PORT SAID — For the past two days, dozens of Port Said residents protested on Eugenie and al-Geish streets in front of one of the oldest buildings in the city, asking the state to save Port Said's architectural heritage.
Although it was built in 1900 and listed as a heritage site along with 505 other buildings in 2011 by a Cabinet decree after a long public campaign titled The Civil Campaign for Protecting Port Said's Heritage, the building's new owners have recently managed to obtain a demolition permit.
"Port Said has a remarkable cultural and architectural heritage that no one cares about," says Waleed Montasser, the general coordinator of the campaign. "Every building has a unique style; the history goes back to Greek or the Italian architects who lived in the city in the 19th century."
Montasser explains that the importance of this building comes from its unique wooden architecture, with wooden arcades and facades that are more than four stories high, the likes of which cannot be found in any other country in the world. This building also features a bust of the initial owner of the house, as well as busts of his wife and children, carved on each of the arches.
"Destroying such buildings will open the door for other contractors and investors who want to replace these historical buildings with others to make money," Montasser says.
Several groups have been joining forces to protect the city's heritage. At the protest on Thursday, members of Tawasol, an association for protecting Port Said’s artistic and cultural heritage, convened alongside members of the Port Said Writers and Artists Association, the Alliance Française, the Port Said Businesswomen Association and the Islamic Arts and Archaeology Association.
The controversy started a year ago, when a group of investors bought the building from its original owner, Gerges Abdel Rabbo. The investors began offering compensation to the building’s residents to get them to leave, says Mariam Ismail Abul Enein, the owner of a furniture gallery in the building.
"When I refused to leave my shop, they brought a restoration permit, claiming that they will repair the building from the inside. However, [when] they entered, they started destroying the building by breaking the stairs and removing the windows. I called the police immediately and they came and saw the deliberate sabotage and documented it in a police report," Abul Enein told Egypt Independent.
Abul Enein has also sent complaints to the governor of Port Said, the minister of culture and the National Organization for Urban Harmony to take action, but to no avail. She explains that the head of Eastern Port Said district sent a committee to examine the building, but the committee reported that no damage was done to the building. Three months later, the investors succeeded to obtain a demolition permit.
"We have all the documents and police reports that guarantee our rights, but no one listens to us," she says. "It's a big mafia, and we accuse the authorities, especially those people of the Eastern Port Said district, of corruption and taking bribes to help investors take down the building."
Pierre Alfarroba, the director of Alliance Française de Port Said — an organization that has been strongly involved in the campaign — links the ongoing problems also to a decades-old rent control policy.
"[This] is the main thing that will doom the heritage of Port Said," Alfarroba says, adding that "if you have the most beautiful place in the world and you get LE40 every month out of it, I can't blame you for thinking of demolishing it as [owners] don't even have the money for required maintenance and repairs of these old buildings."
"The government must find a solution that can benefit the owners of those buildings and the tenants who can't pay thousands of pounds for an apartment," he adds.
According to Alfarroba, everything in Port Said, including culture, has turned into a business. The old theaters have been converted into shops, and most of the historical places that used to serve the community — such as the Greek and Italian schools — have been abandoned, although they enjoy prime locations at the heart of the city.
People "don't have enough awareness about the rich cultural history of the city and the authorities do not accept any assistance we offer,” he concludes.