Bad environmental practices that had a negative impact on the surrounding waters were the main reason behind Egypt’s recent eviction of the residents of a large Nile island in central Cairo, the country’s housing minister said on Thursday.
The island, whose residents are mostly farmers, had been suffering from erosion and sedimentation problems for years, Assem El Gazzar said, and it had reached a point that was too serious to ignore.
El Warraq, a large Nile island in central Cairo with a surface area of 544 hectares, has been a subject of contention in Egypt since the government announced a large-scale development plan there about a decade ago.
The development would necessitate the removal of the majority of the island’s underprivileged residents.
Since an escalation in eviction efforts earlier this week, the government has been widely criticised for what some rights groups have called excessive violence used during efforts to remove the remaining residents on Monday and Tuesday.
Videos shared on social media showing locals clashing with security forces were met with public outrage.
In an effort to dispel some of what he called hearsay, Mr El Gazzar convened a press conference on Thursday to explain the government's actions.
The minister said that thus far, a policy of “satisfactory purchase” had been carried out between the government and the residents of the Nile island and that no one was being forcibly removed.
He promised that once the government's development plan for the island was complete — something that could take years — those who wish to return to it will be able to do so. Alternatively, they can choose from a number of compensatory options on offer.
“We pay per agricultural feddan in El Warraq a total of 6 million Egyptian pounds,” Mr El Gazzar said, claiming it is a much higher price paid per hectare than in any agricultural province outside of Cairo.
The government has so far reclaimed 373 hectares, or 71 per cent of the island’s total area. The reclamation has cost the government about 5 billion Egyptian pounds, Mr El Gazzar said, and this has already been paid directly to the owners of the reclaimed areas.
Of the reclaimed land, parts had been used for agriculture and others contained residential buildings, the minister said.
The ministry presented the island’s farmers with two options: they can take a piece of land elsewhere that is equal in value to the one they owned on El Warraq or they can be paid in cash.
Farmland was offered as compensation to the island’s residents so they can continue making a living, the minister said.
The government reportedly offered the island’s residents tracts of land in Al Sadat City, about 94 kilometres north-east of Cairo, where 8 hectares would be given in exchange for one feddan on El Warraq, because of the difference in land value.
“Some residents we dealt with jumped at this chance,” Mr El Gazzar said.
With regard to owners and renters of residential units that the minister said had been constructed with no permits from the government, they will either be given new housing units or, if they are renters, monetary compensation.
Where the new homes will be and how big, however, is not up to the evicted residents, the minister said, but is a decision reserved for a dedicated government committee.
In response to doubts that the island’s residents will not be satisfactorily compensated, the minister warned against listening to critics of the government who seek to sow discord.
Giving examples of other communities which, he says, were properly compensated when they were relocated to make way for development projects in Cairo, the minister promised that all parties would be satisfied with what they received in the end.
The minister urged people to stop circulating old plans for El Warraq’s development, asserting that since 2013 — when the plans were published by an Emirati-Singaporean developer that had been leading the project at the time — the government’s plan for the island has changed drastically.
The leaked blueprints angered many in 2013 and critics denounced what they called the sale of Egypt’s sovereign lands to foreign entities.