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Towering injustices leave Nile City shack dwellers terrorised in the shadows

Following a deadly police raid on a Cairo shack-dwelling community amid a long-lasting land dispute, a popular campaign has been launched with residents seeking justice

Nada El-Kouny , Sunday 2 Sep 2012
Ramle
Manal (Photo: Nada El-Kouny)
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Against the backdrop of the lavish Nile City Towers, along the banks of the Nile River in Cairo, in an empty plot of land surrounded by shacks stood dozens of residents of Ramlet Boulaq neighbourhood for an open air conference Sunday.

With a significant amount of media presence, the residents stood eagerly hoping to get their stories across to the media, in an attempt to achieve justice after a recent string of events hurt and terrorised the residents.

On Sunday, the Popular Committee of Ramlet Boulaq in coordination with the Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPA) held press conference in the neighbourhood known as the "Kafrawy Shacks" in the vicinity of the Nile Towers owned by business tycoon Naguib Sawiris's family and the Saudi Shobokshi family.

Garnering significant media attention was a shooting that took place 2 August where a resident of "El-Ramla," as the area is more commonly known, Amr Fathi, was shot dead by police officers stationed at the Nile Towers. He died following a dispute over the refusal by the property's security office to pay him for temporary work he had carried out, explained Ahmed Kamel, a 35-year-old carpenter and resident of El-Ramla.

Prompted by anger and revenge, several El-Ramla residents converged on the Towers, setting the parking lot to fire and attempting to break into the building. An unprecedented security clampdown, as described by residents, took place the morning after. This was only hours following a visit by the then-newly appointed interior minister, Ahmed Gamal Eddin, to the Nile Towers.

Days prior to the incident, on 27 June residents attacked the Towers. This took place when staff allegedly refused to provide water to put out a fire that had engulfed one of the wooden shacks in the vicinity, and that led to the death of a 5-year old boy, according to media reports that circulated following the 2 August incident.

Living on what is deemed valuable Nile front land, developers and investors, primarily Orascom Constructions — a Sawiris family company — have long been in dispute with residents, attempting to take over their land, stated Zeinab Mohamed, 50, who owns a house in the area.

Notably on 20 June, the Cairo Governorate issued a directive authorising the Cairo police to evict residents.

Campaign of terror: Local testimonies

"At dawn on Friday, 3 August, as we were sleeping peacefully in our beds, counter-terrorism police officers broke down our doors and randomly started arresting any young men they could find," explained Magdy Hassan Mohamed, one of the residents speaking during the conference.

"Carrying out a campaign of terror, they did not pay any respect to the sacredness and privacy of our homes," he asserted.

Approximately 35 people remain in custody today following the raid carried that day. Police practiced extreme brutality, residents say, with one 14-year-old boy taken aside and given a blow to the face that resulted in the loss of four of his front teeth.

Kamel explained how he spent 15 days outside the neighbourhood for fear of his own life. "We live in a constant state of fear, as we expect that any time they can come and take one of us," he added.

While the clampdown mainly targeted young men, residents of all ages have suffered the consequences. With the presence of journalists and an abundance of filming equipment, a significant number of children were drawn to the scene, eagerly wishing to tell their stories.

A wide-eyed and tall 14 year-old, Karim Gamal Hussein, explained his torment, having to endure the teargas that was used during the raid.

"Many of us ended up jumping from the top of the roofs of our homes, as our mothers kept wailing for us and for the sons and husbands who were dragged away," Hussein said vividly.

An red-haired bubbly 12-year-old, Manar, spoke to Ahram Online while standing under the shade of a plastic chair she was using as sun shield.

"We live in a very rundown neighbourhood and no one has taken care of us for a very long time," she lamented.

"For example, there is a rail-track right behind my house where several deaths have occurred over many years because there is no fence built around it," Manar stated.

She reflected on the lack of development programmes within the neighbourhood designed to help residents.

"Sawiris himself does not care about us like he used to. This year he did not hold the Rahman charity tables (Ramadan tables providing iftar meals to the poor) like he did in the past," Manar stated.

Demands

This case has brought to light a number of more encompassing and deeply-rooted issues. Most poignantly, they pertain to Egypt's housing crisis and the state's responsibility towards developing rundown neighbourhoods, the privatisation of land, and the effect that that has on citizens, along with police brutality that has persisted despite the January 25 Revolution.

"We will stand at nothing short of one of the two demands, either to: 1) develop Ramlet Boulaq and provide us with humane living conditions by providing us with water and a proper sewage system, or 2) to reach the negotiating table over a reasonable price to sell the land to the constructors," read Hammad Arabi, a member of the local popular committee.

He added: "It is no longer acceptable for us to be pushed around and to agitate us to evict us, as the community is currently faced with the threat to forcefully leave."

As a result, Amro Abou Taweela, a member of the general secretariat of the SPA, expressed to Ahram Online that what is needed is an NGO that deals specifically with the right to housing, despite their being numerous largescale projects carried out to that effect.

"This is crucial in attempting to ensure justice for the residents of the community," he asserted.

Justice forgone

Random arrests have persisted in the neighbourhood following the clampdown at the beginning of August.

"There definitely are wrong-doers and criminals in our neighbourhood, like in any other," asserted Hammad, 50, a resident of the area as he pointed behind him to the upscale neighbourhood of Zamalek on the other bank of the Nile.

"If that is the case, then arrest them. But do not carry out a terror campaign and punish the whole neighbourhood," he said.

The last arrest that took place was three days ago where the accused currently faces a 15-day detention period.

The official state narrative, perpetuated by the Nile Towers administration, is that members of the community are thugs meaning to take advantage of the lack of security presence following the January 25 Revolution.

Mohamed Adel, a lawyer from the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights who is defending several of the residents, stated that the government has denied residents own the land, saying they are squatters.  

Adel, however, confirmed that many resident families have lived in the land for 100 years. Shaaban, likewise, claimed his grandfather moved to El-Ramla in 1918, and the family has lived there ever since.

Uncertainty ahead

At the end of the quiet and humble press conference, as journalists and cameramen started trickling out, a woman's scream could be heard a few blocks away.

Her husband, Anwar Abdel Lateef, who was shot in the leg 2 August while trying to assist Fathi, was snatched from his home by the police.

With little signs of resistance, Abdel Lateef, dressed in a beige galabeya (traditional Egyptian dress) and limping on crutches, got into a police car that drove away.

"If he is not back here in one hour, they will only see the wrath of God," his wife voiced while wailing in tears.

While attempting to console her son, standing the midst of a commotion close to the back entrance of the towers, she warned him: "Leave. Get on any bus and leave the area, before they come and get you too."

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