CAIRO — Just north of the Egyptian capital, a short ferryboat ride will take you to the southern tip of the Nile island of Warraq. It has patches of agricultural land and scattered houses and deeper in, the island resembles a typical Cairo neighborhood with tightly-stacked buildings and narrow streets packed with motorcycles and tuk-tuks.
Life on Warraq Island — one of dozens of inhabited islands that dot the Nile's span across Egypt — was recently disturbed when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi identified it as his next target in an ongoing large-scale campaign to retrieve illegally occupied state land. Clashes erupted between police and local when security forces attempted to demolish buildings on the island. Police officers fired tear gas to disperse a crowd that had gathered to contest the eviction. In the ensuing standoff, one resident was killed and 19 injured, according to the Health Ministry — while the Ministry of Interior says that 31 officers were wounded.
The clashes have temporarily halted the demolition attempts.
In the conference on land reclamation held last June, the government announced that it had already retrieved 118 million square meters of state land in a few weeks. Now, President Sisi says, it's time for the state to turn its attention to Nile islands — and Warraq in particular.
"There's an island in the middle of the Nile that stretches over 1,250 feddans (525 hectares). People have been building on land that they seized, and now there are 50,000 houses there. Where does their sewage go? It goes into the Nile water that we drink. We can't allow that and hurt ourselves," Sisi said.
In his speech, Sisi was adamant that island residents would not be granted any concessions. "Any buildings on the banks of water channels, drains or the Nile should be removed. Yes, there are residents. We shall find a solution for them, but they have to be removed," he said.
Most island landowners acquired their property by the acknowledged practice of "hands putting".
The legality of residents on the island is a contested issue: Warraq is home to three public schools, a police unit, a water station, a post office and is equipped with official electricity meters — a common array of basic services in informal areas that serve as tacit acknowledgement from the state of their existence.
"If it's illegal, why did you introduce government facilities?" asks Abdel Hamid Abdallah, who points out the facilities on a tour of the island on which he has lived his entire life.
Most island landowners acquired their property by the acknowledged practice of "hands putting" (wad" yad), whereby they are given ownership of a piece of land after residing on it undisputedly for 15 years. Many have succeeded to have their land ownership officially registered through this mechanism.
Daily life on Warrq Island Photo: Fayed El-Geziry/ZUMA
In his speech, Sisi referred to a 1988 decree, which regulates construction on the Nile and prohibits building on the river banks within approximately 30 meters of the water. Another 1998 prime minister decree declared 144 Nile islands as natural protectorates, thus limiting the number of inhabitants that can take up residence on them. However, neither decree was put into practice, and the state hasn't barred building on these islands for decades.
Moreover, according to independent statistics, the government is the number one guilty party when it comes to building on the shore of the Nile.
"Why are they blaming us? They should be blaming themselves. We have electricity, water stations, a school that I went to," says 68-year-old Hajj Hassan, a calligrapher on the island. Warraq village is a large hometown, not a place where a few old men live."
People living on Warraq largely make a living through agriculture or as handymen and small traders, surviving on minimal, and poor quality, services. They don't want more or less.
Warraq village is a large hometown, not a place where a few old men live.
"We are happy just the way we are. We just want them to leave us alone," says 42-year-old Mona Mahmoud, a Warraq resident walking home from the vegetable market. "I have borrowed so much money in order to build houses for my kids to live near me, and now they want to take it all away and kick us out." As we are walking, we meet a man and children who stop and greet us.
"See? I know everyone here," Mahmoud says. "If you point at any house, I can tell you who lives there. We have the traditions of a village. Here the men know the women and would not harass them. During the revolution and all the chaos, it was safe here. We didn't see thugs or protests or anything. How can we move elsewhere, even if they give us palaces?"
Beyond the question of legality of buildings near the Nile, media reports have long alluded to a strong commercial interest in the Nile islands, which would see them developed into high-end investment projects.
A farmer working in agriculture on the island of Warraq — Photo: Fayed El-Geziry/ZUMA
In June, Medhat Kamal al-Din, the head of the Egyptian Surveying Authority, told the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that authorities had been tasked with mapping the area in preparation for the implementation of "high priority" projects. In the same story, Al-Masry Al-Youm cites anonymous sources as saying that Sisi has ordered the Nile islands to be transformed into "money and business centers."
Hany Younes, the spokesperson for the Planning Ministry, says that the ministry has no information on plans for the islands as yet.
The recent clashes are only the latest episode in a long battle between the state and the Nile islands. Since 2005, there have been several standoffs between the government and residents of different islands, notably on Dahab, Qursaya and Warraq.
During the revolution and all the chaos, it was safe here.
In 2008, the government proposed the "Cairo 2050" urban development strategy, which involved turning Dahab Island into an investment area. All the plans were aborted, however, following protests by island residents. In 2010, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled in favor of the residents of Qursaya Island, acknowledging their right to remain on the island. However, the battle was renewed in 2012, when military forces attempted to forcefully evict the island's residents. They ultimately failed to do so after one resident was killed in the clashes.
"When they build their hotels on the island, won't they introduce a sewage system? Why don't they do it for the residents and owners of the land instead? Are these foreigners that they will give the land to better than us?" asks Abdallah, sitting in front of his house, across from the small field he owns and from which he makes his living.
Abdallah knows one thing for sure, "There are people here living with their children and their cattle and everything they own. We're not a bunch of chickens that they can shoo away."