On Warraq Island, popular democracy defies secret state plans
 
 
Photograph: هبة عفيفي
 

Since declaring its intention to vacate Nile islands, the state’s strategy regarding Warraq Island has gone through several stages: from the use of violence, to negotiation, to legal persecution.

In a televised June conference, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave orders to prioritize vacating Nile islands as part of a wide-scale state land retrieval campaign, alluding to Warraq Island in particular. It was an allusion that came to a head when security forces descended on the island in July, sparking clashes with residents.  

The only constant in the state’s approach since June has been secrecy. Despite its attempts to vacate parts of the island, the residents still don’t know what the state’s announced “development plan” for their island entails and what its effect would be on their lives.

And while there has been much focus on the state’s actions, something interesting has been happening on Warraq. Despite the difficulty of organizing amid anger and aggravation and playing politics with Egypt’s powerful military, Warraq residents set out with almost no political experience to stand for themselves and protect their homes. They have expanded their actions beyond the immediacy of street resistance and moved toward developing negotiation strategies with the state and maneuvers to counter smear campaigns.

Mada Masr met with three of the 239 members of the Warraq Islands Family Council, a body that held its first session on October 27 and has since assumed the role of the voice of the island’s residents.

Turning anger into grassroots organization

Warraq Island residents were taken by surprise on July 16 when security forces landed on the island and started implementing demolition orders against 700 houses. The forces were able to demolish a few houses before their operation was stalled due to the violent clashes that erupted with residents and resulted in the death of Sayed Ali al-Gizawy, a young island resident.

The attack mobilized the residents and escalated the animosity they felt toward the state after the death of one of their own.

“If we had stood still that day, they would have demolished all of our houses. They came to take down our homes. What else are we going to wait for?” Fathy Said, a young resident of the island involved in organizational efforts, tells Mada Masr.

In the weeks following the clashes, the residents went out in marches every Friday raising the slogan “Against displacement.” They demanded reprisal for Sayed’s killing, and they sprayed the line “The island is not for sale” on the walls of their houses.

The media reacted by portraying island residents as aggressors and thugs infringing on state property. MPs representing the island’s district either sided with the state or remained silent.

Residents decided to take action to offer an alternative image to that portrayed by the media. They started by organizing a youth conference on September 21, where residents, heads of families and youth alike took to the stage to deliver impassioned speeches focused on recounting the stages of the island’s fight with the state, to refresh the memory of the hundreds in attendance, reciting the agreed-upon positions and demands to form a unified front. On a screen behind the speakers, the organizers showed videos they made of the media coverage of the events that had taken place since July.

“We want to counter intellect with intellect,” says a young engineer and member of the families council who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. “The smear campaign against us portrays the island’s residents as thugs. We wanted to show them the civilized face of the island. We wanted to show them that there are doctors and engineers among us.”

The speakers at the youth conference warned the attendees against falling into the traps set by the media, asking them to refrain from saying “we don’t want development.” Instead, they urged attendees to clarify that they want development that does not harm their interests, that they want the state’s proposition to be made public. The speakers also listed the main demands fielded to the government: Retribution for the killing of Sayed Ali, disclosure of the state’s announced “development project,” and the creation of a mechanism by which people who have built or cultivated on state land can legalize their position.

“Everyone is revolutionary. No one wants to find a solution. This is our reality now. We have to find a solution.”

The close ties between the residents of the island, which resemble relations in Egypt’s rural communities, despite the fact that they hail from different governorates, facilitates organization and mobilization, especially given that most families are tied together by marriage.

The idea of a council representing all the families of the island was first proposed in September’s conference. Each family nominated up to five members to what was to become the Warraq Island Families Council, and a group of young men were added to maintain the leading role of the island’s youth in the movement.

In the council’s inaugural meeting on October 27, its principles were laid out in a founding statement, the most crucial of which was that there would be “no negotiation on the land of the island.” In an attempt to break the state’s silence, the council also decided that they would not negotiate with officials until the government revealed its plan for the island. The council also held its first press conference last Friday to respond to the latest media statement by Major General Kamel al-Wazir, the head of the Armed Forces Engineering Authority who has been leading the state’s presence on the island, in which he claims that there have been no evictions enforced except with the consent of residents.

However, some of the residents, who were provoked by July’s violence, were cynical about organizational efforts and potential negotiation with the state.

While members of the families council were showing Mada Masr a copy of the council’s founding statement next to the port that receives the ferries that transport people from the Nile’s shore to the island, a teacher who lives on Warraq and was passing by overheard the conversation.

He insisted that the organizational efforts are futile and would not be able to deter the state, as it already has its eye on the island. For him, there is no alternative to direct clashes. “There will be no negotiation. This is the land of my father and my mother. If they displace us, where will we go? Let them kill us then,” he yelled.

The young engineer showed the teacher the council’s founding statement to convince him that it doesn’t contradict what he said. But the teacher refused to read it, waving his hands dismissively.

