Cairo's Islanders Denied The Nile They Call Home

Life along the Nile river
Life along the Nile river
Heba Afify

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."

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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