By Jonathan Guyer
I was in Marrakesh two weeks ago, which is teeming with tourists of all stripes, decked out in tank tops and short shorts. Coming from Cairo, I found the swaths of high school groups, families pushing strollers, and long lines outside museums to be a bit of a shock. We don’t see these folks in Egypt anymore. The outside world’s perception of Cairo as a dangerous battleground has devastatingly affected tourism.
The idea of my postcards from revolutionary Cairo is to re-think Egypt’s tourism industry—the new historic sites here that people across the world must see for themselves. I’m not advocating for war tourism or the fetishization of blight (as a Detroiter, I’m all too familiar with what has so aptly been called “ruin porn”). Rather, I intend to depict sites that Cairenes see everyday and would want to send to friends outside of the country.
Postcards almost always play off of the tourist’s imagination rather than the local resident’s appreciation of “attractions.” While paying homage to the colonial, Orientalist posters of the early 20th century, I hope to tease out the tensions and contractions of marketing contemporary Egypt. The burnt out National Democratic Party building and the half-built Nile Ritz Carlton are vistas as essential to Cairo’s skyline as the pyramids.
[Initiative of cleaning the area’s entrance by young residents of neighboring districts in partnership with young residents from the area.]
Based on fieldwork conducted in March 2011, this article presents a snapshot view of the period immediately after the start of the revolution and how those events and political shifts affected the residents of one of Cairo’s ‘ashwa’eyat (Informal urban areas). The article first appeared in ArchiAfrika Newsletter in July 2012.
By Hassan el Mouelhi
“‘Aish, horreya, ‘adalah egtema’eyah”
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians kept on chanting (Bread, freedom, social justice) in the main squares all over Egypt for 18 days. People from different classes, different education levels, and different generations were there. Things are changing! And tomorrow will be better! This feeling was spread between Cairo inhabitants, especially the youth, regardless where they are living.
Relation to government: Police is a part of “El-H’okouma,” meaning, the government. Youth in Ezbet El Haggana (referred to as EH in the remainder of the article) developed a negative relationship with the police (fear, mistrust, hate) because they feel discriminated against only because of where they live. During the last 3 months of each year (when police officers are expected to meet their quotas in the number of arrests), it is advisable not to go outside the EH area alone late at night. If someone from EH was stopped by the police somewhere in Cairo, and was asked to show his I.D., and they recognized that he is from EH, chances are high for him to be treated disrespectfully, even if he had not done anything wrong. Two youth told me their stories with the police in the streets outside the EH area: when two young males were stopped by police and asked to show identification, the one with his place of residence in Heliopolis was set free, while his friend with a place of residence in the strangely named KM 4.5 (kilo arba3a we nos, the official name of EH) was arrested. The police give the youth of EH special treatment based on the perceptions of this particular part of Cairo.
When residents moved to KM 4.5 or EH area, they often refused to officially change their addresses as to avoid hassle by the authorities. This was the case with Mohamed El Fallah, who moved to KM 4.5 from El-Wayly (a historic district) nearly 12 years ago. Mohamed’s ID still lists El-Wayly as his area of residence.
As a reaction, this level of discrimination has caused the youth of EH to develop a feeling of hatred towards the police in general. The youth here were happy after the defeat of the police on 28th January and their draw back and disappearance from Cairo streets, as this meant to them that they were free of the systematic discrimination that was part of their daily life. From their point of view, they thought that this was one of the most positive consequences of the revolution.
‘Ashwa’eyat image in Egyptian Media:
Through the semi-structured interviews, I tried to find out what the residents of the area think about different recent Egyptian films that discussed life in “’Ashwa’eyat.” Ashraf said: “such crimes or illegal immoral activities like drug dealing and prostitution are shown in the movies as if we are all like that. While in reality, yes they exist, but spread in different streets, and in a very personal individualistic scale.”
Interviewees agreed that films and other media propagate negative attitudes towards places represented on the screen that they identify as “home.” Khalifa commented on how the media shows Ashwa’eyat residents as criminals and drug dealers:“We have bad people in our area, but in a certain small spot, not everywhere!”
[During the celebration of the revolution, March 2011]
Revolution and political transformation:
It was clear from my interviews with residents that they started to feel empowered after the revolution, feeling that their future might be better, hoping for more justice, especially social justice.
