The full story of Egyptian state property on the Greek island of Thassos

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 4 Oct 2016

Egypt and Greece
2015 File photo of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi (C) and former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras (Reuters)

An official Egyptian delegation arrived in Athens on 2 October for a meeting with Greek officials for preliminary talks on a water demarcation agreement between Egypt and Greece.

An Egyptian source in Athens told Ahram Online that this is neither the first nor necessarily the conclusive meeting on “the ongoing Egyptian-Greek discussion on demarking water borders in the Mediterranean between the two countries.”

According to the source, the meeting should provide Cairo officials with an elementary assessment of a demarcation proposal submitted by the Greek side and which will be discussed in Cairo on 9 October during an Egyptian-Greek summit. The news was confirmed by a government source in Cairo.

“This is one of many issues that Egypt and Greek have to discuss, [including] the borders, the natural gas fields in the Mediterranean and the Egyptian properties on Greek islands,” the source said.

A delegation from Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments left for Greece on 26 September to inspect Egyptian properties owned by the ministry on two Greek islands dating back to the rule of Mohamed Ali under the Ottoman Empire.

These properties have been subject to controversy as an official in the ministry had complained about the failure of Greece to honour Egyptian legal and financial rights regarding these properties.

Prominent historian Khaled Fahmy explained that it was in the 19th century that Egypt’s ruler at the time, Mohamed Ali, first acquired Egyptian properties on the island of Thassos.

“Mohamed Ali, who was born in Kavala, a mainland city opposite the Aegean Sea island, had asked the Ottoman sultan to give him the land there so that he would establish a soup kitchen and have it run as a charity; this is what waqf is about,” Fahmy said.

The Ottomans had incorporated Thassos into their empire during the second half of the 15th century.
Egypt also had properties in Kavala dating back to the 19th century.

Egypt’s former ambassador to Greece, Maguida Chahine, explained that since the mid-1990s, Egypt had rented the largest building on Thassos to a Greek entrepreneur “who turned it into a very impressive hotel and who had been promptly paying the due rent.”

Fahmy agreed that Anna Missirian, “also from Kavala, had done exemplary work with the restoration of Eimarat,” the original large building of the soup kitchen that was established by Mohamed Ali in the 19th century and which was later enlarged and annexed with extra buildings that hosted those providing the charitable services.

And according to Chahine, the “quality of work that was done in the restoration of this building had been the answer to its preservation because otherwise it could have been so rundown, as the case is with some other waqf properties” that are not carefully attended to.

Chahine insisted that “there is no need to confuse the files – not with a country like Greece that has always been exceptionally friendly with Egypt and supportive of all basic Arab rights especially the Palestinian cause.”

Chahine argued that it would not be difficult at all for Cairo and Athens to settle mutually consensual agreements on the matters of waqf administration, water demarcation or the management of gas fields that are have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean.

The complaint about the properties has however has prompted legal action.

Lawyer Ali Ayyoub is hoping to have the administrative court set a date for the first session of a lawsuit that he says would rectify the confused situation regarding Egyptian state-owned properties on an island in the Aegean Sea under Greek sovereignty.

Ayyoub said that it was in the early days of August that he and a group of other lawyers “who are closely following matters related to Egyptian borders and Egyptian properties overseas” learned that “the Greek side had suddenly ceased to pay the monthly rent for some Egyptian properties there.”

Ayyoub said that this “happened for just one month – the month of July.”

He added that he learned about the situation through sources at the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which administers the properties. A ministry official also made a statement to a private television channel in August.

The lawsuit, Ayyoub explained, aims to “provide evidence from all concerned official bodies in Egypt and Greece” on the full list of Egyptian properties in Greek cities and islands “and all relevant details.” “We started the legal process late August and we are hoping that the first session will be no later than October,” Ayyoub told Ahram Online.

“Our information suggests that it is a more complex story and our sources elsewhere suggest that this is related to the possible border demarcation that is anticipated between Egypt and Greece,” he said.

