Flowing from south to north, Egypt’s branch of the River Nile houses 144 islands across sixteen cities. Seventeen of these islands (including al-Warraq) reside within the limits of Greater Cairo, which are being prepared for urban developments to aid Egypt’s ailing economy. Although these islands were originally home to fishermen, later generations have shifted careers, becoming farmers on these lush islands.
An official document dated June 15 surfaced on social media and revealed that the seventeen islands are protected national parks, but they will lose this status in preparation for high-rise development plans that have yet to be disclosed to the public. The government hasn’t stopped at changing policies to prepare the islands for development, though, and have raided neighborhoods, with some raids escalating into bloody battles.
18-year-old Languages and Instant Translation college student Haleem Mostafa, who has lived on al-Warraq Island all his life, tells progrss what happened during the raid in his neighborhood on July 16.
According to Mostafa, on the previous night, there was rumor of a police raid to evict residents taking place the next morning on one side of the island. “We woke up at 9 AM to see what’s going to happen, and to our surprise, we found security forces deployed around the entire island — not only one side of the island,” he says. “We [the islanders] divided ourselves among different parts of the island and were in touch with each other via phone.”
Mostafa explains that, whenever security tried to enter to implement the orders of removal, the locals fought back. This pattern of attack and retreat went on until around 11 AM, when they received a call from a local at the shoreline reporting the death of an islander called Sayed Tafshan.
“We ran to the place of his death where there were clashes between locals and policemen. The security forces fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets, but it didn’t last long and the security withdrew from the premises.”
On Thurday, July 20, a delegation of al-Warraq islanders paid a visit to the security chief of Giza, the governorate to which al-Warraq belongs.
Major General Hesham Al-Iraqi vowed that no security forces would set foot in their homes without their consent, that they would keep their property (40 feddans or 38.5 acres) in addition to 40 meters around the perimeter, and that the 19 people arrested would be released in a matter of days. That being said, Al-Iraqi told the islanders that there was no need to protest, as it was planned on the following Friday afternoon.
Since there are no bridges connecting the island of al-Warraq to the rest of the city, the only means of transportation for both people and goods is via the Nile. After the raid, Mostafa says the Nile bus that is used to transport people to and from the island was banned by orders from the police.
The following day, the ferries used to transport goods to and from al-Warraq was also banned. There was no bread, no gas pipes for cooking and people couldn’t go to their work, universities or run day-to-day errands. Now, everything is back to normal with the exception of security forces deployed around the island that do nothing but observe the situation.
“The issue doesn’t need security, [it] needs architectural solutions,” the Chairman of Architects Association, Professor Seif Allah Aboul Naga, tells progrss. “As long as they rule and think according to their arms — [someone] who makes a mistake must be beaten up — nothing will be solved.”
Aboul Naga also blames the government for not educating people about the right to call al-Warraq home. “You [the government] have abandoned the land [al-Warraq] for more than 70 years, and now when they have taken it as a home, you call them thieves?”
But Aboul Naga considers the issue bigger than the dispute between al-Warraq islanders and the government: “The press is addressing the issue as a story of humanitarian crime and human rights, which is very shallow if you ask for my opinion,” he says, adding that the story is, in fact, about where the city’s development is going. “Greater Cairo is choked with around 20 million people, and these islands are considered the lungs through which Cairo’s population breathes.”
Aboul Naga explains that a number of islands were created when Khedive Ismail decided to divert the course of the Nile in the late 19th century, and that al-Warraq Island was one of them. According to him, the land on al-Warraq and the other islands belonged to the government.
“When Khedive was reshaping the capital, he wanted to lessen the burden on Cairo’s ecosystem by creating lands that would shelter green spaces and parks to exhale more oxygen into the congested part of the city,” he explains.
However, after the ousting of King Farouq in 1952, the island was abandoned, and fishermen made their home in al-Warraq. The following generations discovered that the land was fertile enough for farming, so they ploughed the soil and cultivated a community that has continued to this day. He argues that forfeiting al-Warraq Island allowed things to deteriorate, obliging the island’s residents to sustain themselves by building houses and creating their own community, without the government’s help or surveillance.
As a result, al-Warraq has long lacked basic infrastructure like proper sanitation and sewage. “We have also been calling for a bridge, because the ferries and Nile taxis cause frequent accidents in the river, and water traffic becomes slow or even paralyzed, disrupting people’s welfare,” says Haleem Mostafa.
On the other hand, Aboul Naga tells us that introducing old-school sanitation and sewage to the island would disrupt the natural environment, as would bridges, which would introduce cars and pollution.
“I’m not against urban developments, but these developments must be in harmony with the Nile island’s ecosystem. The buildings should be constructed from the island’s soil, for example. People can commute to and from the island with a Nile taxi, like they do now, and vehicles on the island should run on electricity. There are many sustainable sewage systems that could operate efficiently without harming the ecosystem of the island,” he adds.
“I’m not very comforted by the development project planned for al-Warraq,” the architect says. “The proof justifying my discomfort is the lack of transparency on the government’s part; as long as they are keeping it hidden, then there’s something fishy about it.” And while recent evacuations have escalated the crisis, the plans to develop the island are hardly new, with consecutive governments working on developing the island since the 1990s — although none of these plans were disclosed to the public.
Governments represented by their rulers must work according to their holistic visions, Aboul Naga adds. In that sense, if the government establishes a project on al-Warraq Island composed of high-rise buildings, for example, the project may reap commercial benefits. But if the project conflicts with the holistic vision of the city where the island is part of Cairo’s respiratory system, then they will have failed in their holistic vision as a government.