Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 October 2003
Issue No. 661
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Struggles over the vision of Cairo

The annulment of the military decree protecting the country's older buildings and villas leaves Egypt's architectural heritage at risk. Yasmine El-Rashidi investigates

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Egypt's artchitectural heritage under threat of demolition
In architecture, like in life, the irreversible can happen overnight. One day a building is standing, the next it is not.

The fate of Cairo's old villas has long been uncertain -- the pendulum of decrees banning their destruction swinging back and forth over the years. One day it would be legal for an owner to tear it down, and illegal the next.

The issue dates back to the 1980s, when then Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri -- in his capacity as military governor (a presidential power bestowed upon the prime minister under Emergency Law) -- issued 13 military decrees, including one banning the destruction of villas. Coming as a reinforcement to already existing building codes prohibiting the demolition of structurally sound older buildings, villas and palaces, the decree intended to plug loopholes that allowed architectural masterpieces to be razed to the ground.

The repercussions were acutely felt by owners and those in the real estate business -- their property quickly losing appeal as a lucrative investment.

"For a period villas were big business for us," said Gamal El-Sayed, a freelance real estate agent. "There were a few years where lots of villas were sold. The buyers would pull them down, build apartment buildings in their place and make a fortune." Although the properties' value remained high, investor interest plummeted after the new preservation decree was passed, and "except for the odd Arab or embassy" no one was keen on sinking money into a villa, El-Sayed explained. "Especially since they couldn't even build a floor or two on top of it."

When Prime Minister Atef Ebeid stepped into El-Ganzouri's shoes, he announced the need to re-examine his predecessor's decrees to meet the need of property owners. Ebeid attempted to revive the real estate market when he issued Decree 925 in April 2000, revoking El-Ganzouri's military decrees. The reaction was so intense that the prime minister promptly retracted his decision, announcing that Decree 7 of 1988 still held. It appeared that the architectural gems of the "Paris on the Nile" would remain protected.

Earlier this month, however -- amidst the National Democratic Party's (NDP) flurry of activity to promote democracy, equality and human rights -- President Hosni Mubarak dropped several "bombshells". In his capacity as chairman of the NDP, Mubarak announced the "annulment of all military decrees ordered by the military governor under Emergency Law, unless they are necessary for maintaining law and order."

Much of the response was positive -- the announcement bringing the public long-awaited rights. But amidst the applause, some mixed sentiments lurked.

"As someone in the field it's upsetting, of course. If we start giving people rights to demolish, they will take that right and exploit it and we'll be left with very little heritage," said Dina Bakhoum, a conservationist. "Cairo is losing its identity."

But there is, of course, another side to the issue.

"I understand the position of the people though," Bakhoum said of villa owners. "Some of these people have nothing except this small villa. They struggle to maintain it and survive. These pieces of our heritage should definitely be preserved, but there should be a system to compensate the owners. Why should they be punished for owning something of cultural heritage?"

In a statement to the press, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni assured the public that the nation's architectural heritage will remain preserved.

"The military decree is not effective to antiquities that fall under Law No. 117 of 1983, or buildings of historic importance or architectural significance. The annulment of the decree only applies to villas not registered as antiquities and those not included on the list of architectural importance," that are still protected from demolition by Law 178 of 1961.

"The military decree [Decree 7 of 1988] was issued to protect a group of unregistered villas and palaces in the governorates which are of historic importance," Hosni said. "But now there are 26 committees -- one in each governorate -- to protect them."

The minister also explained that in an attempt to preserve the nation's rich and varied architectural identity new legislation will be put before the People's Assembly calling for the establishment of a cultural coordination body and an article supporting the protection of villas and buildings built in the first half of the last century.

A public figure in the field of antiquities and restoration -- who spoke to the Al-Ahram Weekly on the condition of anonymity -- said the current law, in practice, means nothing.

"A building may not be 100 years old, and it may not be registered," he said. "But that does not mean it's not worthy of protection. There are buildings that have been pulled down which are of architectural importance given their interesting structure. There are 20th century pieces that reflect a large part of Cairo's architectural identity; buildings built in the 1920s, 1930s and even 1940s. All these works should be protected."

All those in the field agree that a reformed registration system needs to be implemented for the sake of the country's eclectic architectural heritage. And talk of an owner compensation system is on the rise -- a concept once espoused by former Minister of Housing Hasaballah El-Kafrawy.

In the meantime, property owners have been acting in their own best interest.

"On Moez Street," Bakhoum recounts. "There was a beautiful building. It was pulled down overnight. Literally. The next morning, there was absolutely nothing in its place. Now, there's a horrible concrete building there." It was at a time, Bakhoum says, when the law was very much in place.

Those in the field are weary of being quoted on the issue, but off-the-record comments recount times when the law was lifted for 24-hours to enable influential figures a window of opportunity to demolish villas overnight.

"It's one of those things that is supposedly not known, but actually very well known," said one conservationist. "But of course, those not in influential positions have their own loopholes."

For example, the owner of a protected art deco building in Al-Sayeda Zeinab destroyed its roof in order to "prove" that it was structurally unsound, and therefore suitable for demolition.

And there is the infamous Um Kalthoum building -- a monstrosity which quickly replaced singing icon Um Kalthoum's Zamalek villa in the early 1980s.

"Islamic Cairo could have been a Venice," Bakhoum says. "Cairo could have stayed a Paris."

Concrete blocks have risen up where masterpieces once stood and the works of some of Egypt's architectural gurus -- and those of their visiting foreign counterparts -- have long been buried.

The fate of Egypt's architectural heritage is back at square one; the loopholes have been reopened and the fortunes to be made are once again dancing in people's heads. The city's architectural and cultural identity is again under threat of being transformed into an unsightly landscape of concrete blocks.

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