Two court cases and the future of Cairo

In the midst of recent political turmoil there have been developments in two court cases which have gone largely unnoticed. In both cases private property was targeted for confiscation using state institutions as a vehicle for private investment to acquire these properties. In both cases the state mobilized its security apparatus and even used lethal force to intimidate/terrorize residents. The two cases are significant and have implications for the future of the city.

The first case regards Ramlet Bulaq, a slum area on prime real estate land behind Nile Towers along the waterfront. The case was filed by lawyers from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights on behalf of residents in a triangular plot of land which were to be forcibly evicted following decree number 8993 issued from the governor in 2011. The case was lodged against the prime minister, Cairo governor, and the head of the board of the Slum Development Fund. Throughout 2012 Ramlet Bulaq was the site of state violence and intimidation of residents including unwarranted arrests. These developments escalated into scenes of violence and confrontation with the security staff at the nearby Nile Towers.

The governor’s decree called for the temporary removal of the residents to open the land for private development in addition to building a set of low-income housing blocks for the residents of the area. The majority of the land was to be developed with luxury office and hotel complexes. The government’s track record in such proposals is dismal and residents feared that they will never have access to their land, that they are getting the short end of the stick, and that they will be likely relocated to distant and isolated government housing in the desert fringe with no services, work opportunities, or community life.

To be clear, these residents own the properties, they are not squatters. The case argued that according to the constitutional decree of March 2011, private property can not be confiscated by the state. The governor’s decree also violates a law from 1990 regarding the state’s ability to strip private ownership if deemed necessary for the “public good.” That 1990 law requires a direct presidential order for such steps to be taken, which did not happen since SCAF, at the time holding presidential powers, did not give direct orders for the confiscation of the land. Furthermore, the law only allows confiscation of property for the “public good” for very particular reasons such as building a road/highway, building a bridge, necessary sewage and potable water infrastructure, and so on. The confiscation of private property by the state to be later sold and developed by private business is not protected nor allowed by the law.

On August 20 the administrative court blocked the governor’s decree in favor of the residents of Ramlet Bulaq.

The second court case this past month which also has interesting implications for the future of the city is the case of Qursaya Island.

In 2001 former president Hosni Mubarak issued decree 152 of that year which appropriated the island to the Armed Forces. The island is home to a rural community of 4000 farmers and 1000 fishermen who, according to this presidential decree, should be forcibly evicted. In 2010 a court ruled in favor of the residents and confirmed their right to stay. However, since the fall of 2011 the armed forces stormed the island several times in an attempt to intimidate residents; tens of residents were arrested without court order and at least one resident was killed during one of the incidents. Residents have reported other ongoing forms of intimidation, such as the stationing of military personnel at the island and the monitoring of boat traffic to and from Giza as to restrict mobility. The island is a productive community that supplies produce, dairy and other products to the nearby markets in Giza and most residents trace their presence on the island to multiple generations. It is a unique rural community within the city.

The island was envisioned as part of a development plan that aimed to create luxury and touristic real estate, however such plans treated the land as terra nullius, land belonging to no one.

On August 22, the administrative court issued a recommendation for a final ruling to be given in favor of the residents of Qursaya Island deeming military presence on the island to be illegal. The final court ruling has been postponed to October 8 to allow the Ministry of Defense to review the report.

Both cases are significant and they point to a degree of judicial autonomy that remains in the system. But more significantly these are cases in which the courts have ruled in favor of the city’s inhabitants against the unchecked power of private business and its direct dealings with government officials as well as against the unchecked power of the military to control land and properties in urban areas in ways that surpass the functions of the institution.

These court cases could set significant precedents in Cairo where there are many more cases of forced eviction that result from unchecked deals between state institutions and officials on one hand and private capital on the other. The Qursaya case is particularly interesting because it could be a rare ruling in which the armed forces’ long unchecked control over property, land, and in particular Nile waterfronts, could be now open for debates. The armed forces as an institution has for decades taken advantage of zero civilian oversight to engage in various real estate deals and partnerships with private investors — the profits from which have little benefit to the general public or the city at large. Recent examples include the direct sale (no public bidding process) of land in Muqattam to the UAE developer Emmar at rates far below market prices. Other repercussions of the case could be an opportunity for court cases to be filed against the military’s single handed control, which surpasses the powers of the municipalities, over Nile front properties in Cairo and other cities. Such properties are often gifted to various associations or rented/leased to private bus
inesses in ways that overstep municipal procedures and often evade taxation laws.

Despite these recent judicial developments, another similar development scheme in which the state is planning to forcibly evict residents in favor of private development which will have access to the land at below market prices and without proper compensation paid to residents was announced to go forward. The case is for the so-called Maspero Triangle, a large area bordered by Nile front to the west, 26th of July corridor to the North and 6th of October bridge to the south. A schematic plan for that project can be found on the governorate’s official site.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights along with residents from Ramlet Bulaq, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights organized a press conference recently titled “Our land is our right” which linked together the struggles of the people of Ramlet Bulaq, Maspero Triangle and Qursaya Island.


Cairobserver was founded in April 2011 and is edited by Mohamed Elshahed.  Mohamed Elshahed is a Cairo-based scholar and researcher currently completing his doctoral dissertation in the Middle East Studies Department at New York University. His dissertation, Revolutionary Modernism? Architecture and the Politics of Transition in Egypt, 1936-1967, focuses on architecture and urban planning in Egypt during the period of political transition around the 1952 coup d’etat. Mohamed has a Bachelor of Architecture from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a Master in Architecture Studies from MIT.

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