The arrest of three activists from Warraq Island earlier this week is being used to put pressure on Warraq residents to make concessions in a long-running battle over government plans to expropriate land on the island for a contentious redevelopment project, according to two sources.
The three detainees – Sayed Mostafa, a 51-year-old retiree, Ibrahim Shaarawy, a 32-year-old plumber, and Ahmed Gamal, a 20-year-old student – disappeared after being taken into custody on March 13. Three days later, they were brought before the State Security Prosecution and handed 15-day detention orders, according to the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights.
The two sources from the island, who spoke with Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said the men were arrested in a sting operation that saw them receive phone calls from someone purporting to be a journalist who requested to meet them outside the island for an interview, after which they went missing.
The three activists, who are all involved in the island struggle, are all being investigated in case 488/2018, which includes dozens of people arrested in a government crackdown following the deadly train crash at Ramses station that left 22 dead and 43 injured last month. At least 36 defendants in the case are facing charges related to terrorism and using social media to disrupt security and public order.
One of the two sources, who is a member of the Warraq Family Council, told Mada Masr that a number of the island’s residents contacted officers in the Giza Security directorate, the National Security Authority, and the Warraq investigations office, to get information on the three detained activists. According to the source, one of the government bodies responded by calling on the residents of Warraq to finalize a comprehensive deal over the island as part of negotiations to release the three men.
“We will not release them. If you want to resolve the issue, what are you going to give us in return?” the official said, according to the source.
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.”
A month later police forces, accompanied by officials from the ministries of endowments, irrigation and agriculture, raided the island to demolish 700 buildings, 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.
On June 3, 2018, former Prime Minister Sherif Ismail issued a decree authorizing the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA) to establish “a new urban community” on Warraq Island lands. The decree indicated that the new community includes nearly all the land on Warraq, placing the whole island under the jurisdiction of the authority.
In response, Warraq residents filed a lawsuit against the government’s decision. A court ruling in the case is scheduled for March 23.
Last November, the Cabinet issued another decree to expropriate land on the island for public use. Cabinet Decree 49/2018 defines the area to be reclaimed as “100 meters around both sides of the Rod al-Farag bridge in the Warraq Island area.” In addition, “areas located in the 30-meter range of the island’s perimeter will be expropriated to establish a corniche.”
“They want us to negotiate our homes and our lives, without giving us any alternatives to consider,” one of the sources said. “The price per meter in the area around us goes as high as LE20,000, and they want to get it for LE1,400. No one has offered us proper compensation.”
“They are not leaving us any option but confrontation. They only know the tool of force, and whoever speaks out, gets imprisoned,” the source added.
The other source told Mada Masr that he informally heard the handling of the Warraq Island issue had been transferred from the Armed Forces to the Interior Ministry, and pointed to the recent arrest of the three activists as an example. The military has been responsible for negotiations over the past two years.
The former head of the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, Kamel al-Wazir, who was recently appointed minister of transportation, had been in charge of conducting negotiations with Warraq residents. The most recent meeting took place in February when Wazir announced development expansion plans and threatened to arrest any residents who dissented.
In defiance, residents responded by gathering around the island’s ferry port for several days to prevent the entry of construction equipment belonging to the Armed Forces Engineering Authority and the Arab Contractors company.
In solidarity with the three detained activists, residents are holding a series of evening protest marches and are organizing a public conference on the island on Friday, according to the Warraq Family Council. The conference comes one day before the State Council is scheduled to rule on the residents’ lawsuit against the government development plans as well as hand down a review of a case that involves 22 defendants from the island who face charges of inciting protests and resisting authorities in connection to the July 2017 clashes.