Warraq residents protest, prepare to submit appeals against government decision to reclaim land for development

Dozens of Warraq residents turned out to protest the government’s latest decision to expropriate land to make way for real estate development plans, a move that could result in the forced eviction of thousands of people on the island.

The decision, the government’s latest in a protracted battle for control over Warraq Island, came in the form of a November 22 Cabinet decree that would expropriate “100 meters around both sides of the Rod al-Farag bridge” — a strip of land that extends over two square kilometers and would see 500 houses demolished if the government’s plans are realized, according to residents — as well as “areas located in the 30-meter range of the island’s perimeter,” in order to establish a corniche.

After Friday prayers on December 7, residents began a march across the island, attracting more protesters along the way until they reached the island’s corniche by the afternoon, where they continued demonstrating.

A 250-person Family Council meeting was convened that evening to collect documents proving residents’ ownership of land on the island, in preparation for an appeal residents plan to submit against the new Cabinet decree, Nasser Abul Enein, a member of the Family Council who owns property on land that the government plans to reclaim, told Mada Masr.

The island’s residents formed the Family Council in September 2017 to represent them in their effort to halt the government’s reclamation campaign and challenge the lack of clarity surrounding the island’s development plan.

Abul Enein told Mada Masr on Saturday that the residents are taking all possible legal action to challenge the November decree. “We aim to submit no less than 1,000 appeals, and, despite the high cost [of doing so], we will finish all required paperwork. The council will meet again next Friday and will start delegating lawyers to submit our appeals the week after, so, when the government attempts to implement its decision, we can shove our appeals in their faces.”

Maged Mabrouk, a lawyer in the Warraq case and a resident of the island, explained to Mada Masr that the decree could be implemented, unless residents request that the State Council — the judicial body that is responsible for reviewing appeals of this nature — issues a temporary suspension of the decree until a final decision is issued on its legality.

The November decision was issued shortly after the State Council Administrative Court adjourned a lawsuit filed by residents of the island against an earlier prime ministerial decision (Decree 20/2018), which was issued in June, to allocate a number of areas on the island for the “establishment of a new urban community.”

“The second Cabinet decision is based upon the government’s first decision, which violates the law because we’re an old community, and the government has not yet submitted evidence that its decision has a legal basis. Therefore, if we win our first lawsuit, the second decree should be voided accordingly,” Mabrouk added.

Abul Enein also decried what he described as “false media coverage” depicting residents of the island as being in favor of the decree.

“Some media outlets showed people, who are not residents of the island, holding paychecks and claiming that they are happy with the government decision,” he said. “Other outlets claimed that the government has undertaken development projects in the island, including ones related to sanitation, cleaning and education, which is not the case. When some of the young residents began to collect garbage voluntarily, the neighborhood council actually threatened them. The government wants the island to appear as a slum,” Abul Enein added.

Abul Enein also pointed to what he called a “siege” by the government on the island, explaining that “everything entering the island is being searched, because the transport of building material, even cement, to the island is banned.”

“When the UN expert attempted to visit us, the government did not allow her to, so we met her in Shubra,” he added.

In an unprecedented rebuke from the United Nations, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing Leilani Farha condemned the Egyptian government last week for what she described as “a pattern of reprisals” against people she met with during her official visit to Egypt two months ago.

In her statement, Farha also expressed disappointment at having no access to Warraq Island during her visit and warned of the potential of human rights violations. “If the government’s decision is going to result in the eviction of residents, or compromise housing conditions for residents, that is problematic according to international human rights law,” Farha’s office said.

The Warraq Island crisis began in June 2017 when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in a speech about the need to reclaim public land infringed upon by construction, referred to the area as “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?” the president said. “It goes into the Nile water that we drink. We can’t allow that and hurt ourselves.”

The following month, police forces, accompanied by officials from the ministries of endowments, irrigation and agriculture, raided the island to carry out demolition orders, targeting 700 buildings constructed on public land, according to a statement issued by the Interior Ministry at the time.

Clashes erupted between the security forces and the residents who protested against the demolition work. One person was killed in the clashes and 19 others were injured, according to Ministry of Health statements at the time. 37 police personnel were also injured, according to the Ministry of Interior’s statement, and 10 of the island’s residents were arrested.

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