Ezbet El Haggana follows “Madinet Nasr” in the parliament elections. Madinet Nasr, in contrast with EH, is a formal planned district for middle-high class residents, known for its sufficiency of services. Parliament candidates usually start their campaigns in EH giving promises for providing more services to the area, more job opportunities and improving the quality of life in the area. In addition, those candidates who do not belong to the area distribute money and food bags to buy the votes of poor residents. Residents confirmed these practices continuing during recent election campaigns when politicians hire local middlemen to buy votes of the area’s most vulnerable residents.
EH residents are vulnerable to vote buying because of their desperate economic situation. Nagwa Raouf, architect, Emaret El-Ensan foundation- Founder/President board of trustees, witnessed drastic changes in the behaviors of the residents and the way they deal with corruption in the early days of the revolution. She commented on the first days of the revolution and its impact on the area: “…there is a lack of money in the area, because most residents earn their money on daily bases in the field of construction, which has almost stopped during and the days after the revolution till now (March 2011)”
The general economic recession, and especially in the field of construction that followed the revolution was reflected on the whole EH community. But it wasn’t only those working in construction who were affected. Mahmoud, a 25-year-old café waiter originally from a village in “Fayoum,” commented on the costumers of the coffee shop where he works:“The revolution is a disaster, everything in the country stopped, no work and no police. The coffee shop is suffering, as for the customer who was used to drink 5-6 cups of tea a day before the events, now, he drinks just one, if he comes at all! The truck owners who were used to have 5-6 transfers per day, now, its only once or even nothing!”
[Amir fel Tahrir: Amir, 21, from Ezbet El Haggana area, sharing in the demonstrations in Tahrir square, Feb 2011]
Sustaining changes in attitudes:
Nagwa told me some stories that show how this community could confront problems, based on their solidarity and good communal relations:
1. Gas tubes got to be very expensive (50 L.E. each) while normally it costs 10 L.E! This led some youth to face this phenomenon, and they gathered the empty tubes from the neighbors, gathered 10 pounds from each of the neighbors, rented a car, and went to the main storage, paid 5 pounds for each, and 5 pounds for the car rent, and returned and distributed the tubes on the neighbors again.
2. The quantity of bread produced by local bakeries was not enough of because of flour shortages. Flour for local bakeries, which is subsidized by the government, was sold to private bakeries for maximum profit. Some residents decided to face this policing bakeries and preventing owners from selling subsidized flour to private bakeries. Inhabitants pressured local bakeries to meet the demand for bread by negotiating additional work shifts.
3. young residents initiated street cleaning campaigns resembling what happened in Tehrir Square. It was repeated in different EH neighborhoods, and was joined by children.
When cleaning the streets, 17-year-old Sara experienced some difficulties because of the stigma associated with the act of collecting garbage. Eventhough she was cleaning her community some of her neighbors, particularly older generations, made light of her activity. She wondered “… are they used to live within garbage, and can not live with a clean street?!” Her group of friends supported each other until they completed the task.
Some links were established with neighboring richer communities. Cleaning the entrance of the area was arranged by “Al Seddik” mosque youth NGO located in “Massaken Sheraton” which is considered part of Heliopolis, a middle/high class district. On Friday 4.3.2011, about 150 boys and girls, aging from 16-26 years old gathered from different surrounding districts (Heliopolis, Nasr City, Al Rehab, El Tagamo’). They swept the streets, removed garbage, and painted fences. Youth from both genders from districts of varying economics worked together, made friends, exchanged stories and perhaps established for themselves a newfound community of active citizens.
Another resident, Ashraf spoke of the impact of the revolution on the attitudes of the daily labor. It happened just after some weeks from the start of the revolution and inspired by it, the concrete workers had a protest, asking for raises in daily fees from 60 to 65 L.E; it took them 2 days to get what they asked for. Hany (20 years) said about the revolution:
“…We want to eliminate corruption (Ezz, Adly, Shafik). Finding a job needs connections, and treatment in Police station was unfair. It will take some time, change won’t happen overnight.”
