The shack-dwellers of Ramlet Bulaq have been hit by a wave of night-raids and arbitrary, violent arrests, say residents and lawyers. Dozens have been arrested, beaten and intimidated, causing many more to flee into hiding.
Mohamed Khidhr, a lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) who is defending the Nile City violence suspects, says the arrests have been arbitrary. “Not one person was arrested while participating in the clashes. They were taken hours and days later,” he says.
The arrests come in the wake of the violence outside the Nile City development, which is adjacent to the shacks, on 2 August. The violence began after a Nile City security guard shot dead a local resident who demanded unpaid wages.
Meanwhile, residents are under attack on a distinct yet related front: an ongoing bid to confiscate their land.
“My son had nothing to do with the fighting, and he is now in jail. The first three days we had no idea where they took them,” says a mother, crying. “They are being beaten there, and they did not let us bring them clothes in the beginning,” she says.
Mohamd Khidhr, the EIPR lawyer, points out that the police did not comply with the proper protocol for arrests. He explains that the 17 who were arrested on the night of the clashes should have been taken to the Bulaq police station, given that the location of arrest falls under its jurisdiction.
“They took them to a different police station, so that we could not find them. According to Egyptian law, lawyers must be granted access to their clients to check on them,” he says.
The arrests, according to Khidhr, took place on an arbitrary basis. “Some of them just came from work, others were walking on the Nile Corniche and had nothing to do with the clashes,” he says. He adds that one of the defendants is a Rod el Farag resident who had come to pick up his car from one of the many local mechanics.
The defendants are charged with thuggery, attempted robbery, possession of firearms and fireworks, destruction of public and private property, resisting authorities and assaulting police. “This is mere routine. These are the standard charges in such cases. They don’t necessarily mean anything,” Khidhr says.
During the two weeks after the clashes, security forces raided the slum, executing an order to arrest 25 other named slum residents, threatening and humiliating them in the process.
Hind Mohamed Ahmed, a 30-year-old resident, was witness. “We were not dressed, and they kicked in the door in the middle of the night. They pointed their guns in my face and cursed at us using very obscene language,” she states, adding that young men were beaten during the raids.
Her brother-in-law, Ali Abdullah Abu Dhahab, was taken in this manner on 3 August, one day after the clashes. He was detained at Sahel police station for the first three days, his relatives left with no clue as to his whereabouts.
Residents showed Egypt Independent traces of doors kicked in and scattered glass, which they claimed came from a shop smashed by the security forces. “Let them come and take the thugs, we don’t want them here either. But not like this, they’re randomly arresting anyone that crosses their path,” says Hind.
Other residents gave similar accounts but wished to remain anonymous, fearing police reprisals. Their accounts concur with the findings of an EIPR research team, who documented violence and the destruction of property.
According to Khidhr, 10 more are now in jail following raids. “They take them to the police station and check if they have a criminal record. If so, they detain them. Otherwise they walk, but not before being beaten. They have to humiliate them first.” He adds that it is common to find 25 prisoners in a small cell, in contravention of the law.
Mohsen Abu Dhahab, Ali’s brother, is one such case. According to Hind, he was beaten by police officers at the station after they found his record was clean. Like many of Ramlet’s men, he is currently in hiding.
Business goes on
A 20 June decree issued by the Cairo governor authorizes the governorate to “temporarily confiscate the land” the shacks are currently on. This order now lies on the desk of the security forces, and can be implemented at any moment. The threat of eviction thus casts a shadow over the community's future.
Several figures with intimate knowledge of the affair have suggested that this is part of a bargain with Naguib Sawiris, one of the owners of Nile City Towers, who has been trying to acquire the valuable plot of land for years. “The governorate is playing the role of the businessman’s broker,” says EIPR lawyer Ahmed Hossam, who is appealing the governor’s decree.
Hossam, who is appealing this decree in the name of 11 families, is convinced he can win the case. According to him, there are many legal problems with this decree. A 1990 law specifies when the government has the right to confiscate land.
It stipulates two instances, Hossam explains: “In one case, expropriating owners is allowed if that is required for public utility. The other case is imminent danger, like a hurricane or earthquake. According to the law, the Cairo governor only has the authority to issue such decrees in the latter case.” Otherwise, he says, responsibility falls to the president.
However, the decree clearly speaks of “development” of informal areas, apparently relying on “the expropriation of property for the public good,” rather than imminent danger — and is consequently outside the governor's authority.
The problem, explains Hossam, is that it is not known when the order would be enforced. “They could show up tomorrow, even while the case is pending,” he says.
Businessmen and the governorate: a romance?
Ahmed Hossam is one of many who suspect a deal between the Cairo Governorate and Sawiris. “This way, the issue is relegated to the governorate, and Sawiris’ hands are clean. It is very likely that he will pay the governorate a price far under the value of the land to compensate the current owners. The land will then be presented to him empty and on a tray by the governorate.”
On 4 August, two days after the clashes, the privately owned Al-Shorouk news republished a 2010 article titled “The last days of the original inhabitants of Ramlet Bulaq.” Former MP Iran al-Nifawy, who represented Ramlet Bulaq, is quoted in the article as saying that Nile City Investments has been after the land adjacent to the towers since they were built 15 years ago. The former MP then refers to documents he had seen dating from 1997, in which Nile City Investments asks the president of the Cairo municipality to expropriate the owners, offering to pay for the compensation the residents would become entitled to as a result. Commenting on a 2006 decree on development of the area “for the public good,” Nifawy is paraphrased as saying he is convinced this is a “continuation of the old plan under the legal cloak of the Cairo Governorate.”
If the 20 June decree is executed, ongoing negotiations between slum residents and Nile City Investments for a ‘fair’ price will be bypassed. Experts have estimated the current value of the land between LE30,000 and LE50,000 per square meter. Samir Abdel Aziz, 55, a slum resident who is negotiating with the governorate and Nile City Investments lawyers, says the last offer made by the governorate dates from 2008 and was no more than LE1,000 per square meter.
“Even though we have lived here for generations, we are willing to leave,” Abdel Aziz says, “but give us a fair price.”
Nile City Investment’s lawyers requested that Abdel Aziz fax an official offer two weeks ago, which he did. The residents offer one plot of land for LE20,000 per meter, another for LE40,000. Nile City Investments has not yet responded to the offer.
“It seems they are not willing to negotiate, and just wait for the government to remove us,” Abdel Aziz says. “But we will not accept this.”
Adding further suspicion is the fact that eight months passed between the date the decree was drawn up and the day it was published on 20 June. Hosam says this is the first time he has seen this. “Normally it takes five days at most to publish a decree. It is not clear to me why they did this, but one cannot help but suspect connivance,” he says.
One of those in hiding, Sayed Battah, feels desperate in the face of what he sees as an alliance between wealthy developers and the state. “Even the government is against us. They are working for billionaires over the backs of the poor,” he claims.
Yet, for Hossam this is nothing new. “You are always the weaker party on this side. We face the government who seems to have joined forces with investors who wield billions, and on top of that, the Interior Ministry is besieging the residents,” he says. “But there are more players involved here, like the residents who fight back, civil society, the courts, the media, and so on.”