Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Palace-turned-prison turns to rubble

Almost three decades after the death of Egypt's first president Mohamed Naguib, the Zeinab Al-Wakil Palace where he was confined after being ousted by Gamal Abdel-Nasser has been demolished. Nevine El-Aref reports

Click to view caption
From top: Al-Nahhas bed- ridden; Al-Nahhas and his wife Zeinab Al-Wakil (the palace was named after her); the palace remains after it was torn down

In the Al-Marg area of Cairo once stood the two-storey palace of Zeinab Al-Wakil, wife of the 1920s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Nahhas Pasha. If stones could talk, the former building would be able to tell the story of a very important saga in modern Egypt's political history.

In addition to being the residence of Al-Nahhas Pasha and his family, the palace was the setting for some of the meetings of the Wafd Party as well as being the first premises of the fledgling Arab League, which Al-Nahhas Pasha helped found in 1944.

In 1954 the palace became the place where Egypt's first post-1952 Revolution president Mohamed Naguib was permanently confined after his fall from grace. Shortly after the revolution and Naguib's appointment, Gamal Abdel-Nasser accused him of supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group and of harbouring dictatorial ambitions. A struggle for power broke out between the two leaders which Nasser won, forcing Naguib to resign in November 1954. President Nasser then isolated Naguib in the suburban Zeinab Al-Wakil Palace.

President Anwar Al-Sadat released him from his isolation in 1972, but Naguib decided to spend the rest of his life there until he died in 1984.

Naguib's memoirs were published after his death under the title I was a President of Egypt. The book was reprinted several times and was also translated into English with the title The Fate of Egypt.

According to Naguib's biographer Refaat Younan, the ex-president viewed living in the house as a "descent into hell". It was surrounded by 20 guard posts, and the garden was stripped of trees for security reasons. All the furniture and other antiques in the palace were removed; even the refrigerators were taken away, as well as kitchen utensils, pots and pans. Naguib's own medals, shields and military diplomas were confiscated.

The residential part of Al-Wakil consists of two floors: a basement, which Naguib transformed into a large library housing hundreds of books, the only entertainment for Naguib and his connection to the outside world; and a first floor with a large reception area of living room and dining room, both modestly furnished. A vestibule led to Naguib's bedroom and a balcony, which he transformed into a chicken coop decorated with a bronze statue of Wafd Party leader Saad Zaghloul Pasha. In his memoirs Naguib revealed his skill at breading animals.

The house has a large, neglected garden with a wrought-iron gate. After Naguib's death, Al-Wakil's heirs filed several law suits against the government asking for the appropriation of the house to be lifted and for possession to be returned to the heirs. After several court cases they won and succeeded in regaining possession of the palace. They promptly sold the house to an investor, who recently began to demolish it.

This action has created a furore and led to conflict between the new owner of the house on the one side and the National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH) and the governorates of both Cairo and Qalioubiya on the other. Cairo Governor Osama Kamal had asked Qalioubiya Governor Adel Zayed to call a halt to the demolition and force a moratorium on all work.

The house was near Moasaset Al-Zakat Street in Al-Marg, which technically comes under the jurisdiction of Qalioubiya governorate. Zayed, however, insists the house falls within the Cairo governorate zone. Still, no approval has been reported to have been issued by the Qalioubiya governorate for the demolition of Al-Wakil.

Kamal says he will take necessary legal procedures against whoever issued a demolition permit. Samir Gharib, head of NOUH, says the house was registered as a distinguished historical building according to Law 144/2006, which would prohibit its demolition.

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