Residents mobilize to prevent entry of construction equipment to Warraq Island

Dozens of residents have gathered around Warraq Island’s ferry port over the last few days to prevent the entry of construction equipment belonging to the Armed Forces Engineering Authority and the Arab Contractors company for a government redevelopment project.

Nasser Abul Enein, a Warraq resident and a member of the island’s Family Council, told Mada Masr that residents began gathering on Friday evening, anticipating the arrival of security forces and construction equipment. Residents are now organizing shifts to guard the port entry, he added.

The Armed Forces Engineering Authority and the construction company have been tasked with carrying out construction as part of a November Cabinet decision to redevelop the island. Under the decree, the project will reclaim 100 meters around the Rod al-Farag bridge, as well areas within 30 meters of the island’s perimeter, in order to establish a corniche.

The newly announced construction plan consists of an expansion of the Rod al-Farag bridge — which passes over the island — and a new gas station and tollbooth on the bridge.

During the course of negotiations, officials informed residents that this expansion — which will be 700 meters in length and 74 meters in width — will require the evacuation of around 20 feddans and the demolition of 21 houses in the area of the island under the bridge, Abul Enein said. Owners of the land reclaimed for the project will only receive LE1,400 per square meter as compensation, which is not enough to buy other property on the island, Abul Enein said, and will mean that residents will effectively be evicted.

November’s decree was issued amid an ongoing legal battle between the island’s residents and the government against an earlier decision (Decree 20/2018) to allocate a number of areas on the island for the “establishment of a new urban community.”

The Ministry of Justice has banned the sale of property or land on the island except when these transactions will benefit the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA). NUCA, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Housing, is charged with planning new residential development projects, or “urban communities,” in Greater Cairo, which have included 10th of Ramadan City and New Cairo.

According to Abul Enein, the head of the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, Kamel al-Wazir, held a meeting on the island on Tuesday with several residents who had previously agreed to sell their properties to the authority, and whose properties will not be affected by the new expansions. During the meeting, Wazir announced the new expansion plans and threatened that residents who dissent will be arrested, the Family Council — a body representing the island’s residents — stated on Facebook.

On Thursday, Wazir, high-ranking military and police personnel, as well as representatives of the contracting company, met on the Road al-Farag bridge overlooking the island in order to conduct a security assessment, according to Abul Enein. When residents took notice of the meeting, they approached Wazir and the accompanying delegation and expressed their opposition to the new expansions, leading the delegation to leave.

Later that day, security forces stationed at the island’s ferry port and a ferry containing construction equipment belonging to the Arab Contractors company withdrew from the island, the resident added.

Following news that military and police forces were approaching the island to begin securing the planned operations on Friday, dozens of residents began gathering at the ferry port, and have since continued guarding the port in order to prevent construction vehicles from entering.

Abul Enein said that residents had not been opposed to the construction of the existing bridge, because owners of reclaimed land were able to buy other land or property on the island with the compensation they had received. What is different with the new expansions, Abul Enein explained, is that residents will not be compensated adequately and thus will be forced to move off the island.

Warraq residents filed a lawsuit against the government’s June decision to develop a new urban community on the island. A court ruling on the lawsuit is scheduled for March 23.

The Warraq Island crisis began in June 2017 when, in a speech about reclaiming public land infringed upon by construction, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that havoc had spread on the island, with “people building 50,000 houses on public land.”

“Where does their sewage go?” Sisi asked. “It goes into the Nile water that we drink. We can’t allow that and hurt ourselves.”

A month later police forces, accompanied by officials from the ministries of endowments, irrigation and agriculture, raided the island to demolish 700 buildings on the island, according to a statement issued by the Interior Ministry at the time. Clashes erupted between security forces and residents protesting the demolitions. One person was killed and 19 were injured, according to Health Ministry statements. Thirty-seven police personnel were injured, the Ministry of Interior said, and 10 islanders were arrested.

The Armed Forces Engineering Authority head met residents after the raid to discuss the plan to develop the island and to de-escalate the situation. A resident who attended the meeting told Mada Masr at the time that the plan was to demolish scattered housing on the periphery, compensate residents with houses in a new area, pave roads, develop infrastructure and build schools.

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