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Posts tagged corruption

How to make LE20 million disappear

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Just half a year after the revolution commenced and unseated accepted orthodoxies regarding Egyptian national politics, in October of 2011, the military inaugurated what was announced in local media as the “world’s tallest flag post." The so-called flag post was 176 meters in height and it was located in Zamalek immediately adjacent to the elevated 6th of October Bridge as it crosses the island. To be more precise the "post" was built on land that belonged to Markaz Shabab al-Zamalek, a state-run youth recreational facility adjacent to Nadi al-Gezira. The flag post was, oddly, not a conventional flag pole. Rather, it was a steel telecommunication tower appropriated for the purpose of hoisting the Egyptian flag high above the city. The flag raising event, reported in the video below, involved members of the military such as Major General Mohsen Al-Fanagry on behalf of SCAF, which had ruled the country since February of that year.

As several media outlets reported, including Ahram Online, the steel structure was financed by Commercial International Bank (CIB). The structure cost LE27 million. This was perhaps a form of “corporate responsibility” spending on behalf of the bank.

From the point of view of the military rulers of the country the structure/flag pole was a departure from the usual pompous celebrations of the 6th of October which typically feature elaborate song and dance numbers in front of a military audience and attended by Mubarak. However, given the removal of the Mubarak earlier that year, and given the degradation of the image of the military six months after taking direct power, a new form of marking the 6th of October was in order. The flag, seen in unprecedented numbers in Tahrir Square, was a national symbol that presumably everyone can rally behind.

It wasn’t long before the flag disappeared. It was awkwardly hanging on to the steel structure (and sometimes wrapping around it). Every time the flag disappeared, someone had to climb up the 178 meters to replace it. This became an unintentional site where all the banality, corruption and inefficiency of the Egyptian state became visible like a sore thumb in the center of Cairo.

The tower generated some controversy as residents, urbanists and heritage activists decried its ugliness and its wastefulness. Indeed the so-called “tallest flag pole in the world” was ugly and an unforgivable waste of resources. But it was also meant from the start as a disposable monument, another celebration of a fake victory like many others deployed by this desperate regime. Other notorious fake victories have included the claim to have cured AIDS!

A small campaign led by heritage activists demanding the removal of the tower gained little traction. The structure had quickly become invisible in plain sight. No one seemed to care that Egypt purported to have the world’s tallest flag post. Who needs to celebrate such a superlative when Egypt has many other superlatives that overshadow the flag, such as country with highest prevalence rate of Hep C (another disease the army claimed to cure). Or when the country is sinking further into poverty and despair due to increasing authoritarianism and misguided policies. There is little reason to celebrate a flag when it masks the failures of the state that hoisted it.

The ways in which the LE27 million of CIB corporate responsibility/donation could have been spent more productively are endless. Imagine what that sum of money could have done to clean a canal, build a pedestrian bridge, or pave a street. Such improvements would have improved the lives of thousands and would have demonstrated the state’s commitment to work for the people in whose name the regime rules. Alas, they don’t really care to bother.

Magically, or perhaps ironically, the world’s tallest flag post that no one cared about was suddenly and without warning dismantled in August 2014, less than three years after it had been built. The video below shows the dismantling process underway. The announced reason for this removal? To be sold as scrap and the money donated to president Sisi’s “Long Live Egypt” donation account to save the economy. No this is not a joke. It is very real: LE27 million just disappeared into the abyss.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Saudi Arabia, which is the Egyptian regime’s main sponsor, is currently building the world’s tallest flag post. Because hoisting the Saudi flag so high will attest to that country’s status as a proud nation home to a free people whose freedoms and liberties are the envy of the world. Yes, build a tall flag pole. Mabrook.

Millions of meters of land

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According to Egypt’s current president, the country has received more than $20 billion in “aid” from Gulf countries, namely, Saudi Arabia (a trailblazer in promoting democracy and freedoms in the region), the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. $20 billion is a lot of money but where did it go? Furthermore, what qualifies that sum of money as “aid?” To put the number into perspective, this Gulf “aid” is about four times the annual revenue of the Suez Canal. That sum of money could have paid for completing the third metro line and building the entire fourth metro line in Cairo with some spare change to do a tram line somewhere. That sum of money is also about 12 times the annual US aid to Egypt. However, just like the US aid is not as philanthropic as it sounds (most of the money is actually military contracts and Egypt ends up spending more than the “aid” money annually for US military equipment and maintenance), Gulf “aid” isn’t the gift to the Egyptian people that it purports to be. Where has this money actually gone and what impact on the lives of Egyptians, particularly those living in cities, has this money made? This is not a Marshall Plan type of aid, resulting in specific development projects that actually impact the economy, provide sustained jobs and services. To put it bluntly, what are Gulf backers of the regime getting for their money? (besides the political clout they buy in Egypt, for example see the size of the new Saudi embassy in Cairo)

One possible answer is land. Lots of land. Millions of square meters of Egyptian land.

We’ve heard before about Walid bin Talal’s land in Toshka, south Egypt. The Saudi business tycoon acquired 100,000 faddan from the Egyptian government for 50 EGP/faddan (a faddan is roughly 4200 sqm), that’s $7 per 4200 square meters! This state-sanctioned land grab was brought to public attention after the 2011 protests started, a time when people thought corruption can be brought to justice. This led to a friendly resolution and bin Talal generously gave back some of the land at its original cost and kept the majority.

More recently, another massive land sale was in court. This time it was land in Giza with one side of the “property” overlooking the great pyramids. The land was sold to a Kuwaiti company during Mubarak’s years and was also brought to court after the revolt started. The exact area of the disputed land is unclear, one report suggests that the total land was 110 million square meters (one and half the total size of the city of Beirut) sold at 200 pounds per faddan or 4.5 piasters per square meter! Other reports, including al-Ahram, confirm the size of the disputed land but they use the less foreboding number of 26,000 faddans (which roughly equals 110 million square meters). That land was designated by the government as desert land for agricultural reclamation. However, not only did the Kuwaiti company not invest in its reclamation for food production, it carried out illegal digs in search of antiquities and carried out extensive quarrying to sell millions of dollars worth of Egyptian stone. The court case, which just ended earlier this month, not only allowed the company to retain the land but also gave it permission to urbanize it rather than its original purpose of transforming it into agriculture. All this for a sum of cash totaling nearly 45 billion Egyptian pounds to be paid by the company to compensate the Egyptian state. But don’t hold your breath, most probably after the first installment nothing will be paid and everything will be forgotten.

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Another case is Port Ghalib in Marsa Alam on the Red Sea. There, a Kuwaiti businessman bought an estimated one million square meters of land on a virgin beach in one of Egypt’s still unexploited coasts. In addition, the same buyer, Al-Kharafi, also bought the airport across the road from his private resort city of five and four star hotels and built a power station. This is Egypt’s only privately owned/managed airport. Egypt Air passengers aren’t exempted from the additional fees added to tickets for flying to this airport: a flight from Cairo costs around LE1500. It is not clear if the government built Marsa Alam International Airport then sold it to Al-Kharafi or if he built the airport. Reporting on the land and airport sale is slim, but according to al-Sharq al-Awsat the Kuwaiti investor plans to spend a total of $1.2 billion in total in this project (including everything: airport, power station, land, construction and management of a collection of high-end hotels and resorts, a marina, etc.). That is a bargain. What we have here is a situation in which one person owns the airport and the collection of resorts and hotels across the road only a ten minute ride away and possibly even the transport options between the two so that mostly European tourists arrive at his airport, take his bus or limousine to his hotel then leave the country with minimal contribution to the national GDP. Great investment for Egypt!

These deals are only the tip of the iceberg. Other deals are much more vast and involve the Egyptian government in more direct ways such as the privileges accessed by Emaar and the recent deal with the UAE company Arabtec. The Suez Canal project also involves the Saudi Dar al-Handasah, and the UAE’s Dubai Ports. There are certainly more opaque deals with great financial losses for Egypt where Gulf investors have their way with the country’s resources with little return to Egypt’s economy. These gulf regimes are not only backing the Egyptian regime financially, they and their businessmen have access to concessions that depend on approval of the highest echelons in the Egyptian regime and the military, which acts as the gatekeeper to Egypt’s resources and lands. In the absence of transparency, civilian oversight, and democratic governance, Egyptians will never fully know the extent of missed opportunities to the Egyptian economy brought onto the country with these “investments.”

From Tahrir Square to Emaar Square

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[Illustration of Emaar Square used for advertising and real estate promotion]

ترجمة عربية للمقال متاحة على هذا الرابط

In mid-February the Egypt subsidiary of the UAE-based Emaar signed a protocol with the Egyptian Defense Ministry which clears the way for the construction of Emaar Square, a mixed-use development with open-air shopping for international luxury brands. The development is part of the company’s exclusive Uptown Cairo. Emaar is the developer behind the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa. The Egyptian Defense Ministry is in many ways Egypt’s largest land owner/manager and the massive property that is now being developed by Emaar with Uptown Cairo’s exclusive residential clusters and golf course is/was owned by the military and was previously unavailable to the market.

In the years leading up to 2011 visions of the future of Cairo as imagined by the former regime and its businessmen began to emerge. That vision, known as Cairo 2050, would have led to the mass eviction of thousands of families to transform the city into pockets of high-end residential development, golf courses and shopping centers. Much of the investment power for these projects were to come from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The former regime was intent to the Dubaization of Cairo and close ties between the money (Gulf capital) and power (the regime and the military) were being built. These projects were halted after the revolution took an unwanted turn (Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood coming to power and Qatar competing with Saudi/Kuwait/UAE for financial control in Egypt). Now, many projects are back on track, including the Maspero triangle and Uptown Cairo.

Those who celebrate the Dubai model and wish for its expansion across the region make the unethical choice of ignoring the fact that the Gulf cities of the last decade emerge out of a very specific relation between political power and capital (often one and the same). The expansion of such model into cities such as Cairo with vastly different demographics and where a military functions not as an institution of the state but as caretaker with unchallenged access both to politics and capital (in the form of assets such as land and resources for example), such a model in this context would have disastrous impact on the urban majority who will be marginalized in favor of serving an entrepreneurial transnational minority (perhaps working in Dubai and using their money to obtain property in Cairo’s Dubai-style enclaves), who will ultimately occupy the role of the colonial-era elites of the past. The urban majority will be moved out of the way when necessary and put to work under unacceptable conditions, with no power to mobilize and with little pay.

So why is this interesting? First, this is not a free market. When the military is arguably the biggest land owner with no civilian oversight makes a direct and opaque deal with a developer to build an exclusive and gated community in the heart of the capital, this is not a free market. The development is framed by the government as part of “building Egypt” and attracting investment while in fact all this is doing is creating more opportunity for private accumulated capital (buyers) to be locked into cages (gated development) with no access to democratic municipal management: those wealthy buyers won’t pressure the government for services, they will deal with a company instead.

Second (and not to state the obvious), this is not a democracy, and certainly not revolutionary. The protocol signed in Feb included the Housing Ministry, Local Development Ministry, Investment Ministry and the Governorate of Cairo. All these state institutions are partaking in one of Cairo’s most exclusive developments while the majority of the city’s population is abandoned. This cooperation between these state institutions will, for example, allow for Emaar to built a private road to link the Uptown Cairo/Emaar Square with Cairo’s road network. This private road will require the "cleansing" of Jabal al-Ahmar area (which is likely to mean the forced eviction of some poor people to get them out of the way). Egyptian state institutions, including the military, have a lengthy track record of forcibly evicting residents, and using lethal force to do it, in favor of private interests.

