Heliopolis: City of the Sun, city of barbed wire

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 4 Dec 2012

Local residents of Heliopolis raise concerns as security measures are stepped up around the presidential palace

City of the sun
A soldier pulls barbed wire on a fence to close the road before a demonstration, in front of the presidential palace in Cairo, December 4, 2012 (PhotoL Reuters)

Barbed wire, armoured vehicles and police fill Baghdad Street and Ibrahim Al-Lakkani Street in the heart of Heliopolis.

Built during the early 20th century by the founder of Heliopolis, Edouard Empain, and his architect, Ernest Jaspar, these two streets were originally called Boulevard Abbas and Boulevard Ismail. For over 100 years the area has been populated by a mix of well-off residents and middle class civil servants.

Local residents and businesspeople were never big fans of President Mohamed Morsi. On the contrary, during the run up to the presidential election runoff last summer, the streets were covered with posters promoting his opponent, Ahmed Shafiq – the last prime minister of the Mubarak era.

Today, as security measures are being increasingly stepped up around these two streets, as well as those of Al-Ahram and Al-Naddi, which also surround the presidential palace, Al-Ittihadiya, old Heliopolis is turning against the president more than ever.

“This is much worse than the days of Mubarak. I am telling you that during the years of Mubarak we never felt threatened or unsafe,” said Nadire, a local resident.

For this woman, who is over 70, Morsi's arrival at the palace was never good news. Not just because Nadire voted for Shafiq in both rounds of the presidential election, but because Morsi’s presidency means the "streets are full of workers and peasants endlessly demonstrating and sleeping on the pavements and there are riot police in larger numbers than in the Mubarak years.”

During recent protests against President Morsi's controversial constitutional declaration and his announcement that the constitution will be voted on in a referendum on 15 December, Nadire has become increasingly upset by the traffic chaos, the "screams of Morsi supporters and the garbage they leave on the streets." She is also concerned by the presence of security agents who search local residents and visitors.

“I don’t feel safe. As an old woman who likes to buy bread or stroll to the club for a coffee, I never know what will happen and if demonstrators will turn violent and start attacking people,” she said.

Nadire’s dismay at the encroachment of demonstrators on her lifestyle is nothing compared to the frustration of local stores, including jewellers and some of the declining numbers of restaurants that still serve alcohol. Jewellers say they are concerned about being looted and are reducing the number of items they keep on display. A priest at a local Catholic church said he was worried about being attacked by Islamist supporters of President Morsi because "they consider [Christians] to be infidels." Restaurant supervisors are worried about being attacked and looted.

“We are not interrupting anyone," said a riot police general who was overseeing security preparations around the palace on Monday evening. "People are coming and going freely and we will only close the streets leading to the palace at 5pm when the [anti-Morsi] march to the palace is scheduled to start. This is a normal security procedure.”

He added, “The stores are open and the restaurants are busy. We have security agents inspecting some buildings but they are not disturbing anyone.”

Heliopolis, known as the City of the Sun, used to be one of the quietest neighbourhoods in Cairo. Predominantly middle class with a mixed Muslim-Christian population, there are still reminders of its cosmopolitan past with stores and villas carrying Armenian, Italian, French, Jewish, Christian and Muslim names. There are churches and mosques built close to each together. The old synagogue of Heliopolis is less than a 30-minute walk from the presidential palace. It is surrounded by bakeries and juice bars although it is almost always closed because most Jewish residents have left.

Before the 1952 revolution, Heliopolis was best known for the Heliopolis Palace Hotel which became the presidential palace. 

Nationalised after the revolution, the palace became an occasional venue for government meetings and in the early 1970s, when Egypt entered a preliminary union with Syrian and Libya, the hotel was used by government representatives of the nascent and short-lived union, and hence its name today, Al-Ittihadiya, which means unity.

When Air Force Commander Hosni Mubarak became vice president to President Sadat in the mid-70s he turned his attention to the Heliopolis area. He married Suzanne Thabet-Mubarak, who was born and raised in the area by an Egyptian father and a British mother. The married couple moved from his apartment on Abdel-Aziz Fahmi Street to a villa behind the Heliopolis Club.

According to some older Heliopolis residents, the presence of Hosni Mubarak was felt more than that of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who ruled for about 15 years from 1954 and lived in Menshiyat El-Bekry on the border of Heliopolis.

“Maybe this is because Abdel-Nasser was much more liked and maybe because it was not as crowded in the 1950s and 1960s as it later became – or due to both reasons,” said Kamal, a retired solider in his mid-80s.

President Sadat, who lived in Giza, was assassinated in October 1981. Hosni Mubarak took over and Heliopolis lost its old tranquillity as security measures were imposed. Some of the oldest trees in the area were removed so new streets could be laid. The trees along the route of the Heliopolis tramway were also removed.

Mubarak kept his old villa, a five-minute drive from the palace where he ruled until the January 25 Revolution.

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