Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Ittihadiya: The palace of presidents

Reem Leila writes about the history of Al-Ittihadiya Presidential Palace, from which four presidents have ruled the country

Al-Ahram Weekly

Work on the Heliopolis Palace Hotel — known today as Al-Ittihadiya Presidential Palace — started in 1908 and was finished in 1910. At the same time, construction of the new suburb by the Heliopolis Oases Company was underway.

Heliopolis Palace was opened as Africa’s most luxurious hotel on 1 December 1910. The landmark hotel was designed by Belgian architect Ernest Jaspar. He introduced the local Heliopolis style of architecture, a synthesis of Persian, Moorish Revival, Islamic and European Neoclassical architecture.

It was built by the contracting firms of Leon Rolin and Co and Padova, Dentamaro and Ferro, then the two largest civil contractors in Egypt. Siemens and Schuepert of Berlin installed the hotel’s web of electric cables. The utilities were to the most modern standards of their day. The hotel’s operations were under French-administered management.

The Heliopolis architectural style, responsible for many wonderful buildings in the suburb, was exceptionally well expressed in the Heliopolis Palace Hotel’s exterior and interior design. The hotel had 400 rooms, including 55 private apartments.

Beyond the Moorish Revival reception hall, two public rooms were lavishly decorated in the Louis XIV and the Louis XV styles. Beyond these was the Central Hall, the primary public dining space with a classic symmetrical and elegant beauty. The Central Hall’s dome, awe-inspiring to guests, measured 55 metres from floor to ceiling.

The architectural interior of the 589-square-metre hall was designed by Alexander Marcel of the French Institute, and decorated by Georges-Louis Claude. Twenty-two Italian marble columns circled the parquet floor up to the elaborate ceilings. The hall was carpeted with fine Persian carpets and had large mirrored wall panels and a substantial marble fireplace.

Considered the most luxurious hotel at the time in Africa and the Middle East, and given its grand architecture, the Heliopolis Palace Hotel became a travel destination for many, including foreign royals and international business tycoons.

Guests included Milton S Hershey and King Albert I and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium. The two world wars interrupted the hotel’s hospitality activities, and on both occasions the Heliopolis Palace Hotel was transformed into a British military hospital for British and Dominion soldiers.

After the grand hotel closed in the 1960s, it was used to house the offices of various government departments. In January 1972, the building became the headquarters of the Federation of Arab Republics, the short-lived political union between Egypt, Libya and Syria. It was then that the palace was given its current Arabic name, Kasr Al-Ittihadiya (Federation Palace).

In the 1980s, after extensive renovation and restoration, the building became an Egyptian presidential palace and headquarters of the administration of the new president, Hosni Mubarak.

Today, though surrounded by gardens, access to the site, now a presidential palace, is restricted. Al-Ittihadiya Presidential Palace has borne witness to several presidential eras, starting from Mubarak to Mohamed Morsi, to interim president Adli Mansour and now the current president, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

Each of the presidents who lived in the palace had a particular strategy for selecting his assistants, associates and consultants. During the Mubarak era, which began in 1981, the president did not place his confidence in just one person. He used to rely on general intelligence, military intelligence and state security before taking any decision.

At the beginning of Mubarak’s presidency he attempted to create an image for the presidential institution, and that included the presence of several consultants. Osama Al-Baz was his political adviser while Mustafa Al-Fiqi was the president’s secretary for information affairs. Zakareya Azmi was head of the presidential office.

Azmi, in particular, gained much experience within the institution of the presidency, becoming the most powerful man in the presidential institution, controlling all political and economic affairs.

Mubarak did not have official advisers, and depended on the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) leaders who controlled the country with the help of the state security authority. Among the people who influenced Mubarak and his decisions were Azmi, former information minister Safwat Al-Sherif, former parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour and veteran NDP member Kamal Al-Shazli.

Hassan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University, pointed out that the quartet did not limit themselves to Mubarak but extended their influence to his son Gamal, knowing that Gamal would influence his father.

“All these figures were in full control of Mubarak, his son and the political scene, until businessman tycoon Ahmed Ezz appeared on the scene. Ezz took control of everything from behind the curtain,” said Nafaa.

He added that Ezz’s apparent dominance of the NDP was one of the reasons for the massive protests that led to the January 2011 Revolution that toppled Mubarak and ended any plans to pass on power to Gamal.

During the Mubarak era, businessmen played a major role in the president’s decision-making, notably Hussein Salem, who was a personal friend of the president.

“This resulted in successive cabinets comprising several businessmen who adopted policies in their favour, to the extent that Egypt’s wealth and fortune became concentrated in the hands of five per cent of the total number of Egyptians. The situation had to explode on the streets to change what was wrong,” added Nafaa.

