(First published by Cairobserver, July 15, 2014.)
In June of 2013 a group of heritage activists, architects, and concerned citizens organized a protest outside the Cairo governorate regarding the speedy deterioration of historic Cairo. The historic city had been suffering for years but since 2011 the process of deterioration had increased to an unprecedented pace with new constructions rising in the small plots between registered buildings and with architectural details disappearing from buildings daily. A historic gate was demolished a month earlier after gaining official demolition permits. The situation was dire, and it continues to be, but there was no response from any of the concerned ministries or the governorate. A protest was urgently needed to bring attention to this pressing issue as the UNESCO status of the historic city could potentially be jeopardized and the historic urban fabric was, and continues to be, fragmented.
To our surprise, the governor came out of the building and interacted with the public. An invitation was extended for the organizers of the protest to return and meet with the governor in a roundtable discussion to communicate our concerns.
A few days later a group of around 10 visited the governorate. The fenced building overlooking Abdeen Square is highly guarded in such a way that makes it foreboding for the general public to approach let alone enter. This is the administrative institution that that is meant to run the city and manage its affairs. Yet the public is not invited to participate in this process of governance, is not able to elect the governor, and is not to have access to town hall meetings open to the public. Our visit to the governorate building must have been an unusual event. We were ushered to a waiting room then to a grand meeting hall and waited for the governor to arrive.
The governor at the time was Osama Kamal, who teaches civil engineering at Banha University. He was a decent man who seemed interested in our concerns. This could have potentially been one of the rare opportunities when Cairo residents sit around the same table with those managing municipal affairs.
Unfortunately, that potential was interrupted because the governor did not come into the meeting alone. To his left was another man, probably in his late sixties if not older, who didn’t introduce himself fully and for the rest of this blog will be referred to as Mr. Security. He spoke with confidence and defiance as if HE was the governor. Mr. Security was in charge of policing the part of the city we are concerned with, wasat district. He interrupted our conversation with the governor by showing a lengthy powerpoint presentation with images showing his men, the police, performing their duty in the historic city, inspecting streets, removing road blocks and arresting street vendors. None of these were our concerns during this meeting. Mr. Security then proceeded to explain that in order for the building law to be enforced and for the construction mafia to be stopped from building illegal buildings amid the historic city that lethal force will be needed. He argued that the mafia is armed and that the police can not show their force now because the security situation has been fragile since the revolution.
Another historic house was demolished recently. There was no evidence of its poor structural condition. The house is in the heart of Darb al-Ahmar and was an integral part of the urban fabric surrounding it. There is a police station near by which didn’t prevent the destruction of heritage.
At one point he argued that if an old house is nearing collapse that it would be in his interest, as a police man, to demolish it in order to avoid its collapse over its inhabitants. Mr. Security was sugar coating the destruction of the historic city as an act of protecting lives.
The governorate as an institution has no power to implement or enforce the law, it must always seek security clearances and to request ahead of time the need for a police force. However, in Egypt the police are utilized for political purposes, i.e they are more concerned with rounding up political activists and “trouble makers” than enforcing the law. What that means is, even if we are lucky and we have a governor who cares about a seemingly trivial issue, from the security state’s point of view, such as the protection of a thousand year old city and its buildings, he has no real power without the security apparatus fully supporting him. When it comes to saving two hundred year old house gates and three hundred year old houses, it is unlikely that the security apparatus will mobilize to enforce the law. In the meantime no proper investigations are carried out into who these construction mafias are and who provides them with materials and connects their real estate investments with utilities. For all we know the construction mafia could very well be closely connected with the “security mafia.”
While this meeting was meant to be about concerned citizens speaking to the governor, it turned into Mr. Security’s theatrics of how he is doing his best to control the situation. Every time a question was raised, Mr. Security would jump in to answer, and most of the time the governor was not able to provide more than his opinion on various matters since he is part of a chain of command and he relies on that chain to get information based on which he can sign off on a decision. But what became apparent is that these decisions are already determined by the information he receives from Mr. Security and his team. Even still, a gubernatorial decision will ultimately require approval again from the security apparatus. The governor then, in this structure, seemed to me like little more than a facade for the police state that actually runs the city.
