Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Bulldozers put on the brakes

The government's final decision to go through with a military order banning the leveling of villas and palaces has put a halt to the demolition frenzy. Gihan Shahine reviews events leading up to this most timely decision

Front Page

Traffic and haphazard housing blocks do little to hide the splendour of a few old edifices lining Al-Qubba street in Heliopolis. One villa, however, is especially significant -- in at least one sense: its balconies, windows and the frescoes adorning its once stately façade have all been destroyed with a vengeance. But even its shabby state cannot dissimulate the grandiose lines of the architecture, which show most clearly on the villa's still-untouched sides. No wonder then that the building has been recently registered with the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA) among around 1,200 edifices of architectural and historic value nationwide.

But why has the villa been defaced in this way? It's no secret anymore: a plaque on the front wall tells part of the story. The current landlord, who turns out to be the owner of an adjacent confectionery shop, simply wants to level the villa to the ground, and build a more profitable high-rise apartment block on its rubble.

According to the plaque, the landlord obtained a verdict to pull down the villa in 1997. But it was only two or three weeks ago that he was able to launch his demolition plans. Timing is significant here: at least six other villas have been damaged in the same way and at the same time (in the space of a single week).

Strange as it may seem, almost all these edifices are centred around Roxy Square, where the century-old architecture of Heliopolis is most manifest, with almost all the buildings following a mixture of European and Islamic styles.

One, however, is located in the busy area of Al-Zeitoun, while another is on Al-Orouba street. A relatively new, but beautifully designed, villa in Maadi has become a concrete skeleton, its walls destroyed and its lush greenery and beautiful fountain bulldozed.

At 33 Baghdad Street in Korba (near Roxy), a three-storey edifice offers yet another example of architectural slaughter. All the windows have been stripped, but also very recently, as one can tell from the fresh buds on the bushes creeping over its old walls. Again, demolition stopped at this stage. And on the same line, a pile of rubble is a bold sign of attempts to pull down an old beautiful palace (on Lebanon Street) featuring the same special architecture of Heliopolis's old buildings.

The doorkeeper of a villa across the street is a witness. "The new landlord of number 33, a merchant, recently evacuated the tenants, giving each compensation of LE80,000, in preparation for razing it," he recounts. "He removed the balconies and windows and then stopped. And so did the landlord of this villa where I work: he obtained a verdict allowing him to destroy the villa several years ago but he couldn't obtain a permit from the governorate to level it because of a former military decree banning the demolition. Then, when it was said that the ban had been lifted a few weeks ago, the landlord brought workers and entrepreneurs to study the site and get on with his demolition plans. A couple of days later, however, all plans were scrapped again when the press said the ban is still in force."

A state of confusion was reigning several weeks ago, affecting all governorates' engineering divisions, which are responsible for issuing building and demolition permits. The reason? Prime Ministerial Decree 925/2000, issued on 20 April, which announced "the revocation of all 13 decrees based on martial law 106, issued by [former Prime Minister Kamal] El-Ganzouri's government, regulating construction, demolition and Nile protection."

The abrogation of these decrees, which were issued between 1996 and '99, was aimed at addressing the current slump in the real estate market by easing restrictions on construction activities.

These military orders included Decree 7/1998, which bans the demolition of old palaces and villas as well as other edifices of historic and architectural value. This decree was designed to preserve the nation's architectural heritage, imposing a prison sentence of at least one year on whoever violates the ban. It also provides for punitive measures against any official who issues a demolition licence. In the case of villas that have already been razed, the owner is only allowed to build a structure of dimensions equal to those of the original villa.

Controversy then erupted over whether this particular decree had actually been abrogated. Following a press campaign criticising the repeal of former decrees, the government stepped in on 8 May to clear up the confusion and the "press's misinterpretation" of Decree 925/2000, announcing that "the military order is in force and there will be no demolition of old villas."

The ministerial statement asserted that there "is no change to the previous cabinet's policy" and that "a prison sentence of at least one year will be imposed on whoever violates the government's ban."

Prior to these statements, however, the government had explained that "the abrogation of demolition decrees means that we are returning to the enforcement of original building codes, transferring the responsibility for implementation to concerned ministries."

This explanation was subjected to heated media discussion. Many argued that El-Ganzouri issued military decrees when the existing codes proved inadequate.

Many of the country's most beautiful villas and palazzi, dating from the turn of the past century, have fallen victim to the vandalism of landlords desperate to make a killing on the real estate market. Façades are slowly disfigured; then the demolition crew steps in photos: Randa Shaath and Ayman Ibrahim
"El-Ganzouri's martial decrees were designed when the law failed to provide full protection for the Nile banks, agricultural lands and the architectural heritage against the onslaught of real estate tycoons," wrote Abbas El-Tarabili, editor-in-chief of Al-Wafd. Under existing laws, he argued, "more than 1,400 villas were torn down in Cairo and ugly cement high-rise blocks were built in their place."

Many conservationists similarly insist the military decree is essential if preservation is to be enforced -- which explains why they were overjoyed by the government's final decision.