Three of the young residents accompanied me to Tahrir Square on one of the large Friday demonstrations in March 2011, a couple of weeks after the stepping down of Mubarak. They were proud of being there and of taking part in the process of changing the political reality of Egypt. I knew from them that they (among others) wanted to go to Tahrir Square again for other demonstrations. However, by late March 2011 the media had started to use terms such as “looters” and “thugs” and they were afraid of being mistaken for criminals, only because they live in KM 4.5 (EH). This shows that the mistrust problem between EH residents, especially the younger generation, and the government is still unresolved.
To conclude, the Egyptian scene in the last year following the revolution has witnessed monumental change in Egyptians’ aspirations and dreams. This has had a felt impact on the behaviors and attitudes of Egyptians in urban spaces, particularly previously disadvantaged residents such as those from EH. Their awareness regarding their right to the city has increased. The question now: How can this newly found right to the city be secured through the subsequent political process?
CONFERENCE IN CAIRO: ‘REVOLTS AND TRANSITIONS IN THE ARAB WORLD: TOWARDS A NEW URBAN ENVIRONMENT?’
The CEDEJ, a French research centre in Cairo, holds a public conference on urbanism and the revolutions throughout the Arab world on November 7th-8th-9th
A French research centre on the social sciences, the CEDEJ is organizing a conference on the urban aspect of the current events that are re-shaping the region. The event will include short lectures by academics and experts on the region, followed by a debate. The final session on November 9th will include an open debate on the urban prospects for Egypt with actors of civil society, NGO members and policy-makers. The conference is open to the public and will take place on Wednesday the 7th (10h-19h), Thursday 8th (9h30-19h) and Friday 9th (10h30-16h30) at the French Cultural Institute of Egypt (IFE) in Mounira. The language spoken will be English and French (with automatic translation between the two). For further information, visit the CEDEJ website, or request a prospectus.
To download the pdf of the conference program, click here.
By Mona Abaza
Mohammed Mahmud Street, also known as sharei’ uyuun al-hurriyyah (the street of the eyes of freedom), is becoming an iconic space. The street has been recently discovered by numerous photographers and passersby, not only for its mesmerizing graffiti but also for the curiosity it has raised; for the remembrance of the martyrs who were killed there; for journalists who still want to investigate the violent events that took place around that area during the course of the past year and follow-up on how the quarter is coping with the barricades and walls erected by security forces; for its dwellers who suffered not only from skirmishes but also the use of lethal- and tear- gas by anti-riot police during successive clashes; for its popular cafés juxtaposing the murals; and, last but not least, for those who still remain nostalgic about popular life around the old campus of the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Mohammed Mahmud is one of the main streets leading to Tahrir Square. It includes the back entrance of AUC. This street will remain a memorable space for the revolution because it witnessed some of the most dramatic and violent moments this past November, December, and February, including the gassing, killing and disfiguration of hundreds of protesters by Egyptian police forces. During these events, police gunmen and trained snipers had reportedly targeted (and in some case eliminated) the eyes of protesters.
In the aftermath of clashes between protesters and security forces that took place between 19 and 24 November 2011, Mohammed Mahmud Street witnessed the erection of a cement block-stones-wall that cuts it in the middle and separates it into two different areas. It also witnessed the destruction of this same wall in February 2012 by the revolutionaries and residents who at the time were engaged in similar confrontations with security forces. It later witnessed the construction of more walls and barriers that blocked various side streets leading to the main parallel Sheikh Rehan Street, the location of the monumental Ministry of Interior, currently protected by tanks and wired checkpoints.
Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution. Directed by Davide Morandini and Fabio Lucchini. UK/Italy/Egypt, 2011.
“Bread, freedom, and social justice” has been one of the most memorable chants from Egypt’s year of mass protests. Although world and Egyptian media have been fixated on the symbolic Tahrir Square, little attention has been directed towards places where many Egyptians converging on the square actually live. Bulaq, only a few hundred meters north of Tahrir Square, is one such neighborhood. The residents of Bulaq represent the essence of why Egyptians erupted in mass protests last year. This is a community that has suffered for nearly forty years at the hands of the Sadat and Mubarak regimes, which aimed to erase the district from Cairo’s map. Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution is a short documentary film that shifts the focus from the square and into a community at the heart of the struggle for social justice.
