In Egypt, Nile islanders determined to stay put



Residents of a Cairo island with lush fields and unpaved roads, a world apart from Egypt's traffic-choked metropolis, are determined to stay put as judges rule on their possible expulsion.

Accessible only by ferry, the island of Warraq stands in sharp contrast to the capital with more than 20 million inhabitants across the Nile.

But the government's growing interest in Warraq has stoked fear among the 100,000 islanders who make a living mostly from agriculture, fishing and crewing the ferries.

"Why haven't they (the authorities) held direct negotiations between us and investors?" asked 40-year-old plumber Amr Khalifa.

"We know full well that every inch of this island is worth gold."

In 2017, Egyptian authorities moved to demolish "illegal" buildings on Warraq as part of a campaign aimed at restoring state-owned land.

The operation triggered violent clashes between residents and security forces in which at least one person was killed before the campaign was suspended.

Rubble from the demolitions, however, remains as a warning to the islanders that their battle is far from over.

On Saturday, the administrative court made up of Egypt's top judges is to rule on the residents' appeal against the government's decision to raze their buildings.

- 'We will not leave' -

In a 2017 report, the government said Warraq, an agricultural area of 1,000 acres (400 hectares), had been "illegally encroached for more than 15 years and transformed into an informal residential area".

Many of Warraq's residents insist they hold legal property contracts.

Sprawling slums have encircled Cairo over decades due to a dramatic population boom and economic hardship.

The real estate market remains beyond the purchasing power of low and middle-income Egyptians.

They have been hard hit by austerity measures including a currency flotation, slashing of subsidies and new taxes aimed at reviving Egypt's battered economy following its 2011 uprising.

"We were expecting more development, not expulsion," said 32-year-old Abu Rawash Mohamed, a ferry owner, adding that curbs had been imposed on the entry of building materials.

"If you ask any kid on a street here what this place means to them... they would say we will not leave this island," he said.

"The government must understand... that on the island of Warraq we have a special nature," said "Captain" Abdel Fattah, a local benefactor.

"There are strong ties between families on the island, nobody will abandon the other."

- 'Luxury projects' ?

The government has repeatedly denied it plans to expel the residents of Warraq to make way for a luxury investment project.

Last April, however, the cabinet decreed the transfer of Warraq to the New Urban Communities Authority which operates under the housing ministry.

The move was billed as part of a plan to develop the island in cooperation with the armed forces engineering authority, which is tasked with building grand hotels and tower blocks.

The authority is also leading the construction of a new administrative capital east of Cairo.

Warraq residents are adamant they will not quit the island. "The government wants us to leave this beauty... But where will we go?" asked Mohamed.

On the facades of a building, the graffiti reads: "The island is not for sale".

The fate of the islanders has drawn the attention of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha.

"The government has expressed an interest in initiating luxury developments throughout Cairo," she said in October after a visit to Egypt.

"There is concern that the island... will fall prey to this vision."

She has since criticised "new expropriations and home demolitions", triggering charges from the government of "unfounded allegations" over its housing policies.