A short ferryboat ride from the area of Warraq takes you to the southern end of the island, which consists of batches of agricultural land and scattered houses, which bear a striking resemblance to a village in the Nile Delta or Egypt’s south. Deeper in, the island turns into a typical Cairo informal neighborhood with tightly stacked buildings and narrow streets that are maneuvered by motorcycles and tuk tuks.
Much like Cairo’s informal areas, Warraq Island and other Nile islands were first populated by migrants from other governorates who settled there and started to manage services on their own, until the state acknowledged them and started introducing official services.
But the lives of residents of Warraq Island, one of dozens of inhabited islands that dot the Nile’s span across Egypt, were disturbed earlier in June, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi identified their imperfect haven as his next target in the ongoing large-scale national campaign to retrieve illegally occupied state land.
On Sunday, the state attempted to hit its target. Clashes erupted between police and residents of Warraq Island on Sunday, as the state attempted to demolish buildings on the island. Police forces fired tear gas to disperse a crowd that had gathered to contest the demolition, and, in the ensuing melee, one resident was killed and 19 injured, according to the Health Ministry, while the Ministry of Interior says that 31 of its officers were wounded.
The clashes have temporarily stayed the demolition attempts.
In the conference on land reclamation held in June that first presaged a change for Warraq, the government announced that it had retrieved 118 million square meters of state land in a few weeks, an area constituting 69 percent of total land seized. Amid the announcement of success, Sisi signaled that the state would turn its attention to Nile islands, alluding to Warraq Island specifically.
“There’s an island in the middle of the Nile that stretches over 1,250 feddans. Havoc has spread in it, and people have been building on land that they seized. And now there’s 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.
Where other occupants whom the state had targeted under the umbrella of the program were allowed to pay the state what it owed and remain on the land, Sisi was adamant in his speech that he would not grant island residents the same concessions.
“Any buildings on the banks of water channels, drains or the Nile should be removed. Yes, there are residents. We should find a solution for them, but they have to be removed,” he said.
However, the legality of residents’ presence on the islands is a contested issue.
For example, Warraq Island 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 to informal areas that serve as a tacit acknowledgement from the state of their existence.
“If it’s illegal, why did you introduce government facilities?” asks Abdel Hamid Abdallah, who provided a tour of the island on which he has lived his entire life to point out these facilities.
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 undisputed for 15 years. Many have succeeded to have their land ownership officially registered through this mechanism.
Architect and urban researcher Ahmed Zaazaa, one of the members of the 10Tooba collective of built environment professionals, says that much like Egypt’s informal areas, the state has enabled and acknowledged habitation on the Nile islands in a way that made the legal situation murky. He says that the state’s practice has created accepted norms that contradict the law.
“It can easily be proved by law that both sides are right or wrong,” Zaazaa says.
In his conference 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 activated, nor has the state barred building on these islands for decades.
Meanwhile, according to independent statistics that Zaazaa has compiled, the government is the number one guilty party when it comes to building on the shore of the Nile. According to an ongoing study he is conducting, the Nile bank in Giza stretches 99 km, most of which has been obstructed, leaving only 27 km of unobstructed shore.
Of the stretch of shoreline that has been obstructed, the majority of land is occupied by government buildings, housing 27 clubs of government bodies and five government institutions, according to Zaazaa.
“Why are they blaming us? They should be blaming themselves. We have electricity, water stations, a school that I went to. Warraq village is a large hometown, not a place where a few old men live,” says 68-year-old Hajj Hassan, who is known as the island’s calligrapher.
People living on Warraq largely make a living through agriculture or as handymen and small traders, surviving on minimal and generally poor quality services. They don’t want more or less.
“We are happy just like we are. We just want them to leave us alone. 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,” says 42-year-old Mona Mahmoud, a Warraq resident, as she is walking home from the vegetable market with two women who are her relatives.
As they are walking, they meet a men and kids whom they stop to greet.
“See? I know everyone here. 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?” Mahmoud says.
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 seem them developed into high-end investment projects.
In June, Medhat Kamal al-Din, the head of the Egyptian Surveying Authority, told the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that the authority has 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 yet, and that subsequent plans are in the initial phases of planning.
The past few months of strife is only the latest episode in a long battle between the state and Nile islands residents. Since 2005, there have been several standoffs between the government and residents of different islands, notably those living on Dahab, Qursaya and Warraq, where had the government proposed investment projects.
In 2008, the government proposed the “Cairo 2050” urban development strategy, which entailed turning Dahab Island into an investment area, a project largely known as being pushed forward by Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of deposed President Hosni Mubarak. 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, 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 on the step of his house, across from the small field that he owns and from which he makes his living.
Meanwhile, Ahmed Ayoub, who has served as the spokesperson for the State Land and Assets Reclamation Committee since it was formed in 2016, tells Mada Masr that reclaimed lands may have one of three fates: building development and services projects, sale in open tenders, or return to the people occupying them, if residents prove that they have invested in the land in useful ways, a matter which is regulated through a set of criteria.
For Zaazaa, when it comes to areas that have been populated for decades, the government should make development plans incorporating the area’s residents and not aim to enter and evict them.
Abdallah knows one thing for sure: “I do not concede that this hometown will be taken from us. We’re not a bunch of chickens that they can shoo away. There are people here living on 2,000 feddans with their children and their cattle and their lives. Even if they price a meter at LE1 million, we won’t leave.”