Many Egyptians are complaining that the millions of dollars being spent on the renovation of the Ittihadeya Presidential Palace, due to welcome the country’s new president - former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi - could be used more wisely.
The palace was previously shunned by Sisi’s predecessor, Islamist President Mohammad Mursi, who chose not to reside in it.
“It is completely wrong to spend such amounts of money on the renovation of the palace especially given the economic crisis Egypt had been facing since the 2011 events,” Nabil Sharaf el-Din, a political analyst and specialist in Islamic affairs, told Al Arabiya News, adding that thousands of Egyptians could make better use of the money.
The Ittihadeya or Orouba palace has been under renovation for the past four months.
Almost half of the Egyptian population is in a state of poverty but it seems that the government has other priorities, he added, hoping that the corruption which was witnessed in the era of former President Hosni Mubarak will not return.
Following the Jan. 25 revolution, Mubarak and his two sons Alaa and Gamal are being charged for the misuse of almost $18 million earmarked for renovation of presidential palaces between 2002 and 2011.
However, other analysts are more understanding of the renovation process as they see the maintenance of Egypt’s heritage essential.
“The Orouba palace has been the symbol of the presidency for years now despite the presence of many other palaces in Egypt,” Youssef al-Qaeed, an Egyptian historian and novelist told Al Arabiya News.
“This palace is part of our culture and its maintenance is essential as it is our heritage that gives us our unique identity in front of the world,” the historian added.
Some archaeologists and intellectuals called for the transformation of the palace into tourist sites, the Egyptian daily news website al-Ahram reported.
Also, former secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Mohamed Abdel-Maksoud, demanded the placing of the palace under the jurisdiction of the ministry in order to transform them into museums.
The palace, which was first inaugurated in 1910 as the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, is located in the Heliopolis district northeast of central Cairo. It includes 400 rooms and 50 private apartments.
Its central hall’s dome measures 55 meters (180 ft) from floor to ceiling while the main room measures around 6458 sq ft.
The property, which was designed by Belgian architect Ernest Jaspar, is carpeted with Persian carpets and has large mirrored wall panels and a substantial marble fireplace.
The luxurious French-owned hotel, which witnessed both the first and second world war, was transformed into a British military hospital for British and Dominion soldiers before shutting its doors in the 1960s.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s president at the time, pushed in an effort of nationalization to allowed the hotel to be a public owned, Qaeed said, explaining this as the possible reason behind its closure.
With the arrival of Nasser, the palace became home to various governmental organizations and in Jan. 1972, under the rule of Egypt’s second president, Anwar al Sadat, the building became the headquarters of the Federation of Arab Republics, which gave it the current Arabic name of “Ittihadeya Palace” or “Kasr al-Ittihadia” in Arabic.
The Federation of Arab Republics was a short-lived political union between Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Later and after extensive renovation, the palace became the headquarters of the administration of the new president, Hosni Mubarak and his personal house for 30 years.
“By using it as the main presidency palace, Mubarak gave it more importance than any other palace in the country,” Qaeed said.
“At that time, the Palace was well guarded, cars were not allowed to park anywhere around it and the president’s goings and comings were very discreet,” the historian added.
In 2012, Mursi used the palace as his seat of power and said he would not live in it unlike his predecessor Mubarak; a step seen by many as a means to show his “modesty.”
“Mursi was trying to portray the image of an unpretentious president. He wanted to be seen as a normal humble Egyptian characterized by his modesty,” Sharaf el-Din said.-
But the Islamist president wasn’t as modest as he wanted to appear as he had planned to reside another of Egypt’s palaces, the expert added.
Clashes broke out outside Ittihadeya Palace in Dec. 2012, when Mursi issued a controversial constitutional declaration immunizing his decisions against challenge.
The Ittihadeya Palace also saw demonstrations between June 30 and July 3, 2013 for the removal of Mursi, who was then deposed in a military-led ouster.
The famous palace was governed twice from outside its walls, according to experts.
First, at the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), chaired by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and the second time under the rule of then General Sisi.
“After the resignation of Mubarak in 2011, Tantawi chose to rule the country from his office in the Defense Ministry and not to reside in the palace,” Qaeed said.
“Now, and even before being officially being the president, Sisi takes the main decisions of the country and is already seen by many as the leader especially that Adly Mansour – the interim president – is very humble,” Qaeed added.
Sisi is expected to reside outside the Ittihadeya palace and be a “roving president,” the Cairo-based daily newspaper Al Masry al Youm recently reported.
Sisi doesn’t want to repeat Mubarak’s model and stay in only one place, the website added.