Egypt: Demolition of historic houseboats marks end to Golden Era past

Despite national and international outcry, the Egyptian government has begun to demolish the 30 remaining historic houseboats on the riverside of the Nile in Giza, Cairo, citing a lack of registration. The move has angered residents and activists who accuse the state of erasing an important part of the country’s identity from its Golden Age era.

The Cairo houseboats are legendary structures that are part of the making of what culture scholars call Egypt’s Golden Age. They are revered for having served as a gathering place for great Egyptian artists and writers, such as Farid al-Atrash, Muhammad Abd al-Muttalib, Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, Badia Masabni, Tahia Karioka, Naguib al-Rihani. Since the 1940s, the houseboats have housed many foreigners and expats, including some German undercover agents during WWII.

In mid June, Ahmed Youssef, a 51-year-old employee, was on his way to get breakfast for his family when he received a notice from the Giza governorate to evacuate, as a demolition force would begin tearing down his houseboat in 10 days.

“They ordered us to pick our memories, dreams, and the lives of our parents and children, and go,” Youssef tells . Since 2020, Youssef says he has been trying to pay the fees and register his houseboat, but was blocked from doing so. Part of the letter he received was a fine for LE500,000 ($25,000) for illegally living on state property without a permit.

Youssef insists that for him and his family, as well as for his neighbours, these houseboats are not resorts or summer houses or party spots. “These are the houses that we raise our children in and where we live both the good and bad moments of our lives… This is our private property, which is protected by the constitution,” he tells .

Youssef believes that the governorate wants to tear down these houseboats, which occupy a healthy proportion of the Nile banks, to build high-rise cafes, restaurants, and tourist destinations.

Demolishing for development
For the last eight years, Egypt’s government has been expanding a campaign to demolish properties that are deemed illegal or a violation of state property, in order to expand touristic, business-oriented, and road infrastructure projects. Thousands have been displaced from their private residents all over the county.

The state acquires the confiscated land and either sells it to private investors or launches state administered projects, such as military-owned cafes or malls.

The campaign has primarily been targeting lower class slums and middle-class social housing, but has also extended to historic areas in old Cairo, monumental cemeteries and hotels, and now the country’s memento from its so-called golden age of music and film.

Access to the shores of the Nile has become expensive in Egypt as the majority of the two banks are privatised and owned by hotels of private clubs, which are affordable to common Egyptians.