CAIRO — When Hala Fawzi, a resident of the Nile island of al-Warraq, left home to buy food, she never expected that she would return to find her home reduced to a pile of rubble. “My four children were inside the house. The neighbors saved them before security forces began the demolitions,” she said.
In the early hours of July 16, the residents of the island woke up to see police and army forces implementing a government decision to remove what the state described as unlicensed buildings and illegal use of state-owned land.
Most of the islanders were asleep when the forces first arrived to begin attempts to execute 700 building demolition orders. Residents quickly came together to defend their homes, and clashes broke out with policemen who fired bullets and tear gas. Sayed al-Tafshan, 23, was killed, while 19 others were injured, according to a statement by the Ministry of Health. A statement from the Interior Ministry noted that 37 policemen had been injured.
Hala and her family are now homeless. She lives with her husband, Shaaban — a manual laborer who has been unable to speak since the incident and has stopped working — her elderly mother-in-law and children under the new al-Warraq Bridge project executed by the government.
“We don't know what to do. My son bought his home eight years ago and now they want to kick him and his children out,” said Shukria, the mother-in-law.
Following Tafshan’s death, security forces withdrew and the government announced the postponement of demolition orders until further notice. Police arrested 10 protesters, according to a statement on July 16 by the Interior Ministry.
Commenting on the arrests, lawyer Mohamed Hanafi told Al-Monitor, “On July 16, the police arrested four people during the clashes, four others from among those injured and transported to the Nile Hospital, in addition to 10 people at night who had participated in the funeral procession of Tafshan. The public prosecution pressed legal charges against them, accusing them of possession of weapons, assaulting police forces and preventing a public official from performing his duties. The prosecutor decided to keep them detained for investigation.”
Al-Warraq island is located in the center of the Nile River and administratively falls under the Giza governorate. It is inhabited by around 90,000 residents who work in agriculture, fishing and various crafts. The island has a hospital, police station, post office, water station and three public schools. The islanders complain about poor sanitation sewage networks and contaminated drinking water.
The governor of Giza, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Kamal al-Daly, announced in a statement July 17, a day after the clashes when police forces executed 30 out of the 700 demolition orders, that the “inhabited properties were not approached, even though some are built on state lands.”
But the residents of al-Warraq denied this. Umm Abeer, who owns a house on the island, 40 meters (131 feet) from the Nile bank, told Al-Monitor that when she first saw the security forces she rushed to an army officer to tell him that her house was licensed; the officer assured her that instructions were issued not to demolish any inhabited property.
“But only a few minutes later, we started hearing screams from inside homes. They were demolishing houses over the heads of residents,” she said.
She confirmed that she has a legal document proving her ownership of her house, which she bought three years ago, just like a large number of residents of the island, including her sister who lives nearby. “This is the land of our ancestors, not the state’s land,” Umm Abeer said.
Indeed, the residents claim they were not informed of the demolition order and accuse the government of planning to evict them from their homes to sell the island to investors.
The government denies its intention to evict islanders to establish investment projects, but media reports showed recently that Dubai-based RSP architecture firm has published on its website a plan to develop al-Warraq island without disclosing any information about its client.
Ambassador Ashraf Sultan, the official spokesman for Egypt’s Presidency of the Council of Ministers, told Al-Monitor, “The government has no plans so far to develop the island or to establish investment projects on its territories,” asserting that the demolition decisions aim to lift infringements on state lands and cover uninhabited buildings.
Yasser Gamal, a craftsman, described the situation to Al-Monitor, saying, “Police forces blockaded the island on July 16, prevented pipelines from pumping gas and cut off electricity. They also tried to confiscate the Nile boats — the only means of transportation from and to the island — but they were stopped by residents.”
Gamal showed Al-Monitor his grandfather’s identity card stating that he was born on the island in 1885. “I was born on this land. We have owned this land for more than 100 years,” he said.
The 1,300-acre island has been witnessing a longstanding conflict between its inhabitants and the state. In 2000, former Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Ebeid had decided to turn the islands of al-Warraq and Dahab into public property, but the State Council settled the issue and confirmed the inhabitants’ right to their land in 2002.
In a June 7 speech at a conference held on the elimination of illegal buildings on state lands on the Nile islands, specifically al-Warraq island, the president said, “People are illegally building houses on a Nile island of more than 1,250 acres of land — whose name I won’t mention. Slums are built there. No one is supposed to be on these islands. This must be treated as a priority.”
Prime Minister Sherif Ismail decided June 15 to exempt 17 islands from being subject to Prime Minister Decision No. 1969 of 1998 classifying the Nile islands, including al-Warraq, as nature reserves, and set a plan for their development.
This brought back fears of reviving the 2010 plan for the development of the Nile islands, which was prepared within the scope of the strategic urban development plan of the greater Cairo region: Cairo vision 2050.
Al-Warraq islanders, including those who elected Sisi, refuse to leave their homes and land. Ashraf Saleh, who owns a house on the island, told Al-Monitor, “They said that Sayed al-Tafshan was a terrorist and a thief. He was just a daily wage worker. He was so poor that he was buried in a collective grave at a cemetery since his family does not have a burial lot.”
A resident of al-Warraq island told Al-Monitor his brother is being prosecuted by security forces for taking this issue to the media. He said on condition of anonymity, “Why did they kill Sayed? He was defending women in their homes. When he refused to stop protecting them, the officer fired at him and killed him.”
On July 24, the state-run news agency issued a statement saying, “Campaigns to remove encroachment on state lands are continuing and will not stop,” stressing the state’s determination to recover “all looted lands.”
“There were no instructions to attack any residents on the island, though they have built their homes in violation of the law,” the statement continued.
Since al-Warraq islanders obtained a judicial ruling in their favor in 2002, resorting to a court of law could be an option again this time.