Why are so many state institutions failing to solve Egypt’s mounting urban problems, many of which are directly caused by these very institutions, why are they coming together to sign a protocol for a private highway to a private city? This is not the first time such uneven attention was paid by state institutions towards serving an exclusive minority with links to political and military power while turning a blind eye on the needs of the majority.

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[The location of Uptown Cairo showing in yellow dotted lines the private roads linking to the city’s network. The land size of the development is comparable to the neighborhood of Zamalek]

This latest protocol went unnoticed in the news, in a way it is business as usual. So how did we get from Tahrir Square to Emaar Square?

In Egypt, urban space continues to be the stage for the struggle not only to shape the spaces of the city but also for creating new forms of democratic representation. The protests taking place in Egypt starting in 2011 and the ensuing political upheaval shed light on questions of space and political participation, particularly how spaces of the everyday have become sites of resistance, revolution and transformation. The underlying theme which has been consistent from the beginning of this most recent chapter in Egypt’s history of urban protest is the desire to (re)construct democracy from the bottom up.

The Egyptian revolt hasn’t been discussed in local and international media outlets as an urban struggle, or more specifically as a movement seeking to “overcome the isolations and to reshape the city in a different social image from that given by the powers of developers backed by finance, corporate capital, and an increasingly entrepreneurialy minded local state apparatus.”  The city has in fact been shaped by power and capital in ways which have manifested in the extreme unevenness of development resulting from the neglectful rule of the state towards the urban majority while providing concessions to international developers (namely Gulf real estate investment) or local entities, namely individuals, associations or corporations linked directly to the police and military state apparatus.

The struggle in Egypt manifest in urban space since 2011 is one directly linked to the ways in which power and capital have produced socially and economically unjust urban experiences. In Egypt the more generic terms of “corporate capital,” “finance,” and “state apparatus” aren’t helpful to put into relief the specific interlinking of power and economy accessible to the military and police, state institutions with a monopoly over violence in the name of the state, which have functioned in ways similar to corporations in other contexts, thus bearing weapons in civilian spaces and having direct access to capital and assets such as land and building materials that directly shape cities and their development.

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[Image circulated in social media last month purporting to show the “Israeli-style separation wall” construction to enclose Uptown Cairo from its surroundings. It would be useful to think of this wall while contemplating the wall caging Tahrir Square]

The city, as Egyptians have come to know it, is the result of the political and economic structures protected by the regime. Cities, in this current political economy in Egypt, have lost their vital role as places of economic possibilities for the majority of the population. Instead, since the 1970s the state has fallen short of providing services, creating effective systems of urban management, producing plans for urban expansion and where capital can be invested into the production of new urban environments that allow for local private capital to grow while protecting the sanctity of the common, the public sphere and its manifestation in public spaces shared by a wide segment of the urban population.

During this time the military continually protected its grasp on Egypt’s economy leading to a 1997 presidential decree that gave the military the right to all undeveloped lands in the country, making it the largest landowner in Egypt’s history. Land is one of many commodities monopolized by the military, which it then utilizes in opaque sales operations with international investment for exclusive gated communities, beach resorts or shopping malls. The Egyptian military as an institution is perhaps the main beneficiary of Egypt’s political and economic status quo, which has produced the current urban environment. In addition to land, the military produces building materials such as cement and brick, the essential construction materials in Egypt used for everything from luxury condos in gated communities to new residential buildings in informally planned districts expanding onto agricultural land. Finally, the military has access to an unpaid labor force through the country’s mandatory conscription. Often conscripts from lower social standing coming from the poorest parts of the country work in construction sites and in factories producing building materials. More explicitly “as the managers of a state-owned economic empire built on corruption and oppression of working classes, military leaders have become decisively complicit in repressing labor and violating their rights.” The spatial confrontations, often violent, in Egyptian squares between protesters/participants and soldiers/conscripts are in many ways vivid illustrations of Egypt’s struggle over its politics, economy and space, in other words, a struggle towards a more even urban development.

UPDATE 25 February, 2014: As the government suddenly resigned news emerged that the housing minister (his ministry participated in the above discussed protocol) will become Egypt’s next prime minister.

Update 26 February, 2014: According to Ahram Online “Egypt’s draft investment law contains provisions to prevent third parties from challenging contracts made between the government and an investor.” Such a law will protect contracts such as the one discussed above from scrutiny by the public using any legal channels to challenge them.

Update 28 February, 2014: For clarification a paragraph was added above starting with “Those who celebrate the Dubai…”.

Also, it has emerged that Mustafa Madbouli, who is chiefly responsible for the Cairo 2050 plan, was asked to become Housing Minister in the new government. The plan was simply waiting for the revolution to be killed and for the values of political participation (with the implications of such participation on the making of the urban environment) heard in Tahrir Square three years ago to be silenced.

11 Recent Cultural Disasters in Egypt

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In recent decades there had been a slow but persistent destruction of Egypt’s rich cultural heritage, specifically its buildings, archaeological sites, and museum collections. Heritage and the rich histories it carries were under assault with incidents such as the theft of masterpieces from museum collections, the $55 million Van Gogh that disappeared in plain day light as an example, but also lesser known pieces from the country’s vast and uncatalogued collections are constantly disappearing. In most cases these kinds of thefts or sudden disappearances go unnoticed and unreported. The assault on Egypt’s cultural heritage is more often the result of mismanagement, conflicting policies, lack of policy enforcement and the state’s hegemonic control over the arena of culture and heritage in general without proper mechanisms for civilian oversight or transparency. Tens of museums across the country close for extended periods with no planned reopening, sometimes a decade, in the name of renovation. In the meantime the whereabouts and condition of collections remain a mystery and there are no channels for the public to inquire about such information. High level officials are never held accountable. In other times the state is directly the vandal, as was the case with the botched renovation of Cairo’s heritage central station in 2011. Added to this is the insatiable appetite of the market for Egyptian cultural artifacts ranging from ancient statuettes to doors and wooden ceilings of the homes of historic Cairo. These items end up in private collections in Europe and the Gulf.

Adding to the rapid destruction of heritage is the undemocratic nature of urban management in Egypt. Take for example the disastrous case of Luxor where its former governor (an appointed military general with no experience or knowledge in heritage management or urbanism, appointed to run one of the world’s richest cities in terms of cultural capital) decided single handedly to destroy entire stretches of historic urban fabric, forcibly evict residents from historic village homes that represent some of the best examples of vernacular domestic architecture, and to create an empty badly paved plaza in front of Karnak Temple in place of the centuries old trees and palm groves that separated the temple from the Nile. These are but few examples of the havoc done onto the city by its appointed governor with all the tools of the security state at his disposal to intimidate residents and imprison those who get in the way.

One of the main culprits in the deterioration of Egyptian heritage is the state’s take over of the Waqf system, which tied the maintenance of properties to an endowment, and by doing so provided financial resources for the upkeep of endowed buildings. When the system was canceled by the state in the early 1960s, the state failed to provide sufficient funds to maintain previously endowed buildings. This also is tied to the conflict between the Waqf Ministry and the Antiquities Ministry over which institution is responsible for which monuments. Additionally, the Antiquities Ministry is the only one in the Egyptian government required to generate its own income, which it generates from ticketing at historic sites, creating an unbreakable link between national patrimony and tourism: With low tourist turnouts, financial resources to repair and maintain monuments decline and monuments carrying layers of Egypt’s history fall into disrepair. Moreover, this link between heritage and tourism has meant that only sites with touristic potential are maintained while others tucked in the urban fabric and unknown to package tourists become forgotten, locked away and neglected. The link between tourism and patrimony must be undone as Egypt’s material culture is not merely a cash cow for tourist money but it belongs to Egyptians first and foremost.

All of the above was part of the relatively slow destruction of Egyptian heritage. However, since 2011 these processes have accelerated at an unprecedented rate. In the last three years there have been three main processes for this accelerated destruction: first, in many cases the political uncertainly led the middle men in the processes described above to continue and accelerate their work, since there was no guarantee what the future would bring. Second, in other cases the flimsy control of the state over urban issues, such as the selectively applied ban on the demolition of historic or listed buildings, disappeared overnight. Because there was no real comprehensive policy that incorporated heritage into an effective economic structure the ban on demolition was imposed not because there were benefactors or because there was a widely recognized value for such structures, rather the ban on demolition was literally associated with particular persons in the ruling regime. Thus when such figures seemed to be out of the political picture, many heritage buildings were demolished in order for their owners to profit from the land or to build new profitable structures. Finally, a third wave of destruction is a direct result of the political uncertainly where heritage was used as a bargaining chip to shame the revolution or it was in the crossfires of fighting or attacks. Mosques, churches, museums, and government buildings were burned, looted, or destroyed.

It is important to read Egypt’s heritage drain within a regional context. From Syria’s enormous losses of major historical sites to the looting of Iraqi museums and collections following the American invasion. Through various processes of erasure, the “old Middle East” has been systematically losing hundreds of years of cultural heritage. If museums, folklore and cultural constructions were essential tools for the invention of nations in the 19th and 20th centuries, then their destruction could be read as the undoing of nations in the 21st century.

Here is an abbreviated list of some of the major cultural and heritage losses in Egypt since 2011. Many of these cases have been under-reported and lost amidst the news of massacres, mass arrests and political turmoil.

1. Major damage to Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art and the National Library and Archives building and collections.

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Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art, known locally until recently as the Museum of Arab Art, holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of Islamic art covering all periods of Egypt’s history since the coming of Islam and including items from around the Islamic world from Iran to Turkey. The museum was closed for nearly a decade to undergo a renovation that resulted in mostly cosmetic changes to the galleries with only a selection of 2500 items put on display, a small fraction of its more than 100,000 items. The building housing the museum is a heritage building completed in 1903 also houses the main headquarters of Egypt’s National Library with its special manuscript collection. Pictured above is a clipping from a magazine from the 1960s complaining about the architecture of the then new police headquarters across from the historic museum.

The Museum was severely damaged in January of this year after a bomb blast targeted the police headquarters across the street. Read more here.

2. Destruction of many of Cairo’s historic and landmark villas and palaces

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Since the 1990s villas and mansions that were built by a burgeoning bourgeoisie from the end of the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century have been destroyed. Since 2011 the rate of destruction has accelerated and listed villas were targeted and even removed from the heritage list by direct order of the prime minister. Known examples include Villa Casdagli and Villa Ispenian in Cairo as well as the residence of key figures in Egyptian history such as Makram Ebeid palace in Qena (which also happens to be located across the street from the city’s main police headquarters). Many more were damaged or destroyed without ever being studied or documented, taking with them a significant slice of modern Egyptian history.

3. Destruction of Mansoura Theater

In December 2013 a car bomb targeting the police headquarters in the city of Mansoura caused major damage to the city’s historic theater located across the street. While the Culture Ministry vowed to repair the building, the municipality deemed it must be demolished. The fate of the building is still uncertain. The theater is a turn of the century building that was among a series of theaters and opera houses that were built in cities across the country (including small and medium cities) and patronized by the local elite.

