The case was adjourned to December 22, to give the court the opportunity to review a report filed earlier on Saturday by the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA), the body that was authorized to establish the new urban community in a June decree issued by former Prime Minister Sherif Ismail.
Ten Warraq residents were present in court during Saturday’s session. The court adjournment is the latest development in what has become a struggle between the island’s residents, who say the government’s plans will leave them homeless, and state actors claiming that the push for development is a necessary step, and one that is in line with residents’ interests.
The documents submitted by NUCA claim to prove that it bought land from several of the island’s residents, according to Nasser Abul Enein, a Warraq resident who refutes this claim. What NUCA did is buy land from traders who do not live on it, he alleged.
The lawsuit, which was filed by Warraq residents on June 25, 2018, is part of a concerted effort by Warraq residents to halt a highly controversial government decision following a speech by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in June 2017. During this speech, Sisi gave orders to prioritize vacating Nile islands, identifying Warraq in particular as a target in the government’s land reclamation campaign.
“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,” the president said. “Where does their sewage go? It goes into the Nile water that we drink. We can’t allow that and hurt ourselves.”
Less than a month later, on July 16, 2017, security forces were deployed on the island to execute demolition orders against 700 homes. As they began tearing down houses, clashes erupted between the island’s residents and security forces that resulted in the death of Sayed Ali al-Gizawy, a young resident. It also eventually resulted in the June 2 ministerial decree (Decree 20/2018) authorizing NUCA to establish the new urban community on the island which appears to be in direct contravention of the legislation regarding urban development on agricultural land.
Many of the residents of the island, which is located in the middle of the Nile in the governorate of Giza, also use the land for farming. Abul Enein stressed that the government’s decision “is an assault on the agricultural land, in favor of creating cement blocks for the rich to live in.” This goes against both NUCA law and agricultural laws, he added.
According to Article 3 of the NUCA law, “establishing new urban communities on agricultural land is banned.” Furthermore, Article 101 of the agriculture law, the amendments of which were ratified by Sisi on May 21, 2018, heightened the penalties for violations on agricultural land. It outlines that building on agricultural land will result in “imprisonment for up to six months, and a fine [of] no less than LE3,000 and no more than LE20,000 for each feddan or part of a feddan.”
Decree 20/2018 was issued in spite of this legislation, and as part of a push by certain state officials to frame all development initiatives in a positive light, even as others have repeatedly questioned the legality of residents who have been present on the island for decades, with the full knowledge of the state.
Head of the Armed Forces Engineering Authority (AFEA), Kamel al-Wazir, met with residents in August 2017 in an attempt to defuse increasing tension, stating that the AFEA would pave new roads, develop infrastructure and build new schools on the island. Other sources told Mada Masr at the time of plans to demolish scattered housing on the periphery of the island and compensate residents with houses in a new residential area.
For residents who feel that the implicit legitimization of their position, which was a feature of the provision of basic services by the state, is now being reneged on, there is no question that the actions of the state seek to put the land firmly in the hands of the NUCA.
The decree, which was published in the Official Gazette, includes a map outlining the coordinates for the new community, as specified in its first article. Then, in a second article, the decree stipulates that all government entities must hand over any documents they have regarding land ownership and transactions on the island to the NUCA within a month. The appendix to the decree indicates that the new community includes nearly all the land on Warraq Island, which will be under the jurisdiction of the NUCA.
The push-back from the Warraq residents, who formed their own independent Council in October 2017 to serve as the voice of their community, and allow them a platform to file this lawsuit, constitutes an instance of civil society mobilization that has become rare in recent years.