The twenty-five minute film by Davide Morandini and Fabio Lucchini documents a deteriorating residential district where residents have faced police brutality and forced evictions for decades. Residents speak directly to the camera, sharing their ordeals and personal experiences. Although those voices speak for the specific case of Bulaq, they also reflect a wider struggle by an entire class of citizens the Egyptian government has long disregarded. As a recent Amnesty International report states, the government has used the longstanding Emergency Law to legitimize its repressive policy of forced evictions targeted at populations in areas such as Bulaq. The repeal of the Emergency Law and the demand for social justice, including housing rights, have been cornerstones of the Tahrir movement. Bulaq threads together these many strands, along with providing a rare look into the everyday lives in popular neighborhoods such as this one.
Nearly sixty percent of Cairo’s residents today live in so-called “informal areas.” These are areas that urbanized without the guidance of a government-approved urban plan. A more accurate description of those areas is “improvised urbanism,” as they continue a long tradition of improvised planning found in Cairo for centuries prior to the city’s relatively brief encounter with formal planning from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. From the 6th of October Bridge, Bulaq may appear to be another of Cairo’s informal communities; however, this is in fact one of Cairo’s oldest districts.
In the fifteenth century, Bulaq was Cairo’s main commercial port and was home to some of the city’s wealthy merchant families. The district was also home to the Egyptian Museum in 1858, and Muhammad Ali’s Bulaq Press was established in 1820. Throughout its history, the district developed organically as a middle and working class neighborhood with an interesting variety of domestic architecture. Despite this rich history, today the word Bulaq is synonymous with collapsed homes and desperate living conditions. It is a community under constant threat from the authorities.
Because of its central location, the district has been envisioned by various regimes as a clean slate for the implementation of new urban models. The film does not cover the trajectory of current state policy towards the district, which can be traced back to 1930, when a plan proposed the reconstruction of the district. Another 1950s plan proposed to “cleanse” Bulaq by replacing its rich fabric with massive modernist blocks surrounded by gardens. These earlier visions remained only on paper. In the 1970s, however, Sadat envisioned the area as a new business district to showcase Egypt’s economic realignment with global capitalism. An aggressive campaign of forced evictions and relocation was commenced. Residents were forced out of their homes and given flats in concrete blocs built on the desert fringes of Cairo. This campaign continued under the Mubarak regime. One of the residents filmed narrates her ordeal when she was evicted in 1982, only to return later.
The film portrays the intimacy and sense of community that Bulaq offers. It also highlights the sense of security provided by living within such a community. Despite the economic hardships and the deteriorating physical environment, the community is thriving socially. The filmmaker intercuts interviews with scenes of everyday life: a woman smoking outside her home, a butcher cutting meat, a child on a bicycle, and a man who is uncomfortable with the presence of a camera and demands to know what is being filmed. Because this has been an ongoing struggle for decades, it has become an intergenerational struggle where young adults echo the concerns of their older neighbors. The film succeeds in highlighting the fact that strong social ties and a community’s sense of ownership of place are far stronger than state plans and oppression. In light of this long struggle, as well as this last year’s unfolding upheaval, the film captures a sense of anxiety and uncertainty.
However, the film lacks historical perspective and context. Although it focuses on the present situation, particularly in light of the revolution, it could have benefited from a well-researched introduction. While the English translations are fairly accurate, the interviews fail to capture how the residents of this community fit within the larger context of Cairo. Also, it would be useful to link the experience of Bulaq to other communities in the city suffering from the same state-sanctioned brutality and eviction. Another shortcoming of the film is its one-sidedness. It would have made a stronger case against government policies if the audience had the chance to hear from officials directly how they view the issue of Bulaq. The multinational developers and hotel chains that also benefit from this government policy are also unheard. An interview with the management of the Hilton Hotel overlooking the district, for example, could have been interesting.
The film is well shot and provides a series of sharp images ranging from intimate close-ups to wide panorama shots. The filmmaker uses a combination of still frames for scenery along with moving shots where he follows some of the film’s characters as they traverse Bulaq’s streets. The sound quality and editing are well done.
The strongest aspect of the film is the residents’ direct address to the audience without the mediation of a third party. They are strong-willed. They know their rights and they demand justice regardless of the obstacles. “Those responsible for demolitions have to be tried,” says one man. “In neighborhoods like Bulaq we love each other and work together like one family,” says a woman. Another man confirms that “the owners of this place are the people living here; we own this place.”
Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution provides a much-needed portrait of the real places where Egyptians live. Officials turn a blind eye to the community they were elected to serve. With Egypt’s centralized governance and lack of local authority, Bulaq residents continue to live under the threat of forced evictions and demolitions. Their right to the city is constantly under duress. Meanwhile, the government carries on with its Cairo2050 plan that aims to transform the area into a zone of glass towers and international hotels. Currently under construction is the St. Regis, a six star hotel along the Nile turning its back on Bulaq.
Egypt’s revolution is about the people of Bulaq and their rights. It is about ending crony capitalism that allows such a disregard for citizens while making concessions to international corporations that aim only to increase their profits rather than develop and rejuvenate communities. As was the case with many Egyptians, the eruption of the revolution gave hope to the people of Bulaq. However, over the course of the past year, little has been done to ensure that the violations of the past and state oppression will end. In this sense, Bulaq continues to wait among its ruins for the still unfinished revolution to deliver real change.
*First two images are screenshots from the film.
Excerpt from an article on Jadaliyya.com
The Tools of Occupation
The events of the past eleven months have put into focus the notion of the “postcolonial.” During the past decade it was becoming increasingly clear that postcolonial regimes only serve private interests, the interests of multinational corporations and the strategic interests of superpowers, not the people they rule. Recent events in Egypt further highlighted that Mubarak’s regime reinvented colonial rule by fashioning itself in a nationalist guise while occupying the role of colonizers, exploiting resources and labor as well as using state institutions in the service of a select group of neoliberal capitalists. Now parts of Cairo actually look like occupied territory with streets blocked with barbed wire, military checkpoints, and stonewalls. Besides the neocolonial economic and social patterns encouraged by the regime, recent events have given it the visibility of a colonial occupation in the urban environment.
One striking spatial and visual component of the SCAF’s handling of these episodes of urban crisis is the erection of walls. The concrete wall erected at the Israeli Embassy on the eve of its attack was reminiscent of the Egypt-Gaza barrier, the Israeli West Bank barrier, or the Green Zone wall in Baghdad. After five days of fighting the army finally decided to end the Mohamed Mahmoud episode by stacking stone blocks across a typically busy street that is home to the American University as well as multiple schools and apartment buildings. On December 17 large stone blocks similar to those positioned in Mohamed Mahmoud Street were placed blocking Qasr el-Aini Street, one of Cairo’s major avenues and the site of the ongoing clashes. Furthermore, after forcibly evicting protesters from Tahrir Square in August, security forces were made to stand in the summer sun during the fasting month of Ramadan shoulder to shoulder forming a human wall around the traffic circle. Walls and fences in different variations are not new to the Mubarak regime, which erected them around public buildings, museums, government offices, five-star hotels and even sidewalks in key locations. Many police stations have watchtowers. This architecture is one of occupation. It reflects the ways in which the state views its citizens.
Secondly, no one has been held accountable for the loss of human life since the SCAF took control. In every incident described above, the authorities have completely evaded responsibility, despite claims that investigations would take place. Hundreds of documented deaths and thousands of injuries later, not a single investigation yielded any results. Authorities have denied the use of force in every incident and, even worse, in some cases—such as the Abbasiyya and Maspero incidents—the army called for “honorable citizens” to protect them from supposed attackers—who in reality happen to be protesters. In other cases the army cited self-defense as an excuse for injuries afflicted on protesters. The aggressor is playing the role of the victim, a typical trademark in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also in the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Someone is getting away with murder.
The third tool of occupation is the unprecedented use of the human body as a political battleground. From virginity tests and sexual molestation of both male and female activists, to beatings and mutilation, the rulers of Egypt during the “transitional period” are resorting to a cornerstone in colonial occupation. Bodily violence has been a consistent feature of colonialism from the German occupation of southwest Africa to the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal. The purpose of inflicting pain is to ensure compliance and intimidation. Such violence took place extensively during Mubarak’s tenure. However, the recent shift has been the marked publicity of such actions where torture and physical violence occur in streets and public squares in the presence of cameras and eyewitnesses.
