Cairo – Residents of a Nile island in greater Cairo woke up in recent weeks to find officials taking measurements of their houses – a final step before enforcing demolition orders.
Since then, people from Warraq – some of whom have been on the working-class, agricultural island for generations – have renewed efforts to oppose a mega development project that would see the island’s character and their homes erased.
“Just give us a part of the island, even if it is behind a wall,” one resident in his thirties told AFP, requesting anonymity due to security concerns.
“We will not leave,” he added, insisting he has all the proper documentation for his house.
With its green fields, red-brick buildings, irrigation canals and livestock farming, Warraq – located in Giza governorate and home to around 100 000 people – is just a ferry ride away from Cairo’s traffic-choked streets.
The government in late July evoked images of Manhattan as it unveiled an almost billion-dollar plan for the six-square-kilometre (over two-square-mile) island’s redevelopment, featuring glittering skyscrapers, helipads and marinas.
Minister of Housing Assem al-Gazzar has labelled those who oppose the redevelopment as “divisive forces of evil”, calling the old buildings “dilapidated”.
But residents like the man in his thirties remain defiant.
“We pay our taxes, our water and power bills, why can’t we benefit from the development of our island?” he said.
Authorities “gave some residents four days to leave their homes” in late July, a resident in his fifties told AFP, also requesting anonymity for security reasons.
The move triggered demonstrations, clashes and arrests the following month as the years-long fight against the project kicked off again.
The government has been promising massive returns on the redevelopment of Warraq since the administration of longtime president Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in 2011.
The project for the capital’s largest island was reactivated under current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose other “mega projects” include a sparkling new capital rising from the sands 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Cairo.
The general-turned-president has entrusted military engineers with the Warraq project — dubbed “Horus City” after the ancient Egyptian sky god.
In 2017, authorities moved to demolish “illegal” buildings on Warraq as part of a campaign aimed at restoring state-owned land.
At least one person was killed after the operation triggered clashes between residents and security forces.
Anti-eviction advocates defended residents’ legal rights to the land, with lawyer Khaled Ali sharing copies of residents’ property deeds on social media, as well as the birth certificate of one islander born there “100 years ago”.
But two years later, a committee of experts found the evictions to be “in the public interest”.
The Warraq resident in his fifties, who works in the agriculture sector, said he was not against relocating but demanded fair compensation, calling a recent government offer “ridiculous”.
“They proposed 1,400 Egyptian pounds ($73) per square metre,” he said. “You can’t buy anything off the island with that.”
Residents of other islands fear the Warraq project is just the beginning.
This year, 17 Nile islands including Warraq were handed over to the army and subsequently lost their nature reserve status.
Opposing urban development projects can come at a cost.
Warraq activist Ramy Kamel spent more than two years in pre-trial detention on “terrorism” charges before being released in January.
“Kamel was one of the most committed activists in tracking state violations against Coptic displacement due to security concerns or urban development initiatives,” historian Amy Fallas told AFP, referring to Egypt’s main Christian minority.
While state bulldozers have recently targeted more affluent neighbourhoods, urban planner Ahmed Zaazaa said low socio-economic districts were the first to be razed.
“It’s a gentrification process – the city centre is being emptied of poverty to make way for investment,” he told AFP.
One-third of Egypt’s 103 million people live in poverty, according to World Bank figures, with another third vulnerable to becoming destitute.
Zaazaa says the Cairo redevelopments aim to prepare the city “to accommodate the new capital”.
“Historic and traditional districts of Cairo are being destroyed” so workers can reach the new area, he said.
Some residents have been relocated to “mega public housing projects on the periphery”, but most find “other informal areas a better solution”, he added.
Using official statements, media reports and satellite imagery, Zaazaa has estimated that “15,000 buildings have been demolished” in Cairo since Sisi took power in 2013.
Residents of Warraq fear displacement will irrevocably rupture their tight-knit community, which is already feeling the pressure as development plans progress.
“Non-residents are not allowed on the island,” said the resident in his thirties.
“One of the ferries was recently closed,” he said, and the remaining two “are monitored by security services around the clock”.