Following a day of violent clashes with security forces on January 28, 2011 — otherwise dubbed as the “Friday of Anger” — protestors battled over space in Downtown Cairo, as the building that housed the regime’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) was looted and set ablaze. Images of the burning building have become emblematic of the toppling of the Hosni Mubarak regime.
Over the past four years, the torched site has served as a standing reminder of the events that unfolded during the 18-day uprising in 2011.
On May 31, bulldozers began the slow process of taking the building apart bit by bit, with remnants of the massive structure disappearing slowly over a period of three months.
Yet the fate of the land the building once stood on remains unknown and mired with controversy.
The land technically belongs to the adjacent Egyptian Museum, and claims have been made to return it to its rightful owner. It is also prime real estate and could fit nicely into the government’s vision of a more affluent-looking downtown area.
Built in 1958, the building initially housed the headquarters for the Cairo Municipality, before accommodating the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union and other political organizations over the years, until the NDP established its headquarters there in 1976, during the late rule of Anwar al-Sadat.
Today, the most widely circulated plan is for the land to be converted into a park for the Egyptian National Museum, while other rumors include a new office building for organizations or a hotel.
The Ministry of Antiquities claims the land originally belonged to the museum when it first opened in 1902, and was used to receive incoming shipments of ancient artefacts and tourist boats via a dock on the Nile. But the land was allegedly taken from the museum following the 1952 revolution.
“The land has always belonged to the museum, since its establishment,” reaffirms General Manager of the Egyptian Museum Mahmoud al-Halwagy.
He adds that, after the building was destroyed in the 2011 revolution, the Ministry of Antiquities and the museum requested that the land be returned to the museum.
Up until the demolition process began, the Ministry of Antiquities was vocal in calling for the reclaming of the land.
In 2011, shortly after the torching of the building, the Ministry of Antiquities issued a warrant to the Cabinet to return the land to the ministry.
In January 2013, Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim issued an official memo to the government to tear down the NDP building and return the land to the museum. In the memo, Ibrahim stated that Egyptian authorities unfairly claimed the land in 1954.
Should the land return to the museum, Ibrahim said, it would be part of their renovation plans.
A year later, in March 2014, as the Cabinet issued the decree to demolish the NDP building, it also stated that the land would be returned to the museum.
Despite what seems like a clear plan, once the demolition process began, confusion ensued.
When contacted, the media office for the Ministry of Antiquities stated that the issue is not related to the ministry, but rather is being managed by the Cabinet.
The National Museum’s Halwagy acknowledges the Cabinet’s decree in 2014, but says that the museum has still not received the land. “When they finish demolishing the building, we can begin to see what the Cabinet will decide,” says Halwagy.
Meanwhile, the Armed Forces’ Engineering Authority is in charge of carrying out the demolition process, by assignment from the Cabinet. However, the level of the authority’s involvement in the project remains vague, despite its increasing engagement in several national projects in recent months.
Aside from the government and the museum, there is also the debate over the erasing of a valuable representation of the events of the 2011 uprising.
Over the past year, Downtown Cairo has been transformed through targeted crackdowns on street vendors and popular street cafes, the inauguration of the Tahrir parking lot, the refurbishing of surrounding buildings and a giant flagpole at the center of Tahrir, wiping away much that remained of the memory of the uprisings of previous years.
This transformation, while carrying a subtext of the sanitization of public opposition, has been justified through practicalities.
“There is the official narrative of encouraging tourism, cleaning up downtown, nostalgia of returning the area to the way it once was,” says architect and urban planner Omar Nagati, who has been working on researching changes in Downtown Cairo. “There’s also a kind of unspoken alliance between the state’s vision and that of the private sector, based on an economic approach with an aesthetic packaging.”
“With the revolution, there was a reversal of this vision. Downtown was overwhelmed,” he adds. “But then there was gradual return of the previous order and a revival of the prior planning vision of Downtown.”
“What we’re seeing is an interest in development and upgrading, things we don’t necessarily disagree with, such as improving traffic,” adds Nagati. “But these ‘improvements’ are not always neutral or innocent.”
He adds, “It’s a restoration of order, but what kind of order is the big question, and who is participating in its making?”