Egypt squatters lose homes as state seizes land

Warraq Island - Hala Gamal looks at a pile of rubble on Cairo's Warraq island - all that's left of her house after a police operation to evict residents accused of squatting on state land.

Gamal, 31, said she had left the Nile island in the capital's north on July 16 to buy breakfast. She returned to find her home destroyed and her children on the street.

As part of a government campaign to reclaim hundreds of thousands of hectares of state-owned land, police stormed the island and demolished several homes, sparking clashes that left one resident dead.

The government says about 90 000 people live on the 420 hectare island.

In a cabinet report, it promised that "those who have contracts and official papers proving land ownership" would not be affected by demolitions.

But Gamal said that was not true in the case of her house, where she lived with her husband, his mother and their four children.

"I have all the government papers and stamps that confirm that my husband owns the house," Gamal said. "So why this aggression by the government against simple people like us?"

Ferry owner Nasser Ahmed, 47, said the orders were signed just a day before the demolitions were carried out.

"They rushed to implement them the following day without sending a single notice (to residents). They demolished two inhabited houses," he said.

Nature reserve

Squatters began settling on the island more than 15 years ago, turning what had been agricultural land "into a slum", according to a cabinet report.

In May, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered a campaign to recover state-owned land which had been encroached upon.

The authorities said in June that over 800 000 hectares of agricultural and building land had been illegally appropriated, but that the government had retaken control of more than 386 150 hectares.

Authorities have carried out similar measures before.

In 2012, the military ordered people on Al-Qursaya island, south of Warraq, to leave their homes as they were in a military zone.

According to the cabinet, the authorities made several failed attempts to implement demolition orders on Warraq since 2007.

But residents say little has been done to protect their rights.

"The government promised not to approach inhabited buildings, but they did," Yehia al-Maghrabi, who was head of the island's municipality for 16 years to 2011, told AFP.

"Did the state forget its land for 10 whole years?"

The state owns up to 25 hectares on the island, mostly agricultural land belonging to the religious endowments ministry and the Agricultural Development Authority, Maghrabi said.

Farmers living on the agricultural land are there legally and pay rent to the authorities, he added.

The remaining state-owned land is home to some 2 500 people, who pay rent to the ADA, he said.

Some of their homes have been there for more than 60 years.

In 1998, the Egyptian government issued a decree to classify the island as a nature reserve, a decision Maghrabi derided.

"Is it conceivable that there would be a nature reserve with schools, a hospital, a youth centre, a police station, and a municipality?" he asked.

Rumours have circulated on social media that the demolitions are meant to make space for a building project.

Users published pictures showing designs from 2013 to develop Warraq for commercial purposes.

The designs, which had appeared on the website of Emirati-Singaporean company RSB, were removed from the site after the July 16 demolitions.

No details were available about who paid for the designs.

The government denied the evictions were intended to clear the way for new development.

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