This week residents of Heliopolis were surprised to find workers, equipment and engineers next to the Basilica of the Holy Virgin, the iconic Roman Catholic Church located on Al-Ahram Square. Asked why they were there, the workers replied that a bridge is to be built to relieve traffic between Ismailia Square and the crossroads of Baghdad and Al-Ahram streets, a local resident told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Basilica, designed by French architect Alexander Marcel, was built between 1911 and 1913 and is the final resting place of Baron Empain, the Belgian industrialist who founded Heliopolis, and his son.
“This area is an A-type heritage site where it is prohibited by law to build anything that obstructs the view, including bridges, or anything that destroys the urban fabric of the district,” Ayman Al-Kashty, an interior design consultant, told the Weekly.
After news of the bridge spread thousands of Heliopolis residents shared a statement issued by the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative on social media.
Al-Kashty told the Weekly that the construction of the overpass threatened what remained of the core of Heliopolis.
“We sent a statement to the Roads and Bridges Authority, pointing out there are no serious traffic issues in the area, and suggesting alternatives such as instigating a one-way system, prohibiting car parking, and removing street vendors.”
Al-Kashty said MPs representing Heliopolis had also been contacted by the foundation in “what will be the first test for their credibility”.
Amr Al-Sonbaty, MP for Heliopolis and Nasr City, noted that “the Basilica is a landmark and an icon of Heliopolis” and promised that “nothing will be built against the residents’ will.”
“The project is on hold until further studies are carried out,” Al-Sonbaty told the Weekly.
MP Mohamed Al-Sallab, a member of parliament’s Industry Committee, said that “after Mostakbal Watan Party discussed residents’ worries in an urgent meeting it received confirmation from the authorities that no bridge will be built in this area” and the equipment in the area was for other developments.
Al-Sallab stressed that consultation between residents and officials was needed to promote a healthy and democratic community. “MPs are the people’s voice,” Al-Sallab said, adding that no projects will be carried out without the residents’ consent.
Yet according to a resident who preferred to remain anonymous “no dialogue takes place.” Referring to earlier projects in the area, he said there was no coordination between officials and residents. “The streets are no longer safe for pedestrians and most of the trees have been felled.” Heritage, beauty, and nature all take a back seat, he argued.
A similar situation arose in Zamalek when the residents launched a number of petitions objecting to the construction of the Cairo Eye after being shocked to find that the foundation stone of the proposed 120-metre-high Ferris wheel had already been laid.
According to Dalia Al-Saadani, a member of parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee, the Ferris wheel has yet to receive approval from the ministries of culture and tourism and antiquities.
A source who preferred to remain anonymous told the Weekly that while this may be the case, “the ceremony for laying the foundation stone was nevertheless attended by representatives from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the Cairo governor and the president’s advisor for urban planning, which surely implies approval.”
Current legislation requires an environmental study before the implementation of any project, says Salah Hafez, an environment and energy consultant and former chairman of the Environmental Affairs Agency.
Increased air pollution resulting from any project and the resulting congestion, leading to longer commuting times and the degradation of surrounding buildings, often cost millions and must be taken into account, Hafez pointed out.
Zamalek already has “22 schools, four university faculties, six clubs and many other activities” that place an intolerable strain on the island’s infrastructure, says Hafez, and when he took part in a study on the environmental impact of further development two decades ago it was actually recommended that some of the activities be moved off the island. Instead, they increased, to the point that traffic in Zamalek “has come to a standstill”.
Consultant architect, Seifallah Abul-Naga, president of the Society of Egyptian Architects, founded in 1917, believes specialised associations are needed to participate with the government on national projects.
“The government has good intentions towards developing the country and needs expert groups to help offer solutions that balance ideas and their implementation,” argues Abul-Naga.
The site chosen for the Cairo Eye is one of the inner city’s lungs and helps reduce rates of air pollution: “It is all about the quality of life offered to citizens,” says Hafez, who published a newspaper appeal addressed to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to halt the building of the Ferris wheel.
“Our built heritage belongs to all of us and it is not up for sale or ripe for any exploitation. Those who represent us, government officials and the authorities, are custodians of this heritage. They are responsible for keeping our heritage safe. It should be kept safe and intact to hand over to future generations,” Sohailah Al-Sawi, chair of the Egyptian Association for the Environment and Community Services, told the Weekly.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly