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The battle for the Nile riverbanks

As the Egyptian government presses ahead with its campaign to reclaim the banks of the River Nile, residents of the island of Zamalek are struggling to remove a dozen boats they say represent a public nuisance

Hadeer El-Mahdawy , Tuesday 29 Aug 2017
"No to the floating restaurants." (Photo: Hadeer El-Mahdawy)
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Views: 7721

Residents of Zamalek, Cairo's upscale island in the Nile, have been campaigning for the removal of entertainment boats anchored along the island's shores.

People living in Mohamed Abdel-Wahab Street, which overlooks the river, are hanging signs from their balconies saying: "No to the floating restaurants."

Among them is AUC engineering professor Amr Ali Ibrahim, who lives in the area with his family and is an active member of the Save Zamalek campaign.

Ibrahim told Ahram Online that the problem started back in the 1990s, when residents tried to have two boats removed that were "causing noise, traffic jams, and security threats."

The residents filed a lawsuit against the boats, which were tethered along Mohamed Abdel-Wahab Street, citing breaches of environment law, sanitation law and traffic regulations.

In 2000, the State Council ruled in favour of the residents, ordering that the boats should not be issued new licenses and must be removed. However, the ruling was never implemented, and the offending boats remain in place.

Philippe Maary, another member of the Save Zamalek campaign and an island resident for 25 years, told Ahram Online that this latest campaign was launched after residents learned of a plan to set up a number of new boats along Mohamed Abdel-Wahab Street.

"A few months ago, we saw that workers were cutting down trees, a clear sign that new boats were coming. After making inquires, we learned that seven new boats were coming to the area," Maary said.

There are currently 12 entertainment boats anchored on the banks of the Nile in Zamalek, housing dozens of restaurants and night clubs.

Aside from the judicial ruling in 2000, there have been several administrative decrees to remove or terminate the licenses boats around the island. However, none of the decrees have been implemented, and the boats continue to do business.

Signs on the balconies of a building in Mohamed Abdel Wahab street against the floating restaurants (photo: Hadeer El-Mahdawy)

Among the key concerns of residents is the large number of cars parked in the area by patrons, causing traffic jams and blocking access to ambulances and fire trucks.

The problem in Zamalek – a relatively small area with a large upper middle-class population – is well known and highly visible. However, Ahmed Zaza, an urban planning researcher and co-founder of the 10 Tooba research group, says the problem of riverside encroachment exists from Shubra El-Kheima in the north to Helwan in the south.

Zaza, who has plotted the various activities and structures on a map of the river, says that the problem is not limited to entertainment boats or private dwellings, but includes industrial sites and public buildings.

In 2015, he says, there were 13 factories, five government buildings, 27 government-affiliated social clubs, five embassies, two educational establishments, four gas stations, 17 mosques, one church, and five parking spaces along the Nile in Greater Cairo.

Greater Cairo has around 99 kilometres of riverbank, including the various islands and the mainland. Zaza says that due to the structures along the river, only 15 kilometres of the Nile can be seen from ground level without obstruction.

Save Zamalek campaign

Ibrahim says that 600 residents from 15 buildings in Zamalek are petitioning the government to cancel the licenses for the new boats.

"We have received no response from the government, so we got the idea of hangning signs from our buildings and balconies, because we cannot hold signs in the street," Ibrahim added.

In 2013, Egypt passed a law prohibiting street protests without a permit.

"We recently submitted a complaint to a number of officials, including the presidency, the prime minister, and the ministers of tourism, interior, and environment," Maary told Ahram Online.

The residents say that one reason they object to the boats is that the businesses pay the governments miniscule amounts for licensing and utility fees.

The complaint submitted by the residents states that "the combined total the government receives from these boats is less than EGP 50,000 per year.”

The residents say they have obtained a copy of a licence for one of the boats, which measures 75 metres in length. According to the license, the owners are required to pay a mere EGP 1,500 in annual fees, they say.

The complaint filed by the residents says that this small amount indicates some degree of "cooperation" between government bodies and investors.

"These boats also do not comply with industrial security standards or the building code, because they have their foundations in water, and there is no law regulating their work," Ibrahim added.

Maary says that the noise coming from the boats at night "can move a cup on a table and shake windows, which prevents [residents] from sleeping."

He says that some of the residents have resorted to using insulation in their bedrooms to reduce the noise, while others have left their homes entirely.

In January 2015, the government launched the "Campaign to Rescue the Nile" to remove structures that impinge on the riverbank, terminate all new licenses for private, commercial, and government boats, and revise older licenses to ensure they are not in violation.

Shortly after the campaign was launched, then-Minister of Irrigation Hossam Moghazy said that "it is time for the 90 million Egyptians to enjoy the Nile and to save it from some 50,000 violations."

A sign by Cairo governorate for a parking space to the expected new boat Nile Elite in Zamalek (photo: Hadeer El-Mahdawy)

Egypt's Ministry of Irrigation announced on 12 August that around 27,460 "infringements" along the Nile in different governorates have been removed since January 2015 by the ministry's Department of Saving and Developing the Nile.

However, Maary says that despite the government's claim that no new licences for boats would be issued, a licence was granted for a boat restaurant in 2015 to former ambassador Mervat El-Tallawy and other partners, including business tycoon Naguib Sawiris.

In June 2017, however, the Ministry of Irrigation responded to legal complaints against Tellawy's boat-restaurant, saying the licence was temporary, and that it ended in July 2016 and was not renewed. However the boat-restaurant has not operated.

In February this year, the head of ministry's Department of Saving and Developing the Nile, Salah Ezz, said in an interview with newspaper Youm 7 that all infringements along the Nile are expected to be removed by the end of the year.

Ezz asserted that even infringements by "important people" would be removed.

Ezz told Ahram Online that only one new boat has been authorised for mooring by Zamalek's Mohamed Abdel-Wahab Street. The licence for the boat was issued two years ago, before the cabinet issued a decree prohibiting the granting of licences for Nile boats in 2015.

Ibrahim, however, insists that the Nile has been sold "to businessmen who control laws and regulations."

Zaza says that the campaign against the Nile boats does not go far enough, and that it should also target other violations, including government buildings and clubs, such as the Judges Club.

He believes that every neighbourhood should be involved in government decisions concerning their local area.

He also says that Nile boats and restaurants pay much less than they should to the government, and that they do not coordinate with the residents of the neighbourhoods in which they are located.

The right to the Nile

Article 44 of the Egyptian constitution states: "The right of every citizen to enjoy the Nile is guaranteed ... and the government is obliged to remove all infringements."

Zaza says that "the Nile's banks are public property, and according to ministerial decree 18475 of the year 1988, it is prohibited to establish any buildings on the Nile's banks, with no exceptions."

Zaza asserts that the government itself is a major violator of this decree.

The licence for structures along the river states that the height of structures should not exceed one metre above water level, and should not obscure the view of the Nile from ground level.

According to Zaza, activities along the Nile are organised by the right to usufruct, meaning members of the public have the right use the land but not own it.

Before the 1960s, most activities involved agricultural uses that did not obscure the river. Starting in the 1960s, the building of clubs started along the Nile’s banks, also without blocking the view.

In the 1980s, however, structures that obscured the view of the Nile began to appear, Zaza says.

Zaza asserts that the government is dealing firmly with small boats and huts on the Nile, as they are easier to remove and this makes a show of implementing the law.

Zaza says that the government does not remove violations set up by businessmen or official establishments, some of which completely obscure the view of the Nile with walls or other structures.

He adds that factories are polluting the Nile with their waste.

An anchorage to one of the new boats in Zamalek (photo: Hadeer El-Mahdawy)

However, irrigation ministry spokesperson Hossam El-Emam told Ahram Online that "the ministry is filing violation reports without exception," pointing to the removal of a violating structure owned by former prime minister Ahmed Nazif.

By the end of May 2017, the irrigation ministry removed a villa and three other establishments along the Nile owned by Nazif in the Badrasheen area.

El-Emam added that licences are granted in accordance with the law, regardless of who the petitioner is. However, he did not comment on violations by government institutions.

Regulating Nile protection

Currently there are two laws regulating the use of the Nile River.

The first is law 48/1982, which addresses pollution and states that no material is to be dumped into the Nile without permission from the irrigation ministry. The law tasks the health ministry with running tests to ensure the river is not being polluted.

The law also authorises the irrigation ministry to grant or cancel licenses to establishments on waterways, with the licences to be issued on the condition that the establishments are equipped with waste treatment units.

In October 2015, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi amended the law to impose harsher penalties on violators, with one-year prison terms and fines ranging from EGP 50,000 to EGP 200,000.

Another law that regulates the Nile is law 12/1984 for irrigation and sanitation, which states that the Nile, its bridges and the lands in between are all public property and must be protected. An exception, however, is made for governmental and private property owned prior to 1984.

According to this law, the irrigation ministry is responsible for issuing licences and policing infringements along the Nile, as well as regulating activities that take place on the riverbanks.

However, in April 2017, the ministers of irrigation and agriculture held a conference to "Rescue the Nile", resulting in the recommendation of a strategy to protect the Nile from violations.

The conference saw a discussion of a draft law to regulate the use of the Nile and all water resources, bringing together various issues currently dealt with by separate laws. The draft law is pending approval by the cabinet.

An earlier version of the draft law was leaked and published by El-Bawaba newspaper. The leaked draft contained articles stating that no new licences would be given to fish farms, boats or other establishments on the Nile without permission from the irrigation ministry.

However, Zaza is skeptical about the chances of any law being passed that will solve the problems for good.

"We need equality in dealing with violations, and we need a law to effectively protect the Nile, which I doubt will be ever issued, as it would cause problems for the government," he concluded.

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