CAIRO: A few months ago, Choucri Asmar decided he was not ready to give up hope. He therefore led a group of residents in “a peaceful demonstration to protect the trees” in his neighborhood of Cairo.
Egyptian authorities planned to clear a wide avenue of ficus, acacia and palm trees – part of sweeping urban redevelopment projects that are transforming much of historic Cairo. “It was like a war on green,” Asmar said.
Asmar and other residents of Heliopolis – an old quarter that housed some of the city’s most important buildings in the early 20th century – numbered the trees that line Nehru Street, labeling each one after characters famous Egyptians. Five days later, police removed the signs and Asmar received a warning from security officials. The trees have survived, for now, while many others nearby have not survived, their timber sawn into pieces and towed away in trucks.
Part of the adjoining park was razed to erect a stone monument to commemorate the development of Cairo’s roads and highways, while a nearby public garden dating from the early 20th century was demolished to make way for a new street and a state-owned gas station. Asmar said that between August 2019 and January 2020, Heliopolis lost around 396,000 square meters (about 100 acres) of green space.
“And then we stopped counting, but we lost a lot more,” he said. He described feeling disoriented on once-familiar streets.
That’s about 73 green football pitches in a single district of the sprawling metropolis that stretches from the pyramids of Giza in the west, across the Nile, to new modern developments in the east. Heliopolis does not represent more than a fifth of the capital in area. Cairo’s population of around 20 million is spread over some 648 square kilometres, making it one of the densest cities in the world.
Egypt’s environmental record is under scrutiny as it hosts the UN climate conference COP27 in the resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh in November.
An Egyptian environment ministry official did not respond to a request for comment on the loss of urban green space. Other officials said better roads would make traffic easier and promised new developments would include large parks and incorporate as much vegetation as possible. A plan, announced in government media, is for a park in the historic center, incorporating a large archaeological area.
Much of Cairo’s redesign and new highways are aimed at serving a new capital under construction on the outskirts of the city. It is the flagship megaproject of President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, who says he is rebuilding the economy after years of political turmoil.
In recent years grassroots groups have sprung up in different parts of Cairo in an attempt to protect the city’s urban identity. Asmar is a member of the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative, founded in 2011.
Sarah Rifaat lives a five-minute walk from Mesaha Square, a rare green spot in Giza, a high-rise district. A few months ago, she was rocked by a video of a forklift leveling the square’s garden. She joined a WhatsApp group where residents expressed concern over the loss of green space. Residents organized a petition, but the paving of the garden continued.
“There’s a sense of collective connection to the trees that I’ve never seen before,” she said.
Activists have won a few victories, including halting the commercial redevelopment of the Fish Garden, a park in the central district of Zamalek. Rifaat has also seen some urban improvements initiated by city officials, but says there is no accountability among decision makers.
Cairenes are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing city, where many public spaces have been removed or commercialized, she said. Rifaat believes that the protection of neighborhoods has become a latest form of protest, as the space for civil society in Egypt continues to shrink.
Backed by residential groups across the city, environmental lawyer Ahmed Elseidi is leading a case in Egypt’s highest administrative court that he hopes will compel the government to replant trees and protect the few green spaces remains of Cairo.
The government is required by law to conduct public consultations and environmental impact reports on the highway construction that has torn many old neighborhoods apart, he said. The law protects green spaces, designating trees as public property, he added.
Elseidi said he submitted documents showing that no environmental study had been carried out before any road project, including at Heliopolis.
Rim Hamdy, professor of botany at Cairo University, said certain types of trees could disappear from city streets. Thirty-five varieties of Australian eucalyptus once grew along the streets of Giza, but dozens have been cut down. Even the nearby Agriculture Ministry nursery was bulldozed, she said.
Many tree species and public gardens are the legacy of 19th century Egyptian rulers, who planted thousands of trees during the reconstruction of Cairo. They imported specimens – including flowering purple jacarandas and red poincianas – which became signatures of the streets of Cairo.
Hamdy plans to ask the authorities to allow him to prune and protect a century-old sycamore tree in front of his university.
In Maadi, a neighborhood known for its leafy squares and villas, the Tree Lovers Association is one of the oldest neighborhood groups in the city.
Samia Zeitoun, a member of the association, said authorities had responded to some of the public complaints about the development.
“Cairo was suffocating, so it’s a big challenge for the government to open arteries,” she said, raising the issue of overcrowding in the city which is growing by the thousands every day.
As Egypt prepares to host COP27, activists say green spaces are helping to reduce Cairo’s heavy pollution and bring down scorching summer temperatures in urban areas.
In fighting to preserve green spaces, wealthier areas are achieving more success, with residents generally enjoying better access to officials than those living in poorer areas.
Asmar said he was disappointed he could not do more to protect Al-Maza, a working-class neighborhood next to wealthier Heliopolis. Authorities are removing its main tree-lined road and planning to evict residents along it, he said.