Gezirit Al-Warraq: Why Cairo's forgotten island will vote Islamist

Sarah El-Rashidi, Monday 30 Apr 2012

Residents of Gezirit Al-Waraq, an island of extreme poverty just kilometres from central Cairo, cry out for help from Egypt's new leaders after decades of neglect

Al-Waraq island
Al-Waraq island (Photo: Sarah El-Rashidi)

Just a few kilometres downstream from the privileged leafy island of Zamalek, lays the island of Gezirit Al-Waraq. Despite its proximity to one of Cairo's most exclusive enclaves, an air of mystery surrounds Gezirit Al-Waraq and little information escapes from its murky shores.

To reach the island a dilapidated ferry boat costing 25 piastres per journey runs every 15 minutes, 24 hours per day. Rafat Abdel-Nebi, a local resident and former lawyer who is now a Justice Ministry employee, kindly offered to give Ahram Online an exclusive tour of the island.

“We are very proud people; my family has been here for 400 years,” Rafat said.

Whilst waiting for the ferry boat, the bleak silhouette of the island peering in the distance, Rafat began by discussing the political battle waged against the islanders by the former regime.

The previous government had planned to transform the island into a luxury tourist resort and provide the residents with alternative housing on the mainland. However, after the islanders refused to move, the construction of a bridge connecting the island to the mainland was halted. This ensured the island's continued isolation and prevented residents accessing basic amenities.

 “A bridge would solve all of our problems,” asserted Hag Bakry Arafa, a local farmer.

The political struggle explains why there is so little progress on the island. The Heath Ministry and the World Health Organization initiated a collaborative project in mid-2011 yet much still needs to be done. Accordingly, Rafat is establishing a grassroots NGO called ‘Gezirit Al-Waraq’.

The ferry's arrival prompted herds of people to rush on to secure a place; many carrying huge water tanks, sacks of food and other heavy produce.

“We do not have clean water, so every day we women take the boat to fill up our water tanks in Shubra El-Kheima,” explained Marwa Abbas, 24.

The boat was decrepit and unhygienic, most seats were broken and the engine was disturbingly loud.

“Accidents are a frequent occurrence; this method of transportation is inhumane. Recently one of the boats sank and people died,” complained Hag Bakry Arafa.

Upon arrival on Gezirit Al-Waraq, there was a suffocating smell of rubbish and sewage. Next to the dock Toktoks were lined up, which apart from donkeys are the only means of transportation on the island.

“Toktoks cost 5LE each way – they are very expensive. A taxi ride in Zamalek is often cheaper,” lamented Marwa Abbas.

Whilst walking through the narrow, poorly constructed streets which look more like dirt tracks, Rafat explained the political and socio-economic position of the residents.

“Some people are doctors, lawyers or teachers who work on the mainland because they are unable to find work on the island. But the majority are unemployed, extremely poor and illiterate.”

“Most islanders are agricultural workers," added Eman Mostafa.

The Health Ministry and WHO sources state the island's population is 40,000 but Rafat puts it much higher at approximately 80,000.

Al-Waraq is an Islamist stronghold and banners promoting Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail (who has since been disqualified from the race due to his mother's US nationality) and Abel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, the former Muslim Brother, covered the streets.

“The islanders are pious people and support those following the word of God,” said Sayid El-Omda, the local mayor.

When asked if the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist Nour Party had financially assisted the people on the island in exchange for their vote, the mayor said, “No one is helping us. We support the Islamists, in particular the Nour Party, for the sake of God only.”

Sayed Kamal, 45-years-old and a father of eight, said, "I support anyone with a beard.”

Religion is the most important factor influencing voters, claimed Sayed Kamal. Given the islanders' experience with the secular Mubarak regime, he believed secularists don’t tend to care for the people.

Nevertheless, according to Rafat, the island community was disappointed with the current government. Previous enthusiasts for the Brotherhood now voiced their disappointment at its performance.

"The new government has failed. We voted for our brothers but it’s hopeless. Look at the water we are using to wash our clothes," Hag Bakry Arafa said, pointing to a stream that looked more like black mud.

