Impoverished residents of red brick homes on an island in the Nile look nervously across the river at another Cairo slum, bulldozed 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.
Since taking office in 2014, Sisi 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.
There is an obstacle to that vision: people living there. Many do not want to leave and have not been told what will happen to the districts they have called home for generations.
The plan for the Nile island, Warraq, is overseen by the army and a government housing body. Areas scheduled for development include slums where authorities say residents built illegally on state or privately owned land for decades, such as Warraq and nearby Maspero.
Under pressure from former general Sisi to transform those areas, authorities 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 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, sometimes to isolated desert compounds. They complain compensation for vacating prime real estate is small and believe they will end up worse off.
“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 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 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 pounds ($80) per square metre. That’s too little to be able to afford other land in Cairo,” Zeidan said.
Other residents say prices on the bank opposite the island are closer to 8,000 pounds ($450) per square metre.
Living in Asmarat would put many island 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 a woman who declined to be named for fear of reprisals by authorities.
Zeidan said officials told residents development can happen without them leaving the island.
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.
Satellite images show dozens of buildings 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 an 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, 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 before projects are finalised and long-term benefits assessed.
They point to Warraq and Maspero, an area owned by Egyptian, Saudi and Kuwaiti companies, 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.
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.
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 pounds ($3,300) per room Maspero residents were paid to leave their homes, plus 40,000 pounds ($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 pounds ($20,000). Buying outright would cost 750,000 pounds ($42,000).
Hundreds of Maspero families 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 are guarded by security forces.
Hisham Abu al-Ela, a businessman in Maspero whose home on the edge of the area faces demolition, said he would stay until the bulldozers came.
“We’re not anti-development. We just want to be included – not kicked out.”