Egypt’s Nile island plan runs into disgruntled residents
Cairo- It was 10am on July 15 and Youssri Fouad had just started working his small farm. Suddenly, the 54-year-old Egyptian was confronted by hundreds of policemen. They raided several houses close to his farm and then brought in bulldozers and other equipment to demolish them.
Subsequent clashes put Fouad at the centre of violence that left one resident of Warraq island in the Nile dead and dozens of others injured. Tensions between Warraq island residents and the police continued and government officials met with residents to resolve the crisis.
“The authorities think we will leave our island easily but they are mistaken,” Fouad said. “They should know that we have known no other home to go to.”
Fouad and tens of thousands of other Warraq residents are determined to resist government attempts to forcibly remove them. Cairo said it was attempting to demolish structures illegally built on state land. The island residents said authorities wanted to get rid of them to turn the island into a major tourist and business centre.
The issue goes beyond Warraq. The hundreds of thousands of people who live on dozens of other Nile islands are watching with concerned interest. The islands, considered prime Cairo real estate, could be transformed into business development projects and lavish apartments. They are now over-populated slum districts, something that will have to change if Nile island development projects are to go ahead.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in early June alluded to a project when he said that some islands in the Nile should not be inhabited.
Three days later, a local newspaper quoted unnamed government officials as saying that the presidency had asked the Housing Ministry to revive a 2010 plan to develop the islands.
The officials added that the presidency would have exclusive rights to decide how the islands’ land should be used.
Sisi, speaking July 24 at an Egyptian Youth Conference, said the choice was for Warraq could remain a slum or be transformed into a model island.
“Some people say there is an investment company,” he said. “We do not have a funding problem. Your rights [the residents of Warraq] are reserved.
Economists confirmed that, if exploited properly, the islands could be an economic lifeboat for Egypt, potentially earning revenues equal to the Suez Canal.
“The islands can turn into a huge source of national income if best exploited,” said Yumn al-Hamaqi, an economics professor at Cairo University. “They have what it takes to be business centres.”
Cairo has sought to launch national projects to support the economy, including expanding the Suez Canal and significant gas and oil exploration, in addition to announcing a new administrative capital.
There are approximately 80 islands in the Nile that support meagre agricultural and fishing output. Increased illegal construction on the islands in the past 30 years has turned the islands into slums that add sewage to the Nile.
To Fouad and other residents, however, Warraq is their home. He was born there, married and supported a family, including two daughters and a son, all of whom live on the island. He can imagine no other life.
“This is my home,” he said pointing to a two-storey building metres from his farm. “I am ready to make it my grave too if the government insists on taking it.”
Approximately 525 hectares and close to downtown Cairo, Warraq could be prime real estate. Gezira Island, which has the capital’s affluent Zamalek district, is home to the famous Cairo Tower as well as the Egyptian Opera House and Gezira Sporting Club.
Many look at Warraq and other Nile islands and see unfulfilled potential. Talk about turning the Nile islands into investment hubs started in 2007 under President Hosni Mubarak. In May 2007, Mubarak asked Defence Minister Mohamed Tantawi and Housing Minister Ibrahim Suleiman to prepare plans to develop the islands.
The plans were released in 2010 but disappeared after the 2011 uprising. They have come to light once more.
New development plans reportedly prepared by an Egyptian and Emirati-Singaporean companies have appeared in local media, including drawings showing villas and high-rises depicting what Warraq island could look like in the future.
Although Egypt’s Ministry of Housing denied the reports, many Egyptians said it was only a matter of time before Warraq and other Nile islands were developed.
“The government seems to have already made deals with investors on the island but it is failing to convince the public,” said Salah al-Guindi, an economics professor from Mansura University. “This is bad and will have negative consequences.”
Ahmed Youssef Abdel Dayem, who represents Warraq in parliament, said many residents would support new development projects and that it is only those residents with homes built illegally on government lands that oppose it.
“They know that they will lose their homes and will not be compensated,” Abdel Dayem said. “These violators want things to remain as is.”
However, clashes with police indicate that Warraq’s residents do not intend to simply bow to the inevitability of progress.
“This is our island and we will not let anybody take it,” Fouad said. “If the government wants to demolish these homes, it can do this while we are inside.”