Eman Mostafa also shared this view: “The Brotherhood use religion to gain an advantage, not honestly, and thus our people remain forgotten.”  

Eman believes the Salafists and their ex-presidential candidate Abu-Ismail are more likely to help due to their extreme religious doctrine.  

Conversely, Marwa Abbas said many people had not decided who they would vote for since none of the political programmes had been published.

“People are not interested in politics; we just want to start living," she added.

Mohamed Abdel-Hady, a builder in his mid-30s, said, “After the revolution and the deaths in Tahrir Square I don’t want to participate in the election. But my preference is Abul-Fotouh.”

Figures issued by the Health Ministry show participation was 52.7 percent in the March 2011 constitutional referendum. However, that voting pattern might change as many islanders continued to criticise the current government’s failings.

One frail elderly lady shouted, “As religious people we voted for the Brotherhood and the Nour Party and we thought things would finally get better with an Islamist government, but nothing has changed and no one wants to vote again.”

However, despite such disappointment, the Salafist Hazem Abu-Ismail was the most popular presidential candidate among islanders.

“If we follow Islamic law like Saudi Arabia, things in Egypt will improve quickly. After all the corruption that has taken place we need someone like Abu-Ismail,” said 17-year-old Hossam Khalid, in the midst of banners displaying bearded, smiling politicians. 

This viewpoint was only challenged by a few, such as the farmer Hag Bakry Arafa, who said, “Although I am Muslim I don’t support the Brotherhood. Egypt needs someone with a strong economic background like Ahmed Shafiq.”

A local middle-aged women known as Um Kalthoum said, “I don't want an Islamic government. We Egyptians are moderate people. The Brotherhood and the Nour Party will limit our freedom and we don’t want the army either. We want new blood. Amr Moussa is not an option and ElBaradei has gone so I'm now supporting Khaled Ali.”

This opinionated woman, though uneducated, was astoundingly well informed.  

"My mother is illiterate but she is very progressive in her thinking," said her daughter.

She pleaded for help and for their plight not to be forgotten as had happened in the past.

Throughout the tour Rafat was eager to highlight the inadequate social services. The local hospital, the only one on the island, reflected the severity of the situation, where Dr Hassan, the bearded chief doctor, appealed for funding and medical supplies.

The educational facilities are also very poor, causing most children to attend schools in Shubra El-Kheima on the mainland, said local teacher Sabah Eman.

“Teachers beat and swear at us; I don’t want to go to school,” protested 10-year-old Mohamed Yehya and a group of children.

The children’s decrepit appearance was particularly disturbing as they looked old beyond their years, with deep black circles underneath their eyes, wearing melancholy expressions. Many played in the mountainous piles of sewage, whilst their mothers sorted through the garbage.

Inflation was a major concern raised by many of these women.

“Bread is now 50 piasters! We can’t afford to feed our children,” said a group of woman who suddenly emerged holding pieces of baladi bread.

Rafat's brother Safwat believed, like most islanders, that Islamists, in particular the Nour Party, were the best choice to solve the problem of inflation and other fundamental social concerns.  

According to the philosopher Karl Marx, such feelings of hopelessness may account for specific Islamist political affiliations, since religion is the "opium of the people" and divine rule may appear to be the only source of deliverance.

On an island where living conditions are pitiful, it was not uncommon to hear harrowing declarations.

“I want to die; I pray every day to be taken away from this living hell," proclaimed a middle-aged man called Sayed Kamal.

Common feelings of shame were also expressed by Hossam Khalid: “We are ashamed to say we are from Gezirit Al-Waraq, so we usually say we are from Shubra, Giza or anywhere but Waraq.”

Political activist Sara Abu-Bakr reinforced the gravity of the situation after her recent visit to the island: “Throughout my humanitarian career, I have visited many slums in Egypt yet nothing was as horrific as what I saw on Gezirit Al-Waraq – it's a living hell.”

This view has been reinforced by numerous governmental officials and begs the question, why do educated individuals like Rafat and his brother choose to stay?

“We islanders are like fish out of water; if you take us away from the island we will die,” Rafat said, in a view supported by most islanders.

This powerful analogy left a lasting imprint.

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