It looks like an attempt to polish up a dusty movie set. All along Cairo's Tahrir Square in the heart of the capital, the fa,cades of once-graceful, early 20th-century buildings are being sandblasted, throwing additional dust into the already polluted air. The project has made the usually dark-brown square white and given it an unreal air.
The intense activity is part of a beautification campaign scheduled for completion by the end of the month, when a $500 million subway, the Metro, will be inaugurated just below the square.
The fact that this cleanup - the first in memory - is being carried out now indicates the importance Egypt is giving to the opening of its first subway.
President Hosni Mubarak and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac will officiate at the Sept. 27 ceremony. Fourteen Arab and African transport ministers will also attend.
``For six years it was the most important project in Egypt, and it's the first Metro on the African continent,'' says a proud Charles Carlier, general manager of the 19 French companies that built the Metro. ``Cairo needed to modernize itself.''
As Cairo's first modern public transport system, the Metro - with six underground stations and a 10-mile-long tunnel connecting them - will be expected to relieve some of the most infamous traffic jams in the world.
Originally designed for 2 million people, Cairo now supports 15 million, many of whom pour into the city center every day, literally hanging from dilapidated buses. The Metro should ease the crowding. The amount of relief will depend on how Cairenes take to the Metro, a mode of transportation as yet alien to them.
``It's a touch of Paris,'' said one French diplomat after viewing the subway stations and trains recently.
The companies that modernized the Paris Metro and installed its suburban line have built a carbon copy in the Cairo Metro. The French government lent the money.
The ticket counters, turnstiles, corridors, platforms, and even the first- and second-class compartments all look as though they have been uprooted from Paris. The only differences so far are the cats already inhabiting the ``quays,'' and the signs in English and Arabic.
Work began in 1981 when the French firms started diverting underground electric and water lines in central Cairo. Actual construction got under way in 1982. At the peak of activity, about 4,000 workers were active at the construction sites, which helped make Cairo's traffic worse than the usual nightmare.
Now the finishing touches are being added. Tahrir Station, just behind the Egypt Museum with its wealth of Pharaonic antiquities, will be similar to Paris's Louvre Station. Copies of Pharaonic statues will glow in illuminated niches. Colorful wall mosaics with Pharaonic scenes have already been created by fine arts students.
Ramses Station, named after Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, will also be called Mubarak Station after Egypt's President. There will be a station in the name of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Tahrir Station will bear a bronze relief of the late President Anwar Sadat.
The main challenge facing the Egyptians will be to keep the Metro clean, running, and attractive to the city's population. A subway police force has been created to make sure the people obey no-smoking rules and do not sleep in the subway at night. Loud speakers on platforms will help travelers who are illiterate to find their way.
Some of the Egyptians who will operate the signals, switches, and electric controls, were trained in France, and others will be coached by the French for a year. The French have signed on to maintain the Metro for two years.
In the meantime, the Egyptian government has been conducting an intensive television and newspaper campaign aimed both at familiarizing the public with the ins and the outs of the Metro and instilling pride in the new facility.
The campaign seems to be working. ``It's fantastic, beautiful,'' says a housekeeper named Fatma who has been watching the television spots.
``Have you really been in it yet?'' inquire Egyptian friends of this reporter, anxious to finally see the subway.