Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Deadly eviction

Clashes between the police and residents of Al-Warraq island leave one person dead and dozens injured, reports Ahmed Morsy

Deadly eviction
Deadly eviction

Security forces arriving on Al-Warraq Island on Sunday morning to oversee the demolition of buildings illegally constructed on state land met with resistance from the island’s inhabitants. The ensuing clashes left one person dead and dozens injured.

“How do they expect us to leave our homes? If we leave our homes we will die,” Amina, a housewife in her 60s, told Al-Ahram Weekly one day after the clashes. Amina, who was born and grew up on the island, says the government’s treatment is inhumane.

“We built our house more than 50 years ago. We have government meters for water and electricity and we pay the bills every month. If our houses are illegal, as the government claims, why did it supply utilities and install meters? Why has it taken them all this time to inform us we live in illegal structures?”

The residents of the island say they were only defending themselves after being assaulted by the police.

“The police started to fire tear gas and birdshot. People responded by throwing stones,” says Farouk Mohamed, an island resident who witnessed the clashes. The Interior Ministry said residents fired birdshot at the police who responded by firing tear gas.

“Security forces were surprised by the actions of the squatters who attacked the police by firing birdshot and throwing stones. In response tear gas was fired to disperse the protesters and control the situation,” said an Interior Ministry statement. The police then withdrew from the island. One person was killed in the clashes. There are conflicting reports of the number injured.

On Monday Giza prosecution approved the detention of nine residents it said were arrested during the clashes for 15 days pending investigation. The Interior Ministry later announced 13 people had been detained for inciting violence. According to the island’s residents, 21 individuals have been taken into custody.

“Twelve were arrested from hospital after receiving medical treatment and nine were arrested following the funeral procession of the man killed,” says Al-Warraq resident Rami Said. He added that no one was arrested during the clashes.

Said, 35, who runs a mobile shop on the island denies that residents fired birdshot. 

“We are not terrorists. We don’t have arms. Almost everybody here supported the 30 June Revolution and protested in Tahrir Square. We all voted for Al-Sisi in the elections. We are only defending our right to live in our houses.”

Said, who says both he and his father were born on the island, owns a two-storey building and eight feddans of agricultural land. “We have official contracts for the building and the land,” he adds.

In a statement on Monday Giza Governor Kamal Al-Dali said police carried out 30 out of 700 demolition orders on Sunday. “Inhabited properties built on state land were not approached during the demolition campaign. Tenants were not forced out of their apartments and agricultural land was not touched,” said the statement.

Al-Dali said legal avenues remained open to residents to legalise their situation.

Shoukreya Mohamed, a grandmother of four, returned home from work selling roasted corn to find her home had been demolished. 

“My house was not uninhabited. I live in it with my son who has a legal contract of ownership,” says Mohamed. “We went to work and when we came back we found the house razed. The government didn’t give any notice of what they were planning.”

Khaled Al-Beheiri, 28, works in a vegetable and fruit shop on the island. “We knew from the media on Monday that our house was one of the 700 slated for demolition though it was built more than 50 years ago.”

“The government or the governor should have consulted with us first. They should have adopted a consensual approach, discussed compensation or an alternative house on the island. Instead they acted in this inhumane way.”

Shafei Abdel-Hafez, 70, says he was born on the island like his father and grandfather. “Where was the government when we constructed our house?” he asks. “I have seven daughters and a son who all live on the island. We will not go anywhere else. We belong here.”

Last year similar clashes took place on the island when security forces attempted to evacuate houses to make way for the new Road Al-Farag axis road. Displaced residents were subsequently offered alternative housing or compensation.

Al-Warraq island, opposite Shubra Al-Kheima on one bank of the Nile and Al-Warraq on the other, extends for 1,400 feddans and has a population of 90,000. It has three schools, a public hospital, police station, tens of mosques and a church. No bridges connect it to the banks, leaving the islanders to depend on five ferries.

The State Land and Assets Reclamation Committee, established last year and headed by former prime minister Ibrahim Mehleb, is tasked with retrieving public land on which buildings have been illegally constructed. During a conference on land reclamation in June President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi referred to Al-Warraq island without naming it: “There’s an island in the middle of the Nile that stretches over 1,250 feddans,” said Al-Sisi. “Chaos has spread and people have been building on land that they seized. And now there are 50,000 houses there. Where does their sewage go? It goes into the Nile water we drink. These are islands in the Nile... no one should be present on these islands.”

Al-Sisi urged governors, the Interior Ministry and the army to halt illegal construction.

This week Prime Minister Sherif Ismail told MENA, the state-owned news agency, that the government’s campaign to retrieve public land was being waged “to restore the people’s rights” .

He said over 700 judicial decrees had been issued ordering the demolition of illegal properties on Greater Cairo’s Al-Warraq Island, noted that property owners can still legalise their illegally-build properties and promised no agricultural land will be evacuated or destroyed.

Al-Warraq’s residents, however, are convinced the government wants to evict them to make way for a real estate project funded by Gulf investors.

“I will hold meetings with the residents of Al-Warraq to reassure them we are not seeking to evacuate the island. These claims are completely untrue,” said Al-Dali.

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