After getting off to a rocky start, the state is continuing its attempts to appease residents of the Nile island of Warraq following the deadly clashes that broke out last month when security forces attempted to demolish houses deemed to be built on illegally occupied state-owned land.
In a public conference held on Sunday in a tented area on the island and attended by hundreds of concerned residents, the head of the Armed Forces Engineering Authority General Kamel al-Wazir started by reassuring the residents:
“I am bearing a message from the president, reaffirming his commitment to protecting the interests of the residents and ensuring that no citizen will be harmed or treated unjustly under his rule, either on Warraq Island or anywhere else in Egypt.”
He continued: “you won’t be deprived of your rights, and everyone will receive what they are entitled to. People’s personal interests are important, but so are those of our country. Our personal interests should not contradict the state’s interests, its prestige or the public good.”
The residents remained insistent on their initial demands: no land confiscation, the release of the residents who were arrested in clashes with police last month and compensation for the family of Sayed Tafshan, who died during the protests. Residents showed up with banners that read “the island is not for sale,” and, chanting the same slogan, aborted the official’s attempt to suggest that the confiscation of some land is necessary for the development of the island.
The conflict between the state and residents of the sleepy island, a short ferry ride from Cairo’s Nile bank, started on July 16 when police attempted to execute 700 demolition orders as part of the state’s nationwide campaign to reclaim state-owned land. 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 Interior Ministry reported that 31 of its officers were wounded. The state later revealed that it had succeeded in demolishing 30 houses that day. Seventeen residents were arrested during and in the aftermath of the clashes.
In an earlier attempt to assuage the anger of the islanders, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi spoke over the phone to a committee of residents who met with Wazir on Wednesday. According to one of the committee members Sisi told them: “We are here to serve you, we are not against you. You are our children and family. It is not possible to evict you. But we want to develop the island.”
Sisi first identified Warraq as the state’s next target in its land reclamation campaign during a conference held in June, saying: “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.” He made it clear that while occupants of state land elsewhere were allowed to come to an agreement with the state, those living on the Nile banks would not be given the same concessions.
During Sunday’s meeting Wazir attempted to convince residents of the importance of demolishing the houses situated directly on the Nile or deemed to be illegally built on agricultural and state land, however the residents responded with chants: “No, no.” The military official countered: “We will not confiscate one centimeter of land against the residents’ will, we can’t do that. Everything will happen with consent.”
Wazir said that those who forfeit their homes willingly will be compensated with a house in one of the government’s housing projects. This was met with further protest, as the residents’ chants of “We will not leave” grew louder.
Wrapping up his address, the official tried to persuade attendees of a need to execute the state’s development project for the island, which locals fear is a veiled attempt to take over the island and use it for investment projects. One resident responded:
“We have been asking for development for 100 years and the state ignored us. We welcome development if it doesn’t come near one meter of our land, but if development means confiscating even one meter of our land then we’re happy with our lives as they are.”
The island suffers from a shortage in services, most gravely the lack of a sewage system.
As the heated conference came to a close, Wazir requested a smaller follow-up meeting with 30 of the island’s residents to listen to their proposals to resolve the crisis. He left the tent, accompanied by chants of “we will not leave” “bring back our brothers from jail” and “the island is not for sale.”
Translated by Heba Afify