CAIRO: Tales of struggle and tragedy have always been tied to the people of the poverty-stricken Nile island of Al-Warraq, which on Sunday witnessed clashes between the people and police over the demolition of illegal buildings.
The area is one of many squatter settlements on the peripheries of Egypt’s capital. If developed, the government believes Al-Warraq could be transformed into a tourist destination.
The island holds the largest area among 255 Nile islands in the country. It contains 1,600 acres across the banks of the Nile, with an average population of 60,000 to 80,000 residents.
It enjoys a unique location in the heart of the Nile, and is bordered by the Qalyubiya governorate from the north, Cairo from the east, and Giza from the south.
Over 30 years ago, its residents built their houses and have been paying electricity and water bills for services provided by the government. They rely on agriculture and fishing as the main sources of income.
However, they suspect the authorities want to build a luxury resort there and fear being left homeless. It remains unclear if the government plans to provide them with an alternative.
Erupting in anger
Sunday’s move proved to be horribly unpopular. Authorities were met with protests and violence when they began demolishing illegal buildings in the area. The clashes left one person dead and at least 40 police personnel injured.
The Interior Ministry accused local people of firing shotgun pellets and throwing stones at police.
Residents told AFP that they had not received advance warning of the move.
Hours of hit-and-run clashes resulted in postponing the procedure for now.
Population pressure, poverty and migration to urban areas has for years been causing a housing crisis in Egypt and posing a serious threat to investments in the country.
In May, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi began a campaign to demolish thousands of buildings that were alleged to have been built illegally on state-owned land.
“There are islands in the Nile ... according to the law no one should be present on these islands,” El-Sisi said in a speech in June. He ordered in the same speech that the authorities should make it a priority to reclaim the islands.
Much of the housing in Al-Warraq is believed to be built illegally, lacking amenities such as clean water and a proper sewage system.
“Settlement problems are historic in Egypt, people in Upper Egypt would come to the capital and squat on state-owned land. And migration to urban areas has been taking place for years, and there was never a proper housing policy,” Saeed Sadek, Cairo-based professor of political sociology, told Arab News.
“On Sunday, people woke up to see contractors and police demolishing buildings. The way it was done seemed too provocative, and scared residents in the area.”
“Everyone was afraid of being kicked out of their houses, and without a house you are naked.”
Sadek said enforcing the law must take into consideration the people and their families and provide alternative housing to reassure the people in the area.
“There is a humanitarian aspect to be taken into consideration. The government now realizes that it is not easy and the image of the state has been affected. People can erupt in more anger and this might result in more damages.”
Victims or ‘troublemakers’?
Egyptian television channels affiliated with the government insisted on defending the procedure, referring to those who went out in anger at times as “troublemakers.”
Social media users were divided over the situation as well, with some showing sympathy toward the residents’ reactions, and weary of the government’s alleged use of force against them.
“Dealing with a crisis of this sort requires special procedures; the government needs to communicate with the residents and understand that they have lived there for years and have nowhere else to go,” Howaida Mustafa, a Cairo-based professor of mass communications, told Arab News.
“Even if the government has good intentions for developing the area, it cannot resort to force when the people have no other place to go,” said Mustafa. “We cannot call the angry residents trouble-makers in a crisis of this kind. The media needs to keep a calm tone in dealing with the situation.”