“I appealed to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi a few days ago asking him to allow me to stay in my houseboat until I die,” Ekhlas Helmi, an 87-year-old widow with no children and the owner of a houseboat in Giza, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Helmi’s houseboat is the first in a row of houseboats docked on the western bank of the Nile and bordered by the 15 May Bridge on one side and the Imbaba Bridge on the other in the area between Agouza and Kitkat.
“Take it [the houseboat] after my death, but let me spend the rest of my life in the same place I have lived for 25 years… No one wants to suffer hardship in the final days of life,” Helmi, who has no alternative housing, said.
“Officials have asked me to pay fines estimated at LE800,000, but the houseboat will still be removed within days. My lawyer told me they will remove the houseboat anyway with or without my paying the fines,” Helmi said.
Two weeks earlier, the government handed 32 residential houseboat owners, Helmi among them, large fines and notice of their houseboats’ imminent removal, 15 on 28 June and the rest in early July.
Ayman Anwar, head of the Central Administration for the Protection of the Nile River in Greater Cairo, said in a telephone interview with TV presenter Amr Adib this week that 32 residential houseboats located in Agouza and Kitkat would be removed but commercial and touristic boats would be allowed to stay.
“This is because the condition of these boats has become dilapidated, and they cannot be granted licenses. They are no longer allowed to dock there,” Anwar said. The owners rebuffed Anwar’s comments, saying that their houseboats are in good condition.
Answering a question on the possibility of the owners renovating the houseboats in order to get their licenses renewed, Anwar said that “they can stay if the license type is changed from residential to commercial or touristic.”
“A presidential directive was issued in 2020 prohibiting all residential houseboats on the Nile. We deal with people in the light of the law,” he said, adding that since 2020 people have no longer had valid docking licenses or licenses for the houseboats themselves, which is why they were now illegal.
“We removed three houseboats on 18 June,” Anwar said. “On 28 June, we will remove 15 more if they are still docking in the same place.” 11 owners out of the 15 voluntarily removed their houseboats on 27 June — a day prior to the deadline — in coordination with agencies from the Ministry of Irrigation.
Asked whether there would be compensation for the owners, Anwar said that they owed money in fines for not renewing their licenses and that they would not receive any compensation.
Prominent novelist Ahdaf Soueif is an owner of a houseboat and said that she had received notice to pay LE900,000 in fines to the state for the years in which her license was not renewed.
“I have been living in this houseboat for 10 years. We used to deal with various government entities annually to settle our legal status. We used to pay for the parking and the usufruct of the garden, in addition to paying for the renewal of two licenses, one for docking and the other [a navigational license] proving the safety of the houseboat,” Soueif told the Weekly.
Owners used to deal with the Giza governorate, the water resources and irrigation ministry, the local navigation department affiliated to the transportation ministry’s River Transport Authority, and the ministry of agriculture to settle the legal status of their houseboats on a yearly basis.
“Until 2017, we used to pay LE35,000 for the annual renewal of the licenses. After 2017, the officials decided to change the method of calculating the area of the houseboats from linear metre to square metre, making the total amount due LE60,000 instead of LE35,000.”
“We refused to pay and filed a suit at the State Council. Due to non-payment, the required amounts have now doubled due to the delay. However, we kept on paying for the navigational license until 2020 when the officials refused to issue a renewal,” Soueif said.
She said that her houseboat was not dilapidated and that she had “an official document issued in March confirming the technical safety of the houseboat.”
Soueif noted that the only solution would be to change the license for a commercial or touristic one, which for her was “illogical due to the short period of time given to settle things. They want us to leave and then participate in an auction to buy the plot and convert it for commercial activity,” she said.
“We are asking for other alternatives,” she said, one of them being to receive a three-year grace period in order to find an investor who can buy the houseboat and change it into a commercial business.
“The other alternative would be to let us live in the houseboat provided that the ownership is not inherited,” she said, adding that the fines should also be discussed with officials and reduced and paid in instalments.
Observers consider these houseboats part of Egypt’s visual history in general, and the River Nile in particular, over the past decades. Such houseboats have been inhabited by famous public figures and featured in many scenes in the Egyptian old movies.
Over the past week, various hashtags went viral on social media platforms, rejecting the removal of these houseboats, a decision that not only angered its residents but was also accompanied by a wave of widespread controversy about the reason behind their removal.
Anwar said that the removal of houseboats was to improve the appearance of the Nile in Cairo and Giza, given its importance for tourism. He said there was no specific plan for a development project in the area, however.
A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.