Police and bulldozers rolled onto the Nile island of el-Waraq on Sunday, where they were met by rock-pelting crowds of residents who refused to leave their dwellings.
The government had set out to demolish hundreds of illegally-built houses on the island, but security forces were met by resilient protestors. After the squatters succeeded in forcing the bulldozers to turn back, clashes quickly escalated and turned violent. One squatter was killed while more than 50 others, many of them policemen, were injured.
A statement by Egypt’s interior ministry said: “The forces were surprised by demonstrations by some of the trespassers, who had assaulted the forces by firing birdshot and throwing stones ... Which pushed the forces to fire teargas to disperse the protesters and to control the situation.”
A local police officer told Reuters that “the mission failed from A-Z ... there hasn’t been proper coordination.”
Residents mourn a ‘martyr’
Hundreds of islanders held a funeral for the slain victim, holding aloft his body as they marched through fields, chanting “we will sacrifice the martyr with our soul and blood.”
El-Waraq is one of the Nile’s biggest islands and is home to tens of thousands of people. According to the government, there are around 700 recorded building and land violations that it is seeking to eradicate.
However, supposed squatters disputed that they were required to move, citing access to water and electricity supplied by the state. “How is my home illegal when you have for years provided me with water and electricity,” asked resident and civil servant Mahmoud Essawi. “It’s our land and we are not leaving.”
Marzouk Hany, a resident who marched during the funeral said: “We were born on this island ... we have proof of ownership, our parents were born here.. they want to give it to the Emirates to build hotels.”
No leniency against ‘common thieves’
The incident was part of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s campaign to regain control of state-owned land. Squatting and illegal use of state land is widespread in Egypt, as is unlawful building on agrarian land.
On launching his campaign earlier this summer, el Sissi said in televised comments said he would show no leniency towards a “common thief” using land not belonging to them. Since then, local media has shown countless images of police and bulldozers demolishing illegally built dwellings, which have been billed by the government as taking back the “people’s property.”
However, the island’s middle class and poorer residents have experienced the same economic hardships as many other struggling Egyptians. Ambitious new economic reforms introduced by the el-Sissi government to revive the country’s sluggish economy have caused prices for food and services to soar.
dm/jm (Reuters, AP, AFP)