Although not totally foolproof, El-Ganzouri's decree was instrumental in a sense. In March 1998, immediately following the ban, 12 Giza governorate officials were questioned after issuing licences for the demolition of as many as 29 old villas, in violation of El-Ganzouri's decree. The prison sentence, announced on 22 June of the same year, also provided an eleventh-hour rescue plan for the palace of Anisa Wissa (built in 1898) in Fayoum.

In 1996, former Cairo Governor Omar Abdel-Akher's decree banning the leveling of any edifice over a century old or unique in terms of its architecture and history was similarly effective. It put a temporary halt to the demolition frenzy taking place when the Ministry of Education's Authority for Educational Buildings targeted several palaces occupied by schools.

These decrees, however, may be contended on legal grounds. In fact, many legal experts believe the cabinet's initial decision to repeal former martial decrees and return to the use of current laws to have been based on the unconstitutionality of those decrees.

"Legally, the use of martial law to regulate civil business and matters related to personal possession, imposing criminal penalties on the violators, is unconstitutional in the presence of the parliament -- the only legitimate channel through which laws may pass," maintains Mohamed Hamed El-Gamal, former president of Maglis Al-Dawla (the State Council and Administrative Court). To issue military decrees, El-Gamal explains, El-Ganzouri relied on the emergency law, designed for cases of great urgency.

Should the government then abrogate Decree 7/1998? "If the government is really keen on preserving Egypt's architectural heritage, it should present a draft law to be discussed in the parliament," El-Gamal retorts. "This way, through parliament discussions, a compromise can be reached to preserve architectural wealth on one hand and compensate landlords on the other."

The owners of villas and palaces, of course, stand to gain millions, explains El-Gamal. A residential block would "bring in a fortune," which "makes it hard to convince owners that the historical value of their property is a priority." Even rubble can be profitable. According to one preservationist, the remains of Al-Nozha palace, demolished five years ago, were sold for LE2 million.

"A new law should be drafted, including compensation fees for heirs or landlords," El-Gamal adds. But can the government afford to compensate thousands of landlords? Of course not.

"A fund should be established involving all concerned official entities, NGOs and international organisations to compensate landlords," El-Gamal suggests. "But it is utterly unconstitutional and unfair to confiscate buildings under the pretext that they should be preserved as antiquities, and imprison those disposing of their own property."

Preservationists, however, are very happy the military decree is still effective. "People are only scared of prison, and this is what makes the military order relatively effective," insists Salah Zaki Said, the retired head of Al-Azhar University's architecture department.

Said was a member of the committee El-Ganzouri formed in 1998 with the aim of "restoring ecological equilibrium to urban areas." After careful study, the committee found two main steps had to be taken if its objective was to be attained. One was that a committee of experts and university professors had to be formed in every governorate to list all edifices of architectural and historic value. The second step, aimed at combating congestion, was that to prohibit the demolition of villas in general; if it was too late, landlords would only be allowed to build a structure of equal height and dimension to the original villa. When villas are demolished, high-rise blocks are built instead, wreaking traffic chaos in the vicinity. The result: many areas like Maadi, Heliopolis, and Zamalek have been over-planned and, as many people put it, ended up like "a forest of cement blocks."

"The committee's recommendations were then included in the military decree, which helped save many beautiful edifices from destruction, besides being environmentally friendly," Said explains.

But were these measures fair to landlords? "We studied this point, knowing that many real estate entrepreneurs would be negatively affected by the new regulations," Said replies. "But public interest should always take precedence over personal benefit. At least, that is what we concluded."

In many European and American cities, landlords are not allowed to make any change whatsoever to the façades of their houses in order to preserve their aesthetic, architectural and historical value. "None of them was compensated by the government or complained of unjust treatment," Said notes. "Here, I think, the government can think of different sorts of compensation, like offering tax holidays."

Many experts agree with Said that existing laws were largely to blame for traffic congestion and the loss of many beautiful edifices. They argue that the military decree was necessary because under current laws, if a villa is knocked down, reconciliation can be reached and a fine imposed on the landlord.

"A fine won't make a difference when landlords are making a killing pulling down the villa, selling the plot on which it stands or building a high-rise in its place," Said explains. "If the military decree is suspended or revoked, even for a short period, our architectural heritage will vanish in no time."

Attempts to demolish a number of villas in Heliopolis seem to prove his point. Landlords started pulling down buildings as fast as they could when rumours that the ban was to be lifted began to spread. But the cabinet stepped in to settle the matter and pull the villas from the jaws of destruction. In reaction to the public outcry, Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata also moved to stop reported demolition endeavours in Heliopolis and Maadi.

"We have stopped the demolition of two villas, one owned by famous surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub and the other on Al-Hawari street," Shehata told the local press. "As for the six other villas, we called upon the minister of justice to freeze the verdicts until we appeal them."

Shehata also visited the villa in Maadi and gave strict instructions that the new structure to be built in its place does not exceed the height of the original edifice.

But did the landlords obtain demolition permits from the governorate's engineering departments during the state of confusion? And why have they all started with removing façade decorations and window frames?

