Cairo's historic Tahrir Square is being transformed

The square has borne witness to many of the social and political events that shaped modern Egypt, including the 2011 uprising

Cairo’s famed Tahrir Square has been in an aesthetic limbo for decades, neglected and defenceless against the city’s ravaging forces of chaos and decay. As the years went by, the square at the heart of the Egyptian capital was reduced to a little more than a sprawling intersection with some of the city’s worst traffic, pollution and noise.

No more.

Tahrir square has been getting the attention it deserves and is already looking nothing like its old self. For months now, the square has been receiving a facelift as revolutionary in its scope as it is unusual in detail.

The rehabilitation project is a just reward for a place that's steeped in Egypt’s modern history and has witnessed many of the momentous events that shaped the country in the last century.

The latest was in 2011 when the square became the birthplace of a popular uprising that forced autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak to step down after 29 years in office.

For the next few years, the square continued to witness violent protests as the country became mired in political unrest before a November 2013 law effectively banned all protests, with offenders facing up to five years in prison.

Egyptian protestors take part in a demonstration on February 1, 2011 at Cairo’s Tahrir Square as massive tides of protesters flooded Cairo for the biggest outpouring of anger yet in their relentless drive to oust President Hosni Mubarak's regime. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The square has been at the heart of public life in Cairo since the late 19th century, when it was constructed as part of an ambitious drive by Egypt’s ruler at the time, Khedive Ismail.

The free-spending monarch set about modernising the city centre, with Art Deco apartment buildings designed by European architects becoming the most defining and enduring feature of the area. It was first named Ismailia square, then Horya, or freedom square before it was finally renamed Tahrir (liberation) square in the 1950s.

Now, it is undergoing a transformation that draws on different eras of the country’s history. With nearly two dozen buildings, including several of the city’s best-known landmarks overlooking the square, the makeover has transformed the area into an eye-pleasing example of urban beautification, complete with palm trees, artistic lighting and large patches of emerald-green lawn.

The centrepiece of the square will now be a 19-meter-high pharaonic obelisk discovered in the Nile delta north of Cairo, and four sphinx-like statues with the body of a lion and the head of a ram.

The 3,000-year-old statues come from the Karnak temple in the southern city of Luxor. Their transfer to Cairo was decried by archaeologists and conservationists, who say the statues would be irreparably damaged by Cairo’s pollution.

At the time of their transfer, Mustafa Al Sagheer, the antiquities chief for the Karnak temple, said the four statues were from a recently discovered cache that had been there since about 700-800 BC. “The decision to remove them was made after exhaustive studies by experts,” he said. “All precautionary measures have been taken to preserve them.”

Yasmine El Dorghamy, a heritage expert, believes the obelisk is a “suitable” monument for the square given its height and the resilient granite it’s made of. But she is concerned about the durability of the four sphinxes.

“They are made of sandstone and that is not very sturdy. They may not last long before they show signs of tear and wear,” she said. “Besides that, I don’t mind at all what they are doing.”

In many ways, the overhaul of the square has shown the government’s commitment to a project that costs millions at a time when its focus has shifted to protecting the economy from the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.

Already, President Abdel Fatah El Sisi has postponed the inauguration of all mega projects he has patronised since taking office in 2014 until next year. The only exception is the Tahrir Square makeover, a feel-good undertaking that’s expected to be inaugurated on June 30.

That date marks the seventh anniversary of the mass street protests that led to the removal by the military of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist president whose one-year rule proved divisive.

Separately, authorities seeking to bring aesthetic uniformity to the site have removed the giant advertising billboards that sat for decades atop the Art Deco buildings around the square.

Even branches of fast food chains KFC and Hardee’s were forced to replace their trademark red signs with off-white ones to match the rest of the square.

Dozens of palm trees have also been planted, interspersed with grass areas and benches.

In some ways, the facelift indicates the government’s intention not to abandon Cairo when its ministries, parliament and the president move next year to a new capital built in the desert east of the capital. But the overhaul of the square is also an attempt to attract more visitors to an area that has traditionally been a prime site for tourists.

Many come to see the 150-year-old palace that has for decades been the flagship building of the Tahrir campus of the famed American University in Cairo. After 90 years in Tahrir and the surrounding area, the AUC moved in 2009 to a sprawling campus in a suburb east of the city.

The move was in large part a reflection of an ongoing trend for businesses, schools and well-to-do families to leave the overcrowded city for the suburbs in search of a better quality of life.

Last year the palace was turned into the centrepiece of a cultural centre geared towards a revival of art and culture in the city’s central area.

“The AUC was once the beating heart of everything that went down in the downtown area. When the university moved to New Cairo (the suburb east of Cairo), it left a vacuum behind. Now we want to ensure that the AUC thrives again as a centre of arts and culture,” Tarek Atia, managing director of the Tahrir Cultural Centre and Campus said.