4. Looting of the Malawi Museum in Minya

The Malawi National Museum in the southern city of Minya was entirely looted. In August 2013 as many as 1089 objects recorded in the museum inventory were stolen in a single heist. Around 50 items were destroyed or burned. Months later it has been reported that half of the items were later returned. In December it was reported that the museum was undergoing restoration. The museum contained a special collection of artifacts discovered locally. The world famous Nefertiti bust, now in Berlin, was discovered nearby in 1912.

5. Destruction of the Institut d’Egypte

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In December 2011 amid clashes between security personnel and protesters an inconspicuous historic building at the corner of Qasr el Aini and Sheikh Rihan Streets caught fire. The building engulfed in flames was home to the Egyptian Research Council (المجمع العلمي المصري) also known as the Institut d’Egypte. The library in the building contains original publications dating back to 1798 including the famous Description de l’Egypte. Following a gift from a Gulf emir and a botched restoration of the building it was announced the following year that the building reopened although nothing is known about the fate of its collection.

6. Uncontrolled urban transformation of the historic of Darb el Ahmar district in Cairo

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One of the most spectacular urban transformations since 2011 has taken place at the heart of historic Cairo in one of the most revered districts, al-Darb al-Ahmar. Numerous buildings have been destroyed dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries, sometimes with official demolition permits. The problem is not only in the en-mass demolition but also the speedy constructions that have risen above 10-stories dwarfing all that remains of the city’s once intact historic neighborhood with an accumulated heritage of domestic architecture. Authorities have been fully complicit in this enormous cultural disaster often citing lack of security as an excuse for not intervening.

7. Encroachment on archaeological sites at Fustat, Dahshour and Al-Matariyyah

Archaeological sites north-west and south-east of Cairo have been vulnerable to building encroachment. At Dahshour, it has been reported, residents from a nearby village began building cemeteries over the site. While in Matariya, one of Cairo’s ancient sites where the city’s only obelisk is still standing, a neglected archaeological site had been transformed into a waste dump. In Fustat, the site of Egypt’s first Islamic capital, nearby residents began building on the site. In fact these acts of encroachment are the direct result of years of negligence and the policy that has cut monuments from their local context by building fences and treating the urban population as trespassers rather than active members of communities essential to monument preservation. In all the above cases the Antiquities Ministry has been slow to react and incapable of dealing with crises.

8. Partial collapse of Muhammad Ali’s Shubra Palace

This is a truly unique building, which had been inaccessible due to a over-drawn restoration costing millions during the years of Farouk Hosni. After the revolution started, the site, like many others across the country, was closed citing lack of security. During this period of closure news emerged that an entire corner of this early 19th century pleasure pavilion collapsed due to the unprofessional restoration completed years earlier. The news emerged months after the collapse happened. Since then news of the status of the site has been suppressed. It is important to note that “renovations” and “restoration” projects have often been the result of direct order given to a contractor, often with no substantial experience in such work. These projects cost millions without independent supervision of budgets or quality of work.

9. Thefts at several sites in Islamic Cairo

For years historic Cairo has been slowly drained of its exquisite architectural elements from door knobs to entire doors and wooden mosque pulpits and even ceilings of ottoman-era houses. Stories circulate in these districts about middlemen buying and bribing their way through the heritage of the city as their wealthy clients, often women from the Gulf, seek to acquire authentic antiques to decorate their newly built homes in the booming cities of the “new Middle East.”

Since 2011 the rate of these thefts and the audacity of the thieves have increased. While police occasionally foils a theft of historic buildings, many more go under the radar. The theft of decorative element from the door of the Sultan Farag Ibn Barquq funerary complex received some attention in 2012. However, we will never know the full extent of these thefts, again because the very system of managing these sites and the relationship between these buildings and neighboring communities are deeply flawed.

10. The rapid loss of Alexandria’s architectural heritage

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If a city can visually, urbanistically and experientially represent the current state of Egypt most vividly, Alexandria is probably the best candidate. While the transformations taking place in Egypt’s second city can be seen across the county, no city comes close to Alexandria’s rate of deterioration and urban densification due to corruption in municipal government and the security apparatus and the power of the construction mafia. From tens of historic buildings demolished every month to thousands of new illegal constructions rising to the lack of improvement to basic services and the near absence of any municipal policy, Alexandria’s decline is irreversible.

The city’s iconic modernist building housing its municipality was torched and destroyed during the early days of the revolution. Unique structures such as the Villa Aghion were partially demolished, sites of cultural memory such as Lawrence Durrell’s villa are on the demolition list. The “bride of the Mediterranean” as it is known locally, is sinking into the sea.

11. The disappearance of Cairo’s Railway Museum

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Another major casualty of mismanagement and corruption is the Railway Museum at Cairo’s central station. In 2010 it was reported that the museum “lost its tracks” and that a renovation was in order. Then, during the midst of the revolution, a renovation was hastily carried out at the station destroying the architectural design of its interior and the Railway Museum was dismantled. The museum renovation was never completed and the location of its collections is unknown. There is no information as to the intended date of reopening, if any, or who is carrying out the renovation, nor who is designing or curating the collection and display, if any. The world’s earliest museum dedicated to the railways is, for now, gone.

Burgers, Neighborhoods and Egypt’s non-system

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With new restaurants opening every week in Cairo it may appear that the government has been promoting and encouraging entrepreneurship and facilitating the opening of new restaurants and cafes in some parts of the city as a way to stimulate local economy towards recovery. While the revolution seems to have been nearly all but suffocated three years after it started in January 2011, Cairo has been experiencing something of a food and beverage revolution that is looking up more and more. Since 2011 tens of new cafes and restaurants have opened in each of the city’s bourgeois pockets with some areas such as Zamalek literally swallowed by the rise of these new spaces of consumption that the island is becoming the city’s food court prompting some residents to call for the food encroachment to stop. In 2010 if you wanted to eat a burger in Cairo the options were clear: either the 90LE burger at the Marriot or a LE15 burger from a fast food chain with few or no options in between. Today Zamalek alone boasts half a dozen excellent burger shops each with its own character and taste with an average cost for a meal of 30LE. So what is happening here?

Burgers are no laughing matter; almost every American political race will involve a photo opportunity by a candidate in a small family-owned restaurant or café to send the message that small business is an important part of the economy. Indeed small businesses and entrepreneurs can play an important role in a city’s development and economic growth but policy and municipal vision need to be established in order to harness the maximum return for the city from these small ventures and to guarantee certain stability to the city particularly at the neighborhood level. At the same time clear regulations and procedures must be in place in order for investors to know that their effort will not be vulnerable to municipal corruption and personal relations. What we’re seeing in Cairo over the past few years is on one hand a sign of the potential for small and medium investment to enter the Egyptian market and compete if given the chance to do so. On the other hand this explosion in small/medium private investment in the food and beverage sector is not a result of a municipal policy rather it is the result of the absence of a clear vision and the corruption of local municipal councils and other state institutions. Nearly all the new restaurants and café have no license to work.

Having no permits or licenses however doesn’t mean that these new establishments are illegal. Legality in Cairo is a very slippery concept difficult to grasp. To illustrate what I mean here is an example. A friend opened an ice-cream shop in a posh part of Maadi. The procedures were not clearly established and in order to jump all the hoops and hurdles put in place by municipal officials many pockets had to be lined with cash, making something as simple as opening an ice-cream shop take a drastic turn into becoming part of the corrupt system of governance that has become the status quo in Egypt. Corruption is now structured into the system with loop holes designed specifically to allow for the widespread of corruption, money exchanging hands under the table and to give power to local officials (who are appointed not elected, pay allegiance to the ruling regime not the neighborhoods they serve and are often retired military and police officers) to abuse for their own benefit. Take for example the requirement in official procedures for every shop to have a hose long enough to reach the nearest fire hydrant. When was the last time you saw a fire hydrant while walking in Cairo? They nearly don’t exist in reality but they do on the municipal maps. So a shop owner is essentially required to play an absurd game and to provide a hose long enough to reach the non-existent fire hydrant in order to satisfy this particular requirement. Otherwise the shop is vulnerable to being reported and fined by the fire department. What this means is that unless you develop friendly relations with local officials and the various state institutions, and developing those relations means providing certain amounts of cash to various officials, a kind of invisible tax, those very institutions can use these structured loop holes in the system to shut you down. Insecurity is the name of the game and the result is a collapsing state structure that is best described as a non-system.

A non-system is very different from no system. In Egypt’s municipal non-system there are steps and procedures, there are state institutions, there are lawyers and contracts, there is a lot of paperwork, there are thousands of state employees most of whom are not there to make your life as a citizen or someone opening a small shop any easier, there are many signatures and stamps that must be granted and there is a lot of handshaking to do. It appears to be a system but it isn’t merely dysfunctional, it is actually designed to make the lives of everyone involved difficult. To open a new small business you have to follow the rules, file the papers, get insurance, get the fire hose to the invisible fire hydrant, even pay taxes yet your file will sit in limbo forever never fully processed through the system because that will keep you subservient to every employee in that system who may pass by your shop to get a little baksheesh or if you sell ice cream take a free cake for his child’s birthday (true story). Members of the police and security apparatus with its army of plain-clothed informants can go to your shop and have free food; if you have a small hotel or hostel they might even sleep for free. Is this a way to run a city? Is this a way to run a country?

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While the recent growth of the food and beverage sector is evidence of the city’s entrepreneurial potential it should also be seen as one of the ways the city and its residents are resilient to the structured corruption. These are not the outcome of a government program aiming to recover the economy, to the contrary. However, there are negative side effects to the phenomenon in some areas that also result from this non-system where the investors with the biggest pockets can buy their way into doing whatever they want, in some cases taking over entire sidewalks or blocking the entrances of residential buildings with tables and chairs. Heavy weight investors with access to Egypt’s ruling class of military generals might even get a piece of the otherwise inaccessible Nile waterfront to establish restaurants and cafes.

So what should/could a good city government do to harness the potential in these kinds of small/medium investments while safeguarding neighborhoods and the rights of residents?

First of all the governorate (municipality) needs to provide a streamlined system to ensure that the city’s small business have easy access to information and easy to follow steps to register. It is also the responsibility of the municipality and the state to guarantee that business owners have certain rights and are protected from the corruption of state employees. See for example New York City’s Business Owner’s Bill of Rights:

AS A BUSINESS OWNER, YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO:

  1. Courteous and professional treatment by our employees.
  2. Inspectors who are polite, professionally dressed, and properly identified.
  3. Information about how long inspections will take and the cost of all related fees.
  4. Knowledgeable inspectors who enforce agency rules uniformly
  5. Receive information about agency rules from inspectors or other employees.
  6. Contest a violation through a hearing, trial or other relevant process
  7. Request a review of inspection results or re-inspection as soon as possible.
  8. Receive explanation from inspectors (if requested) on violation details and instructions for viewing inspection results
  9. Access information in languages other than English (In Cairo it would be Arabic and English as a second option).
  10. Comment, anonymously and without fear of retribution, on the performance or conduct of our employees.

The municipality should make it easier for businesses in Cairo to be established and to find ways for small business to foster the development of neighborhoods and to become an important part of the city’s economy. Small business is also where much of the city’s workforce will find jobs.

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[residents of Zamalek called for a protest on November 2 against the corruption and bribery of local officials which have led to some of the district’s new cafes to take over certain streets while there has been no improvement in municipal services such as street cleaning and garbage collection.]

