On Saturday last week many of Zamalek’s residents, tree lovers, and environmental activists gathered to protest against a plan to build a multi-storey underground garage in the neighbourhood which overlooks the Nile.
The objection came after residents saw bulldozers uprooting trees in the park overlooking the Nile in Saray Gezira Street. They were equally shocked when they discovered that an underground garage would replace the park.
Sohailah El Sawy, chairperson of the Egyptian Association for Environment and Community Services, said Zamalek, a residential part of Cairo with many embassies and foreign residents, is an island floating on the Nile silt accumulated over many years. The old trees surrounding the island were planted to protect it from flooding. El-Sawy, not a Zamalek resident herself, added that by removing the trees the neighbourhood is entering “a danger zone”.
Residing in Zamalek for more than 40 years, Saadat Al-Ghawabi, a rheumatology, rehabilitation, and immunology consultant, joined the gathering saying that Zamalek’s residents would only accept projects and activities that do not disturb them or change the quality of life that distinguishes the island. “The residents have the right to live in a peaceful atmosphere. We want to enjoy strolls by the Nile in Zamalek as we used to as kids,” Al-Ghawabi recounted.
Protesters included public figures some of whom are Zamalek dwellers, including former foreign ministers Amr Moussa and Nabil Fahmi.
“We did not receive any explanation or response from officials since the gathering on Saturday,” Fahmi told Al-Ahram Weekly on Monday. Fahmi has been living in Zamalek since 1964.
“We heard about the parking they intend to build and when we asked for details the officials never replied to our inquiries. We found bulldozers uprooting trees last week,” Fahmi said.
This is despite the fact that communication with Zamalek residents is relatively easy. The Zamalek Association, an NGO, includes representatives from the neighbourhood.
Mounir Doss, a Zamalek resident, said the neighbourhood is facing a problem because of a trend to change all the old garages under the buildings to shops which created a parking problem. “However, officials should not deal with the problem by building a garage disaster that may ruin the whole island,” Doss argued.
“If we want the best for our country we should concentrate on long-term plans and development of gardens, not removing them,” Doss said.
El Sawy added that building the garage means replacing trees and green space by concrete, car exhaust, noisy traffic and visual pollution.
That, for her, is unacceptable. “Trees are God-sent oxygen producers and we are the custodians of this wealth. Our motto is to save the trees. We owe it to our children,” El Sawy said.
Moreover, the immunologist Al-Ghawabi said pollution leads to more immunological and respiratory system diseases.
Moussa told the Weekly that he was keen to join the gathering, being a Zamalek resident. “It comes from my rejection of the ideas of cutting trees or considering any green land an empty area ready for concrete construction on it. This mentality must be changed,” Moussa said.
According to many residents in Zamalek, COP27, the UN environment conference held last month in Sharm El-Sheikh, should have created a new awareness of protecting the environment. “New policies that save the environment are not luxuries in the capital of the country that hosted COP27,” Moussa added.
He said the idea of building a multi-storey garage on the Nile raises a lot of question marks.
He also criticised the absence of dialogue between public administration officials and Zamalek residents, a fact that he said, “leads to surprising the latter with projects they know nothing about”.
Karim Assem, a sales director who spent 51 years in Zamalek, points out that the posh area that used to accommodate many more foreign embassies and movie stars has been facing several challenges since the 1980s with the construction of the 15 May Bridge which changed the nature of the 26 July Street under the bridge from a quiet street to a busy commercial hub. Also, the following years witnessed the mushrooming of coffee shops in Zamalek’s streets which were blocked off by mobile metal barriers installed in front of embassy buildings. “This destroyed the cultural and historical spirit of the district,” Assem said.
Nahed Al-Defrawi, UN social peace ambassador and another Zamalek resident, said that if built the garage would exacerbate the district’s already heavy traffic problem, especially during rush hour.
Samira Al-Gazzar, member of the Planning and Budget Committee at the House of Representatives, submitted a briefing request to “immediately halt the construction of the garage because it is in violation of the constitution” to the prime minister, the ministers of local development, water resources, investment, and environment. “It is yet unknown who ordered the implementation of this project. Cutting trees, especially after Egypt had hosted the climate change conference COP27, will negatively affect the flow of investments to the country,” Al-Gazzar told the Weekly.
“There is a positive effect for responding to people’s demands and respecting them that impacts the whole society,” Al-Defrawi said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly