Egyptian authorities destroyed the houses of some of Cairo’s poorest last week in a grab for land rumoured to be slated for development by foreign investors. Residents waged a fierce battle to protect their homes.
Inhabitants of an underdeveloped island in the middle of the Nile River in the north of Cairo made international headlines recently when the government came in and destroyed properties in a bid to remove them from their land. But as dramatic as the evictions were, they are just business as usual in Egypt – and have been since the birth of the Republic in 1953.
The current tensions began on July 16, when security forces stormed onto Warraq Island, a roughly 1,400-acre teardrop-shaped chunk of mostly agricultural land that is the largest of Egypt’s 225 Nile islands and is home to as many as 90,000 people. Without warning, residents said, security forces began demolishing houses, some while their occupants were still sleeping inside them.
Thirty-one-year-old Hala Gamal told AFP that she had left the island in the morning to buy breakfast. When she returned, she found her home destroyed and her children on the street.
Some residents resisted. Security forces responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Eventually, though, they withdrew from the scene to minimise losses, a police officer told Reuters. "The mission failed from A-Z ... there hasn't been proper coordination," he said.
By the end of the day, one inhabitant was dead and at least 19 others had been injured in addition to the more than 30 policemen who were hurt in the clashes. About 10 people were arrested. Of the 700 scheduled demolitions, 30 were carried out, according to local media.
Reports circulated on social media contending that the demolitions were meant to clear the way for development, with some users publishing pictures showing 2013 plans for commercial buildings on the site. The designs had been featured on the website of an Emirati-Singaporean company, RSB, but have since been removed.
The government said that the actions “were not preparation for an investment project on the island” and that it was merely removing structures that “encroach on state land”. In May, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced a campaign to demolish thousands of buildings that had been illegally constructed on government property.
Authorities blame residents for the violence. "The forces were surprised by demonstrations by some of the trespassers, who had assaulted the forces by firing birdshots and throwing stones ... Which pushed the forces to fire teargas to disperse the protesters and to control the situation," the Interior Ministry said.
That the island was being eyed for development was not a complete unknown – a bridge is currently under construction on the island that is to connect central Cairo with wealthy suburbs on the outskirts of the city, where a lot of the metropolis’s most powerful live.
The Egyptian government has a history of displacing people for development projects. Nubians who had to be resettled in 1947 after the newly constructed Aswan Dam caused flooding of the lands on which they lived are still fighting for the right to return. Construction of the New Suez Canal, which began in 2014, forced more than 2,000 people from their homes.
The Warraq Island seizures were a stark reminder of the government’s willingness to confiscate land at will, a practice that dates back decades, said Deen Sharp, co-director of the Terreform Center for Advanced Urban Research.
“The government since [Gamal Abdel] Nasser has had a constant strategy of shifting the poor from the centre of the city to satellite cities around Cairo,” he said.
Even then, residents resisted, often successfully. And those that the government managed to push away didn’t always stay away. “A lot of people do move back,” Sharp said. “It’s remarkable that, despite that, they keep trying to displace these communities.”
Today’s Nile island communities show no willingness to give up without a fight. Last Friday, hundreds of residents on the picturesque Dahab Island in the south of Cairo staged a two-hour protest in solidarity with their Warraq Island counterparts. They were motivated, in part, by rumours that Dahab and the nearby Qursaya islands were also named in the demolition order, a notion eminently believable to those living on both islands, where the government has staged repeated incursions over the years in an attempt to dislodge them.
Residents of Warraq Island had planned to demonstrate last Friday as well, but the protests were suspended after the head of security for the area held talks with them.
“We met the security head in the directorate and agreed to a truce in exchange for allowing us to visit those arrested from the island and for reverting the suspension of the ferry that transports food and gas cylinders to the island,” Mosaad Hamed, one of the Warraq residents who participated in the meeting, told the independent online newspaper Mada Masr.
Many of the people on the island are poor and told local media they have nowhere else to go. And they dispute that their homes, some of which were built more than 30 years ago, are illegal. Several residents said they had official, notarised contracts for their land, and that they pay electricity and water bills to the government.
But none of that may mean much, said David Sims, author of "Egypt’s Desert Dreams".
“The history on all of these places is that the government couldn’t be bothered,” he said. “If they didn’t see it as being prime tourist land or something they could use, they just left it…The negligence over the years has produced a situation that is almost impossible to solve.”