Developer says controversial Cairo Eye project will go ahead

Critics have traffic, environmental and heritage concerns about plan to construct Ferris wheel on the island district of Zamalek

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The developer of the Cairo Eye project said construction of the giant Ferris wheel on the small island district of Zamalek would continue, despite an outcry over the project.

"We are focused on the work," Hawai Holding Group chairman Ahmed Metwally told The National. "We care very much about the project, we care very much about Zamalek."

Scheduled to be completed at the end of next year, the 500 million Egyptian pound ($31.9m) development will cover 20,000 square metres and will include shops, restaurants, an events hall, a boat deck and a 500-car car park.

The 120-metre wheel with 48 cabins will be the fifth largest in the world after similar attractions in London, Dubai, Las Vegas and Singapore. Officials hope the project will attract 2.5 million visitors annually and it will offer a view overlooking some of Cairo's landmarks.

But since last month, when Hawai announced that the Cairo Eye would be built in the historic Al Masalah Garden in Zamalek, the project has stirred up controversy.

Critics, who include residents, MPs, public officials, community groups and urban planners, said they were concerned about the effect the project would have on traffic, the environment and the site's heritage.

Many people lamented the choice of location in the heart of Cairo, falling between two main bridges connecting Zamalek to the city centre.

More than 7,300 people signed a petition addressed to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi suggesting alternate areas for the project.

Zamalek, about 1 kilometre wide and 4km long, is a residential area already densely populated and is home to academic institutions, two large sports clubs, restaurants, hotels, the Cairo Opera House and the Cairo Tower.

“Zamalek at this point is full with its residents and full with its 36 universities and schools, full with its many banks and companies, and its restaurants and cafes along the busy 26th of July corridor,” said Ali Kenawi, a 64-year-old retired physician who signed the petition.

“It used to be a quiet place … now it’s changed from an atmosphere of gardens to an atmosphere of combustible fuels."

Mr Metwally said environmental and traffic studies for the project were conducted over the past 18 months.

The design will increase the total green area from 6,100 square metres to 6,900 square metres, and traffic will be eased by the Cairo Eye Nile Taxi and Cairo Eye buses, he said.

“No one is going to do a project that’s half a billion Egyptian pounds without studying it properly,” Mr Metwally said.

The start of construction was marked by a ceremony on January 21 at which the foundation stone was laid.

The event was attended by several government officials, including the Presidential Advisor for Urban Planning Amir Sayed Ahmed, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El Enany and Cairo Governor Khaled Abdel Aal.

A few days later, MP Shaima Halawa submitted a request for further studies into potential problems arising from the project. On February 4, the head of the parliament's tourism committee, Nora Ali, asked Mr El Enany to move the wheel to another location.

Dalia Sadany, an architect and member of the parliamentary committee for media, culture and antiquities, also questioned Mr El Enany about the project in a parliamentary session.

“I’m not against the project. I’m against the location,” she said in the video posted on her LinkedIn profile.

She referred to specific laws pertaining to restrictions in Zamalek and protecting a garden of historical heritage.

In response, Mr El Enany said the project did not fall under the Ministry of Tourism's jurisdiction and if it was presented to him, he would not give it a licence.

Amr Moussa, former secretary general of the Arab League, also expressed his opposition to the project in a Facebook post on February 6.

“With all due respect to those who spoke against the project, there is nothing between us and them having to do with licences or approvals. This is land belonging to the governorate of Cairo” Mr Metwally said.

Hawai, a family-owned property and tourism development company established in 1973, operates in Egypt, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Tanzania and Zambia. Its previous projects in Egypt include a couple of residential compounds and a shopping mall in New Cairo.

While Mr Metwally said Hawai secured a contract with the governorate, Ms Sadany claimed the company did not obtain the necessary approval or submit studies to the relevant governmental bodies.

The project was not presented to the National Organisation for Urban Harmony or the Ministry of Environment, according to news reports.

"This location will be very congested, there will be traffic problems, there will be visual pollution," Ms Sadany told The National.

“It has so many downsides, in addition to the environmental element and the need to preserve something that has a history from the time of the Khedive.”

Dalia Sadany, architect and member of the Egyptian parliament's committee for media, culture and antiquities.
Dalia Sadany, architect and member of the Egyptian parliament's committee for media, culture and antiquities.

Khedive Ismail, who served as viceroy of Egypt from 1863 to 1879 under Turkish rule, built the lavish Gezira Palace and surrounding gardens on the island. The palace has since been incorporated into the Cairo Marriott Hotel and the gardens were divided into allotments.

"This was a very residential and very green area. Now it is becoming less and less green and less and less liveable," said Yasmine El Dorghamy, founder of Rawi, a bilingual magazine about Egypt's history and heritage.

Mr Metwally said Zamalek was chosen because people who rise in the Cairo Eye will be able to see more than 12 tourist spots, including the Cairo Citadel, the Cairo Opera House and the Pyramids.

“The giant Ferris wheel has a certain purpose. Tourists and visitors ride it to see the landmarks, not to swing in it. So it has to be in a place with an open view, where you see a lot of landmarks,” he said.

In response to the suggestion that the 187-metre Cairo Tower essentially shows the same view, Mr Metwally said the Cairo Eye would be different because an integrated sound system would describe the history of the landmarks in seven languages.

He responded to claims that Egypt already has enough tourist sites to attract visitors by saying the Cairo Eye will be "something like relaxation at the end of the day" for citizens and tourists alike.

“This is something that adds value to the Egyptian tourist map,” he said.

But for critics the Cairo Eye comes at too high a price.

“I’m not letting go of this – not me, nor the parliament,” Ms Sadany said. “Eighty per cent of the parliament agrees that the location is catastrophic.”