Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 June 2001
Issue No.537
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Homeless on Al-Warraq?

A statement by Prime Minister Atef Ebeid took the heat off a confrontation between the government and the inhabitants of two Nile islands. But, as Gihan Shahine asks, was the statement misunderstood and were inhabitants deceived?

The Al-Warraq ferryman rows island children towards an uncertain future photo: Mohamed Wassim
After days of anti-government demonstrations and public fury, the inhabitants of the impoverished islands of Al-Dahab and Al-Warraq emerged from their modest homes on Sunday, singing, dancing and beating drums. It was the eve of Mulid Al-Nabi (the Prophet Mohamed's birthday), but their frenzy was due to a statement by Prime Minister Atef Ebeid before the People's Assembly which they interpreted to mean that they would not be evicted from their land. What Ebeid said, in fact, was that those who have deeds of ownership would not be evicted.

The dispute between the inhabitants and the government was caused by cabinet decree 542 for the year 2001, which reportedly stipulates that the land of the two islands be expropriated for public use. The decree, which had been kept under wraps, probably would have led to the evacuation of at least 120,000 people. It has now been referred to parliamentary sub-committees for further consideration.

The islands, Ebeid explained, emerged from the waters of the Nile following the construction of the High Dam. As a result, the government is the owner of the land and is entitled to use it freely for public benefit.

But bowing to public outcry, Ebeid later declared that the government would only seize vacant lands and those which do not officially belong to the inhabitants. This procedure, the government explained, is meant to curb the spread of shoddy housing, make better use of lands and raise state revenues.

Whether all inhabitants have deeds of ownership remains an open question. The island-dwellers insist that they have legal contracts of ownership, which Giza MP Mohamed Abul-Enein displayed in parliament. Housing Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Suleiman argued, however, that the two islands belong to the government "because inhabitants don't have deeds."

Suleiman said that the decree was aimed at "sprucing up unplanned [urban] areas on the two islands inhabited by no more than 12,000 people who live in run-down houses." He nonetheless promised that the "government will agree to whatever parliament decides."

The quarrel was caused, in part, by the secrecy surrounding the decree which, though issued on 25 April, was not published in the official gazette. It is unclear why the relevant authorities were left in the dark until word of the decree leaked out. The inhabitants reacted to news of the decree by a show of public wrath. Their complaints against the government's decision received extensive coverage from the press, which in turn questioned the decree's legality.

Renowned film director Youssef Chahine visited the two islands on Saturday, vowing his support for their inhabitants. It was reported that he plans a documentary about conditions there.

Most of the inhabitants are farmers with strong economic ties to the land. "The island almost went on fire after hearing the news," recounts Mohamed Amer of Al-Warraq's local council. "How for God's sake would the government expel thousands of families from their homes? This would only breed terrorism and crime."

Rumours later circulated that the Ministry of Housing had championed the decree to make room for private investment on the islands. Their location, already blessed with views of the Nile, gained importance after the establishment of the Cairo ring road. Al-Warraq and Al-Dahab are the largest Nile islands, measuring 1,470 and 377 feddans respectively.

Respected Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama wrote on Monday that the minister of housing urged the secret issuing of the decree to open the way for private investors to build upscale residential and tourist residences on the two islands, providing an alternative to Zamalek.

"The idea, which may seem attractive, is intrinsically wicked," Salama wrote. He argued that it would not only displace thousands of inhabitants but also damage the environment and cause additional traffic congestion in the heart of Cairo.

Moreover, "public benefit" usually means building infrastructure, a school or a hospital, and certainly not private investment.

"The decree is illegal and unconstitutional since it does not specify any urgent need to seize many feddans of land that legally belong to their inhabitants," maintains Mohamed Hamed El-Gamal, former president of the State Council. "Private investment, even if it is allegedly intended to increase public funds, will never be categorised as public benefit."

The decree also clashes with the government's 10-year Shorouq project for developing the Egyptian village. Allocating LE250,000 annually for the development of Al-Warraq, Shorouq has thus far provided the island with a water station and a school. Other projects -- to upgrade the island's only health unit, turning it into a 24-hour hospital, build a sewage system and a roadway connecting the east and west of the village -- are well under way. "We were suddenly informed that officials would come to take measurements of our houses to determine financial compensation," said Mamdouh Tayeh, head of Al- Warraq's local council. "To our surprise, we found that the Giza governor himself had not been given prior notice of the decree."

Nor were the ministries of agriculture and environment consulted beforehand. The two islands had been declared ecologically protected areas in 1998. With vast areas of fertile agricultural land (190 feddans in Al-Warraq alone), the islands are considered a prime source of potatoes and vegetables for Greater Cairo.

"The decree violates the agricultural law which prohibits construction of buildings on agricultural land and that of the environment which bans any encroachment on protected areas," contends Asma'a El-Halwagi of the environmental NGO Tree Lovers. "The islands are also the destination of birds immigrating [from Europe in winter] and any investment in the area would damage nature there."

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