Death used to be a big deal not too long ago in this part of the world. One year ago on 17 December, when Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set his body alight out of desperation, his act caused an entire nation to rise and revolt. In Egypt, Khaled Said’s death was a turning point and a spark for Egypt’s revolution. A year later, state violence has become urbanized, more public, and systematic. During the raging battle on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, life went on as usual only a few streets away. The authorities have structured urban violence into daily life to such an extent that it is becoming acceptable to a sizeable portion of the population who continue to be silent. Those not at the scene of the crime grow further alienated by “the Tahrir people” as the protesters are condescendingly referred to. Today, one of those murdered “Tahrir people” was a medical student, Alaa Abdel Hady, who has been helping at the field hospital since the beginning of the uprising. Another was Emad Effat, a cleric from Al Azhar University.
During protests and sit-ins Tahrir has become a revolutionary ghetto. Television channels have twenty-four-hour cameras pointed at Tahrir and other sites of protest so that for audiences at home Tahrir has become just another channel. One year ago the National Democratic Party was celebrating a sweeping “win” in the parliamentary elections and today amidst all the unprecedented and fabricated violence elections are taking place where there is a clear “winner.” Between those two elections a revolution started but not one of its goals was met, the most urgent of which was the respect for human dignity. Perhaps the most illustrative image that emerged from today was of military personnel in uniform urinating on protesters below from the roof of the parliament building.
Read full article, here.
In April of 1953 Al Musawwar, a popular weekly magazine since 1924, published the answers of eight prominent figures in post 1952 Egypt. The question: Should Cairo’s statues remain or be removed? The question was raised as these statues were erected during the dynastic rule that was just overthrown less than a year earlier. As the editor explains, most of these statues were part of a pompous iconographic program that was self congratulating.
The respondents included: Nour el Din Tarraf who later became prime minister ‘58-‘60, and then officer Anwar Sadat.
The responses ranged: “The everyday hero, the hard worker must be commemorated as well as our true national heroes whom we’ve forgotten about such as Ahmed Orabi.” said Tarraf. “I am against removing any statues, this is part of our history and we must keep it as a lesson to our youth,” said Foad Sadek. We must focus on rebuilding the country, distracting ourselves with such questions will not benefit anyone, there will come the right time when these issues are dealt with,” said Sadat. “building new institutions is important, and so is building statues that commemorate our history, this is not a choice we have to make, we can do both and do them well,” said Muhammad Salah el Din.
In those very early days of transition the issue of commemoration was raised, just as it was recently (removing Mubarak’s name, debate on creating a monument to martyrs/revolution, etc.) The debate is ongoing but like one of the responders said in 1953, we can discuss the issue of commemoration in public space but this should not dominate public discourse as there are other urgent matters concerning the city that must be discussed, namely the lack of effective civil and public institutions that ultimately shape the cities in ways felt everyday beyond the ceremonial and the commemorative.
When walking along the waterfront in Garden City Cairenes and visitors wonder about one particular building across the Nile on the southern tip of Gezira (Zamalek) Island. If you take a falucca ride around here the boatman might tell you “that’s the museum of the revolution.” This might be confusing as there are now three junctures in the last century of Egyptian history that have been endowed with the title “revolution.”
The building in question was ordered in 1949 under King Farouk for the Royal Navy fleet and was completed in 1951. At that time it cost LE118,000. Needless to say, the building was never used as intended because the King was overthrown in 1952 by members of the army. During the early days of post-Farouk Egypt, the building was used by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the “free officers” as their headquarters and many historic meetings, laws, court rulings and decisions took place here. By 1956 the building was ignored and abandoned and stayed so until recently.
In 1996, former president Hosni Mubarak made presidential decree #204 to transform the building into a museum for the 1952 “revolution,” more accurately a coup d’etat. The decision put the building under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture which listed it as “Islamic monument” making Zahi Hawass its primary caretaker.
Following the story of this building is a classic case of bureaucratic corruption that dominates Egyptian government and most certainly the Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
The structure was left untouched, despite the decision in ‘96 to make it a museum, until 2010. Suddenly there was work in progress, a crane and slowly a strange and enigmatic structure began to appear on top of the building, like a cancerous growth.
The renovation of the forty-room building includes a massive steel structure topping its once open courtyard. The structure, designed by Ahmed Mito, is meant to represent an eagle (symbol of the republic) emerging from the building (the birthplace of the republic?). Although figures are not published, the project was given a LE40 million budget in 1996. The “eagle” structure alone is said to cost some LE20 million. These are large sums of state money that could have housed a few thousand families in a city with a severe housing crisis. This is not a choice between the museum (ceremonial, symbolic) and housing (practical, urgent). But the Museum could have been done with half the budget. To spend LE20 million for a symbolic roof is an outrage.
