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Government greed: Poor Egyptian farmers pay the price

In Alexandria, farmers are being evicted to make way for huge development projects — a trend emerging across Egypt

Yasmine Fathi , Saturday 12 May 2012
Some families
have opted to stay on the land and live among the debris (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

At 6am in the morning, the residents of Tarafy farm were jolted awake with thousands of military troops armed with sticks and batons entering their homes. As the shocked farmers watched in horror, bulldozers entered the land and began destroying one building after another.

The panicking farmers living on a 16 feddans piece of land in the beautiful Montaza district of Alexandria, attempted to wake each other to defend themselves from the military forces. Some of them approached the troops demanding to know if they had a demolition order, but were ignored by the stampeding soldiers.

Naema Ibrahim, a middle-aged woman who witnessed the assault, attempted to use her small frame to stop the troops from entering her apartment but was pushed out of the way. “They told me to go to hell and pushed me down a flight of stairs and I ended up breaking my foot,” Ibrahim said, pointing to her bandages.

Ibrahim, who lived in one of the apartment buildings with her husband, four children and their spouses, claimed that the troops began destroying the homes with people still inside. “They didn’t even wait for us to get out of the buildings. It’s a miracle that nobody died,” she said.

By the time the troops were done, 112 buildings were razed, including three mosques, an orphanage and a pharmacy, and 228 families were left homeless among the rubble.

While many have fled to the homes of relatives, others — like Ibrahim — had nowhere to go and have opted to live in tents on the remains of their torn down houses.

“It breaks my heart that after living and feeling secure in my apartment, now my home is a silly tent,” Ibrahim says as she wipes away her tears. “I have not had a shower or a change of clothes since the demolition took place. We don’t even have bathrooms and have to go find abandoned places to do our business.”

The land Ibrahim is now living on looks like the site of a catastrophic earthquake. The wreckage of what used to be homes is scattered on the land. Lamps, chairs, fans and window panes are thrown across the dirt.

Alaaa El-Sheeny, who had recently married and moved into one of the now demolished buildings, says that the people have resorted to breaking up what is left of their own furniture to make themselves comfortable.

“We are now tearing apart the wood off the window panes from our homes to make bonfires to warm ourselves at night,” El-Sheeny said bitterly. “We are devastated and most of us do not have money to rebuild. We put our life savings into these homes.”

Why did this happen?

The residents of the Tarafy fields are not only heartbroken over their lost homes, but seething with anger for what they claim is a travesty of justice.

When they began to investigate the case, they discovered that the demolition order was issued on 1 April, three days before the demolition took place. The order came from the Egyptian Endowments Authority, which claims that they own the land and that the people living there are trespassers who took over the land after the revolution.

The residents sent several representatives along with lawyers and held a seven hour meeting with the governor of Alexandria, Osama El-Fouly, who was shocked to hear of the demolition. El-Fouly revealed that the Endowments Authority told him that there were only a few huts on the land and that it was not the burgeoning complex that it was.

According to Mahmoud El-Taher, the lawyer of the residents, the Endowments Authority failed to produce any documents to prove that they owned the land. They also failed to produce a demolition order.

“So the governor asked that the demolition work to end immediately and that the case be sent to the attorney-general for investigation,” El-Taher said.

“So what?” asks El-Taher. “They demolished 112 homes by mistake? And where are these people supposed to go? This is a humanitarian crisis in every sense.”

While the Endowments Authority is adamant that this land is theirs and that the people who live there are intruders, they have come up empty when asked for evidence. On the other hand, the livid residents have armed themselves with a raft of documents to prove that their legal status is sound.

According to El-Taher, many of the residents have ownership documents. The land, he said, was originally owned by a Frenchman who then sold it to Egyptian businessman, Ali Ghoneim El-Amrawy. In 1921, Amrawy’s heirs then sold the land to businessman Hassan Ali Seif. As the years passed by, the heirs began dividing up the land and selling it piece by piece. Most of them then gave contracts to Kamal El-Din Ali, Seif’s grandson, to sell the land for them.

According to El-Taher, this history rubbishes claims by the Endowments Authority that the people are no more than intruders on the land who took advantage of the chaos of the revolution to take over.

“They have been there for 15 years,” he stresses. “As a matter of fact, Kamal El-Din died in 1999, so these sales were made more than a decade ago.”

Ibrahim El-Sheeny, one of the residents who has lived in the Tarafy fields since 2004, has an aerial photographic survey of the land taken in 2005 that shows clearly that the area was heavily inhabited.

“This can easily prove that the claims by the Endowments Authority that the land was vacant are completely false,” El-Sheeny says.

