As much as 35 per cent of the Nile island of Al Warraq will be made up of public green space that will be open to Egyptians from all walks of life, a housing ministry representative said.
The island has been the subject of much contention over the past two weeks after the government’s efforts to evict the island’s residents to make way for a large-scale development project that will transform the island into a luxurious upmarket district.
Furthermore, under the new development plan, 30 per cent of the island will be designated residential units while the rest will be used for “hotels in addition to other commercial and cultural entities”, according to a phone-in statement on Sunday to Akher El Nahar, a talk show, by Abdul Khalek Ibrahim, deputy housing minister for technical affairs.
After widespread outrage against the evictions from opposition figures and social media users, various officials from the housing ministry have been making the talk-show rounds over the past two weeks to defend the project and its viability.
Videos from the island throughout August showed residents in continual heated exchanges with security officers who were seen using violent methods to carry out the evictions.
In response to the backlash, housing minister Assem El Gazzar called a news conference on August 18 during which he revealed that the “environmental concerns” were the main reason the government was now intensifying its efforts to evict the island’s residents.
He rejected at the time claims that violence had been used by security officers during eviction efforts and asserted that the development plan was an important step towards combating unofficial housing in Egypt, which he said was exacerbated by unlicensed construction carried out by millions of Egyptians during the infamously unstable period after the 2011 uprising that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak.
Despite compensation offers from the government, many of the island’s residents continue to resist the evictions, refusing to upend their lives and relocate.
But numerous residents have agreed to the housing ministry’s so-called “consensual purchase” policy whereby they agreed to relocate to other government housing settlements, such as Sadat City, 88 kilometres east of Cairo, where land is worth much less than on Al Warraq.
The housing minister said earlier this month that because of the differences in land value between the strategic Nile island and Sadat City, every feddan (4,200 square metres) of land taken from a resident on Al Warraq would be compensated with 16 feddans in Sadat.
Additionally, he said that residents who did not want to be compensated with land were given six million Egyptian pounds for every feddan taken by the government on Al Warraq. Whether residents have actually received any of the compensation is yet to be confirmed.
Mr Ibrahim, on behalf of the ministry, denied on Akher El Nahar that the island was being cleared to be handed over to foreign developers as critics have claimed, explaining that the biggest proof of this is that under the new development plan, 4,000 residential units will be designated for housing evicted residents who wish to return once the project is completed.
He pointed to other examples of evictions in other areas of Cairo where residents were allowed to return once their homes were developed. He singled out residents of the Maspero triangle, an area in central Cairo that had been significantly underdeveloped for years until a recently completed development project in the area replaced the run-down homes with modern skyscrapers with units available for the 25,000 evicted residents.
However, during an interview with BBC on Thursday, Ihab El Kharat, deputy head of Egypt’s Social Democratic Party, pointed to the fact that compared with Maspero’s 25,000 evictions, El Warraq houses more than 120 thousand people, which would make their resettlement much more difficult to accomplish.
He expressed his sympathy for the island’s residents during the interview, saying that after decades of being treated like a legal settlement in Cairo complete with a police station, a general hospital, more than a dozen clinics and a post office (all of which have been demolished), they are now being forced to see the legality of their homes revoked and their way of life changed.
The government on the other hand says that since the residents did not acquire permits to live on the island to begin with, the evictions are legal and a necessary means to combat unplanned housing, Mr Ibrahim said.
Supporters of the development claim that Al Warraq’s central place in the Nile and its relatively large size (double the size of the nearby island of Zamalek, one of the city’s most affluent districts) make the island a lucrative real-estate opportunity that is being wasted by underdevelopment and could be of better use to the country if it is renovated.