Death on the Nile: man killed in clashes over 'illegal' buildings

But is Egypt's plan for a tourist resort on Al Warraq island the real reason for the crackdown?

Mohamed, the brother of Syed Tafshan who died in clashes with residents of the Nile island of al-Warraq, when security forces attempted to demolish illegal buildings, reacts in the south of Cairo, Egypt July 16, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
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After a hearty breakfast and sweet tea together by the banks of the River Nile, Mohamed Tafshan saw his brother Sayed off, never thinking it was the last time he would see him alive.

A few hours later, 26-year-old Sayed lay dead in the street. He had been shot in the neck and his body was peppered with shot.

It was Sayed's misfortune to be caught in the middle of a confrontation between Egyptian central security forces and residents of Al Warraq, a 530-hectare island on the Nile, north of Cairo. It is home to around 100,000 working- and middle-class Egyptians.

But not for very much longer, if the state has its way.

On the morning of July 16, island residents watched as about 18 army tanks and dozens of troops landed on the island. Their task was to  demolish illegal buildings.

Such arrivals had happened before over the years but this time there was a ferocity  - and haste - to their task.

It is unclear how many buildings were reduced to rubble but long-term residents maintain that it was as many as 30. The Egyptian government has not disclosed how many illegal buildings there are on Al Warraq but islanders insist that most of those that were torn down were not illegal at all and in fact had permits issued by the state.

Armed with rocks, the islanders tried to stop the destruction. Things quickly escalated, leaving Sayed dead and 56 – both police and civilians – injured.

"I saw him in the morgue and it was shocking," Mohamed Tafshan, 27, told The National two days later at his brother's wake.

“What am I going to do without him? Getting justice for Sayed will be through the courts. I am not scared. How many times do we die anyway?” he said. “He was my brother and now he is gone."

Hanafi Amin, a lifelong friend of Sayed who was standing next to him when he was killed, described the confusing sequence of events.

“He told a policeman to not swear at the women and children. Then the policeman’s senior commander struck the officer for not obeying his, the commander’s, order and then shot Sayed for being a decent human. His neck swelled up instantly. I immediately gathered up his body and put him on a toktok (auto-rickshaw) driving rapidly toward the Nile Hospital while they continued to fire on us. It all happened so quickly,” Mr Amin said.

In May, president Abdel Fattah El Sisi ordered the demolition of illegal buildings on state-owned land throughout Egypt. In a televised address, he specifically singled out Al Warraq for multiple building violations. The job of evicting those living in illegal homes fell to the police and the army.

However, the entire campaign to recover state land is futile, according to Yahia Shawkat, a built environment researcher focusing on social justice issues in urban planning. He estimates that 70 per cent of all of Egypt’s buildings were built without permits.

“There is a history of the state trying to evict residents off the island in the late 1990s, in 2008 and in 2012. There has been a state-sponsored interest in evicting the landowners to reuse the land for property development,” he said. “The state is trying to raise cash to cover its budget deficit and has tried to use land as a source of cash.”

Al Warraq falls under the municipal control of Giza. Deputy mayor Major Alaa Haras earlier this month announced plans to turn Al Warraq into a top tourist resort, bringing economic benefit to residents. The aim is to attract wealthy investors and tourists who can fill the country’s need to build up its foreign currency reserves, which have decreased considerably since the revolution in 2011.

Despite several requests, Maj Haras declined to comment on the demolitions and forced evictions on Al Warraq.

In May, president El Sisi extolled large-scale real estate projects, saying, “We are all for new investment projects and for facilitating the work of investors."

After last Sunday's operation, the residents who were evicted were taken in by relatives. Those who were away from the island at the time came back to their homes crushed to rubble.

In the days afterwards, blueprints of building plans on what looked very much like island plots circulated on social media. The plans came from RSP Architects, a Singaporean firm with offices in Dubai.

The firm’s website featured a description, complete with arty photographs, of a lavish building project commissioned in March 2013 for the “spectacular site” of Al Warraq. It was removed from the website last week.

“Finding out online that your home has been planned for redevelopment is a transgression in itself. Why can’t the owners of properties on Al Warraq be part of this redevelopment? Why can’t they capitalise instead of being marginalised?” Mr Shawkat asked.

After the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, aid from the UAE helped to steady Egypt's languishing economy. Economic agreements totalling around $70 billion were signed with Emirati firms after an economic conference held in Sharm El Sheikh in March 2015.

For Mohamed Tafshan, now mourning the loss of his sibling, the development of Al Warraq is an irrelevance. No one has been charged over Sayed's death but an autopsy is under way.

Sayed’s friends say they are open to negotiations with the state about its development plans. But after last week’s confrontation ended with the loss of the young man’s life and numerous people made homeless by the apparently random destruction, they doubt the state has the political will to pay out compensation to anyone for those who stand to lose property.

And they will resist forced eviction, they said. About 200 young people staged a protest to demonstrate their resolve on Tuesday last week.

“We have built this land with our hearts and hands,” Mr Amin said. “We will end up dying here. They can carry our corpses out on the river but we are not leaving this island. This is our home.”