Ateyya Ibrahim, a member of the families’ council and a former member of the island’s official local council that was in operation until 2011, talked about the difficulties of organizing amid growing tensions. “Everyone is revolutionary. No one wants to find a solution,” he says, defending the council’s more realistic approach. “This is our reality now. We have to find a solution.”

Mixed messages under the title of “development”

Other than repeatedly declaring that it is creating a “development plan” for the island, the government has revealed little of its intentions. The government has denied several leaks of state plans involving projects that rely on foreign investors and would turn the island into a resort with seven-star hotels. However, these denials have not been accompanied by an effort to clarify anything the state perceives as a wrong assumption.

The state’s contradictory statements and actions on the island, between promises not to enforce displacement and violent evacuation attempts, have contributed to the residents’ mistrust in officials.

In September, the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper published a plan to “develop” the island attributed to the Urban Development Authority, which would turn it into a “touristic, cultural, commercial hub on the Nile banks,” under the name “Horus Island.”

The copy of the plan that Mada Masr obtained was signed by the Urban Development Authority and dated 2010. It proposed building a residential complex for the island’s current residents on a space of 200 feddans, using the rest of the 1,400-feddan island as a tourism city that would be bedecked with gardens, lakes, hotels and conference halls. The state has denied the plans, asserting that the potential development of “Horus Island” is still in the research phase, and that its plan would not involve displacing the residents.

For Ibrahim, the former local council member, the biggest problem is that the island’s residents don’t know what the state wants. “The governor didn’t come to visit us. No civilian official came to visit us. The military is in charge now,” he says.

“The word development is like honey in poison. They’re going to say we want to build a school, then say they have to demolish houses in order to create a path for equipment.”

The only official to visit the island since the crisis started in July is Wazir, the head of the Armed Forces engineering arm, who visited the island in August in an attempt to appease growing tensions. Wazir reassured the residents that the state has no intention to displace them, that it only aims to develop the island for their benefit. He also asserted that the Armed Forces is in charge of the development project. Sisi spoke to the island residents through Wazir’s phone to reassure them, according to residents. “We are here to serve you. We are not against you. You are our children and our people. We cannot displace you. We only want to develop the island,” residents recall Sisi saying.

Wazir tried to negotiate with residents on the latest point of contention, which centers on the government’s request for residents to vacate 100 meters around the Rod al-Farag bridge that cuts through the island. But the residents have refused, fearing that this is the state’s method to “get one foot in the door” of the island and to gradually vacate it. At the end of the August meeting, Wazir promised that no one would be forced to leave their property. However, the next day a team from the Armed Forces Engineering Authority arrived in military uniforms and measured the land around the bridge.

Suspicions about the intentions behind the development proposals have made them undesirable on the island, despite the fact that residents have suffered from a lack of essential services for decades, especially healthcare and sewage treatment.

“The word development is like honey in poison. They’re going to say we want to build a school, then say they have to demolish houses in order to create a path for equipment, and so on,” says Amr Ali, a member of the families’ council.

The state’s negotiation efforts stopped after Wazir’s visit. Instead, it started to move toward imposing its plan, as is evident from several developments recounted by the council members. Last month, a court ordered the demolition of the 720 houses that are those closest to the Nile, in addition to handing out a one-year prison sentence and LE50,000 fine to each owner.

Additionally, police forces posted at all the ferryboat stations leading to the island have banned construction material from entering since July, and the real estate registration authorities have been refusing to register houses since then as well. An official decree in July reversing the status of Warraq and 16 other islands as natural protectorates, which has been in effect since 1998, was also seen by residents as a move to relax building regulations, in order to allow the state to execute its plans. Additionally, the police force in the island’s small unit has multiplied, after being made up of a maximum of five members.

“Nothing is ever communicated to us. We find out when things are executed,” Ali says.

The legal basis for the state’s claim to the island is a 1988 decree which criminalized building on land 30 meters from the Nile’s shore. However, the majority of the houses on the island fall outside this belt. Most island landowners acquired their property by the acknowledged practice of “placing hands” (wad’ yad), whereby they are given ownership of a piece of land after undisputedly residing on it for 15 years. Many have succeeded in having their land ownership officially registered through this mechanism.

According to the leaked plan attributed to the Urban Development Authority, the land directly on the Nile’s shore, where building is criminalized, makes up only 115 of the 1400 fedans of the island.

The state’s claim of the illegality of residents’ presence on the islands is a contested issue.

Residents see the state as having condoned their presence on the island for decades, pointing to the fact that it has provided official services, such as a post office, police unit and three governmental schools. All of this amounts to an implicit legitimization of their position, one that the state is now backtracking on.

Members of the families’ council explained that residents are ready to negotiate and to adapt to compromises that require them to relocate within the island, on the condition that they aren’t evacuated completely and that they’re treated fairly.

Fathy Said, a young Warraq resident, explains that, above all, the state’s violent and dismissive approach is what aggravated people the most. “All that we want is to apply the law and not to have the law used against us. What if the situation were reversed and it were us who wanted land that the state owns? Who would have decided on the conditions and the price, us or the state?”

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