The NDP Building Demolition: Erasing a Memory or Moving On?

When looters on January 28, 2011 raided the National Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters, a symbol of decades of repression overseen by President and party leader Hosni Mubarak, one man carried out a couch, said Ahmed, a witness to the spectacle. As flames engulfed the building, the man put down the couch and watched the building burn. Years later, a demolition team moved in on the burnt-out shell of the building at the end of May 2015. The demolition is slated to take up to three months. At the time of writing, one could watch as heavy machinery dismantled the building from the top down.

The eighteen-day uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, who had led the NDP since 1981, saw Egyptians occupy the iconic Tahrir Square. On the fourth day, dubbed the ‘Friday of Anger’, the army replaced the withdrawing police force. In the short security vacuum, the looters set the NDP building ablaze. “People were excited,” said Ahmed, who declined to share his last name. With no security forces present on the ground, people acted as if there would “be no immediate consequences.” He added, “Who knew if there would be a ‘they’ later,” referring to Egypt’s authorities that Ahmed and his fellow demonstrators believed to be on the run once the police withdrew.

Ahmed was happy to see the building burn. “It has been the party of state’s building since [Gamal Abdel] Nasser. It’s always been filled with the regime’s cronies.” The burning of the building marked not only the destruction of a symbol of Mubarak’s authoritarian rule but of a full 60 years of oppression beginning with Nasser, in Ahmed’s opinion. He now believes the burnt out shell should stand as a testament to the revolution.

He fears its demolition is “the last movement of the eraser that is undoing everything since January 2011.” Ahmed believes the demolition is part of the current government’s attempt to “plaster over the cracks.” He pointed to the recently erected flagpole in the center of Tahrir Square, describing it as a “chauvinistic and nationalistic symbol, which is the only way our current ruling class genuinely believes you can love this country.”

While Ahmed is not alone in his view, like with so many other issues, public opinion on the demolition is divided. Many Egyptians believe they must now look to the future.

Ahmed Hafez, an entrepreneur from Cairo, was also happy to see the building burn but believes it is time for Egyptians to move on. Having visited the building for a business meeting in the past, he saw it as a “symbol of the Mubarak regime and its shameful succession plans.” He supports the demolition as he believes it “symbolizes the victory of January 25 revolution.”

For Mahmoud Riad, the building represents much more than the 2011 revolution and decades of authoritarian rule. His grandfather and namesake, renowned architect Mahmoud Riad, designed the building to be the seat of the Cairo Municipality, which opened in 1959. Egypt’s ruling powers have occupied the building for decades; Nasser first used the building as the headquarters for the Arab Socialist Union before Anwar Sadat formed the NDP in 1978 as part of establishing a multi-party system in Egypt.

The government claims that the building is not structurally sound and that salvaging it is not cost effective. Riad says that requests made by his firm, Riad Architecture, to carry out its own inspection of the site have gone ignored.

Riad says Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab ordered the building to be removed from the list at the end of April this year. He added, “Only the owner of the building can remove it from the list,” and stressed it is a public building managed by the government. He believes only a representative and sitting parliament could discuss the issue and make a decision on the building’s fate.

Egypt’s parliamentary elections were delayed in March as the Supreme Constitutional Court deemed the electoral law as unconstitutional. The same court dissolved Egypt’s last parliament, which was elected in January 2012 and dissolved by June. A separate decision saw the court lift the Political Exclusion Law that had banned former NDP members from participating in elections.

Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh al-Damaty said Tuesday the site is set to become a cultural center stressing that the land belongs to the Egyptian Museum. Riad says his firm has documents proving it is publically owned land, but their objections fall on deaf ears.

Ahmed says if it were up to him, he would replace the building with a museum for the January 25 revolution with art spaces to showcase Downtown Cairo’s famous revolutionary graffiti, guest lecturers, and a visual display of a timeline of the eighteen days. While this was one of several concepts submitted by Riad Architecture in April 2014, the firm received no response from the Prime Minister or the ministries of housing and culture. The proposals were sent to the presidency in May 2015 in response to the cabinet approving the demolition.

While it is probably too late to save the entire building, Riad believes that something can still be done to preserve the “memory” of the site. He believes that the first few floors can still be saved to ensure the building is not entirely forgotten.

Riad acknowledged that he understands why people are happy to see the building demolished. “The hatred comes from the building’s connection to the NDP or the lack of maintenance, which made it an eyesore,” said Riad. “There are examples of buildings around the world that have been reclaimed by the public.” The proposals Riad Architecture submitted aimed to repurpose the building to have a positive impact on society, whether it is an art gallery, a laboratory for the Egyptian Museum, or an office building, all with spaces for public use.

He pointed specifically to London’s Tate Modern and the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science as examples of successful repurposing. The former was thought to be an ugly power plant and the latter a symbol of soviet repression. Both are now used extensively and have become popular tourist attractions.

“Good or bad, the building has historical, political, and architectural significance,” commented Riad. “The issue is larger than just this building… The government is ignoring the law and demolishing buildings around the country.” He pointed to the demolition of buildings in Alexandria, many of which were on a list of protected heritage buildings, as was the NDP building.

“Even if the [NDP] building is demolished completely, we are trying to raise awareness of the issues in the wider public. Many buildings that are part of Egypt’s heritage are under threat, but the public only cares about Islamic or ancient sites.” Riad says he will continue to fight to save the NDP building, which is not only part of his family’s heritage, but a piece of Egypt’s modern history.

Joel Gulhane is a Cairo-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @jgulhane

Image: The word "Mubarak" is seen inside the burnt headquarters of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's political party National Democratic Party (NDP) during its demolition in Cairo, Egypt, June 1, 2015. (Reuters)