Demolition on the Nile puts squeeze on two Cairo districts

CAIRO: Impoverished residents of red brick homes on an island in the Nile look nervously across the river at another Cairo slum, bulldozed this summer into a wasteland of rubble.

Both areas are earmarked for tourism or business developments, part of efforts by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to attract investment and boost an economy still reeling after Egypt’s Arab Spring upheaval of 2011.

Hisham Abu al-Ela, a 55-year-old businessman, looks out from window of his house which hasn’t

Since taking office in 2014, Sisi has sought to transform Cairo, building a new administrative capital on its outskirts and aiming to turn the city centre into an investor’s dream. Glossy magazine adverts make Cairo look more like Dubai, with glitzy tower blocks on the banks of the Nile.

But there is an obstacle to that vision: people living there. Many say they do not want to leave, and have not been told what will happen to the districts they have called home for generations.

Hisham Abu al-Ela, a 55-year-old businessman, close the window of his house which hasn't been Hisham Abu al-Ela, a 55-year-old businessman, close the window of his house which hasn’t been demolished yet, in the so-called "Maspero Triangle", in Cairo. (File photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh) Hisham Abu al-Ela, a 55-year-old businessman, close the window of his house which hasn’t been demolished yet, in the so-called "Maspero Triangle", in Cairo, Egypt, September 13, 2018. Picture taken September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

The plan for the Nile island, Warraq, is being overseen by the army and a government housing body. Areas scheduled for development include slums where authorities say residents have built illegally on state or privately owned land for decades, such as Warraq and the nearby area razed this summer, Maspero.

Under pressure from former general Sisi to transform those areas, authorities have either attempted forced evictions or offered compensation in money or property.

Officials say the thousands evacuated are making way for projects that will bring prosperity to all Egyptians, and that some residents will return when development is completed.

Inhabitants are not convinced.

They say their livelihoods, from running shops to farming and fishing, will be destroyed if they are forced to move far away, sometimes to isolated desert compounds. They complain that compensation for vacating prime real estate is small, and believe they will end up worse off.

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A general view of the housing project "Long Live Egypt", at Al-Asmarat, a housing complexA general view of the housing project "Long Live Egypt", at Al-Asmarat, a housing complex in Al Mokattam area. (File photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh) A general view of the housing project "Long Live Egypt", at Al-Asmarat, a housing complex in Al Mokattam area, at Cairo’s desert outskirts, Egypt September 12, 2018. Picture taken September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

"Development is great, but we don’t think it’s meant for us," said Hussein Zeidan, a building contractor living on Warraq, a large green island near downtown Cairo that is home to nearly 100,000 people.

Warraq has seen the strongest local resistance to evictions. A protester died in clashes last year between residents and security forces who came to demolish homes.

"The demolitions came without warning. Only after the clashes did officials try to reassure us the area is being developed for us," Zeidan said.

Weeks before the violence, Sisi had told government ministers live on TV: "There are islands on the Nile, which legally should not have people on them. Make dealing with them a priority."

Authorities have since softened their approach, trying to coax people out with offers to buy their land or provide them with apartments at Asmarat, a sprawling housing complex on Cairo’s desert outskirts.

"The offers aren’t enough – about £1,400 (US$80) per square metre. That’s too little to be able to afford other land in Cairo," Zeidan said.

Egyptians walk at the housing project "Long Live Egypt" at Al-Asmarat, a housing complex Egyptians walk at the housing project "Long Live Egypt" at Al-Asmarat. (File photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh) Egyptians walk at the housing project "Long Live Egypt" at Al-Asmarat, a housing complex in Al Mokattam area, at Cairo’s desert outskirts, Egypt September 12, 2018. Picture taken September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Other residents say prices on the bank opposite the island are closer to £8,000 (US$450) per square metre.

Living in Asmarat would put many of the island’s inhabitants out of work, they say.

"People who work on Warraq are farmers and fishermen, and they want to put them in an apartment in the desert – where would their animals go?" said one woman who declined to be named for fear of reprisals by authorities.

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YACHT-FILLED MARINAS

Zeidan said officials also told residents the development can take place without them leaving the island.

But with demolition orders on 700 buildings, according to a 2017 interior ministry statement, and the rest of Warraq occupied by houses or farmland, thousands think they will have to leave.

Development is underway. A half-built multi-lane road bridge crosses the Nile and swings into Warraq, dwarfing housing blocks and farmland.

A bulldozer works on the housing project "Long Live Egypt", at Al-Asmarat, a housing compA bulldozer works on the housing project "Long Live Egypt", at Al-Asmarat. (File photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh) A bulldozer works on the housing project "Long Live Egypt", at Al-Asmarat, a housing complex in Al Mokattam area, at Cairo’s desert outskirts, Egypt September 12, 2018. Picture taken September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Satellite images show dozens of buildings were demolished for the highway last year. Reuters reporters were prevented by police from reaching the island to interview residents.

The plans for Warraq are not yet clear. Designs from several years ago, still laid out on the website of one Egyptian architectural firm, show it as a modern mini-city with yacht-filled marinas. The firm, Cube Consultants, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The pro-government Youm 7 news website in April quoted officials as saying the island will become a "high-end tourist housing project".

In June, the government announced it would "establish a new housing community on lands of Warraq island", without elaborating. In interviews with Reuters, officials declined to give details of development plans.

NO CLEAR PLAN

Rights activists say people are being displaced even before projects are finalised and their long-term benefits assessed.

They point to both Warraq and Maspero, an area owned by Egyptian, Saudi and Kuwaiti companies, which was cleared of slum housing earlier this year.

"Even after people moved, there was still no detailed plan for the area," said Ibrahim Ezzedine, a housing researcher with the Egyptian Centre for Rights and Freedoms.

A general view of a government-demolished slum behind Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) heA general view of a government-demolished slum behind the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) headquarters. (File photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh) A general view of a government-demolished slum behind Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) headquarters in the so-called "Maspero Triangle" in Cairo, Egypt, September 13, 2018. Picture taken September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Khaled Saddeek, director of Egypt’s Informal Settlement Development Fund, a government body, said Maspero would be a hub for "business, hotels, offices and housing", but declined to elaborate. "The plan is not final yet," he said.

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The proprietor companies might develop the area on their own, or jointly with Egyptian authorities – it was not yet clear – depending on which companies decided to "participate in development", he said.

The £60,000 (US$3,300) per room Maspero residents were paid to leave their homes, plus £40,000 (US$2,200) of social support, was generous, Saddeek said.

He said some Maspero evacuees would return after the three years set aside for development, to rent or buy apartments. Under a rent-to-buy system the flats would cost at least £360,000 (US$20,000). Buying outright would cost £750,000 pounds (US$42,000).

A labourer washes his face at a slum being demolished behind Egyptian Radio and Television Union (EA labourer washes his face at a slum being demolished behind the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) headquarters. (File photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh) A labourer washes his face at a slum being demolished behind Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) headquarters in the so-called "Maspero Triangle" in Cairo, Egypt, September 13, 2018. Picture taken September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Hundreds of Maspero families who cannot afford this, even with compensation, now live in Asmarat. "They’re far from work with few other job opportunities. The closest shop is an expensive supermarket. These people live below the poverty line," Ezzedine said.

New residents of Asmarat declined to be interviewed, saying they feared reprisals for talking to reporters. Entrances to the area are guarded by security forces.

Hisham Abu al-Ela, a businessman in Maspero whose home on the edge of the area also faces demolition, said he would stay until the bulldozers came.

"We’re not anti-development. We just want to be included – not kicked out."