He argued that the objective of the lawsuit is twofold: first, to get all official bodies to provide full and documented details on the matter of endowment ministry properties in Greece “in a transparent fashion, which has not been taking place.”

Ayyoub, who is part of the legal team working to reverse the Red Sea island deal that saw Egypt acknowledge Saudi sovereignty over two islands, argued that the lawsuit “may start with Thassos but will not end there, because according to the constitution all matters of sovereignty cannot be passed by the executive authority without a public referendum as stipulated in Article 151 of the 2014 constitution.”

However, Ayyoub denied reports that he was attempting to regain Egyptian sovereignty over the island. “This is not the case, the matter is about the properties, and of course about transparency, which is lacking.”

Egyptian and Greek diplomats argue that such an incident would never jeopardize the warmth of the relation between the two Mediterranean countries.
Cairo- and Brussels-based European diplomats say that the unconditional support that Greece has been offering to Cairo in all EU meetings cannot just be attributed to warm historic bilateral relations.
“It is true that Egypt and Greece had traditionally had close relations and it is also true that Egypt had sided with Greece against Turkey, all the way through almost, on the matter of the division of Cyprus into a
Greek side and a Turkish side,” said one, who requested anonymity.

“Recently, like during the last year, it has really been above average; Greek almost blindly wants to stop any meeting either here (in Cairo) or in Brussels to discuss anything that some of the EU members might think of as contradicting the Egyptian obligations to the association agreement signed between Cairo and the EU in 2001 – and yes this is especially the case about human rights,” he added.

Also speaking on condition of anonymity, an Egyptian official source said Egypt and Greece have been establishing a much closer rapport due to “expanding strategic interests.”

One obvious side to these interests has to do with the rough relations between Cairo and Ankara – the latter being an arch-foe of Athens.

Another is the growing opportunities of a wealth of natural gas with many fields expected to be located at the eastern Mediterranean.
According to the same source, Egypt had been showing “considerable flexibility” on the chances of sharing potential gas wealth “not just with Greece but also with Cyprus and Israel.”

The four-way cooperation is not a secret, the same source said. He added that “what is hidden behind closed doors still are the details of this potential cooperation, which will start with the final phase of negotiations of the water demarcation between Egypt and Greece, expected after the Eid holidays, maybe in three or four weeks.”

Greece, according to Chahine, had been pressing upon Egypt to pursue water demarcation. “This has been going on even before my post” which started in 2001.

A former Egyptian diplomat said that Greece has been pressuring Egypt on the matter since 1997.
Egypt, he added, had been reluctant on the matter because this demarcation would have to include two disputed points between Greece and Turkey and Cairo was waiting for the Athens-Ankara settlement to be settled first.

Today, concerned Egyptian officials who insist that the finalisation of the demarcation would “not be a matter of a few weeks” are not necessarily concerned about this dispute “at least for now.”

They insist that the priority for Egypt now is to pursue the avenues of gas discoveries in order to provide Egypt with its needed supplies and also in order to allow Egypt to access foreign currency by expanding exports of natural gas.

Meanwhile, concerned government bodies are not worried about the lawsuit that Ayyoub is pursuing. Some argue that this suit will actually end up being shelved by the administrative court for lack of any substantial evidence.

Ayyoub is determined that it will not be shelved. “This is the whole point; we are going to court to get the government to provide the evidence that would support our case in order to prevent the executive authority from giving up Egyptian rights either to properties in Greece or to shares of Mediterranean water.”

An Athens-based anonymous official said that “there is no quarrel whatsoever between Greece and Egypt and we are working closely on the economic, legal and political interests of both countries.”

He added that in preparation for the demarcation agreement with Cairo, Greece has been conducting exhaustive talks with Turkey on contested islands in the Mediterranean.

The issue will be addressed during a three-way summit between the leaders of Egypt, Greece and Cyprus that is scheduled for the second week of October in Cairo.

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