Floating On

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The houseboats of the Nile River in Egypt have a storied past.

Many believe the pharaohs used them thousands of years ago for long river voyages, the BBC explained, while in the 19th and 20th centuries Ottoman and British military leaders used them as bases. And for decades, artists and intellectuals have created their works aboard them. Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz even wrote a book that features one of these “awamat,” an Arabic term for “floating.”

Unfortunately, these relics of the past are getting in the way of the future, local officials believe.

Cairo officials recently issued demolition orders for the 30 or so vessels, saying they have no permits, are unsafe and detrimental to the river’s health, the New York Times reported. The officials didn’t discuss their plans for the waterfront. But houseboat owners believed that they want to install floating restaurants and other money-making ventures in place of the homes as part of plans to modernize the city and encourage commerce.

Already, at least half have been destroyed or towed away for scrap.

Meanwhile, other critics of modernization plans say that officials have also bulldozed an ancient cemetery, historic gardens, old neighborhoods and other sites in the interest of growth when they should have been preserved, wrote Outlook, an Indian news magazine. Thousands of people have been forcibly moved to make way for new tourist facilities, business development and other infrastructure improvements in Cairo in recent years, added the Africa Report.

The Egyptian government doesn’t appear prepared to pay the vessels’ owners for their loss, either according to the Washington Post. Indeed, one owner, Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, who raised her children on her boat, now owes $48,000 in back fees. She didn’t pay these earlier in protest against massive hikes in mooring fees, and because the many lawyers she had hired told her that she wasn’t going to be able to keep her floating home under any circumstances. “Everyone, and I mean all Arabs, know at least one iconic movie scene that was set in a houseboat,” Soueif told the newspaper.

To be sure, it’s not hard to argue that Egypt needs to take radical action to reform and expand its economy. It was already in dire straits since the 2011 Arab Spring and subsequent terror attacks hurt the tourism sector. And more recently, as Reuters noted, the coronavirus pandemic has suppressed growth, followed by the Russia-Ukraine war stoking inflation and causing energy and food prices to skyrocket, severely hurting the country.

Growth is set to resume but, as Bloomberg noted, the International Monetary Fund is seeking more reforms in the corrupt, autocratic country if Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi expects to receive a loan to help finance his many economic development plans.

Wrecking some of the country’s most charming treasures in the interest of prosperity just doesn’t seem right to many. But, for better or for worse, progress often looks that way in the near term.

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