The city has a responsibility to provide municipal services such as street cleaning, paving sidewalks uniformly across the city and protecting neighborhoods from the encroachment of small business onto public amenities such as public space and walking paths. Improvements to the streetscape are an important aspect of this equation, this is why small businesses pay taxes part of which should be spent by the municipality on the maintenance of the street, which benefits the shops and the neighborhood in general. Road 9 in Maadi has seen an exponential growth in the number of new cafes and restaurants, for example, but not a penny has been spent on the maintenance of the sidewalks and the street, which is in rather poor condition. The shops are paying money, it is just not going into the system and reflected onto the city and that needs to be fixed.

New, good quality, non-fast-food, street level (not in malls) restaurants are a much needed development in Cairo and some have been exciting additions to their neighborhoods and some have even been exciting adventures with Egyptian cuisine. However there needs to be a balance between promoting small businesses such as these and the rights of local residents to having a say in their neighborhoods so that the highest bidders don’t pay their way into blocking streets, crowding sidewalks, and taking over parking spots allocated to residents. The answer to this issue partly lies in the need for real participatory democratic municipal government where residents can have a say in their neighborhood’s development. If residents of the posh and relatively privileged district of Zamalek have no say over what happens in their neighborhood then consider how dis-empowered the country’s impoverished majority must be when it comes to their neighborhoods. At the same time, small businesses can be powerful engines for neighborhood development if the corruption in the existing municipal system is eliminated and the process is streamlined so that those who want to play the restaurant game can focus on the product and service they offer rather than waste time, money and energy negotiating the city’s non-system.

Two court cases and the future of Cairo

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In the midst of recent political turmoil there have been developments in two court cases which have gone largely unnoticed. In both cases private property was targeted for confiscation using state institutions as a vehicle for private investment to acquire these properties. In both cases the state mobilized its security apparatus and even used lethal force to intimidate/terrorize residents. The two cases are significant and have implications on the future of the city.

The first case regards Ramlet Bulaq, a slum area on prime real estate land behind Nile Towers along the waterfront. The case was filed by lawyers from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights on behalf of residents in a triangular plot of land which were to be forcibly evicted following decree number 8993 issued from the governor in 2011. The case was lodged against the prime minister, Cairo governor and the head of the board of the Slum Development Fund. Throughout 2012 Ramlet Bulaq was the site of state violence and intimidation of residents including  unwarranted arrests. These developments escalated into scenes of violence and confrontation with the security staff at the nearby Nile Towers.

The governor’s decree called for the temporary removal of the residents to open the land for private development in addition to building a set of low-income housing blocks for the residents of the area. The majority of the land was to be developed with luxury office and hotel complexes. The government’s track record in such proposals is dismal and residents feared that they will never have access to their land, that they are getting the short end of the stick and that they will be likely relocated to distant and isolated government housing in the desert fringe with no services, work opportunities, or community life.

To be clear, these residents own the properties, they are not squatters. The case argued that according to the constitutional decree of March 2011, private property can not be confiscated by the state. The governor’s decree also violates a law from 1990 regarding the state’s ability to strip private ownership if deemed necessary for the “public good.” That 1990 law requires a direct presidential order for such steps to be taken, which did not happen as SCAF, at the time holding presidential powers, did not give direct orders for the confiscation of the land. Furthermore, the law only allows confiscation of property for the “public good” for very particular reasons such as building a road/highway, building a bridge, necessary sewage and potable water infrastructure, and so on. The confiscation of private property by the state to be later sold and developed by private business is not protected nor allowed by the law.

On August 20 the administrative court blocked the governor’s decree in favor of the residents of Ramlet Bulaq.

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The second court case this past month which also has interesting implications on the future of the city is the case of Qursaya Island.

In 2001 former president Hosni Mubarak issued decree 152 of that year which appropriated the island to the Armed Forces. The island is home to a rural community of 4000 farmers and 1000 fishermen who according to this presidential decree should be forcibly evicted. In 2010 a court ruled in favor of the residents and confirmed their right to stay. However, since the fall of 2011 the armed forces stormed the island several times in an attempt to intimidate residents, tens of residents were arrested without court order and at least one resident was killed during one of the incidents. Residents have reported other on going forms of intimidation such as the stationing of military personnel at the island and the monitoring of boat traffic to and from Giza as to restrict mobility. The island is a productive community that supplies produce, dairy and other products to the nearby markets in Giza and most residents trace their presence on the island to multiple generations. It is a unique rural community within the city.

The island was envisioned as part of a development plan that aimed to create luxury and touristic real estate, however such plans treated the land as terra nullius, land belonging to no one.

On August 22, the administrative court issued a recommendation for a final ruling to be given in favor of the residents of Qursaya Island deeming military presence on the island to be illegal. The final court ruling has been postponed to October 8th to allow the Ministry of Defense to review the report.

Both cases are significant and they point to a degree of judicial autonomy that remains in the system. But more significantly these are cases in which the courts have ruled in favor of the city’s inhabitants against the unchecked power of private business and its direct dealings with government officials as well as against the unchecked power of the military to control land and properties in urban areas in ways that surpass the functions of the institution.

These court cases could set significant precedents in Cairo where there are many more cases of forced eviction that result from unchecked deals between state institutions and officials on one hand and private capital on the other. The Qursaya case is particularly interesting because it could be a rare ruling in which the armed forces’ long unchecked control over property, land and in particular Nile waterfronts could be now open for debates. The armed forces as an institution has for decades taken advantage of zero civilian oversight to engage in various real estate deals and partnerships with private investors the profits from which have little benefit to the general public or the city at large. Recent examples include the direct sale (no public bidding process) of land in Muqattam to the UAE developer Emmar at rates far below market prices. Other repercussions of the case could be an opportunity for court cases to be filed against the military’s single handed control, which surpasses the powers of the municipalities, over Nile front properties in Cairo and other cities. Such properties are often gifted to various associations or rented/leased to private businesses in ways that overstep municipal procedures and often evade taxation laws. 

Despite these recent judicial developments, another similar development scheme in which the state is planning to forcibly evict residents in favor of private development which will have access to the land at below market prices and without proper compensation paid to residents was announced to go forward. The case is for the so-called Maspero Triangle, a large area bordered by Nile front to the west, 26th of July corridor to the North and 6th of October bridge to the south. A schematic plan for that project can be found on the governorate’s official site.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights along with residents from Ramlet Bulaq, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights organized a press conference last week titled "Our land is our right" which linked together the struggles of the people of Ramlet Bulaq, Maspero Triangle and Qursaya Island.

Destruction Alert: historic gate demolished with official approval

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This week a gate that belonged to a large residential complex, which was already demolished, was bulldozed with the permission of authorities. The demolition has caused outrage and protest by concerned citizens. The gate appears to date from sometime between the mid-18th century to the early 19th century and was located on Bab al Wazir Street in the heart of historic Cairo’s Darb el Ahmar district. The building was once the home of Egypt’s grand Mufti (1921-1928). The demolition comes at a time when the heart of historic Cairo has been continuously under assault losing entire historic houses (typically three stories) which have been replaced by taller, higher density modern apartment blocks as tall as 8-10 stories. Domestic architecture, no matter how old, is rarely registered as monument, which means that the primary elements of historic districts such as Darb el Ahmar are extremely vulnerable in the face of real estate speculation, typically within the informal economy sector which involves paying large sums by the developers to the authorities in order to turn a blind eye to their building frenzy.

Mohamed Abdelaziz, the official responsible for the development of historic Cairo project at the antiquities ministry, deflected the news by arguing that the gate was of no historic significance and that the demolition was completely legal. This incident raises several persistent questions which have not been confronted regarding Cairo’s urban development particularly in historic areas.

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[The destroyed gate which was already vandalized by election posters for Islamist candidates including the current president. Photo by Ahmed Hamed via Aswatmasriya.com]

The most pressing question is WHO in Egypt today determines what counts as heritage/patrimony and who decides on the categories? There are multiple governmental bodies responsible for different and often overlapping kinds of heritage often governed by outdated rigid categories which often have orientalist or colonial origin. For example, the vast and vague category of “Islamic Architecture”: What is and what is not “Islamic” architecture? This gate was determined undeserving of protection because it was not “registered as an Islamic monument.” In fact the decorative motifs seen in this gate can be found in many residential structures from that period and they often go undocumented and dismissed because they do not easily fit into 19th century categories of Mamluk, Ottoman, Fatimid, etc. There are house gates with floral motifs, others with faces carved above the portal and others with letters or family symbols. Such diversity and architectural individuality do not interest the official institution of antiquities (governed by dated art historical categories imposed from elsewhere), because these houses are/were part of the everyday and often belonged to families with no notable members. Spaces of the everyday, even if centuries old and well-built and expressing innovative building craft, are not part of the record.

But even buildings which were listed have not benefited from their listing and are often neglected, undeveloped, and un-restored. With few exceptions such as the Aga Khan project for Darb el Ahmar, there has been no comprehensive urban development plan for historic areas that take economy into account. Listed buildings, under current laws, are economic burdens on their owners who are highly restricted from benefiting financially from their valuable property by perhaps acquiring permits for renovations or adapting them to new uses. Thus, even listed buildings are often intentionally damaged by their owners in order to qualify for a demolition permit and often architects and engineers working for the state bureaucracy assist owners in destroying their own properties for a fee, knowing that once the property is freed of its heritage building it can be developed with profitable real estate. It is shameful that over a decade into the twenty-first century a country like Egypt and a city like Cairo, which had and continues to have a high density of historic structures waiting to be adapted and incorporated into an urban economy, there is yet to emerge a sufficient system to deal with this heritage properly. Lack of imagination and corruption in peacetime are causing damage to Cairo’s urban heritage at a rate that could only be matched by a natural disaster or war. Indeed images of damaged listed buildings such as Villa Casdagli (oddly registered as an Islamic Monument), resemble war damage. State institutions responsible for that listed building have not moved to respond to that damage not least to erect a fence around the property five months after its destruction.

It is important to note that major buildings which were listed were demolished with official permission in recent months. Last month Cinema Rialto, one of Alexandria’s landmark cinemas disappeared over night.

Thus, listing is not the primary issue regarding the demolition of the Darb el Ahmar gate, since listed buildings face a similarly uncertain fate.

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[The emerging skyline of the once historic Darb el Ahmar district as seen from Azhar Park]

The other issue presented by this latest catastrophe is the persistent question of adaptive reuse: Why were the wall and gate not incorporated into a new structure? such practices have a long history in Cairo as ancient as the city itself. Buildings and parts of buildings have been continuously incorporated into new structures for centuries. Across historic Cairo an observant eye will pick out fragments of ancient buildings incorporated into subsequent structures creating a sense of layering and richness which makes the historic city so exciting. However, for such practices to take place today two elements are fundamental: (1) an overall vision and policy that encourages the adaptive reuse of buildings or architectural fragments, and (2) the necessary technique and design practice needed to consult the construction of new buildings containing existing fragments. What is needed is a serious exploration of the possibilities that lie between total annihilation approach and the “open air museum” approach to historic urban areas.

The demolitions of this gate and of many other historic structures across the country are often “legal.” Legality here merely connotes that developers acquired the needed permissions in exchange for a hefty “gift” to local officials, municipal engineers and police officers.

