Clashes erupted between residents of al-Warraq island and police forces on July 16, 2017 - Photo by Ahmed Maarouf
CAIRO – 19 July 2017: Everyday, Mohamed Arafa, a 30-year-old construction worker, leaves for work by a ferry boat, the only transportation way off Warraq Island in Cairo’s Nile River.
At 6 a.m. on Sunday, Arafa left his home, took the boat and crossed to the other side. “I saw many armored vehicles and construction loaders standing on the other side,” he told Egypt Today in a phone interview.
Ferry boat moving the Nile River - Reuters
Shortly thereafter, Arafa received a phone call telling him that a security campaign came to the island to remove houses illegally built on state-owned lands.
“I have been living here for years on this island and I have papers proving my ownership,” he added.
There are around 100,000 people living on the island. Warraq Island is 1,800 feddans (1,868 acres) big, of which 60 feddans are owned by the government. Arafa affirmed that some residents have illegally built houses on state-owned lands; however, he criticized the “surprise” campaign, saying “is that the right way to tell them [residents] they have to leave their homes, where they lived with their children for years?”
Tension prevailed at the scene on Warraq Island, where residents gathered to stop the campaign from demolishing their homes. Clashes between both sides ensued, leaving one killed, dozens injured and nine detained.
Arafa described violent actions from the residents’ side as a normal “reaction”, especially that they were not told about the campaign beforehand.
Security forces deployed on the al-Warraq island to remove buildings illegally built on state-owned lands on July 16, 2017 - Photo by Ahmed Maarouf
The incident on Warraq Island came amid a nation-wide campaign to remove encroachments from state property, according to a statement by the Ministry of Interior.
In May, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi ordered a campaign to recover state-owned lands that were being squatted. In June, the government announced that a total of 919,400 feddans were restored.
News about the campaign meant to remove all residents on the island was denied by Ahmed Youssef, a member of parliament (MP) representing Warraq Island, explaining that the campaign only aimed to deal with 700 encroachments on lands owned by the ministries of agriculture and religious endowments, as well as 160 squatted homes on the Nile River floodplains.
Raising public awareness
“There should have been coordination between the authorities and the residents before the campaign took place,” said Mahmoud el-Saeedy, a parliamentarian also representing the island.
Saeedy told Egypt Today that the reason behind the violence seen on Sunday was a rumor that the state would take away their homes to execute investment projects. “The rumor circulated weeks before the campaign and left residents angered and afraid,” he said. However, Saeedy excluded that the state would remove thousands of residents from their homes, quoting officials as saying that “inhabited homes were not touched.”
On the other hand, Arafa, who witnessed Sunday’s campaign, claimed that furnished houses were demolished and some residents were kicked out of their homes as part of the crackdown.
Side of the funeral of a civilian who was killed during clashes erupted between police and residents of al-Warraq island on July 16, 2017 - Photo by Ahmed Maarouf
Arafa added that coordination with residents and how they will be compensated should have been discussed prior to the crackdown, as has happened in previous projects, citing an under-construction bridge that required demolishing a number of the islands’ houses, whose owners were compensated.
He went on to say that residents have legal documents proving their rights to the land and will present them to official authorities.
MP Saeedy noted that parliamentarians’ job in the coming period is to raise the residents’ awareness about the nation-wide campaign, and put them in contact with authorities.
The campaign has been suspended pending investigations into the violence that erupted on Sunday.