December 4, 2023

CAIRO (AFP) – With green parks on one side and water on the other, it was an anomaly in a city bordered on three sides by desert. For decades, Cairo’s buoys have occupied prime waterfront real estate, offering residents a front-row seat to the passing Nile, with water taxis, anglers, sport rowers and the occasional family of ducks.

But it is coming to an end: a government campaign to remove the city’s string of floating homes from the banks of the Nile has reduced their numbers from a few dozen to a handful. Houseboats have been a tradition dating back to the 19th century in Cairo, and government efforts to remove them have drawn criticism in Egypt, where residents mourn the loss of not only their homes but their way of life. Critics say the move is part of a series of development decisions by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government that endanger the city’s heritage.

Ahdaf Soueif, the award-winning Egyptian novelist who bought and renovated her home after returning to Egypt from the UK 10 years ago, said,

Officials said the floating homes are being removed or renovated for commercial waterfront development. They have not released detailed plans for what this entails. In recent years, a boom in infrastructure projects by the Sisi government has raised concerns about heritage sites, including the ancient cemetery. and historical gardens.

In late June, residents of at least 30 compounds were ordered to evacuate within 20 days. Located along the river in the working-class neighborhoods of Imbaba and Kit Kat, it sits across from the upscale residential island of Zamalek. The eviction notices came after years of government pressure in the form of increasingly expensive mooring licenses.

Action followed soon after, with most of the residences either dismantled by their owners or moved by the government in late June. Evictions are underway.

Soif said her two sons had their wedding ceremony on her house float, which is where she planned to spend the rest of her life. This week, her family watched her float away.

Souif was required to pay 72,000 Egyptian pounds (about $3,800) for a mooring license in 2018, up from 160 in 2013.

Omar Robert Hamilton, Suef’s son, said in a social media post that Suef and other residents had stopped paying the fees and filed a lawsuit to fight the increases. But the government has imposed fines and is now requiring the Souef family to pay 900,000 pounds, or roughly $48,000, in late fees.

Soueif comes from a prominent family of anti-government activists in Egypt, and her nephew Alaa Abdel-Fattah, perhaps the most prominent activist in the country, was imprisoned under Sisi. She said the ambiguity in government decision-making is astounding. I learned from an interview that an official gave recently on television that the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces had taken a decision to expel the residents of the compound in 2020.

The authority is the force behind many of the country’s military road projects and mega-plans, including the construction of a new administrative capital on the desert outskirts of Cairo. New construction and development is no easy feat in Cairo, a city with layers upon layers of history. But Soif says sacrificing history is not the right way to do it.

“When you try to turn Egypt into Dubai, you actually underestimate it,” said Soueif, referring to the modernity of one of the most modern capitals in the Middle East. “You are just destroying your assets that no one owns.”

Iklas Helmy, 88, the owner of a light blue houseboat, said she couldn’t imagine life elsewhere. I was born in a houseboat. She has tried to get a new license for her pontoon – her home for the past 25 years – and has been told that it cannot be renewed and that the decision comes from a very high position.

“Will it take my whole life to build a coffee shop?” She said. Talking about it makes her cry.

Helmy was walking with a salute to two geese who lived on the river bank next to her house.

After appearing in a number of media reports, Helmy’s case caused some protests. She called on the government to allow her to live in the boat until her death. Her appeal reached the president. In a rare televised question from the media, the correspondent of the Arab satellite channel Al-Hadath asked him about Helmy’s position specifically.

Sisi said he appreciated Helmy’s situation but said, “We are restoring order to the country.” He did not go into details.

It remains unclear what will happen to some of the boats that have been withdrawn – where they will be docked or whether the owners will be able to afford the fees.

Tarek al-Marri, an Egyptian architect who specializes in heritage issues, said the wooden barges are more reminiscent of those floating on the Seine in Paris in the mid-19th century, some of which still exist. At that time, the ruler of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, sought to imitate everything he saw architecturally in France.

Al-Marri said that the boats on the banks of the Nile captured the imagination of Egyptians and appeared in many classic films and books in the country. Some of them have become locations for nightclubs and bars. But now, the people involved are largely just homes.

Al-Marri said that government officials should have considered other options before imposing the demolitions. He said the boats could be preserved, moved to another stretch of the waterfront and turned into one of the city’s attractions.

“I think it’s still possible to have a conversation,” he said.

But there are indications that there is no room for debate on this issue.

The TV interview last month in which Suef and other residents learned of the fate of the floating homes was given by Ayman Anwar, the government official who heads the Central Department for the Protection of the Nile. He said boats operating in the tourism industry would be allowed to stay, but not those that were considered residences.

“The boats are like rickety cars from 1978 whose licenses were revoked by the traffic authorities,” he said.

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