One morning, Bosaina Samy, a 50-year-old cleaner, went to buy breakfast for her children before heading to work, only to find, upon her return, her house partially demolished by the government.
She is among hundreds of families in Warraq island facing the threat of eviction from their houses and farms to pave way to Egypt’s new mega city, which will be named after the ancient Egyptian deity Houras. Pro-state media occasionally refer to the project as the ‘Manhattan of the Nile’, in reference to the renowned New York borough.
Bosaina has never heard of the words ‘Houras’ or ‘Manhattan’, but says her family has contracts proving ownership of the land since 1910, before the end of the British occupation and the formation of the new Egyptian republic.
They come to steal our [land] and then turn around and sell it to us for a bigger price.
She says she grew up knowing that the government owns no more than 30 acres of the 1,600-acre island. Today, however, authorities claim to have acquired 71% of Warraq’s land plots, which they say legally entitles them to erect new developments.
Warraq (the island of two seas) lies between the two Nile banks linking it to Cairo and Qalyubia governorates. Like many Egyptian districts, the largest island on the Nile banks has been plagued by a lack of social services. Agriculture and fishing are the main source of income of the majority of its population, while younger generations are expanding into various skills and professions.
Demolitions started on the island in 2017 in order to make room for the massive Rod El-Farag Bridge. With a width of 67.3 metres, it held the Guinness World Record for the world’s widest cable-stayed bridge in 2019, an achievement that the government revelled in at the time.
Underneath the bridge, thousands of families are living rough. Atef, whose grandfather had owned the land since 1994, says the government wants to kick them out and offer them more expensive social housing on the same island. “They come to steal our [land] and then turn around and sell it to us for a bigger price,” he says.
Keeping tabs on the Warraq situation, a member of the Socialist People’s Alliance Party (SPAP) tells The Africa Report that in 2002, residents of the island won a legal case upholding their ownership of the land. Back then, the government’s share was a mere 30 acres.
“The residents have been paying taxes, electricity, and gas bills for years, and out of nowhere the government decides that they are illegally living on the island,” the socialist activist says.
In September 2021, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly issued a decision to expropriate lands within the perimeter of 100 metres on both sides of the Rod al-Faraj axis, as well as other parcels of land on the island to pave way for Nile’s corniche developments.
The premier cited “public interest”, which in this case was the completion and legalisation of the years-long demolitions and forced eviction led by the authorities on the island as well as other areas across Egypt, which will host the COP27 in November.
‘Forces of evil’
An MP representing the people of Warraq tells The Africa Report that he is pushing in the opposite direction, echoing the government’s rhetoric. “The allegations being raised by some forces of evil do not deter us from completing development work on the Warraq Island,” says Mahamoud Al-Saedy.
The term “forces of evil” has been propagated for years by Egyptian officials, including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. They mostly use it when referring to members or allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is linked to ex-President Mohamed Morsi, who died in prison in 2019, almost six years after the military toppled him. Recently, officials have become more inclined to describe any kind of opposition as forces of evil.
We are proud people who do not have bank accounts or gold. We only own land, which we cultivate with our sweat and blood. The land is our honour.
Saedy adds that “the volume of compensation that has been paid so far on the island has reached LE6bn [over $305m], of which LE5bn are for land compensation only, in addition to the fact that the cost of alternative housing amounted to LE2bn, in order to implement 4,000 housing units in a certain area of the island”.
He explains that a “resident of a housing unit has the opportunity to obtain an alternative unit in the new cities or an alternative unit to be built on the island”.
For the sake of the well-off?
Resolutely rejecting the seizure of their properties, Warraq dwellers say there are plans to build places of leisure for foreigners and the rich on their land.
“The rich have many different places to have fun at and the gulfies (residents of the Arabic Gulf countries) can buy land and houses anywhere in Egypt, but we can only own the land in Warraq because it is our inheritance to our children and grandchildren,” says an emotional Hamada, a 46-year-old farmer whose house was demolished.
“We are proud people who do not have bank accounts or gold. We only own land, which we cultivate with our sweat and blood. The land is our honour.”
The government wants to consider us [as] squatters who are occupying the land we live in.
A source at the State Information Services, the country’s press regulatory body, tells The Africa Report that the city, or the would-be Horus city, will be “a world trade centre on Egyptian soil, comparable to the most prominent trade centres around the world”.
“The estimated total revenues are at LE122.54bn (over $6.2bn), while it indicated that the annual revenues amounted to LE20.422bn for a period of 25 years,” the source says.
The source adds that the project will remove agricultural land to install and construct seven investment areas, a commercial shopping area, a high-rise housing compound, a public central park, a green area, two marinas for yachts, a tourist cafe, a walking area, a new museum, a helicopter landing area, a conference hall, and a seven-star hotel containing suites and apartments. The project is anticipated to cost the government LE1.7bn (around $920m).
Hamada and many fellow Warraq locals have vowed to physically defy the government in case massive demolition campaigns are launched to destroy their houses or de-green the island.
In 2017 and early 2022, police special forces stormed the island. The locals organised massive rallies and clashes ensued. The authorities and the pro-state media branded the protesters as members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Dozens were arrested and charged with terror acts, while one resident was killed.
The government aims to gradually gain more ground by annexing public land. In July 2022, a hospital and two schools, attended by around 5,500 students, were demolished.
“The government wants to consider us [as] squatters who are occupying the land we live in,” Fatma, a 24-year-old law student, tells The Africa Report.
“They are holding a tight grip, checking our IDs when we go home [by ferries], limiting the trips of ferries, intimidating women and children, and filling the island with police personnel and informants,” she adds.
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