Skepticism meets plan to transform Tahrir into UNESCO site

Cairo Governor Abdel Kawi Khalifa wants to turn the epicenter of the city and the revolution into an official UNESCO World Heritage site. But with protesters still occupying parts of the traffic islands and sidewalks, the governor’s plan seems a little out of touch and far-fetched, especially to people who live, work, or protest in Tahrir Square.

“The revolution is still ongoing,” says Ahmed Maziz, one of dozens of protesters staging a sit-in in Tahrir. “The revolution will continue until the ruling military council is sacked and the killers of protesters are tried.”

A World Heritage site can be either a place of natural value and beauty or a man-made place with great cultural significance. There are 936 such sites in the world today.

Egypt is one of the founding members of UNESCO and has 7 World Heritage sites, with another 32 still pending. If the governor has his way, Tahrir Square would be next on the list.

In a recent press release, Khalifa announced that he has a general plan for rehabilitating the area around the square, from the Nile Corniche to the entrance of Ramses Street, with a unique architectural design. He added that the entire area “must be treated with respect.”

An international committee would work on nominating the site. And any resulting structure will have a display that can narrate the story of the revolution to future visitors, according to his plan.

Although UNESCO sites remain under the jurisdiction of the countries in which they reside, the organization is given some authority over maintaining and securing the sites, as it considers their preservation to be in the interest of the international community. 

If Tahrir in fact becomes a UNESCO site, it will likely receive more international funds that could pay for its rehabilitation.

“The government is not opposed to international experts helping with the design,” says Khalifa.

The selection criteria for a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as listed on the organization's website, are sweeping and leave room for interpretation.

The place should “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius” and “bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared,” it says.

But the selection process is usually drawn out, and as the UNESCO committee only meets once a year to discuss nominations – this year's meeting was held in June – it is unlikely Tahrir will make it on the list any time soon.

A spokesperson for the UNESCO culture unit at the organization’s Cairo office says that that the governor’s proposal is an idea, but no formal steps have been taken. The spokesperson added that the square’s other cultural heritage – such as the Qasr al-Nil bridge, built in the 1930s during Cairo’s Paris-inspired architecture boom – would count in its favor during the admission deliberations.

Early in the morning, Tahrir Square wakes up to chaotic flux. In front of the grassy center, a few tourists take pictures, a street sweeper brushes dirt and debris along the curb, and traffic eases through as volunteer protesters act as crossing guards in the absence of police forces, which once again withdrew from the square following violent confrontations with protesters on 26 June.

Sleepy denizens emerge from a few tents erected in the center. In front of the Mugamma building, the capital’s bureaucratic center, is a banner listing protesters' demands.

Maziz, who works as a doctor at Qasr al-Aini hospital, points them out, saying that the government should first focus on these demands, rather than the status of the square as a tourist site.

Across the square, Magdy Adly opens his pharmacy, situated near Abdel Moneim Riyad Square, where some of the most intense clashes took place during the 18-day uprising. He says he closed up shop on 28 January and re-opened on 10 February, although he opened a free clinic for protesters during the strife.

“The past months have been difficult for business,” he says, since he usually relies on tourist traffic through the downtown area.

Adly believes that the designation of the square as a UNESCO World Heritage Site would be nice, but he isn’t sure it would lead to more customers.

“It’s a good thing for our shop to be famous,” he says. “But our problem is that we need to be good at sales, too.”

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