When the “conversation” seemed hopeless in regards to the issue of heritage some of us raised other practical questions about specific problems that need immediate attention. I used this opportunity to bring attention to the pedestrian bridge over Azhar street that had been removed nearly a year earlier, making crossing one of Cairo’s busiest and most historically significant intersections nearly impossible. Not only was the bridge removed, but a fence was erected in the middle of the street dividing the two directions of traffic, a physical obstacle for pedestrians crossing the street. I asked a simple question that to me seemed practical, why not place a traffic light and a cross path at this key location? Mr. Security laughed! To him Egyptians are like sheep, hordes, they won’t understand the concept of a crosswalk or a traffic light and that such things only work in “developed countries.” No need for a study to prove such claims, he knows best.
Mr. Security and the apparatus he belongs to seem to have fully embraced colonial mentality with all its racism and classicist outlook. He then said that there is a plan under consideration to erect new pedestrian bridges with escalators across the city in key locations. I was baffled by how such an expensive and unnecessary “solution” was considered when more obvious solutions were being dismissed as laughable. Who decides on the budget of these escalators and what urban study determined that this was the best solution to the problem? Furthermore, what is the bidding process, if there is one, that will determine the contractor who will carry out such a project? Pedestrian bridges are no laughing matter, in fact when they are built (in a city where the majority of inhabitants are pedestrians), they are inaugurated with great fanfare, even the prime minister, the housing minister and the Cairo governor all went last fall to inaugurate a pedestrian bridge, imagine that!
The inauguration of a pedestrian bridge in December 2013.
The meeting, which lasted over an hour, ended with no conclusions reached. A woman who runs the new, astonishingly new!, Cairo Heritage Preservation Unit, proposed future meetings. A week later the June 30 protests began, many of us joined, I did, naively thinking that things might change for the better. They didn’t. A new governor was appointed but most likely the man next to him who really holds the keys to running Cairo is still the same.
Hayat al-Nofus Palace in Malawy was incrementally destroyed. Its location adjacent to the city’s police headquarters did not protect it from destruction.
I remembered this encounter today because of news that 20, out of a total of 28, new governors who will be appointed are officers, clones of Mr. Security. Millions of dollars go into the budgets of the security apparatus, which does little regarding the security of individuals, of society, or the security of heritage sites and national patrimony. In fact there have been a series of acts of destruction over the past two years in various cities and all of them were in sites directly adjacent to police headquarters with nothing done to prevent such acts nor to conduct a proper investigation. For example a historic palace (pictured above) in the southern city of Malawy, adjacent to security headquarters, was incrementally destroyed. The museum of the same city was entirely looted. Another palace in Qena belonging to Makram Ebeid, a national figure, also adjacent to the security headquarters, was incrementally destroyed. And of course there is the bombing outside the police headquarters in Cairo that destroyed the Museum of Islamic Art across the street. In addition to the continued lack of security in many urban districts, these acts of destruction are either evidence of total incompetence or willful collaboration on the part of the security apparatus to erase national heritage, and to keep Cairo and Egypt’s cities comfortably cushioned in their position as third world cities, perpetually, forever.
There continues to be zero accountability. Despite the failures of the police state to perform any of its civic duties the budget of the interior ministry has been increased multiple times under the subsequent governments since 2011.
The first steps towards better cities are obvious: Participatory planning, accountability of public officials, elections of governors and local councils, transparent budgets, and rewarding competence over political loyalty.
These are already colossally difficult tasks. But with people like Mr. Security and his security machine intervening in how cities and spaces of everyday life for millions of Egyptians are shaped and how hundreds of years of historic heritage in cities are recorded and protected, such tasks are simply impossible.
1949 Cartoon, a police man preventing a man from casting his vote. The police have a long history of political interference rather than civic service.
Cairobserver was founded in April 2011 and is edited by Mohamed Elshahed, a Cairo-based scholar and researcher currently completing his doctoral dissertation in the Middle East Studies Department at New York University. His dissertation, Revolutionary Modernism? Architecture and the Politics of Transition in Egypt, 1936-1967, focuses on architecture and urban planning in Egypt during the period of political transition around the 1952 coup d’etat. Mohamed has a Bachelor of Architecture from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a Master in Architecture Studies from MIT.
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