Finally, to conclude, the unnecessary demolition of this gate is an occasion to shame some of the incompetent institutions responsible for Cairo’s urban environment: Shame on the so-called National Organization for Urban Harmony. Shame on the Governorate of Cairo. Shame on the Ministry of Antiquities. Shame on the Ministry of Culture. Shame on the Awqaf Ministry. Shame on the Ministry of Housing. All the above institutions have a track record of failure and mediocrity dominated by corruption and cronyism. All these bureaucracies have together failed to emerge with a vision for the protection and development of Egypt’s historic urban centers in ways that save heritage, allow for social continuity (no evictions) and economic prosperity.

Towards a revolutionary Nile front

بقلم علي عبد الرءوف

استاذ العمارة و نظريات العمران



مقدمة

هذا المقال يناقش مفهوم الديمقراطية العمرانية في حقبة ما بعد ثورة 25 يناير ويربطها بقيمة الفراغ العام. ويستدعي المقال واحد من أهم أهداف الثورة وهو العدالة الاجتماعية ويربطها بتحقيق العدالة العمرانية، وأهمية الاستجابة لاحتياجات قطاعات عاشت لعقود في حالات من التهميش البين. وبصورة فاحصة فان المقال يستهدف حالة شاطئ النيل وخاصة في حدود مدينة القاهرة الكبرى، ويبحث أسباب الاغتيال المتعمد لنهر النيل وإخراجه من منظومة الحياة العامة في القاهرة.

إشكالية الدراسة: إعادة استحقاق القاهريين لضفاف النهر.

من منظور العديد من الباحثين في مجال العمران العادل، تأتي علاقة سكان المدينة بفراغاتها العامة ومنها الواجهات البحرية والنهرية كدليل أساسي على عدالة المدينة، وترحيبها بقاطنيها على اختلاف انتماءاتهم وطبقاتهم وعقائدهم. الأكثر أهمية أن تحقيق هذه العدالة العمرانية الاجتماعية أصبح احد الأسباب الرئيسية لخلق إحساس حقيقي بالانتماء والتواصل مع الأرض والمكان بل والوطن ككل. حق الوصول إلى المكان العام والتواجد به هو محورا رئيسيا في منظومة الانتماء المادي والعاطفي التي يحتاجها الإنسان. من هذا التصور تتبلور أسئلة المقال الرئيسية: هل يمكن أن يكون نهر النيل أداة لتفعيل ديمقراطية العمران، بل وترسيخ كل فكرة الديمقراطية في حقبة ما بعد ثورة 25 يناير؟ كيف يعود نهر النيل قلبا دافقا ودافعا للحياة العامة العادلة في أوصال مدينة القاهرة وباقي المدن المصرية؟

النيل في الإبداع الروائي

لا يوجد أعمق واصدق من السرد الروائي ليقدم لنا ملامح عن قيمة النيل في القاهرة وتحولات علاقته مع مجتمعها المركب. في رواية “مالك الحزين” يؤكد أصلان على الأهمية الأكبر لنهر النيل في حياة أهل إمبابة، احد اهم النطاقات الشعبية في المدينة، فهو مرتبط ارتباطا وثيقا بحياة الناس. النهر هو مصدر الحياة، ولكنه أيضا مكانا للتأمل والهدوء وخروج من قسوة العشوائي الى رقة الطبيعي. وفي رواية “غرفة ترى النيل” لعزت القمحاوي. تتناول الرواية سرد الأيام الثلاثة الأخيرة لبطلها عيسى الذي كان يفترض أن يكون كاتباً، ويرافقه في أيامه الأخيرة صديقه الروائي رفعت. وكان الصديقان يراقبان من شباك غرفتهما بالمستشفى الاستثماري جزيرة نيلية دخل المستثمرون والحكومة معركة عليها مع ملاكها الأصليين من الفلاحين. وتتبلور دراما الرواية في طرح التداعي في جسد بطل الرواية المحتضر متوازياً مع التداعي في جسد المجتمع المصري تحت ضغط الفساد والسمسرة. هذا الضغط الذي استباح كل ما هو عام وشعبي ومجتمعي وعلى رأسه نهر النيل وجزره الصغيرة الحاضنة لمجتمعات صغيرة.



القيمة العمرانية لكورنيش النيل:

يمثل نهر النيل يمثل قيمة كبرى من الناحية البصرية والجمالية والترفيهية والاستثمارية. فالمدن المطلة على الأنهار أو المسطحات المائية تتبارى في إبداع الكيفية التي تصيغ واجهاتها النهرية للتوافق مع كل القيم والإمكانات التي يقدمها النهر. كما أنها تعطي الأولوية لقيمة النهر في حياة سكان المدينة وخاصة قدرته على خلق فراغا مفتوحا في وسط العمران ولكنه في الوقت ذاته يستدعي إحساس الطبيعة بكل حيويتها وديناميكيتها. وعلى الرغم من أن تاريخ علاقة نهر النيل بالقاهرة وخاصة بعد تطوير الكورنيش في الخمسينيات، نري به احتراما لحق الإنسان في نهر مدينته وخاصة الاقتراب منه ومشاهدته والتمتع بضفافه والتريض على جنباته إلا أن الشواهد المعاصرة تؤكد قسوة التغيرات التي أصابت علاقة المجتمع بالنهر. فبصورة تدريجية ولكنها متسارعة وخاصة بعد فترة الانفتاح الاقتصادي في نهاية السبعينيات، تدهورت العلاقة وتوارات أولوية حق الناس في النهر أمام ضغوط المستثمرين والمطورين العقاريين. ومنذ عقد الثمانينيات اكتمل مشهد ضمور تلك العلاقة بعد انتشار فكرة الأندية الخاصة والمهنية والمؤسسية التي انتهت بما يشبه احتلالا كاملا لضفة النهر، إلى الدرجة التي جعلت السائر على قدميه مباشرة على طريق كورنيش النيل، لا يرى النهر مطلقا لعدة كيلومترات بسبب الأسوار الحاجبة المانعة.


ما بين الجدار العمراني الذي كونته الكتل الخرسانية لعمارات سكنية والجدران والأسوار التي وضعتها الأندية الخاصة، انتهت علاقة الشعب بنهر النيل بصريا وماديا (© الباحث).

النهر والمدينة: الحالة الراهنة

في خلال العقود الأخيرة تطورت العلاقة بين مدينة القاهرة ونهر النيل بصورة سلبية غير مسبوقة في تسارعها وتواصلها. فقد تضخم ضغط الفساد وعنف السلطة وأصبح النيل كالكثير من فضاءات مصر مجالا لقراءة تداعيات إنكار حق المجتمع في الحياة الإنسانية الكريمة العادلة. يمكن ملاحظة الظواهر التالية:

    تداعي العلاقة بين سكان المدينة والنيل، فالنهر المقدس من قرون مضت، أصبح مكانا ملوثا في الأماكن المحدودة التي يتمكن فيها القاهريين من الوصول إلى ضفافه. بينما الحالة العامة هي الانفصال المادي والبصري وخاصة في حالة القاهرة الكبرى (القاهرة والجيزة). وأصبح إدراك الكثيرين للنهر يبنى على إحساسهم بأنهم يتسولون الإطلال والجلوس على النيل.

    تحول معظم ضفاف نهر النيل الى فراغات خارج نطاق أو إمكانية الاستعمال العام من قبل معظم سكان وزوار المدينة نتيجة التحول المتسارع لمعظم احيزة ضفاف النهر إلى فراغات خاصة وأحيانا فراغات شديدة الخصوصية، وكل الشواهد تؤكد “خصخصة نهر النيل”، وخاصة من قبل المؤسسات المهنية النافذة كالقضاء والنيابة أو المؤسسات السلطوية كالجيش والشرطة.

    ظاهرة رسو البواخر النيلية العملاقة على ضفاف النهر في نطاق مدينة القاهرة ونتيجة رسو هذه البواخر متجاورة على ضفاف النهر فقد تكون نوعا جديدا من الجدران العمرانية الحاجبة لنهر النيل.

    الفراغات المحدودة جدا التي أعدت للاستعمال العام تحولت أيضا إلى حدائق خاصة بعد تأجيرها وتحديد رسم دخول لها يتناقض مع مستوي دخل العائلة المصرية البسيطة (حالة حديقة الجزيرة).



ديمقراطية العمران ومفاهيم المدينة العادلة: حالة النهر.

إن تكثيف ظاهرة “لا ديمقراطية العمران” المرصودة في عمران القاهرة الكبرى ومصر كلها يأتي بالمقام الأول من عجز الفصل بين ما هو قانوني ولا أخلاقي في الوقت ذاته. هل يمكن أن يكون الفعل القانوني فعلا لا أخلاقيا؟ هذا التساؤل الهام يكشف جانبا من إشكاليات الدراسة الرئيسية. تأمل مثلا فكرة حجب النهر عن الشعب بأندية خاصة تستعمل من قبل فئات محددة. هذا الفعل الذي يبدو قانونيا أو بالاحري من اليقين انه قانونيا من حيث خضوع تلك الأندية لقوانين البناء واستخراج التراخيص وتعليمات الدفاع المدني..الخ. ولكنها بالقطع ممارسات لا أخلاقية وتتنافى مع مبادئ المدينة العادلة عندما تشكل في مجملها سورا عمرانيا حاجبا وحاجزا لعلاقة الشعب بالنهر. ديمقراطية العمران ومبادئ المدينة العادلة تعني أن الرصيد الطبيعي لأي امة من انهار وبحار وجبال وغابات، هو ملك للشعب بكل طبقاته ومستوياته ولا يمكن حرمان الشعب من هذا الرصيد بدعوى التنمية أو الترفيه أو حتى تنشيط السياحة. المدينة العادلة تعطي الأولوية دائما للشعب ومن خلال احترام حق الشعب تزدهر السياحة وتنمو المشروعات وتتطور المدينة.

نهر النيل: الطرح الثوري البديل

من اجل تقديم طرحا جديدا لصياغة علاقة النهر بالمدينة يحقق مفاهيم ديمقراطية العمران، ويؤكد على مبادئ المدينة العادلة في تخطيطها وعمرانها فإننا نقدم هنا طرحين هامين. الطرح الأول له علاقة بالإمكانات الموجودة في وحول هذا النهر العظيم وهذه المدينة العريقة. والطرح الثاني يضم مجموعة من المقترحات والأفكار التي تتسم بالطابع الثوري لتفعيل رؤية نرى من خلالها نيل مصر يعود إلى سكان القاهرة ويمثل حالة يمكن استدعائها وتكراراها في كل مدن مصر المطلة على النيل من دمياط إلى أسوان.

الطرح الأول: بلورة الإمكانات المتاحة:

على الرغم من التداعي المتزايد لضفاف النهر النيل، واستمرار حالة الانفصال بين النهر والمدينة والمجتمع ولكن الدراسات الميدانية والزيارات الاستطلاعية وثقت مجموعة من الإمكانات التي تمثل في مجملها إطارا يمكن تفعيله في قرارات مستقبلية تخطيطية المنهج ثورية الطابع. ومن أهم تلك الإمكانات ما بلور في النقاط التالية:

    من انساق الاستعمالات المنتشرة على طول ضفة النهر، المشاتل النباتية والحدائقية التي تستخدم أراضي طرح النهر الخصبة أما بوضع اليد أو بالإيجار من وزارة الري. والواقع أن هذه المشاتل تمثل في إجمالها، وبسبب التشكيلات النباتية والأشجار والنخيل بها، واحدة من أهم تجمعات المسطحات الخضراء في القاهرة الكبرى.

