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Sisi hands over Nile islands to Egyptian military, raising controversy

Some Egyptians were outraged over the president’s decision to hand over the ownership of 37 islands to the army, especially since most of these islands are located on the Nile River and considered nature reserves.
An aerial view shows a small island in the Lake Nasser reservoir formed by the Nile River, about 12 kilometers (7 miles) south of the High Dam near the city of Aswan, southern Egypt, Jan. 2, 2021.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree Jan. 25, handing over ownership of 37 islands to the Egyptian armed forces. The move includes 36 islands in the Nile River and one island off the Mediterranean coast.

According to the Egyptian official gazette, the decree and a portfolio of related documents shall detail the dimensions and areas of those islands, and the decree will be deposited with the competent real estate registration office without fees. The deposition will have the legal effects of an official proclamation.

The decree was issued based on Prime Minister Decree No. 1383 of 2005 regarding the protection of the Nile River and its shores, and pursuant to the approval of the Council of Ministers and the presentation made by the National Center for Planning State Land Uses.

In 1998, then-Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri’s government issued Decree No. 1969 of 1998 stating, “All the islands located within the course of the Nile River in the north, central and south of the valley, the Delta barrages, and the Rashid and Damietta branches are deemed nature reserves in accordance with the Environmental Law.”

This decree prohibited carrying out “acts, disposals, activities or procedures that would destroy, damage or deteriorate the natural environment, or harm wildlife, water or plants, or prejudice their aesthetic level in reserves areas.”

In particular, it prohibited constructing buildings, facilities or roads, driving vehicles or carrying out any agricultural, industrial, commercial or tourist activities in the reserves and adjacent areas, except with a permit from the prime minister.

According to Al-Bawaba news website, there is conflicting data on the exact number of Nile islands in Egypt. Official government records estimate their number at around 144 islands with an overall area of around 37,150 acres. Meanwhile, the Nile Research Institute estimates the number at 128 islands, the General Survey Authority recognizes the existence of 181 islands, the Institute of Land and Water Research says there are 209 islands, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics counts 163 islands, while the Ministry of Water Resources confirms that the number of Nile islands in Egypt stands at 197.

Mohammed Salem, head of the Nature Conservation Department at the Ministry of Environment, stresses the environmental importance of the Nile River islands reserves. “The nature of the islands in some areas has changed over the years due to population growth and urban expansion in some of the inhabited islands in the governorates of Cairo and Giza, whose nature is substantially different from the Nile islands located in southern Egypt. This requires a reassessment of the environmental situation and a review of the resources on some islands by a committee of scientists in various environmental fields,” Salem told Al-Monitor.

He said that the environment of the Nile River and its islands, especially in southern Egypt, provides food and shelter for migratory birds. “Millions of birds cross Egypt annually during the two migration seasons. The first in winter, when birds flock from northern, central and eastern Europe and western Asia, reaching Egypt from the east in the Sinai Peninsula, where they take multiple paths to complete their journey to South Africa. The second in the spring season, when birds return from Africa to Europe via the same paths.”

In June 2017, Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported that the Presidency of the Republic commissioned the Ministry of Housing and the General Authority for Urban Planning to reactivate the Nile islands development plan drafted back in 2010. This plan included a project to turn Al-Warraq Island in Giza into a finance and business hub, as part of a wider development plan for the Nile Corniche and the Nile islands.

The newspaper quoted high-ranking government sources as saying that the General Authority for Urban Planning is in the process of elaborating a vision for a complete plan for the island to be submitted to the Presidency of the Republic. The sources added that the conditions of residents on the island will be regularized and some residential communities for citizens will be built, with basic utilities such as adequate sanitation and water.

The Nile islands have always stirred controversy in Egypt, due to their political and economic importance. They are mostly located in the middle of the Nile River in the center of Cairo, near all public and private business quarters, which raised the prices of their real estate lots.

However, since 2012, the residents of the Nile islands have been living in a state of constant fear of being displaced amid repeated attempts of expropriation of their land.

In November 2012, the armed forces raided Qorsaya Island and demanded its people to vacate. Clashes erupted, causing the death of one resident and the injury and arrest of many.

This also happened on Al-Warraq Island in 2017, when clashes between residents and security forces resulted in the death of a resident and the injury and arrest of dozens, following protests by residents against attempts to deport them from the island.

Wael Zaki, urban planning consultant and lecturer in development projects, called for not antagonizing the islanders, as happened on Al-Warraq.

“A new idea to benefit from the islands would be to establish a world-class park that will attract more tourism,” he told Al-Monitor. “Egypt has beautiful nature that must be tapped on. There is no exhibition of fish or marine creatures in Egypt. The only one in the entire Arab region is the Scientific Center in Kuwait. As a tourist country, we should have such projects.”

He noted, “The aim of establishing a nature reserve is to conserve the environment. In Kenya, all forests are nature reserves, yet they are a main tourist attraction and the state spends millions to preserve them. There are dozens of environmental projects that may be established on our own islands.”

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