and a modern rail network to connect them, north to south.
The desert's abundant sunlight could provide power for the corridor and ultimately for all of Egypt: In one area west of Fayum, the sun blasts so intensely that nowhere else on earth receives a comparable amount of solar radiation. "When you go there, you know it and you feel it," El Baz says. "The sunshine just beats the hell out of the place."
As a distinguished scientist, El-Baz is well known in Egyptian scientific and policy circles, and has shopped his plan to several Egyptian governments, with mixed success. For the first decades, El-Baz says, "that jerk" Hosni Mubarak, then president, shot it down. "He had no imagination and no vision."
After the toppling of Mubarak in 2011, Essam Sharaf, an engineer who served as prime minister, embraced the proposal and promised to put it into action; during those first heady post-revolutionary months, the Western Desert development was announced as Egypt's salvation. But once Mohammed Morsi took power in June 2012, his Islamist government was less receptive. For the last year, El-Baz was shut out of discussions, and now, since Morsi was deposed earlier this month, the project's future is as unclear as every other aspect of the country.
The Egyptian government estimated the total cost at $23.7 billion ( about a 10th of Egypt's gross domestic product in 2011, before the tourism industry tanked), and that it would take a decade to complete. El-Baz believes the private sector could finance it, and that the economic benefits would be immediate. "Fish in Lake Nasser grow incredibly," El-Baz says. "But there is no market because you can't transport it. But if you have a road to connect Lake Nasser all the way to Cairo and Alexandria, you can move fish overnight."
El-Baz's many critics are most concerned with water issues, since the western desert gets no rain and Lake Nasser's reservoir is big but not infinite. But El-Baz says a one-meter pipe will supply all the areas that don't receive adequate water from the renewable water seepage of the Nile. Shifting development away from the river would allow Egypt to fully exploit its arable land and add an estimated two million or three million acres for food production.
Politics and economics are not El-Baz's specialty, he admits. Neither is urban planning. But he says that his expertise is relevant enough. "If you need to expand living space," he says, "you have to do so within geologic confines."
Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.