    يتميز الرصيف الموازي لأرض طرح النهر بالاتساع بسبب الاهتمام التاريخي بالطرق الموازية للنهر وأهميتها المرورية. إلا أن هذه الأرصفة العريضة والمتسعة غير مستغلة للاستعمال العام بسبب الأسوار النباتية أو المبنية التي تفصل النهر عن الرصيف المتسع

    المحدودية الغير منطقية في استخدام النقل النهري، وبالتالي إمكانية تعظيم دوره في مدينة بها واحد من أعلى معدلات التزاحم وأيضا الحوادث على طرقها. فالواقع أن هناك احتياج ملح للتفكير في وسائل مبدعة لزيادة كفاءة الحركة في مدينة يتحرك فيها قرابة العشرين مليون شخص كل صباح.



الطرح الثاني: رؤى ثورية وتوصيات لعودة النيل لمصر

جانب رئيسي في الرؤى الثورية لإعادة النيل لمصر وأهلها ينبع من أهمية إعادة صياغة الإطار القانوني لمستعملي الأراضي المحيطة بالنهر سواء المؤسسات الرسمية كالأندية العسكرية او المهنية. وكذلك الحال بالنسبة للمستأجرين من وزارة الري وخاصة أصحاب المشاتل الزراعية ومراسي المراكب. التصور القانوني المقترح يجب أولا أن ينص على أن كل ضفاف النيل والاستعمالات القائمة عليها متاحة للشعب ولا تقتصر على فئات أو مهن. كما أن استغلال طرح النهر للمشاتل والمراسي يجب أن يرتبط في عقود الإيجار بإتاحة هذه المشاتل والمراسي كحدائق مفتوحة وبإصرار على الاستعمال الراقي لكل القاهريين والمصريين.

التخلص الكامل والحازم والفعال وبلا استثناءات لكل ما يعيق تحقيق الاستمرارية الفراغية والبصرية والحركية على طوال جوانب النهر من جهتي الشرق والغرب وأيضا على حواف الجزر الكبرى مثل جزيرة الزمالك والذهب والروضة. ثم تطوير مجموعة من الحدائق والفراغات الخضراء الصغيرة المتاحة بصورة خاصة للأطفال والعائلات، التي يمكن أن تكون المشاتل القائمة نواة لها، ووصلها عن طريق ممرات المشاة والدراجات وكذلك وصلها من جهة النهر بالنقل النهري الشراعي أو الآلي.

القيمة الحقيقية للعمل الثوري انه يحقق تطلعات المجتمعات للعدالة، ولكن ليس فقط العدالة بمفهومها المعنوي الأخلاقي ولكن أيضا بمفهومها المادي المحسوس. إن ثورة تحقيق عدالة وديمقراطية العمران وإعادة النيل للمجتمع المصري هي جزء لا يتجزأ من استمرارية ثورة 25 يناير 2011. ولذا فان ضرورة إيقاف الجريمة التي تتم يوميا على نيل مصر وإعادة الحياة لشاطئ النيل تعبيرا عن استقلال الفراغ العام واحترام المصريين هو عمل ثوري بامتياز.

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Bulaq: the struggle over a neighborhood


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كتب علي محمد احمد

هندسة عمارة- بوليتكنيكو دي ميلانو

لقاء مع نائب محافظ القاهره عقب قطع أهالى بولاق لطريق الكورنيش

رسائل

خرج أهالى مثلث" ماسبيرو" فى عدة وقفات أحتجاجيه حتى قاموا بقطع طريق الكورنيش فى أخر وقفه و ذلك بعد أستمرار تجاهل مطالبهم خلال الوقفات الأولى.

تقوم المحافظه بالتفاوض مع ملاك الأراضى ( المستثمرين ) لمحاولة أصدار قرار أستيلاء على جزء من الأرض لبناء 64 برج لأهالى ماسبيرو لتسكينهم بها, و صرح نائب المحافظ بأن عملية بيع الأرض تمت بين الأهالى و المستثمرين دون تدخل من الدوله و أن دور المحافظه يقتصر على التنسيق من أجل توفير مسكن بديل للأهالى.

أكد أيضا نائب المحافظ أن هناك مخططات موضوعه لتطوير المنطقه و تحويلها الى فنادق و مبانى أداريه و غيره.

عرض 

مثلث ماسبيرو هو ذلك المثلث الذى تتكون أضلاعه من شارع 26 يوليو فى المنطقه الواقعه بين قنصلية أيطاليا و كورنيش النيل مرورا بمسجد أبو العلا و الضلع الثانى شارع الجلاء فى المنطقه الواقعه بين قنصلية أيطاليا و فندق هيلتون رمسيس مرورا بشركة أسكندريه للتبريد و المدرسه الأرمينيه و الضلع الثالث طريق الكورنيش من الفندق لوزارة الخارجيه مرورا بمبنى" ماسبيرو”.

يخترق المثلث شارع أبو طالب الممتد من شارع الجلاء حتى ظهر جراج الخارجيه موازيا لطريق الكورنيش, و بمجرد دخولك الى شارع أبو طالب تجد الكثير من المشاهد التى تجسد أهمالا متراكما يتمثل فى الحاله المتدهوره للمبانى و السيارات المنتشره فى الطريق التى يعمل بعض من أهل المنطقه على أصلاحها من أجل الحصول على قوت يومهم و ليس لدي أغلبهم ورش خاصه فقد يضطر الى المبيت فى كثير من الأحيان داخل أحد السيارات ليوفر ثمن الذهاب الى مدينة النهضه ( أحدى الأماكن التى وفرتها الدوله كبديل لأزاحة السكان عن بولاق) , فى شارع أبوطالب يمكنك أن ترى وجوه أرهقها العمر و لكن أبدا لم يهزمها, بعض من هؤلاء السكان رحل أبائهم من النوبه القديمه و أستقر بهم الحال عند ساحل بولاق ( الميناء القديم للقاهره ), و لم يكن يخطر ببالهم أن أجيالا قادمه سوف تتعرض لشبح التهجير و لكن هذه المره فى قلب العاصمه و ليس من أجل مشروع قومى ولكن من أجل بناء فنادق و منتجعات و مونوريل و أطماع مستثمرين.

بولاق بشوارعها و حواريها و أهلها جزء أصيل من قلب القاهره و نسيجها العمرانى القديم و هي حلقة وصل بين شبرا و السبتيه و رمسيس و القاهره الخديويه وهذا النسيج التاريخى هو دليل على الوجود و على البقاء


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موقع المثلث و المنطقه المخطط أزالتها داخله

من يملك 

هناك بعض المبانى فى المثلث ملكيتها ثابته أو على الأقل غير متنازع عليها مثل : القنصليه, وزارة الخارجيه, مبنى الأذاعه, الفندق, مجموعه من العمارات فى حاله جيده على شارع 26 يوليو و الكورنيش, و المدرسه الأرمينيه.

و بالطبع فأن محل النزاع هى بيوت أهالى المنطقه الذين ليس لهم سند فلا هم فندق و لا وزاره و لكن الدوله تتعامل معهم على أنهم ملكيه عامه يمكن التحكم فى مصيرهم حسب هوى السلطه.

قامت الدوله ببيع هذا الجزء من الأرض منذ عدة عقود لمستثمرين من السعوديه و الكويت بالأضافه الى شريك مصرى هى شركه تدعى ماسبيرو لا أحد يعلم من يقف خلفها, و برغم من أن الدوله لا تملك الأرض و أن أهالى المنطقه يملكون عقود للأرض ترجع الى بدايات القرن الماضى و تنتمى لأجدادهم و لكن الدوله أتمت صفقة البيع و قامت بوضع مخطط لتطوير المنطقه فى أطار مخطط القاهره 2050 و قامت بتوفير مساكن بديله للأهالى على أطراف القاهره بمدينة النهضه و تم تسجيل العقود بأسم المستثمريين الجدد و ربما هذا ما تم أستغلاله للتحايل على العقود التى يمتلكها السكان حيث أنها تنتمى لعصر قبل أن يتم أعتماد نظام التوثيق فى الشهر العقارى و غيره , و حتى تضع الدوله السكان الذين رفضوا مغادرة منازلهم أمام الأمر الواقع قررت حظر الترميم و التنكيس للمبانى حتى يتثنى لهل الأستيلاء على العقارات التى تسقط بفعل الزمن و يصبح الساكن أمام الرحيل للنهضه أو المبيت فى العراء, و لما كان أنهيار المساكن مسأله وقت لقدمها فكان حظر التنكيس و الترميم هو الحل السحرى للأستيلاء أولا بأول على أجزاء من الأرض مقابل مبلغ زهيد و شقه فى النهضه بأيجار أعلى من ااموجود ببولاق, و تكون هذه ورقه ضغط على السكان فى حالة أظهار عقودهم تثبت أنهم قد تنازلوا , و أمام أبتزاز الحكومه لم يجد البعض مفر من الذهاب للنهضه و لكن الغالبيه صمدوا و ظلوا فى منطقتهم و أصبح الوضع الجديد أن الدوله بائع و المستثمر مالك و أصحاب الأرض الأصليين متطفلين بل عائق أمام تطوير قلب القاهره فى حين أن بولاق ملك أهلها و القاهره ملك سكانها و ليست ملك مستثمر أو مسئول

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من يعد

كن الوعد الأول هو أعادة تسكين أهالى المنطقه فى مدينة النهضه على طريق الأسماعيليه فى كتل خرسانيه فى الصحراء, بعيدا عن مدارس أطفالهم و أماكن عملهم و بعيدا عن محلات وسط البلد التى تمدهم بقطع الغيار و لوازم الحرف و الأعمال المختلفه من أصلاح سيارات و غيره, و أيضا بعيدا عن مختلف وسائل المواصلات فبولاق محاطه بمترو جمال عبد الناصر و موقف عبد المنعم رياض و العديد من وسائل المواصلات الخاصه ,و يترتب على هذا الأنتقال فى بعض الأحيان أخراج الأطفال من التعليم لعدم القدره على تحمل أعباء المواصلات و فقدان الأهل لوسيلة كسب الرزق المتمثله فى الورش المختلفه فلا يوجد من يقصد النهضه لأصلاح سياره مثلا.

الوعد الثانى بعد الثوره كان الأستجابه لرغبات الأهالى بعدم التهجير و بحث اليات أيجاد بديل ( حيث أن هولاء الأهالى حاليا ليس لهم صفه و هناك مالك اخر للأرض ), و تم التوصل الى بناء 64 برج على قطعه معينه من الأرض لم يتم تحديدها و أن كان الأهالى أقترحوا أرض شركة الأسكندريه للتبريد ب 22 شارع الجلاء و هى غير مستغله حاليا مع أستمرار تنفيذ مخطط التطوير من جانب الدوله و المستثمرين المجهولين على باقى الأرض, و أذا كانت الحكومه تنكر ملكية الأهالى للأرض من الأصل و تنكر أنها طرف فى عملية البيع فلابد من أن المستثمر قد أشترى من طرف ثالث !