Architecturally speaking this project is catastrophic. There is no relationship with the original structure, the interiors of which appear to have been stripped. Mito, notably the architect of Egypt’s Supreme Court building in Maadi, decided to go with literal symbolism. An eagle is the symbol of the republic so an eagle must emerge from the building where the foundation of Egypt’s republic (military rule) took place.
This unavoidably brings me to Robert Venturi’s duck. In the 1960s and 70s Venturi traveled the US, and eventually published Learning From Las Vegas. Along the way he encountered the Big Duck and he coined the term “duck” to describe a building’s architecture that is dominated by its symbolic form. The Big Duck was a building on a duck farm where duck products were sold.
Before Mito’s addition, the future Majlis el Thawra Museum building was closer to what Venturi would call “a decorated shed,” a much more common form of architecture. However, the steel structure with its dominating presence atop the stone “shed” fully transforms it into a duck… or an eagle in this case.
When I visited the site recently workers were cynical of what they are asked to do and all seemed to agree it was ridiculous. The museum is to house almost 12,000 items belonging to members of the “free officers” council, related documents, gifts, and photographs. This will be the culmination of authoritarian celebration of military statehood, I would imagine following in the line of Hosni Mubarak’s self-congratulating North Korean-built 1973 War Panorama.
Since last year when work began on this mysterious expensive project another revolution broke out. While the regime was cementing its history by commemorating what it insists to call a revolution from 1952, people took to the streets earlier this year in an attempt to topple that very military regime. The verdict is still out.
Meanwhile, it seems like Cairo’s skyline will now host an eagle of steel. It is unfortunate that the architect did not question the meanings of the military’s chosen symbol. Eagles are opportunistic predators that eat almost anything, although they prefer attacking and eating small prey. Perhaps the eagle is a fitting symbol after all.
Al Masry Al Youm from Saturday August 13, 2011 featured on its back page the latest proposal for Tahrir Square. The “design” was submitted to the PM’s office by architect Hesham Gerisha of Misr University for Science and Technology. The proposal calls for transforming the roof of the would be underground parking currently “under construction” in Tahrir Square to a public plaza. The Plaza would feature a grid of plexiglass columns each etched with the name of a revolution martyr. The published image shows the actual square where the protests that toppled Mubarak took place untouched. Also noticeable in the proposed design is the lack of shade, perhaps in the form of trees, and the lack of seating or any space that promotes community building and the usual facets of a well-designed public space.
Read more on AlJazeera, here.
Related article from Cairobserver, here.
“There is no excuse for Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities’ current condition with peeling paint and missing artifacts replaced by hand-written notes saying in Arabic “under restoration” or “in a traveling exhibition.” The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is in need of serious remodeling and expansion. This surely will be expensive and will need a grand vision to transform and update this important institution of world heritage.
However, the recent drastic decision to move this urban institution out of the heart of the city and into the desert two kilometers from the Pyramids is a calamity and a disgrace. To signal the decision, in 2006 the red granite colossus of Ramses II that adorned central Cairo since 1955 was removed to a storage facility at the city’s edge, where it awaits a new home in the proposed Grand Egyptian Museum.
Public museums are fundamentally urban centers firmly tied to their metropolitan contexts. The mere visibility of Paris’ Louvre pyramid and inside-out Pompidou Center or New York’s Metropolitan Museum in their urbane settings is as important as the contents of these world-famous buildings. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is forever associated with its Tahrir Square location, especially after the well-photographed and documented uprising that took place at its doorstep. Moving the museum into a desert location outside the city center serves the museum’s current priorities of security and tourist exclusivity. Are these still the priorities of Egypt’s leading museum in light of the unfinished and ongoing uprising?
The decision to move to a far-flung location, despite the availability of a large swath of land in the heart of Tahrir Square is mysterious. The area in front of the Museum was the athletic field of the Army Barracks that once occupied the site of the former Nile Hilton and the Arab League. The area became public land and was transformed in 1954 into a public garden at the heart of Tahrir Square. Parts of it were taken away and made into a bus station, then a parking lot, under Sadat. And for much of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, a large area had been fenced off and made into a site of permanent construction supposedly for an underground parking facility with little progress to show after over a decade.”
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