Tensions are rising between the Egyptian government and the inhabitants of al-Warraq, an island in Cairo whose population has been mobilizing for almost two years against real estate speculation and forced evictions.
On March 13, three locals actively involved in the protests were arrested after being lured off the island into a trap by a phone call from someone who claimed he was a journalist and asked for a meeting. The three are Sayed Mostafa, 51, retired; Ibrahim Shaarawy, 32, a plumber; and Ahmed Gamal, a student. According to sources from the island quoted by Madamasr, during the three days of enforced disappearance that followed the arrest of the three, their families went to ask for information on their whereabouts from the various offices of the security forces, and were instead offered an exchange: “Agree to a deal about the lands of the island and we will free the prisoners.”
The three activists have ended up in the crosshairs of a mega-investigation (case file 488/2018), which is also targeting the dozens of people arrested in the days following the train crash in Cairo in late February, in a series of raids conducted by the authorities in various parts of the country, aimed at deterring all manifestations of discontent.
The escalation over the past few weeks is just the latest step in a conflict that dates back to June 2017, when, after some statements by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a massive police presence was sent to the island along with representatives of several ministerial authorities for a vast operation of evictions and demolitions. The inhabitants put up serious resistance, which sparked violent clashes, with dozens of wounded on both sides and the death of a young protester. In the end, the inhabitants managed to fend off the security forces and block the evictions.
The island, located on the Nile in the northern part of Greater Cairo, is inhabited by about 200,000 people, mostly rural migrants that arrived in the capital in the ’80s. Like many popular districts of the enormous Egyptian metropolis, the urbanization of al-Warraq has been advancing in a largely informal manner. The state intervened only later to set up a number of public services, but never legalized the status of the people and never recognized their legitimate ownership over their land and houses. Now, under the pretext of fighting illegality and creating a “new urban community,” the government wants to get rid of the local population in order to move forward with projects based on real estate speculation, on land that is highly coveted by big business.
According to an investigation by The New Arab, al-Warraq, together with other Nile islands, is planned to become a part of a large-scale touristic development project, backed by capital from the Gulf states. However, the details of this project have not been made public to this day. In 2013, the inhabitants of another island, Qursaya, won a long-term legal battle against the Egyptian army and obtained legal recognition of their rights to the land, after years of bloody clashes and military trials.
Such stories can be found everywhere in Egypt, where the rampant urbanization has accelerated the competition over land, and many communities, often poor and marginalized ones, find themselves living in areas that are attractive for the economic, political and military elite.
The residents of al-Warraq, who have organized themselves into a Council of Families since October 2017, reject the plans to evacuate the island and sell it off to speculators, demanding instead the right to a redevelopment that would be for the people, starting with the construction of a sewage system and a land bridge that would connect them the mainland.
Everyone has joined in the fight, from farmers to engineers, from fishermen to lawyers, all of them “sons of the island.” The experience of al-Warraq is a unique case of radical mass popular opposition to the el-Sisi regime, which has not only refused to be cowed in the face of repressive measures, but has also managed to build up a favorable image in the eyes of public opinion and civil society.
They have used every means available to carry out their struggle: protests in the streets, lawsuits, social media campaigns and negotiations with the authorities. In a country where every form of dissent is crushed, the islanders of al-Warraq have managed to stand up to the regime and to cause its plans to grind to a halt.
Since February, the islanders have been back on high alert, after the government has made clear its intention to continue with the demolitions, for now restricted to the coastal area. However, the locals fear that this is just a strategy to get a foothold on the island, and they have been organizing protests in which they have blocked ferries carrying equipment and building materials from landing on al-Warraq. For the past days, the people have been taking to the streets in the thousands against the ongoing siege by the police forces: since last Saturday, all the ferries that connect the island to the mainland have been guarded by a massive deployment of security forces.
A large public meeting was convened by the Council of Families for Friday in support of the three activists who have been arrested, and in defense of another 22 islanders currently on trial for the July 2017 riots, who have a court hearing scheduled for Saturday. Also on Saturday, another Cairo court was expected to rule on the appeal filed by the islanders’ legal team against the project for the “development” of the island. These two days will certainly be filled with tensions. However, what is equally certain is that the people of al-Warraq will not yield even an inch.