Cairo sheds Ottoman-era street names amid Egypt-Turkey crisis
CAIRO - Egyptian authorities are revising street names in Cairo, addressing calls to change historical Ottoman-era street names amid growing Egyptian-Turkish antipathy.
The calls gained strength after a report by an Egyptian academic branding the Ottoman rulers “colonisers” led to a street named for Ottoman Sultan Selim I to no longer be called in his honour.
Deputy Cairo Governor Mohamed Ayman said he supports the moves. “It is totally illogical that our streets be called after Ottoman figures when our country has people who deserve this honour much more,” he said. “We must change these street names.”
The Street Naming Committee in Cairo is to present a plan to the Egyptian cabinet to rename streets with Ottoman or otherwise non-Egyptian sounding names. The committee is creating a database of suspect street names. The list is expected to include hundreds of streets.
Authorities assured residents they would be part of the process of choosing new street names. One of the proposals was to rename streets after Egyptian Army and police personnel killed in the war on terrorism.
The dispute over Cairo’s street names comes as Egypt’s relations with Turkey deteriorate. Relations worsened after the Egyptian Army backed a popular uprising against Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in 2013. Since then, Cairo and Ankara have faced several issues, including Egypt accusing Turkey of supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and seeking to interfere in its domestic affairs.
Ankara said it considered a 2013 Egyptian-Cypriot maritime demarcation agreement over the eastern Mediterranean invalid. Cairo reacted angrily to the perceived Turkish threat to its interests in the eastern Mediterranean. An Egyptian Foreign Ministry statement said that Cairo would “confront” any attempts to infringe or diminish Egypt’s rights in the area.
Mohamed Sabri al-Dali, a professor of history at Helwan University, published a study highlighting the bloody record of Selim I in Egypt, leading Cairo Governor Atef Abdel Hamid to order Selim I Street in north-eastern Cairo renamed.
Selim I was the Ottoman ruler who conquered Egypt in the 16th century. Dali described him as Egypt’s “first coloniser.”
“The Ottomans made catastrophes during their five centuries of presence in our country,” Dali said. “They left us a dastardly legacy that turns them into criminals, not heroes who deserve to be glorified.”
While some might criticise the street renaming project as an attempt to rewrite history, many in Egypt support a nationalist trend sparked by Egypt’s war on terrorism and various regional challenges.
Egypt’s regional standing was weakened by years of unrest following the 2011 revolution against longstanding President Hosni Mubarak. A year of Islamist rule after the revolution threatened further instability and challenged Egypt’s perceived nationalist and pan-Arab identity.
Following the ouster of Morsi, there has been a return of traditional nationalist sentiment in Egypt and having street names honouring Ottoman-era figures appears to contradict that trend.
Ayman denied the move has to do with political differences between Cairo and Ankara and more to do with Egyptian attempts to express patriotism. Many Egyptian lawmakers have spoken publicly in support of the renaming process and linking it to regional tensions.
MP Mohamed al-Komi, who said he would lead a move in parliament to pressure administrative officials in all Egyptian provinces to change foreign street names, asserted that Egypt’s Ottoman history is far from bright.
“They came here as occupiers and left our country in devastation and backwardness,” he said. “Why should we name our streets after those who colonised and destroyed our country?”
Opponents warned that seeking to change street names is short-sighted, particularly if it was based on temporary political tensions.
“History is history and the people behind the street naming campaign should know this,” said Ahmed al-Sherbini, a professor of modern history at Cairo University. “We might differ on the legacy of some of the figures after whom the streets are named but this difference should not open the door for changing facts about these figures.”
Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.