Egyptians argue over fate of charred Mubarak party building

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 26, 2012 

CAIRO — A year ago this week, flames swallowed the headquarters of now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak, a scene shown on live television that made the revolution real for millions of Egyptians.

On that day, Jan. 28, protesters torched the National Democratic Party's landmark building in a knockout blow to Mubarak's three decades of rule. The charred structure still stands, its facade a reminder of the revolutionaries' early triumph — and a testament to their struggle since.

Activists want to turn the building into a museum of the revolution, with exhibits honoring slain protesters. The military-led government, however, has proposed cashing in on the prime Nile real estate by developing a state-of-the-art tourism complex. As the building's de facto owner, the state is sure to prevail — one more setback for protesters who complain that Egypt's interim military rulers still dismiss their demands a year after the popular uprising.

"Nobody wants to do anything with that building right away," said Mohamed Abla, a prominent artist who unsuccessfully petitioned the Culture Ministry to reserve the space for revolutionaries. "They're waiting until everything settles. Maybe the (old regime) still thinks they'll come back to use it one day."

The drab low-rise building was erected in the 1960s, and at that time it was the national headquarters of Egypt's only legal political party, the Arab Socialist Union of then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser, said Mohamed Abdellah, one of the last living founders of Mubarak's now-defunct National Democratic Party.

Nasser's successor, President Anwar Sadat, who formed the National Democratic Party and ushered in a limited multiparty system, took over the building when he came to power. But Sadat's relations with the former Arab Socialist Union leaders were so strained that he refused to hold meetings in their old building and briefly moved the entire National Democratic Party leadership to another site, said Abdellah, who was a friend and protege of Sadat's.

The then-fledgling party eventually returned and made the building its headquarters, Abdellah said, but a bitter Sadat held even the last party assembly before his assassination in 1981 at another site.

"He didn't like it because it was from the ancien regime," Abdellah said, smiling at the irony.

At the time of the building's targeting in last year's protests, he said, the National Democratic Party occupied four floors, with other areas reserved for a bank and state-backed commissions such as human rights and women's affairs. Abdellah said the party paid rent to the upper house of the Egyptian Parliament, since dissolved.

Party leaders had offices there, along with the heads of about nine special committees, including foreign policy, which Abdellah oversaw. He held talks with foreign envoys in his second-floor office, not far from the secretive operations of the widely despised billionaire steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, who's now serving a 10-year prison sentence for corruption.

"We inherited the old staff, some of whom had been there since the days of the Arab Socialist Union, but Ahmed Ezz brought with him people from his own business," Abdellah recalled. "They took care of his office, worked on his computer. He was totally independent so that nobody could ever know what he was doing."

With the Mubarak regime's collapse, Abdellah said, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its caretaker government assumed control of all National Democratic Party properties, and froze about $5 million in the party coffers. By then, the party headquarters was a blackened shell whose grounds were littered with burned-out police vehicles and covered in anti-Mubarak graffiti, most of which remains untouched today. Egyptian families still take souvenir photos at the site.

"I feel happy when I see it like that," said Mohamed Sami, secretary-general of the Arab nationalist Karama Party. "The amount of corruption and oppression that came out of this building made us desperate. The youth managed to do in a few hours what our years of political activism failed to accomplish."

Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the driving forces behind the uprising, said that just days before the first big protest on Jan. 25, 2011, he'd tried to park his car near the heavily guarded National Democratic Party building. Security forces told him "important figures" were inside and ordered him to move.

"Now anyone can park there, anytime," Maher said, laughing.

Other revolutionary actors, however, don't cheer the burning of the building, no matter how much it symbolized the oppression of Mubarak's long reign. The reason: Countless important party documents were lost, depriving prosecutors of hard evidence of the party's notorious corruption and vote rigging as they work to build cases against former party chiefs.

"The burning of those documents is a very big loss for the revolution," said Refaat Said, the chairman of the leftist Tagammu Party. "I think of the leadership annex, many rooms with safes and documents. This was one of our biggest mistakes."

As the regime crumbled during the 18-day revolt, the party went into survival mode, recalled Abdellah, who was named party chairman in a desperate bid to salvage what was left of the National Democratic Party. He tried to take stock of the party's supporters, but he learned that the master membership rolls had been destroyed in the fire.

He ordered staff members to collect member lists from every provincial office in order to rebuild at least a partial roster, but many files remain missing. The party's historical archives, Abdellah said, were lost along with its headquarters.

Only parts of the data were backed up on separate hard drives, he said, an illustration of the creaky workings of an old party whose refusal to reform only hastened its demise.

"This helps all those people who come on TV now and say they were never part of the party," Abdellah said. "Their membership files aren't there."

In April, the Cairo governor pronounced the building "damaged beyond repair" and floated the idea of a creating a public garden for locals and tourists. Other government officials were quoted in more recent Egyptian news reports as pushing forward on plans for a tourism complex, with a glitzy hotel standing on the building's old plot, just steps away from the Nile and the famed Egyptian Museum.

Abla, the artist who led the effort to turn the space into a revolutionary museum, said he'd put the fight on hold for now, after hearing from the Culture Ministry that the building was off limits.

He vented his anger at the ruling military council's handling of the transition by painting scenes of soldiers beating protesters in a series he called "Wolves." All the works were based on news photos of real attacks. It's the type of political art that would hang in the museum Abla envisioned for the building, if Egypt's new leaders would only make space.

"They're part of the Mubarak regime," Abla said, slumped on a couch in his studio near Tahrir Square. "They want to stay, not leave."

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