Cairo clash over Eiffel's bridge

Egypt/ symbol in danger
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The Independent Online
A STEEL bridge built by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel over the Nile at the turn of the century has become the focus of a bitter conflict between Cairo's authorities and French-backed conservationists.

A decision by the Cairo local government to condemn Abu-el-Ella bridge, linking Zamalekisland, the city's richest suburb, with the impoverished quarter of Bulak, has provoked an angry reaction. Conservationists accuse officials of corruption and siding with rich developers at the expense of the nation's heritage.

The French have asked to buy the bridge to re-erect it near Paris. The 275m-long structure was commissioned in the 1890s by the French-educated bureaucrats of the Egyptian department of public works who were determined to block Britain's influence.

In 1955 Colonel Nasser renamed it 26 July Bridge - commemorating the day the military forced King Farouk to abdicate. The people, however, continue to call it Abu-el-Ella and it has a prominent place in public sentiment. Egyptian suffragettesmarched across the bridge in the early 1920s, but it was the cinema which cemented its image in popular culture.

In dozens of films a handsome aristocrat from Zamalek crossed over Abu- el-Ella into the slums of Bulak to fall in love. The bridge was immortalised on the silver screen as a popular location for the ultimate kiss, and action-film makers made full use of the bridge's steel overhead beams.

Scores of lyric writers, too, immortalised Abu-el-Ella in popular songs, and in literature the bridge was used to symbolise the bourgeoisie's ambition for co-operation and national conciliation.

But the French engineer Eiffel had a major disappointment rehearsing the bridge's grand opening in 1909. His giant machinery opened and closed the bridge just once before jamming the massive structure. It affected navigation in the Nile badly. According to one myth, Eiffel's failure led to a depression. He committed suicide in 1923.

The bridge now symbolises the battle between conservationists and property developers. The latest row began with a white paper suggesting demolition to make way for an extension of a flyover. "Eiffel must be turning in his grave," wrote columnist Farouk Guwaidah in the daily Al-Ahram. "Let us give the bridge to the French to be rebuilt in the city of light, since the philistines have darkened our capital."

By "philistines" Mr Guwaidah is referring to a powerful new group of property developers, most of whom are Islamic fundamentalists who use their Gulf-acquired wealth to finance Islamic groups. They tend to favour Texan-style glass towers.