In June 2014 President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi arrived at Al-Ittihadiya Palace after winning 96 per cent of the votes in the presidential elections. Twenty-three million Egyptians voted for Al-Sisi. His popularity was at its peak and the general public looked to him as a saviour after Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had been deposed.

The public saw Al-Sisi as capable of confronting all of Egypt’s political, security and economic challenges, to save the country from collapsing, as had been the case with some neighbouring countries in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Al-Sisi took the helm under very difficult economic conditions. The tourism sector was dying, thousands of factories were closed, and the unemployment rate was through the roof.

The security situation was, and still is, witnessing an unprecedented increase in terrorist attacks, particularly in Sinai, usually supported and provided for by countries and political forces with political cover, funding and media representation.

Walaa Gad Al-Karim, a researcher and the director of Partners for Transparency, said that the 18 months since Al-Sisi became president have seen a widening gap between the regime and a number of youth groups. The government has also failed to deal with a number of economic, services and legal issues, which has left many people disaffected.

But Al-Sisi’s presidency has also witnessed positive achievements for Egyptian foreign policy. Gad Al-Karim listed these as “the inauguration of a number of mega-projects, such as the New Suez Canal and the establishment of power plants, roads networks and new gas findings.”

According to Gad Al-Karim, Al-Sisi still has the ability to change the people around him and bring the government onto the right track, one that matches his aims and vision for the future.

“Al-Sisi is still able to complete his presidential mandate and escape the trap of a prefabricated popular revolution. That, however, does not mean that everything is alright,” he said.

Gad Al-Karim added that Al-Sisi also needs to quickly and effectively ground his popularity and move his supporters from being static to becoming active.

“There have been several changes in the economy since Al-Sisi was sworn in. This year our foreign reserves have increased to more than $19.5 billion from $16.6 billion in June 2014,” he said.

During the uprising of January 2011, hundreds of thousands marched to Al-Ittihadiya Palace demanding that Mubarak step down. They chanting slogans against his regime, as well as his son Gamal, whom protesters feared would assume power.

Army tanks that surrounded the palace did not fire on the crowds. Their guns were directed towards the palace as a sign that the army would not fire at the people and that Mubarak had to abide by the people’s will.

A year later, Islamist Mohamed Morsi was elected the country’s president. Morsi resided in the palace for only one year, unlike Mubarak who lived in the palace for 30 years.

After Morsi’s election, people had high hopes that he would reform the presidential institution, but his presidential team included four members of the Brotherhood in addition to an advisory body consisting of 17 Muslim Brotherhood members.

For the first time since Sadat’s era, a vice-president, Mahmoud Mekki, was appointed. It was Al-Mahdi who revealed that most of the 17 members were affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Morsi never consulted them in any internal or external affair,” Al-Mahdi said. “There was not even the minimum level of respect accorded to them. All decisions were made at the Guidance Office of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then announced at the presidential palace for enforcement.”

Al-Mahdi added that Morsi even announced his highly controversial constitutional declaration in the absence of Mekki, his vice-president, who was attending an Islamic summit in Pakistan on Morsi’s behalf.

Morsi’s advisers and consultative team were purely decorative “because in fact he wasn’t in real need of them. Morsi thought he would be able to fool Egyptians that he had made real changes in the presidential institution. He did not realise that people were not after fake bodies but wanted real action,” Al-Mahdi said.

Meanwhile, members of his advisory bodies, as well as the presidential team (except those who were affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood), resigned. They criticised Morsi’s decisions, especially his constitutional declaration that put him virtually above the law.

Before issuing the decree, he had not consulted any of his advisers, even his deputy who was a judge. It was the beginning of the end for Morsi. In December 2012 clashes erupted between Morsi’s supporters and opponents, leaving behind not only ten dead and hundreds injured but dozens who were tortured.

There was also a frightening degree of hate speech that many feared would leave Egypt further polarised. The clashes first erupted after supporters of the president attacked a sit-in held by opposition protesters in front of the presidential palace following a mass demonstration demanding the cancellation of Morsi’s controversial presidential decree.

Six months later, Morsi was toppled and succeeded by interim president Adli Mansour, who lived in the palace for almost a year until the presidential elections that brought Al-Sisi to power.

During Mansour’s one year, Al-Ittihadiya Palace became quiet and calm. Mansour ruled the country without making any significant changes, knowing his tenure was transitional. Mansour briefly restored the position of the vice-president, which was abolished with the adoption of the current constitution on 26 December 2012.

He chose opposition leader Mohamed Al-Baradei to fill the post in an acting capacity on 7 July 2013. On 8 July, Mansour issued a decree that proposed the introduction of amendments to the suspended constitution and a referendum to endorse them, followed by national elections.

On 19 September 2013, Mansour announced that he would not run for the presidency, saying that he would return to his position as head of the constitutional court.

Mansour is the only president in Egypt’s history to have left the post while still alive and without an uprising.

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