الوعد الثالث و الأخير حتى الان عقب أحداث قطع طريق الكورنيش الأخيره و هو أعطاء المحافظه مهلة أشهر للأهالى حتى تنظر فى قانونية وضع الأستيلاء على المساحه المطلوبه لبناء الأبراج و أن المحافظه فى وضع المنسق بين الأهالى ( المالك الحقيقى ) و المستثمر ( المالك الحالى ) حتى لا تتعدى على حقوق المستثمرين

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أرض شركة الأسكندريه للتبريد على شارع الجلاء

من يستحق 

مفهوم أن يكون طموح السكان هو ال64 برج فهو بالنسبه لهم أستحقاق أفضل من أن يجدوا أنفسهم فى الشارع أو فى مدينة النهضه فى صحراء لا يعلمون عنها شيئا و لكن الغير مفهوم أن تبارك الدوله بأجهزتها هذا الأستحقاق و أن تبارك مخطط تطوير يقوم بأزاحه مواطنين من أماكنهم و تكبيدهم متاعب يوميه أكثر و ليس مخطط لتطوير معيشة السكان أنفسهم و توفير حياه أفضل لهم فى محل أقامتهم.

أرض بولاق أستحقاق أصيل لأهل بولاق و أستحقاق أصيل لنسيج القاهره العمرانى و التاريخى لا يجوز أزالته و لكن يجب حمايته و ترميمه و بقاءه كجزء من ذاكرة المدينه, حق تحديد المصير أيضا أستحقاق لأهل المنطقه فلا يجوز لأحد التقرير بالنيابه عنهم بل دور الدوله هو حمايتهم من أطماع الرأسماليه و حمايه نسيج القاهره العمرانى القديم من خطر الأزاله, يجب توفير مسكن ملائم لأهل المنطقه على هذا النسيج و ليس فى أبراج. حق تقرير المصير هذا يجب أن يكون ناتج من حوار بين الأهالى و متخصصين و هذا يأخذنا لدور المحليات الغائب عنه التمثيل الحقيقى للمواطن.

القاهره تستحق أفضل من مخطط القاهره 2050, و تحتاج الى تطوير حياة سكانها الحقيقيين الذين هم دينامو الحياه اليوميه للمدينه و لا يستحقون التهميش, القاهره لا تستحق محو ذاكرتها المعماريه و تحويلها ألى دبى جديده تتنافس فى رؤيه النيل و أهلها يصارعون من أجل مأوى و لقمة عيش, قلب القاهره يريد أن ينبض من جديد بتحسين أوضاع سكانه و ليس بدعاوى تطوير زائفه, و كورنيش النيل حق لمواطنى العاصمه لا يجوز حرمانهم منه فى أنفاق حتى يتثنى لقاطنى الفنادق الأنفراد به بعيدا عن أنظار الماره

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لا تحتاج القاهره الى أبراج زجاجيه و مجتمعات مغلقه جديده فى قلب المدينه لخدمة شريحه معينه تريد أن تنعزل عن باقى المجتمع وتنفرد بالنيل حتى تتحول فى النهايه القاهره الى مجموعه من الحواجز و الأسوار نتحرك بينها مثل الأقزام.

تساؤلات 

هل حل المشكله فى توفير 64 برج أم الحل هو النظر فى جذر المشكله ؟

هل يجوز قلب الحقائق حتى يصبح الأهالى هم المتطفلين وقطاع طرق و هم من يثقلون بطلباتهم على كاهل الدوله ؟

ما المقصود بمراعاة السلميه فى التظاهر السلمى ؟ السلميه تشترط توافر حكومه محترمه تنظر فى مطالب المواطنين من أول وقفه أما مقابلة الوقفات بمبدأ الكلاب تعوى و القافله تسير يفتح الباب على مصراعيه للتصعيد و تخطى حدود السلميه حتى لأيصال أصواتهم.

ما هو دور المحليات و المتخصصين ؟ و ما هى حدود دور المسئول فى أتخاذ قرارات مصيريه تخص حياة المواطن ؟

لماذا لا تخرج الدوله ممثله فى المحافظ أو أيا من كان بمنتهى الشفافيه لتعرض علينا الطرف البائع للأرض هل هى الدوله أم الأهالى ؟

هل من المنطقى وجود مخطط لتطوير المنطقه لأستخدامات أخرى دون وجود نيه لأزاحة السكان ؟

هل من المنطقى أن تنكر الدوله ملكيه الأرض للسكان فى يوم من الأيام و تمنع تنكيس و ترميم المبانى و تعطى مقابل مادى من أجل نقل السكان الى مكان أخر و يكون الطرف البائع هو أهالى المنطقه و ليس الدوله؟

ما المقصود بكلمة تطوير هل هو محو ذاكرة منطقه و تغيير قلب المدينه على الخريطه, أم عمل مشروعات تنمويه تصب فى تحسين معيشة سكان المدينه اليوميه ؟

أذا لم يتم الأجابه عن هذه الأسئله بمصداقيه و شفافيه و وعى بخطورة ما نقوم به من أجرائات على المدى الطويل تؤدى الى طمس معالم المكان الذى نعيش فيه, فلنودع القاهره و لنرحب بعاصمه جديده كرتونيه, فالحلقه بين المواطن و المسئول و بين الدوله و المجتمع مفقوده, و ما بولاق الا حلقه فى سلسله متصله لمحو ذاكرة أمه بفصل المكان عن الزمان.

نعم للتطوير لا للتهجير.

لقاء مع أهالى بولاق


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صوره من مخطط القاهره 2050

جميع الصور لمنطقة بولاق من تصوير كاتب المقال على محمد احمد

Destruction Alert: Villa Casdagli

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On the first of February the long-abandoned and unused Villa Casdagli on Simon Bolivar Sq. was looted and its staircase was set on fire. The following day I visited the building after reading news that it was “burned to the ground” and found the fire department finishing its job in controlling the isolated fire. The building was standing strong but it had been stripped of any removable valuable ornamentation, or as the fire department officer called it, the building was “peeled.”  What happened at Villa Casdagli is hardly something new nor does it have anything to do with revolution or the “security vacuum.” Historic buildings, particularly those from the 19th and 20th centuries have fallen victim to organized looting, vandalism and even official cover for their subsequent demolition by people as high up in the state as previous prime ministers (directly requesting the removal of buildings from heritage lists). Following this particular incident there has been no official response from the state and its institutions responsible while the most visible response from the cultured elite has been one of despair.

The latest incident at Villa Casdagli reveals the failures of the state in safeguarding and capitalizing on heritage as well as the failures of Egypt’s heritage society to take a leading role in creating awareness, creating proposals and offering alternatives to the fate of Egypt’s modern heritage and most importantly in making the heritage issue relevant to a wider audience outside the privileged few. Also, the incident makes certain the failure of Egypt’s professional cadre of engineers and architects who have not developed the professional environment and practices that prepare them to handle such heritage buildings regardless of their state in order to bring them back to life.

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[As the burned and discolored plaster surface peels away it reveals a new modern, clean stone wall. This building is ready for a new life.]

The villa, which was built in 1910, under all the ornamentation, plaster, gilded frames, and wood floors is a masonry structure built with brick, stone and the floors and ceilings are of iron and concrete, hence it was little damaged structurally in the latest snafu.

The building had recently received some journalistic attention for its apparent neglect and need for restoration. Hidden behind trees, the villa had gone unnoticed to unknowing pedestrians until clashes in Tahrir Square spread to the nearby Simon Bolivar Sq. and led to the subsequent erection of a second wall on that square blocking off the street leading to parliament (the first wall was already erected blocking the street leading to the US embassy). The erection of the second wall had turned this important junction into a dead end and pedestrians had to get around the wall to go to their work in the area which led pedestrians to cut through the garden of the villa to jump its wall to make their way around the obtrusive obstacle course of walls. This was an unintended consequence of the road block wall, but it made the villa accessible and visible.

Of course not everyone was unaware of the building, it had been eyed for renovation, potentially paid for with a $5 million USAID grant to transform it into Cairo’s first Institute for Museology.

Government bureaucracy and conflict between the ministries of antiquities and education (the former tenant of the building until around 1999) delayed any possible progress in the status of the building which continued to be vacant and unused.

Then suddenly there was a night of renewed clashes on the last day of January during which a truck was loaded with large gilded frames, marble fireplace mantles, and extremely heavy ironwork that once lined windows and balconies. By morning the clashes had magically ended and the villa was “peeled.” This isn’t the first of its kind, the Villa Ispenian in Haram was given the same treatment recently. Looted items end up on the market for antique dealers and much of it ends up outside the country where it can be sold for a higher price. Whatever wasn’t removable was vandalized but with the exception of the staircase the building survived intact. Apparently the Education Ministry already has some kind of report of the incident.

Now what?

This isn’t about this particular building, rather this recent incident could have been an opportunity for all those involved and those interested in heritage to raise pertinent issues that have been needing resolution for years: Why are such buildings, particularly those in state ownership and use, allowed to sit unused and allowed to deteriorate? How can the state capitalize on the historical and heritage value of this real estate? What is wrong with the current laws and regulations regarding heritage/historic buildings particularly those from the 19th century to the present? What are some proposals for legislation that could remedy the situation and save what is left and what are the benefits and who benefits? Villa Casdagli could be a visible and easy to understand illustration of why these are important questions to raise as part of a wider conversation that brings in a wider audience beyond the small group of heritage enthusiasts.

Additionally, once the fate of the building is saved from a potential demolition permit, the work should be carried out by a local firm, one that demonstrates that Egyptian practices are ready and capable of carrying out such work. Often such projects go to international architecture firms, denying Egyptian firms from building a portfolio of successful experiences of renovations/conservations of modern heritage buildings. One such local company more than ready to do this work is Takween, a group of talented young architects and planners who have experience working in Egypt in various contexts and with heritage sites.

This building was a victim not of the latest clashes, but of thirteen years of neglect following forty years of misuse. There is a cause here that needs to be perused regarding Egypt’s modern heritage buildings, but this cause will only be advanced if activists and heritage enthusiasts jump on an opportunity such as this to highlight the problem to a wider audience and to offer alternatives and make more people dream about the potential of these properties and their significance to the economy, to history, etc.

The building lost some of its decorative elements, but that hardly means it is “destroyed.” Think of post-WWII European cities, they were destroyed, and they have been rebuilt like new, some tourists never realize that many of the seemingly medieval city squares and surrounding buildings are in fact fifty year-old reconstructions. So, no one should put their hands up in despair because we lost a wooden staircase and some mirrors. With $5 million, if that money is still available, this building could provide a much needed institution such as an Institute for Museology, but it could also provide an excellent case study in architectural conservation in Cairo.

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Destruction Alert: Villa Ispenian

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Last month a historic villa from the early twentieth century with unique architectural eclecticism and which was filled with antiques and a rich art collection was looted and destroyed. Below is an article by Nevine El-Aref which first appeared on Al-Ahram Weekly on February 8, 2013.

Safe as houses? Not under the MSA

The luxuriously furnished villa of Kevork Ispenian on the Pyramids Road was looted and destroyed despite being on Egypt’s heritage list. Nevine El-Aref mourns the early 20th century edifice

At the Giza Plateau end of the Pyramids Road, near the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, the neo-Islamic villa of Kevork Ispenian stands wretchedly, its Mamluk and Ottoman features revealing the extent of the damage to this beautiful, historic house.

The destruction is over; the house stands in ruins. The garden, once laid out with an immaculate lawn and decorated with rare species of plants and trees and graced by a ceramic mosaic fountain, is now embellished with lumps of limestone and fallen bricks; littered with Mamluk mashrabeya (wooden lattice work) that formerly covered the windows and balustrades. Rubble and rubbish are scattered over the ground among the dead trees and palm trunks.