"We did not issue a single demolition permit simply because the ban was never repealed," maintains Khadiga El-Helali, head of the legal department of the Heliopolis municipality. "We are here to implement orders. We received no formal instructions from the cabinet stating that the ban had been abrogated. Officials wouldn't risk violating the military ban because this subjects them to strict punitive measures. Similarly, landlords would be imprisoned if they demolish an edifice without an official permit from the municipality."

Ahmed Mahmoud, head of the housing department at the Heliopolis municipality, further explains that the landlords of those villas had obtained a court verdict to level the edifices several years ago. The governorate, however, in accordance with the military order, refused to issue demolition permits and appealed the verdicts, El-Helali insists.

Why, then, would the landlords damage the façades without a demolition permit? "They were trying to minimise the architectural value of the edifices, to prevent them from being registered with the SCA," Mahmoud explains. "Of course, they did this without a permit. You can call it vandalism, if you like."

Will they be punished? "If a witness reports the incidence and we find it is true, the landlords will be interrogated for performing an act of vandalism," El-Helali says. "They probably believed the rumours the press spread about the repeal of Decree 7/1998 and took the opportunity to destroy parts of the façades. But there is no way they could go on with their plans -- especially the owners of 5 Al-Qubba Street and 16 Granada Street. The villas have already been registered with the SCA, like almost all old edifices in Heliopolis."

According to legal experts, landlords resort to illegal tricks to obtain demolition verdicts. Initially, they file for a repair permit. They obtain the verdict, and then appeal it within 60 days of its issuance, on the grounds that the building is in danger of collapsing.

"Then the Ministry of Justice sends an engineer who presents a report showing that the building is about to collapse, and the landlord obtains a verdict to pull it down," Mahmoud explains. "But we sent our experts to examine the edifices in question and found they are safe and worth preserving. That is why we are appealing the verdicts."

Since the ban was imposed in 1998, many landlords have been desperate to demolish their villas, selling them to real estate barons at very low prices. Entrepreneurs thus stand to gain millions once the ban is lifted.

El-Tarabili wrote that, during the two weeks of confusion following the issuance of Decree 925/2000, "the governorates' engineering departments were inundated with demolition requests while cement and concrete markets witnessed a sudden boom."

The government's decision to abide by the previous cabinet's policy thus seems timelier than ever. The government has also announced that at least 1,200 villas and palaces have been registered; the relevant information will make up a database on which officials can draw in enforcing the ban.

Many experts, however, argue that there are far more edifices to preserve than the 1,200 currently listed by the government. "We are happy with the government's decision regarding the architectural heritage, but without proper listing, many beautiful structures will be lost," Said maintains. "The government is focusing on villas and palaces, but other edifices are equally important to maintain the architectural style of areas like downtown Cairo, Heliopolis, or Al-Sakakini."

Many preservationists agree that many valuable edifices have been lost forever due to registration problems. The listing process, indeed, begs several questions: What constitutes historical value? Who is to judge? Should an edifice be preserved for its age, location, the era to which it belongs, or the person who owned it?

Many historians and architects agree that there are still no clear criteria governing the registration of such edifices. Funding is also an obstacle: the SCA is not always interested in registering new edifices, for this means more financial burdens when funds are already lacking.

"The SCA committee now responsible for registering buildings does not have the equipment, financial abilities, or professional experience to carry out a proper survey," maintains Mohamed Abul-Amayem, a researcher at the Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale. Abul-Amayem was also head of a committee formed by Abdel-Halim Noureddin, the former secretary-general of the SCA, to register and preserve important buildings. The committee was suspended a year after its formation, however, during Ali Hassan's leadership of the SCA.

"SCA officials would approve the demolition of a building simply because its exterior is not decorated," Abul-Amayem complains. "In many cases, they don't register buildings because they are unaware of their value. The reason is that contemporary history and modern architecture are largely ignored in the syllabus of the Faculty of Archaeology."

Many important buildings were thus demolished, even after the ban was enforced, according to Abul-Amayem. The demolition of a neo-classical edifice on Qasr Al-Aini Street is the latest case in point. The villa, which was occupied by a public school, was razed last March. It was poorly restored after cracks appeared on its walls following the 1992 earthquake. Witnesses, however, insist the villa was safe and the foundations were strong.

"The villa was not registered with the SCA, despite its historic value," Abul-Amayem says. "It was once annexed to the Islamic Museum and was one of the places where the members of the Arab Antiquities Preservation Authority used to convene."

Said agrees: "Experts should thus be consulted, lists should be publicized and a larger staff should be recruited to carry out a proper survey. After all, our national wealth that is at stake here."

Abul-Amayem is not optimistic: "If we are unable to register all the buildings, a committee of experts should be formed to take photographs and draw the edifices before they are pulled down. The rubble, which usually includes valuable items like frescoes and wrought iron, as well as doors, windows and stairs, can be collected and displayed in a museum, together with the photos, presenting the history of architecture in Egypt."

Search for words and exact phrases.
Use boolean operators (AND, OR, NEAR, AND NOT) for advanced queries

Letter from the Editor
Editorial Board
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time
Al-Ahram Organisation