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Competition may determine future of Egypt's Tahrir Square

A group of architects, designers and officials are preparing a competition about the future of Tahrir Square that is expected to launch next month.

Thousands of demonstrators protest against Egypt's ruling military council in Tahrir Square last month.
Thousands of demonstrators protest against Egypt's ruling military council in Tahrir Square last month.

CAIRO // To demolish and rebuild or improve and reform?

It is a question that could easily be applied to post-Mubarak Egypt. Groups of activists are calling for a radical remaking of the country while conservative forces are pushing for modest changes.

But it is also a debate about Tahrir Square, the sprawling centre of the protest movements that forced Hosni Mubarak to resign as president in February. As protesters refuse to leave the square for the 21st straight day yesterday, a group of architects, designers and officials are preparing a competition about the future of Tahrir Square that is expected to launch next month.

"There is this air of uncertainty that is surrounding us all," says Amr Abdel Kawi, one of the founding members of the Al Tahrir Competition and publisher of the design-orientated Magaz Magazine. "There is a fear of losing control of the square in general, that a competition would be structured the way it was during the old regime. We think we have some solutions to that."

The competition is "a reflection of the debates that are ongoing in Egypt right now", Mr Kawi said.

In the days soon after February 11, when Mr Mubarak stepped down, there was a push to begin designing a monument to commemorate those who died during the protests, estimated to be at least 846 people.

The boundaries of the competition have expanded to include the entire square and adjoining side streets. Also included will be the question of what to do with the Mugamma building, the centre of Cairo's bureaucracy, and the abandoned National Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters that is covered in huge burn marks from a fire that was started during the protests in January, according to competition documents.

Proposals have included building a glass edifice with the names of the people who died to converting it to a pedestrian-only park.

"It is important that this is more than a monument in the centre of the square," Mr Kawi said. "It is a memorial competition to commemorate the actions of the revolution."

The competition is being hosted by a range of organisations, from the Cairo Governorate to the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, a non-government organisation set up by a wealthy Egyptian. It took seven months to convince the government that the competition must be open to public proposals as well as allowing the public a say in the final decision, Mr Kawi said.

"Unless we take a new approach and create a paradigm shift about how public institutions take ownership of these, there will be adverse consequences", he said.

A source of tension is the perception that the interim government, which is controlled by the military body known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), might try to use the competition to restrict access to the square or make it easier for security forces to control crowds there.

Architects describe how governments of Egypt made changes to prevent gatherings, removing trees that provided shade and fencing to limit movement. One of the largest plots in the square, in front of the Egyptian museum and Ritz Carlton hotel, has been fenced off for more than a decade by a company linked to former members of the regime. "My question is what is the intention of any urban intervention by the government or by a competition," said Nasser Rabbat, the Aga Khan professor of Islamic architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. "Is there a movement to make the square more controllable?"

Tahrir Square was able to become the centre of the uprising because of its poor planning. Mr Rabbat said 22 streets connect into the square, which he characterises as a "leftover" space that has no single author.

"If Egyptians value their ability to express their freedom, then maybe the creative chaos of the square might be its best asset," he said.

Whatever the outcome of the competition, it likely will generate interest from amateur designers and architects around the world.

Dan Coma, a Romanian-American architect and founder of the International Competitions in Architecture, said the debate over the future of Tahrir Square will be as much about the "ongoing revolution in Egypt" as the proposals themselves.

"Maybe we will decide that revolution itself is not even the right word," he said. "Some people think it wasn't really a revolution or that it's still a revolution in the making. What we know is that what happened in Tahrir Square had a big effect on many things," he said.

 

bhope@thenational.ae