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At first sight, central Cairo appears chaotic, congested, polluted and often dilapidated. It takes some effort to recognize the beauty of its belle époque architecture and geometry, which bear witness to better times. But plans to return this part of the city to its former glory are gaining momentum.
In the late 19th century, Ismail Pasha, the khedive of Egypt, commissioned a group of French architects to design a new city centre, located in between the Nile and the historic district now referred to as Islamic Cairo. He envisaged a city with the appearance and grandeur of the modern European capitals of the time.
His vision was achieved. With its wide, straight streets and buildings in European art nouveau and art deco style, Cairo was dubbed ‘Paris on the Nile’. However, from the mid-20th century, the city went into decline. A fire in 1952 damaged parts of it, and after the 1952 revolution, the upper class and expat community began to move out. Moreover, a series of rental laws effectively froze rents, taking away incentives for property owners to maintain their buildings. In the second half of the century, Egypt’s population also grew rapidly, and Cairo’s even more so due to migration from the countryside. As a result, the city became more and more congested.
Plans to revive the city centre emerged in the late ’90s but only started to materialize a decade later. In 2008, Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment was established with the goal of ‘restoring the classical grandeur of downtown Cairo and preserving its architectural heritage’. The company’s strategy is to buy property, renovate it and lease it out to higher end tenants while supporting the revival of ‘an arts and culture scene’. Restored heritage buildings are converted into luxury studios, businesses and boutique hotels.
The 25 January revolution in 2011 shook the city and put these plans on hold. Cairo was the centre of mass protests and continued to be for several years. The police focused on quelling the unrest and withdrew from law enforcement in other areas. Street vendors, café owners and others took their chance to expand rapidly.
From 2014, the state gradually regained control of central Cairo, often by force. Street sellers were violently removed, a large café area (Borsa) was closed down, and the Nile corniche was largely cleared of recreational boats. A parking garage was also opened underneath Tahrir Square, traffic lights were installed and non-parking rules more strictly enforced.
The government has repainted at least 200 buildings. However, the inside and infrastructure of the buildings are still in an abysmal state, several sources living or working in the area told Fanack.
“The painting is a first step, a way to show the beauty and value of downtown, and hence make it attractive for people who might have otherwise not noticed that this treasure trove exists. That includes ordinary people and investors,” Tarek Atia, founder of Mantiqti, a local news outlet for the area, said. “Full restoration is another game, more expensive, which requires major external funding.”
Atia also sits on the Cairo Heritage Development Committee (CHDC), an initiative to restore and revive the city centre. The CHDC includes major government stakeholders such as the Cairo Governorate, the Ministry of Planning, the Urban Planning Authority and financial stakeholders including Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment and local banks. “It’s an attempt to put the right people around the table,” Atia said.
Its first pilot project was renovating and developing Alfi Street, a major café and restaurant area, in cooperation with a tenants’ association. Atia is positive about the project, and pleased about the coordination between the different stakeholders. ‘The experiment seemed to have worked pretty well, there is a pedestrian lane, it’s vibrant and the cafés are zoned. They follow the regulations.”
This is vastly different from the Borsa cafés, which were not zoned and progressively taking over pavements and streets in an uncontrolled way.
Since its cafés closed, Borsa has been empty and abandoned. “Parts of the area have slowly been turning into a parking lot,” long-time resident and business journalist Patrick Werr told Fanack. Hence, the next CDHC project will focus on Borsa. “It has the highest percentage of heritage buildings of all downtown, and we want to turn it into an arts and culture area,” Atia said.
Reviving Arts and Culture
A lively arts and culture scene is an important aspect of reviving the city centre and making it more attractive for investors and tenants. But there are also concerns.
Aside from the social unrest and chaos, the short-lived revolution brought about a creative boom. Mohamed Mahmoud Street – off Tahrir Square and the scene of violent clashes – was covered with revolutionary graffiti. Almost all of that has now been removed and partly repainted with non-political art. In addition, cultural centres like the Townhouse Gallery have been raided several times in recent years and are subject to strict regulations that amount to censorship. Many other places like a publishing house, bookshop and library have also been raided or even closed down.
“An authentic grassroots art scene needs space, and should not be top-down,” said Mariam (she did not want to give her last name), who worked on a consultancy project for heritage development in downtown.
Censorship poses an increasing challenge to theatres as well. Sondos Shabayek previously told Fanack that it is becoming harder and harder for her to find a place to perform with her Bussy project, as venues do not want to risk showing controversial plays. The same holds true for the music scene. The popular underground band Cairokee, which has a repertoire of highly political songs, was banned from performing several times last year. When the concert eventually took place, it was amid a high security presence and the band was not allowed to perform several of its most outspoken songs. Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila was also banned from performing in Egypt after a rainbow flag associated with LGBT rights was raised in the audience.
The control of public space runs deep. Central Cairo has been notorious since the revolution for the high number of informants. Critics of the regime have frequently been arrested in cafés in the area. The situation has improved, but Fanack still encountered eavesdropping while conducting an interview for this article.
The authenticity of the government’s desire to revive the arts and culture scene is also questionable, given the efforts by security forces to crack down on independent initiatives. “Their idea of culture is handicraft,” one resident said.
Atia is more positive. “Townhouse is still open and as alive as ever.” He believes public performances can be held in the city centre “when you involve the right security bodies early on in the process, to discuss traffic flows and things like that.”
The Maspero Triangle
Concerns have also been raised about the government’s approach to developing other areas. The Maspero Triangle, a decaying working-class neighbourhood, was demolished alongside several heritage buildings in mid-2017. The plan is to turn it into a modern business and residential district. The former residents have been displaced, after long and difficult negotiations.
“The original plan was to uplift parts of the area, demolish parts and rebuild it while maintaining the social fabric,” a source close to the matter told Fanack. Residents of Warraq, an island in the Nile not far from the Maspero Triangle and also earmarked for development, now fear displacement and the demolition of their houses as well.
“They could and should have saved the heritage buildings, but the loss of the rest of the area does not seem to be a great disaster,” Werr said. “Construction of modern residential and office buildings in the area may help keep Egypt’s wealthy in central Cairo, something that could help in building a lobby for the conservation of nearby historical districts.”
One such district is Abdeen, where the historic Grand Continental Hotel was torn down in January 2018. “If you want traditional Cairo to be a historic centre, you can’t allow so many old buildings to be demolished,” Werr said.
Furthermore, the government’s commitment to restoring central Cairo and attracting more money to the city seems at odds with other major projects. Billions are being invested in new cities in the desert, notably the New Administrative Capital, which is targeting wealthy residents. “So, does the government want wealthy citizens to move into downtown or move to the new desert cities instead?” one source close to the project and not authorized to speak to the media wondered.
In addition, all the ministries are supposed to move to the new capital, which Atia sees as a potential opportunity. “Empty government buildings that are antique can be turned into museums, others that are registered as heritage can be adaptively re-used, and those that are neither heritage nor antique could be replaced with public spaces like gardens and parks.”
However, one resident said he was sceptical about ministries giving up their buildings and moving hundreds of thousands of government employees out of Cairo. “This will never happen.”
In short, the government and private parties such as Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment envision a city centre with higher end residents and businesses, regulated and controlled entertainment, and a vibrant but nevertheless strictly censored arts and culture scene. Meanwhile, the bulk of resources for urban development are being directed elsewhere, such as the new capital. Healthy scepticism seems justified, to say the least.