Al-Ahram Weekly Online
19 - 25 July 2001
Issue No.543
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

'Just leave us alone'

As the confrontation between the government and the inhabitants of two Nile islands moves to the courts Gihan Shahine finds out that people put little stock in government statements

A bird eye's view of Al-Dahab island in the centre of the Nile
The government's many statements assuring that residents of the two Nile islands of Al-Dahab and Al-Warraq will come to no harm have done little to defuse their anger. On Sunday, a large group of irate islanders gathered at the Administrative Court in Dokki to attend the second hearing session for the more than 10 appeals they filed to contest cabinet decree 542 for the year 2001. Around 20 lawyers, including representatives from the Land Centre for Human Rights (LCHR), volunteered to represent the civil claimants, demanding the repeal of the decree on the grounds that it contravenes existing laws.

For their part, lawyers representing the government demanded that the court throw out the case. They claimed that the land of the two islands "already belongs to the government -- not the claimants." The lawyers also argued that decree 542 is legal, having been "issued by the concerned authority and based on sound reasons."

The court will rule on 19 August; but many attendees were already despondent following the government's presentation of its defence.

"How can the government claim it owns the land when we have official deeds dating back to 1900?" exclaimed Zeinab Abdel-Nabi, a resident of Al-Warraq and one of the plaintiffs. Other islanders joined in: "We may wake up one day to find ourselves in the streets," fretted Amira Ahmed, who lives on Al-Warraq.

But lawyer Mo'taz El-Gizawi, who represents the plaintiffs from Al-Warraq, hurried to calm the crowd. "Don't worry;" he assured Abdel-Nabi, "We will win the case and have the decree revoked. The government's argument is illogical."

Decree 542, issued on 25 April (a national holiday) and kept under wraps for at least 15 days, stipulates the expropriation of the land of the islands of Al-Dahab and Al-Warraq for "public benefit." The decree implied the possible eviction of at least 80,000 people, most of whom are engaged in market gardening on the islands' combined area of 2,235 feddans. The two islands had been proclaimed environmental protectorates in 1988 to curb urban expansion.

The plaintiffs brief contested the legality of the decree and noted that the government has not explained what it meant by "public benefit." Legally, the government is required to provide a detailed plan for a project before it can seize private property, and may do so only when the project benefits the general public, such as infrastructure, a school or a hospital.

"In the absence of a project plan, the decree should be considered illegal," argued Abdel- Moneim Abdel-Azim, one of the claimants' lawyers. "Besides, the decree contravenes environmental law, which prohibits building on protected areas; agricultural law, which bans urban encroachment over arable lands; and irrigation law to which the islands are subject."

Moreover, the fact that concerned authorities were kept in the dark until the decree was made public seems to support allegations that the decree was directed toward "private," not "public," benefit, the lawyers insisted.

A brief presented by the Land Centre similarly supported the widely-circulated rumour that the minister of housing pushed the decree through to make room for private investment on the islands -- a claim vehemently denied by the government. The price of land on the two islands, centrally located and blessed with enviable views of the Nile, will probably skyrocket after the completion of the ring road and Al-Warraq flyover.

Official deeds show that Al- Warraq residents own 1,770 feddans, while only 48 feddans are state-owned, including 20 feddans already allocated for the Nasser health spa. In Al-Dahab, 125 feddans are owned by residents while 300 belong to the state. Most state-owned land is arable and has been cultivated for years by residents under usufruct arrangements.

"If the price of land rises, its impoverished legal owners will have the option of selling to investors and making a better living," said Yehia El-Maghrabi, head of Al- Warraq's municipal council. "What the government wants, however, is to evict residents in return for minimal compensation, under the pretext of the public benefit, and then sell the land to investors at many times the value of the compensation paid. The government is actually usurping the right of the poor to a decent life for the benefit of a privileged few."

Following a public outcry, the government repeatedly denied allegations regarding potential evictions and private investment. On 19 June, Prime Minister Atef Ebeid issued another decree (848 for the year 2001) confirming an earlier statement he made before the People's Assembly that those who have deeds to the land will not be evicted. The decree also stipulated that residents register their deeds at the local registry.

But why has the government not repealed decree 542 instead?

The government recently explained that decree 542 was issued with the aim of making a land survey of the islands. The intention was to spruce them up -- not evacuate them. The decree, the government insists, conforms to law 3 of 1982 which regulates urban planning. Only people whose lands or dwellings obstruct the construction of infrastructure will be evicted and compensated, according to Housing Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Soliman.

Soliman further told the daily Al- Ahram that decree 542 was issued in response to the inhabitants' pressing demands for infrastructure and the construction of a connection between Al- Warraq flyover and Al-Warraq island. He explained that the decree was shrouded in secrecy to prevent squatters from trying to obtain compensation. Soliman insisted that "there is no investment or investment projects in the area," since it is illegal to sell land seized for public benefit.

Many people, however, remain sceptical. In a show of public anger, residents rejected a visit by Soliman to the islands two weeks ago. And many legal experts insist that if the government really did not have other plans for the islands, it would have simply revoked the decree.

But there are further unanswered questions. Why is the government suddenly showing interest in upgrading the long- neglected islands? Is the government ready to spend millions on upgrading the areas for the sake of their poor inhabitants? And if so, couldn't the government conduct the surveys without issuing a decree to expropriate the islands for public benefit?

Worse, the decree also conflicts with the government's 10-year Shorouq project for developing villages, which has thus far provided Al-Warraq with a water utility and a school.

"The government is tricking us," El-Maghrabi protested. "Why is the government concerned with planning a village when many unplanned urban areas in Cairo remain in dire need of sprucing up?"

"The government is lulling the inhabitants into a false sense of security," concurred Mohamed Amer of Al-Warraq council. "Building infrastructure is only one way of obtaining legality for the gradual eviction of the residents, under the pretext that they are in the way of construction. And in time, all residents will be forced to move."

Will decree 848 ensure residents' future on the islands?

'No' is the lawyers' response. "It's useless," contends Abdel- Moneim, "It's an attempt by the government to calm people down until decree 542 is 60-days-old and it is too late to repeal it. Unless the decree is revoked, all residents will be evicted, despite their possession of ownership deeds. There is no doubt about that."

Helicopters are already hovering over the two islands surveying the land and taking photographs. In the meantime, residents are suffering sleepless nights as they fret about their future.

"We don't want anything from the government; we don't want sewage systems or roads; just leave us alone," screamed one resident.

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