Cairo's green lung razed for roads to new desert capital

Since last August, the military's engineering arm has been building highways worth about $450 million to link Cairo with the new capital under construction about 45km to the east.
Monday 17/02/2020
File photo shows partially cut-off trees and construction in a street in Heliopolis, in Cairo, January 27. (AFP)
Illegal move. File photo shows partially cut-off trees and construction in a street in Heliopolis, in Cairo, January 27. (AFP)

In the traffic-choked megacity of Cairo, the historic Heliopolis district has long stood out for its leafy boulevards but construction crews are cutting new highways through it and uprooting century-old trees.

As Egypt announced its burgeoning population passed the milestone of 100 million, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government pushed on with building a colossal new capital in the desert.

At least six new highways leading there cut right through Heliopolis, an upmarket district with tree-lined streets laid out in the early 1900s in the style of a mini-European metropolis. Nearly 400,000 square metres -- more than 50 football fields -- of green space have been razed in the past four months, said activist group the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative (HHI).

A local writer decried what she graphically described as "the raping of a suburb ... with its guts spilling out" in a column shared widely online.

Since last August, the military's engineering arm has been building highways worth about $450 million to link Cairo with the new capital under construction about 45km to the east.

Known as the New Administrative Capital, it is set to boast skyscrapers, a presidential palace, dozens of ministries and flats for tens of thousands of civil servants, with the aim of easing Cairo's chronic overcrowding and air pollution.

The first victim of the megaproject, however, was Heliopolis, built in 1906 by Baron Edouard Empain, a wealthy Belgian entrepreneur who settled in Cairo while working on modernising its nascent railways. He designed the area with wide streets and elegant buildings that meld various design motifs, as embodied in his impressive palace, which is still standing.

As one of Egypt's most expensive suburbs, Heliopolis also houses powerful institutions, including the presidential palace, the military academy and several other armed forces facilities.

There are plenty of green spaces, a rarity in the city of 20 million. However, Triomphe Square and the lush arterial avenues of al-Nozha and Abou Bakr al-Seddik, marked by palm trees and ficus plants, have become sites for about a dozen routes out of the suburb.

Many residents have been vocal on social media about fatal traffic accidents on new bridges that lack pedestrian crossings or clearly marked speed limits.

Cairo University urban design Professor Dalila ElKerdany slammed the rezoning of the capital's “green lung” as "an act of sabotage."

That view was shared by Choucri Asmar, a resident and founding member of HHI, who voiced regret that more cars would choke up the road, instead of the old tramline.

"We have been presented with a fait accompli," he said, sitting in the courtyard of Chantilly, a chic cafe and a venerable institution in the area.

Asmar said there were no local community consultations during the planning stages and that the urban planning decision came "straight from the presidency."

ElKerdany charged that the redistricting was launched "illegally" without approval from Egypt's top heritage body, the National Organisation for Urban Harmony.

"Heliopolis was founded for pedestrians, not for cars -- they were always meant to come second," said Alia Kassim, 33, a resident who works in the media.

ElKerdany said "the result is frightening... creating a monstrous and unmanageable" megacity at the expense of green spaces.

Developments are planned in other historic neighbourhoods with millions of residents, such al-Matariya and Nasr City.

With many Heliopolis residents going on with their daily lives and adjusting to the new routes, HHI has remained active online, documenting the district's vanishing heritage. Asmar said the initiative will keep up the protest because "if we keep quiet, everyone will be quiet."

However, given Egypt's fast-growing and youthful population, pressure for urban expansion is unlikely to ease anytime soon.

ElKerdany predicted that, at the current rate, greater Cairo will eventually extend all the way to Suez, about 130km from Heliopolis.