After 25 January 2011, the army and police directed their efforts towards maintaining law and order. Many then considered the security vacuum that emerged a golden opportunity, enabling them to do as they please. As authorities did not have the time or the manpower to go after the corrupt and fraudulent souls, state and agrarian lands became free for looters.
Today, illegal urban monstrosities rule. As one drives along the Ring Road, one's view is marred by a large number of eyesore buildings with red brick exteriors, haphazardly built, some with no windows, others erected along very narrow streets, while others creep up dozens of storeys but have no elevators and no appropriate foundations.
Immediately one asks: did proprietors get permits to erect such ghastly buildings? If not, what emboldened them to spend millions on structures that are not inspected, safe or permitted?
As one drives along the Mehwar towards October 6th and Alexandria Desert Road, the green spaces are few and far between, whereas just a few years back, only lush greenery and palm trees populated the area. The hideous red-brick structures have sprung there, too, eating up prime agricultural land.
If a builder builds more floors than permitted, he is never told to tear down the illegal storeys, but only to pay a fine. Alexandria’s 13-storey leaning tower is a case in point. According to Ahram Online, “The building subsided after additional floors were illegally added to it, weakening its foundations,” and tilting it forward.
Not only was agricultural land encroached upon, but also the banks of the Nile, as well as heritage and tourist areas, and even street curbs, overrun by those who inched slowly onto state land day-in and day-out. Earlier this year, a total of “26,322 violations” along the river banks were removed, Ahram Online reported.
The reasons behind the barrage of violations is clear: in a country with no deterrents and no restraints, fear does not exist. Encroachments and violations are not penalized.
However, let’s be fair; this approach had gone on for years, even before the 25 January upsrising, though it indeed escalated after 2011. It was the way of the land. Live and let live; officials, themselves erring, looked the other way, allowing opportunists to do as they pleased. No one lived up to what was expected of them. Ethics and morals became a way of the past.
This has changed.
To use a currently infamous idiom, President El-Sisi is now readily “draining the swamp” of illegal encroachment on state lands.
"It is no longer acceptable for anyone in Egypt to encroach upon state lands. It is no longer acceptable for people to take lands that belong to the state," he said earlier this year. “Anyone who uses land that doesn’t belong to him is a common thief.”
And while it is the best action that could’ve happened, many will lose homes and businesses in the affected and ultimately bulldozed areas, leaving bitterness to manifest against the government and the regime. But President El-Sisi has never shrugged off responsibility, even if ultimately it can diminish his popularity.
And it is high time someone took the bull by the horns and acted on these infringements, criminalising violations.
However, retrieving looted land, demolishing illegal buildings, and curtailing encroachment are dangerous, if not extreme, measures. El-Warraq Island reacted violently to the demolition of homes on state land. Said Tafshan died in the clashes and 19 others were injured. According to Ahram Online, 31 policemen, including two generals, were injured, too. No doubt, serious resistance will occur.
It is not going to be easy to evict thousands of owners and then demolish thousands of homes. Though the violators knew all along that they had illegally encroached on state land, they were allowed to do so. We must expect resistance and utter dismay; nevertheless, it has to happen once and for all. This will fix the ongoing wrong, abolish corruption, and prevent further violations.
I truly hope these evacuees will not be abandoned and left on the street. Though offenders, they are also victims of shoddy standards and a blasé attitude that remained the norm for decades, encouraging others to do the same.
Offenders are in the thousands, if not in the millions, but only an iron fist can change the mentality of those who think anything and everything is up for grabs. It will hurt and the ramifications are not very clear, but it has to be done.
Once Egyptians realise that there is a law to abide by, that corruption is unacceptable, and that they will face punitive measures for their actions, Egypt will be on the right track.
The writer is an academic, political analyst, and author of Cairo Rewind: the First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution, 2011-2013.