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Denied The Nile: Aboard Cairo's Historic Houseboats Facing Destruction

Despite opposition, authorities are proceeding with the eviction of residents of traditional houseboats docked along the Nile in Egypt's capital, as the government aims to "renovate" the area.

Photo of a row of houseboats floating on the Nile in Cairo, Egypt

Houseboats on the Nile in Zamalek, Cairo

Ahmed Medhat and Rana Mamdouh

With an eye on profitable river traffic and utilities, the government has begun this week to forcibly evict residents and owners of houseboats docking along the Nile’s banks in the Kit Kat area of Giza, part of the Greater Cairo metropolis.

The evictions come following an Irrigation Ministry decision earlier this month to remove the homes that have long docked along the river.

With the evictions looming, owners and residents of the 32 houseboats slated for removal, located between the May 15 and Imbaba bridges, sent a distress call to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s office on Saturday and filed several lawsuits before administrative courts in an attempt to counter the ministry decision, several houseboat owners told Mada Masr.

However, their attempts to stay the evictions have not been heeded. As of Wednesday, residents of 19 houseboats had already been evicted and displaced, with their homes impounded on the docks in front of Imbaba Police Station. Three of the houseboats have already been offered for public auction. The remaining houseboats are scheduled to be moved by the first week of July.

A matter of productivity

The government’s motive for the removal has been made clear in statements from Irrigation Ministry officials, who have asserted that only residential houseboats are being targeted for removal and advised owners to turn toward commercial activities to avoid evictions.

In May, the government previewed a plan to withdraw from select sectors of the economy, including large swaths of agricultural and livestock production, construction industries and hospitality.

Its pathway to doing so was sketched out in the “state ownership policy document,” a framework plan that the Cabinet’s economic group has heralded in recent months as being inspired by an International Monetary Fund demand on the Egyptian government in 2021 to “centralize state-ownership in a single entity,” identify specific economic sectors in which state-owned companies or agencies can play a role, and to exit other sectors completely to “allow for private sector-led productivity gains.”

Photo of a houseboat floating on the Nile

Houseboat on the Nile

Alexander Farnsworth/DPA/ZUMA

At the close of his eighth year in power, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi continues to push forward economic projects overseen that place public interest as secondary to monetization. News of forced evictions and displacements have become the opening volley for any new government project. Public opposition has in large part been unable to halt the advancement of the government’s plans. Some who have resisted handing over their homes for demolition have been arrested or detained.

“Every possible option should be explored to help communities stay in one place as long as they wish. Alternative solutions to resettlement can always be found, as long as a threat to the population is undetermined,” Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, said following her visit to Cairo in 2018.

In her statement, Farha said she was shocked to learn of communities being subject to “forced eviction contrary to international human rights law.”

Three boats belonged to members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

On Friday, the head of the Nile Protection Administration for Greater Cairo Ayman Nour said in a TV interview that “The state is determined to remove all residential houseboats in Giza.” The restructuring of the Nile banks in Cairo and Giza, Nour said, aims to “restore their civilized appearance.”

For Nour, however, civilized means commercially profitable.

“We will only remove residential boats,” Nour said, “leaving the commercial ones and the rowing clubs.” Nour continued to advise residential houseboat owners, in the event they don’t want their home to be bulldozed, to “take them to the authority, change their license to commercial and pay the respective fees.”

Speaking on houseboats that have been vacated and moved already, Nour said that three boats belonged to members of the Muslim Brotherhood whose assets were confiscated by a court ruling.

On Wednesday, represented by “the committee to confiscate assets of terrorists and terrorist organizations,” those three houseboats were offered for public auction by the Nile Protection Administration.

Government v. residents

“It’s become more clear to us what’s actually happening,” Omar Robert Hamilton, a houseboat resident, told Mada Masr. “The ministry wants no more residents here. They only want commercial properties.”

Hamilton explained that all houseboat residents have always argued that they have long-standing contracts with the government, “If the state wants them out,” he said, “then they should simply make them an offer. They can’t just price them out overnight, fine them relentlessly, and then confiscate their only capital as ransom.”

While the ministry has accused the residents of encroaching on state-owned lands without a license, the owners said that the ministry and other relevant state bodies have been denying them the possibility of renewing the licenses they have held for years.

Photo of a person kayaking toward Cairo's houseboats\u200b

Kayaking toward Cairo's houseboats

houseboat65 via Instagram

Dashed dreams of life on the Nile

In a statement on Facebook last Tuesday, the owners explained that the Giza governorate, the Armed Forces National Service Projects Authority, and the irrigation and agriculture ministries — the four bodies handling houseboat licensing — refused to renew licenses last year. The owners added that the projects authority is “working on a unified mechanism for renewing licenses.”

Suddenly the government decides to throw me on the street.

However, last year, the authority named the Irrigation Ministry as the sole body responsible for the license renewal process, and the latter continued to deny the owners the chance to renew before last week’s sudden decision to remove 32 houseboats.

“I am 88 years old. I sold two apartments in Zamalek in order to spend the last days of my life on the Nile, and suddenly the government decided to throw me on the street, to take away the houseboat and to take my money on top of it as well,” Ikhlas Helmy, the owner of the houseboat closest to the May 15 Bridge, told Mada Masr.

Muddy judicial waters

Manar Magdy, the owner of another houseboat, told Mada Masr that Giza Governorate and the Armed Forces projects authority only began to deny her license renewals last year. She adds that she had never failed to pay the fees before then.

Magdy said she paid LE20,000 to renew the license for navigation within Giza governorate in 2020 and acquired the houseboat license. But in 2021, she faced a situation similar to Helmy’s.

According to Magdy, the owners received a notice from the Defense Ministry on April 21, 2021, informing them that the houseboats, the Nile docks and everything related to them now fall under the National Service Projects Authority, after which she went to the authority’s headquarters, where she was asked to bring all the previous licenses for her houseboat, which she did.

When she asked to renew the license, authority officials told her they were working on a committee to determine and unify the mechanism for issuing the licenses, and that this committee would start its work in November 2021.

But when she asked again at the end of that year, officials told her the Irrigation Ministry is the body handling the licenses now, while the authority only has jurisdiction over the lands on which the Nile docks are located.

Helmy and Magdy, on the other hand, stressed that their houseboats have been in their location legally, with owners paying water and electricity bills and real estate taxes regularly, while noting that the boats do not send their waste into the water but are connected to the sewage system of the Kit Kat area.

For his part, Ahmed Abdel Hady, a lawyer representing the houseboat owners, told Mada Masr that the team has filed 32 lawsuits before the administrative judiciary against the president, the prime minister and other relevant officials demanding to halt the removal decision and oblige the government to renew their licenses.

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