CAIRO: “The Merryland park was the gem of Heliopolis. This is our heritage, but they leave trees without any care, then say they rotted and cut them down. This negligence is for a reason, they want to turn everything into concrete,” Dr. Karima Abou al-Saud, a resident of Heliopolis for 40 years, told The Cairo Post Saturday.
Heliopolis for Housing and Development (HHD), which is renting five acres in the Merryland Park, promises a prosperous future for green space. But after years of neglect, residents of Heliopolis, one of Cairo’s upscale districts, worry about the fate of Merryland Park.
The park, established in the 50s, hosts the memories of hundreds of Heliopolis residents. They bitterly watched the grass covering the 50 acres of the park almost disappearing, and the lake where they used to feed ducks and pelicans and take paddleboats drying up.
The controversy began when locals in buildings overlooking the Merryland noticed that many trees had been cut; hence circulating pictures of the massacred trees on social media. Some residents met with the head of Heliopolis administration Hesham Khashaba and Deputy Cairo Governor Ahmed Taimour Thursday to voice their grievances about their decaying park.
On Saturday, Cairo Governor Galal al-Saeed visited the park to inspect the damage. A multistory car park is planned to be built underneath; the second public park of its kind since the Tahrir Car Park was inaugurated in January. Consequently, parking in several streets of downtown Cairo was banned to ease the flow of traffic. The Heliopolis car park is planned to accommodate 1,700 cars; hence the relocation of several trees. To be relocated, the trees were dramatically pruned down.
Dr. Abou al-Saud continued to criticize the “spreading culture of hypocrisy and ugliness,” citing a recent visit by Cairo’s governor to Heliopolis. The Heliopolis administration dispatched workers to make streets shining clean, and trash cans were put in every corner. The trash cans disappeared the day after the visit, according to Dr. Abou al-Saud.
Saeed temporarily halted the work after the visit with Minister of Environment Khaled Fahmy, and they held a meeting with stakeholders Sunday. Construction at the site was halted to inventory the trees that had been aggressively “pruned” and those that have been relocated.
Nasser Salem, the businessman who rents five acres of the park, told The Cairo Post his project includes a new lake and entertainment venues, and will “restore the glory of the park.” There are pending lawsuits exchanged between him and HHD; he rented the place in 2007, but the buildings were brought down three months before the inauguration of the project in 2009.
A demolition order was issued due to “violations in the projects,” and bulldozers were ready to turn the project into ruins only an hour later, according to Salem.
“At the time, anyone in Egypt with authority could do anything he wanted,” said Salem, a resident of Heliopolis for five years.
Salem’s original contract provided for a 10-year lease. But after a court ruled the claimed violations did not exist, he managed to extend the lease until 2022, according to his statements.
“The project has nothing to do with cutting down the trees. The land of the project is the same where there used to be restaurants and a lake,” the businessman said.
“The development of the park will dazzle the residents of Heliopolis; it will be like the Azhar Park and will be inaugurated in September,” he added, reassuring Heliopolis residents.
Meanwhile, a low-ranking employee of HHD complained about Heliopolis residents who came to the park “to fight.”
“There were idle women chewing gum and wearing revealing clothes who used bad language. Some even claimed we were disrupting the project of President Sisi,” the employee, who preferred anonymity, told The Cairo Post passionately.
“They wanted to turn this into a high-profile case like the dog,” he said, referring to a video where a tied dog was being slaughtered, becoming a sensational issue on social media. Perpetrators were sentenced to prison, relieving some people and provoking others, like the HHD employee.
However, he said he wishes the best for the park, hoping families would be able to attend it like before, adding that now only couples “who want to hide from the eyes of people” come. An entry ticket costs only 1 EGP ($0.13.)
On social media, some have linked the situation to President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s ambitious plan to build a new administrative capital, planned to host massive greenery, believing this new capital will lead to the neglect of Cairo and its heritage.
Egypt’s avid inhabitants of the old, metropolitan capital have resisted change for the worse.
Residents of Zamalek, another upscale district of Cairo, have led a fierce campaign against a project that plans to penetrate their neighborhood with a metro line. Thus far, they have been successful to halt the project and keep the splendor of their old district. However, the government’s determination to execute the project to ease Cairo’s infamous traffic is ongoing.