Anger as historical Cairo district torn down to make way for luxury housing

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Egyptian authorities are demolishing a historical 19th century area in Cairo to make way for luxury housing and business developments, angering residents who say they have not been properly compensated.

Developers have long eyed the central Maspero district, which is already home to the foreign ministry and the state television and radio building a stone’s throw from the Nile.

The region, named after the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, who helped found the Egyptian Museum, is part of the modern city built by Khedive Ismail in the 19th century. It was envisioned as a Paris on the Nile, with wide boulevards, traffic circles and stately European-style architecture.

In recent decades the area, like much of the Egyptian capital, has fallen into decay. While some of the old architecture remains, including apartments inhabited by middle-class families, parts of Maspero had come to resemble a shanty town.

The Hinhayat watch shop
The Hinhayat watch shop (AP)

Of the 4,500 families displaced by the demolition, about 900 will return to live in Maspero in apartments that will stand alongside glitzy residential towers and high-rise office buildings.

The redevelopment is part of a larger effort to transform Cairo, which is home to 20 million people, even as a new administrative capital is under construction in the desert some 30 miles to the east.

Maspero area
A view of the area in 2014 (AP)

The government has set its sights on two Nile islands that are home to poor areas and farming communities, hoping to transform them into luxury housing and business districts. Police serving eviction notices have repeatedly clashed with residents.

Last week, Cairo’s governor Atef Abdel-Hameed said Maspero was completely evacuated, paving the way for the final phase of demolition. “Building houses for those (900) families will be the first phase of the project,” he said.

The historic area is to make way for luxury housing and business properties (AP)

Among the casualties of the new development is the Hinhayat watch shop, which was established in 1907 by a Bulgarian craftsman.

Essam Ahmed, the owner, says his grandfather worked in the shop and then purchased it in 1956, when Egypt’s foreign communities fled in the face of growing nationalism and expropriation of property by the socialist government.

He boasts that his grandfather once fixed watches belonging to King Farouk, Egypt’s last monarch, as well as politicians and celebrities.

Mr Ahmed has filed legal suits against the government, saying the shop should have been spared demolition because of its historical value. He said authorities told him he would only be compensated if he drops the cases.

He and other nearby shop owners say the compensation offered by the government for their businesses – 7,000 pounds (£306) per square metre – falls well short of market value in the area.

“Their compensation, which we have not received yet, is worthless,” said Mr Ahmed. “Our livelihood is gone.”

The government insists the compensation offered was fair and denies it is forcibly relocating anyone.

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