Egypt acquires most of Al Warraq with evicted islanders compensated

Most of the 120,000 residents have been moved on due to an upmarket residential project

Al Warraq island in the Nile. The Egyptian government and inhabitants have been locked in a stand-off for years. EPA
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Egypt's government has acquired the majority of Al Warraq island in the Nile from residents, where a predominantly agricultural community had been resisting eviction for years.

The Housing Ministry said residents who had chosen to vacate their homes were given ample compensation, either in cash, new homes or agricultural land.

The government, which now owns 4.2 of Al Warraq's 5.4 square kilometres, aims to develop the land into an upmarket Nile-side residential community, which necessitated the removal of the residents, it says.

The project is estimated to generate billions in profit for the state-aligned developers.

Repeated demonstrations by the island’s 120,000 residents were held on Al Warraq from 2017 when the government began enforcing evictions on the grounds that much of the island had been illegally constructed and that most residents were not licensed to live there. The latest protests took place in 2022.

Ahmed Salah, a resident, confirmed to The National that new housing units in satellite cities around Cairo such as 6 October and Al Obour had been handed over to most of the island’s residents and that farmers had received tracts of land in Al Sadat city, 88km north-west of the capital.

In the beginning, there was a lot of anger and resistance, but when the residents realised that the government was insistent on constructing the development, they agreed
Ahmed Salah, Al Warraq resident

Mr Salah is one of the few people still living on Al Warraq island.

“Everything was pretty straightforward with the government,” he said on Monday. “They paid most cash compensations quickly, with no delays. I think because they had been trying to get everyone out of here for five years, they were anxious to get it over with once most people stopped resisting evictions.

“In the beginning, there was a lot of anger and resistance, but when the residents realised that the government was insistent on constructing the development, they agreed.”

Mohamed Hossam, another resident who works as a craftsman, told The National that some compensation payments have been delayed pending government land valuations.

He explained: “What happens is owners of land that the developers or the government have acquired are given a slip of paper, which they take to the Housing Ministry and are assigned new land wherever they're going, whether to build a home on or to farm. The problem is, they don't get the new land until the ministry determines the value of their old land, which can take up to two years.”

Land brokers have started buying the slips of paper from residents who do not want to or can't afford to wait that long, he said.

“Because many residents are too poor to be able to wait that long without their means of making a living, they are selling the papers to wealthy landowners and brokers who can afford to wait until things with the government are settled. A friend sold his slip for 1.8 million Egyptian pounds [$38,000}. He decided to be done with the whole thing and start fresh with the cash.”

However, the brokers' valuations of the land are often below market value.

Eviction justification

Housing Minister Assem El Gazzar has offered his own reasons for the mandated evictions, first citing the illegality of the entire neighbourhood and then asserting in a 2022 speech that substandard environmental practices from resident farmers had accumulated to the point that the government had to intervene.

Such claims were quickly refuted by residents who said that a police station, general hospital and public schools had been built on the island and that the collection of taxes, were examples that the settlement was sanctioned by the government.

The remaining residents have been told they can stay should they want, according to Mr Salah, but because most have left, the community no longer feels like home to those who remain. Those wanting to remain will also be living in a construction zone for several years.

Mr Hossam said his family plans to remain in Al Warraq and is in the process of building a new home there after acquiring permits from the government. He said that because the government was more interested in acquiring lands closer to the banks of the Nile, anyone living too far inland was allowed to stay.

“We were lucky, the area we live in is not very valuable to the developers, so my family will stay,” he said. “They can build a wall around their expensive communities if they want to keep us out.”

In 2022, the government said it had paid more than 5 billion Egyptian pounds ($106 million) in compensation since 2017.

During the initial demonstrations, one man was killed in clashes with security officials. In August 2022, police vehicles descended on the island and a stand-off with residents developed that lasted for days.

Rights groups at the time criticised the methods used to disperse protesters and videos purporting to show police violence were widely shared on social media.

Updated: April 01, 2024, 3:29 PM