The house itself is in no better condition; on the contrary it is in a terrible state. Heaps of rubble and sand are piled on the floors, making it hard to tread on and walk through the rooms. Parts of the walls and decorated marble rails and slabs were scattered all around, while wooden doors engraved with foliage and geometrical decorations and beautiful mosaics that once decorated the arcades are broken and missing.

“What a loss!” Ahmad Al-Bindari, a researcher and photographer at the Centre for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT), told Al-Ahram Weekly sadly. He went on to say that the villa, constructed and designed by architect Charles Aznavour in 1935 as a rest house or weekend retreat for the Armenian father and son team of Kevork and Paul Ispenian, both collectors, was a great piece of heritage and its loss was tragic.

As befitted the house of collectors, several Mamluk and Ottoman artefacts, including those belonging to French architect Ambroise Baudry, were woven within its interiors. Baudry moved in 1871 to Egypt where he spent 15 years, during which he received many commissions, both private and royal. He constructed the Matatia edifices at Ataba in Downtown Cairo, which was demolished during the 1990s. In 1873 Baudry was given responsibility for the decoration of the interior of the salamlik (men’s quarters), the façade and the marble staircase of Khedive Ismail’s palace in Giza.

Baudry built a very distinguished residential villa for himself in Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street in Downtown Cairo, which he decorated with authentic Mamluk and Ottoman artefacts. By the turn of the 20th century, Ispenian had bought Baudry’s genuine collection along with others when all the villas in Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street were demolished and replaced with huge apartment buildings as part of a plan to convert the area into a commercial and residential zone.

According to Al-Bindari, the Ispenian Villa stayed in the possession of the Armenian family until the 1960s when it was then sold to the Abdel-Nour family, who in their turn sold it to the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA), now the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA). Meanwhile, the house contents were put on Egypt’s Islamic and Coptic Heritage List after that the house was abandoned. The doors were sealed in red wax, meaning that it was forbidden to enter and whoever stepped inside and removed the wax would be subjected to the law.

“I used to visit the house every now and then, but I have only seen it from the outside,” Al-Bindari told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that during his tour of office he had grown fond of the house and its distinguished architectural elements, and had even invited his friends to come so he could show them its wonderful design. “But sometimes the wind doesn’t blow the way we want,” he said. Last spring, when Bendari went for his usual visit, he found the Ispenian Villa was not the one he used to admire. The iron gate lay on the floor, broken in two pieces. The structure was partially demolished, and the house and garden were a total mess and in the worst possible condition.

Al-Bindari was told that the house, like many other monuments and archaeological sites in Egypt, had been looted during the January 2011 Revolution when security in the country was almost non-existent. However, he told the Weekly that there was no way of knowing for certain what had happened or how the destruction had come about.

“Whoever stole the contents knew what he was doing,” Al-Bindari insisted. “It was systematic. Everything from the ornamented roof, the ornamental screens, the marble floors and even a historic column supporting the balcony have been stolen. They took their time and took everything apart.”

Bendari pointed out that the condition of the villa was not unusual by any standards. “These things happen all the time because of negligence,” he said.

So what did happen to the villa? Why was it possible for it to be subjected to so much looting and destruction? Is it the property of the antiquities department or not? If so, where is the new antiquities law and its amendment? Why is it not being implemented? One of the law’s articles is one that prohibits any encroachment and destruction of archeological sites and a prison term for offenders.

Mohamed Abdel-Rehim, head of the Islamic and Coptic monuments section, told the Weekly in a telephone interview that the building was not on the Egyptian antiquities list and that the villa was still owned by Abdel-Nour family. It was not a historic house which must come under the jurisdiction of the Historic Buildings law affiliated to the Giza governorate, nor did it come under the antiquities law or the MSA. He insisted that the building was not a listed monument.

Meanwhile, archaeologist Ahmed Taha, an inspector at the Giza section of the MSA, laid all the blame for neglecting the building on the Tourist and Antiquities Police (TAP), who failed to protect the house even though there is TAP station not 10 metres from the Ispenian Villa. He also said that during the tenure of former MSA minister Zahi Hawass there was a project to convert the historic villa into a museum for Islamic art, but no steps were taken to implement the plan. Taha’s statements are verified by an MSA official, who required anonymity. The official said that the collection of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Bab Al-Khalk was stored in the Ispenian Villa while the museum was under lengthy restoration. Some objects from this collection are now on display in the MIA while others were transported to MSA storage rooms in the Salaheddin Citadel.

Mokhtar Al-Kasabani, professor of Islamic monuments in the archaeology department at Cairo University, who was the MSA consultant for Islamic monuments during the Hawass tenure, also supports Taha’s statements. He says the house is an MSA property and should come under the new antiquities law and its amendments.

The empty 30 feddan plot neighbouring the Ispenian Villa is owned by former minister of tourism Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, who was willing to sell it to the MSA for a mega development project.

As a member of the committee who was in charge of the project, Kasabani said that the whole site in this prime area overlooking the Giza Plateau was earmarked to be transformed into a resort for tourists. It would include a small museum of Islamic art, a motel, bazaars selling replicas and souvenirs, a cafeteria and a bookstore for archaeology and art books. A parking area and a cinema would be also built as part of the complex. However, Kasabani said that regrettably the revolution had put the plan into jeopardy and it had been abandoned. The villa, he went on, was looted during the revolution and some of the mashrabeya and the mosaic fountain that once decorated the garden were missing.

“The current government and the MSA don’t care enough about Egypt’s history and its culture,” Kasabani told the Weekly. He added that a few months ago a contractor damaged the Ottoman warehouse and grist-mill of Madash-Merza in Boulaq Abul-Ela, and that even though he was caught red-handed he was set at large with a fine of only LE500. This contractor, he said, returned to Madash-Merza and resumed the demolition, and nobody moved a finger to save this great Ottoman monument, not even the MSA. Now he had built the first floor of his new building. What made things worse, Kasabani pointed out, was that all antiquities crimes were no longer prosecuted under the new antiquities law and its amendments which had priority on the court roll. Instead, they came under the usual criminal law, according to which a case can take years to be solved.

Kasabani suggests that to protect and rescue Egypt’s cultural and antiquities heritage, the MSA might be converted into an Independent Egyptian Authority affiliated directly to the president’s office rather than a ministry within the government echelon.

Destruction Alert: Mohamed Ali Shubra Pavilion

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One of the corners of the recently restored historic pavilion of Mohamed Ali in Shubra, has collapsed. A 55 million Egyptian Pound ($9 million) restoration took place 7 years ago and the building was “reopened” to much fanfare. In reality the “restoration” was a botched job using cheap materials (including low quality paint) and utilizing the services of contractors inexperienced in historic preservation/conservation. The Ministries of Antiquity and Culture both have a dismal record when it comes to successful restoration work and have failed to protect much of Egypt’s heritage under their auspices. Often “restoration” projects such as this become excuses for public funds to be squandered by officials, consultants and construction firms. A recent fiasco at Ministerli Palace in Manial revealed how corrupt the system is when scaffolding was put up, closing the palace for years, only to be removed after the beginning of the revolution revealing that no work had been conducted.

It is important to note that in 2009, after the pavilion “restoration,” rare paintings of members of the Mohamed Ali family were stolen from the Shubra Pavilion and the incident received nearly no press coverage and no officials were held responsible. This predates the theft of the Van Gogh painting from another Ministry of Culture museum in 2010.

The Mohamed Ali Shubra Pavilion is a unique structure combining late Ottoman, French and Italian as well as Egyptian influences in its odd design centered around a pool with an island and seating areas around its perimeter.The square building was a separate structure built in 1820 near a Shubra Palace which was built in 1912 by architect Pascal Coste and which was located along the Nile in Shubra and had been destroyed by its owner in the 1930s. Samir Raafat has the complete story:

Marveled by all who visited it during his reign, Mohammed Ali’s Shubra Pavilion consists of an artificial marble-lined pool with as a whimsical centerpiece, an elaborate octagonal Carrara marble balustrade surrounding a fountain-islet sporting marble statuettes; the whole resting atop 24 raised marble crocodiles spraying water out of their menacing jaws.

Surrounding the pool is a raised wide square gallery fronted by moresque wrap-around veranda with 104 slender load-bearing bronze-based marble colonnades.

Overlooking the pool from the interior of the gallery are 112 low-lying windows with bronze railings.

The gallery built in wood and plaster has four corner salons (diwans or kiosks). As though standing sentinel on these salons are four water-spouting marble lions.

Not unlike the interiors of contemporary palaces built in the Citadel complex including the Bijoux Palace (1814), the Harem Palace built in 1827 (now military museum) and the Daftarkhana (1828), the Shubra palace and its annexes included a melange of styles ranging from faux oriental to gaudy European.

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[The central pool area of the pavilion, the corner which collapsed is one of the four partial dome structures such as the one shown in the background of this image]

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[to see the pavilion in action, click on the above screen shot to watch a scene from the film Cairo 30, which depicts a party taking place in the pavilion in the early part of the twentieth century]

Although the collapse took place around July 2012 news of the disaster has been muted. An investigative report was published by Al Ahram months later and another critical piecewas posted on the news site Masress. More recently the story was published in the heritage news section of Al-Rawi, Egypt’s heritage review magazine.

The piece posted on Masress is particularly important because it puts the Shubra disaster in within a larger context of corruption by officials in the ministries of culture and antiquities.

د. عبد الفتاح البنا الأستاذ بكلية الآثار جامعة القاهرة يري أن انهيار احدي القباب التي تغطي أحد القاعات الركنية بسرايا الفسقية بقصر محمد علي بشبرا بعد أقل من 6 سنوات من استلام القصر من مقاول الترميم بتكلفة معلنة 55 مليون جنيه يضاف إليهم ماهو غير معلن من أعمال تكميلية قد تتخطى هذا الرقم، هي بمثابة كارثة ولن تكون الحادث الوحيد بل سيتكرر ذلك كثيرا ولن ننسي منذ أربعة أشهر ما جري لشارع المعز لدين الله الفاطمي الذي غرقت آثاره في “المجاري” وكم السرقات التي تحدث جهارا نهارا لوحدات أثرية بالمساجد والدور والأسبلة الإسلامية وكل هذا يجعلنا في إطار حملتنا ضد الفساد في الآثار بصدد فتح ملف مشروعات ترميم الآثار خاصة ما كان في حوزة السجين “أيمن عبد المنعم” وزملائه سواء من سجن معه أومن هم مازالوا طلقاء لم تقتص منهم العدالة حتى وقتنا هذا !! لاسيما وأن حواس وغيره تغنوا بإنجازاتهم المزيفة في وقت كان الفساد والزيف هو السمة السائدة.
صندوق التنمية الثقافية أو “مغارة على بابا ” في وزارة الثقافة كما يطلق عليه د. عبد الفتاح البنا، كان يتولاه أيمن عبد المنعم، هذا الشاب اليافع الذي تحول لمليونير خلال سنوات قليلة، ويتردد أن الشركة التي اتهم بتقاضي رشوة منها بأعمال الديكورات فيها وتأثيثها بأثاث جيد، شمل قطعا من السجاد الإيراني وتحفا نفيسة، هو كان المسئول عن مشروع تطوير القاهرة التاريخية، ورسميا تولى أيمن عبد المنعم إدارة صندوق التنمية الثقافية الذي يسمونه بالإضافة إلى أكثر من 10 مشروعات أثرية أخرى.