He also wonders why the authority allowed utilities such as gas, electricity and water to be supplied to the land if the people were mere intruders.

“The pharmacy that was here has been licensed since 2007,” El-Sheeny says. Why would the authorities give it a license if we were thugs who are building here illegally?”

El-Sheeny and many residents are resolute in their belief that the Endowments Authority wants to sell the land to investors for millions. “It’s in a strategic place and it’s beautiful,” says El-Sheeny. “They’ve had their eyes on it for years.”

Neighbours in crisis

Before the military troops and Central Security Forces stormed into the Tarafy fields and demolished the homes, they went to the nearby Ezbet El-Arab farm. However, according to the residents of the farm, the imam of the mosque saw the troops coming in and used the microphone to warn the people. Upon hearing the news, thousands of residents created a human shield around the farm and managed to thwart the troops attempts to enter.

“They were planning to do this to us first,” says ElSayed Ismail, an elderly farmer who lived on the farm all his life.

The Ezbet El Arab farm along with four other farms, including El-Helaleya, Manshiet El-Awkaf, El-Kombania and Ezbet El-Nagareen, believe that the Endowments Authority is eyeing them next.

The farmers say they are damned because their farms are in one of the most luscious and striking locations in Alexandria. They are near Montazah Palace Gardens and close to the Mamoura beach. The area has already been developed in the past few years with malls and megastores opening nearby. Now, the farmers claim that the Endowments Authority wants to evict them from the land in order to sell it to investors and continue expanding the area.

Lawyer Mahmoud El-Kebeer, who is representing the families of Ezbet El-Arab, claims that he has blueprints of the plans that the authority had for the area.

“It includes housing units, compounds, malls, a hospital and a cinema complex,” says El-Kebeer. “In short, they want to boot the people out of their land turn it into a bustling touristic spot.”

The problem is, the farmers and their families have been on this land for hundreds of years. In fact, the land was originally owned by the ruler of Egypt Khedive Abbas Helmy II. When he was deposed from Egypt in 1914, the British government, which was occupying Egypt at the time, sold it the Ministry of Endowments for LE720,000. The land remained under the control of the ministry until 1957.

In 1960, President Nasser issued Law 178 of 1952 giving the land to the Agricultural Reform Authority. A few years later, President Sadat issued Law 80 of 1971 for the establishment of the Egyptian Endowments Authority, which the farmers were told would administer their lands and that some of the money would help fund the war Sadat was preparing against Israel. Finally, President Sadat issued Law 3 of 1986 to legalise the situation of the farmers occupying the land.

“This law would allow the farmers to buy the land they live on and become official owners. However, this law was largely ignored and the people are still living in limbo to this day,” says El-Kebeer. “This is not about laws, this is about corruption. In the end, they go out on TV and call these farmers thugs, forgetting that they have been on this land for 300 years.”

The problem, says El-Kebeer, is that only 70 people living on these farms have managed to get land deeds. “The others have tried repeatedly to legalise their situation but they were ignored,” explains El-Kebeer.

In 2008, however, the farmers were stunned to find out that the Endowments Authority, which was merely administering the land, but did not own it, had begun selling it to investors through a protocol.

The protocol

Ahram Online has obtained a copy of a protocol between former Minister of Endowments Mohamed Hamdy Zaqzouq and former Governor of Alexandria Adel Ali Labeeb. According to El-Kebeer, the protocol stipulates that the Endowments Authority will concede 100 feddans of the 300 feddans in the Ezbet El-Arab farm to the governorate. “In return, they ask the governorate to support their commercial plans for the land and help in getting rid of the people,” says El-Kebeer.

Indeed, Article 5 of the protocol says that if the deal is to go through, the governorate is “committed to remove any buildings or transgressions on the land.” “So they are basically selling the land with the people still living on it," says El-Kebeer.

Our turn is coming

This protocol, in addition to the tragic events that took place in the Terafy fields, has made the residents of the five farms live in constant terror.

“We try to keep night watches across the farm but we are never sure where they are coming from,” says Magdy ElSayed, one of the residents of Ezbet El-Arab. “This is corruption at the highest levels. They want to get rid of small people for the sake of the big investors.”

Ahmed El-Sherif, another elderly man living on the farm, says they live in a constant state of panic, with frequent alerts that troops are heading their way to destroy their homes.

“The other day we got news that they are coming at 1am,” says El-Sherif. “We live in constant terror that our homes are going to be destroyed; that our turn is next.”

Murder in the fields

According to El-Kebeer, the Endowments Authority has used all means possible to pressure the farmers to evacuate their lands. These included destroying their crops and making midnight calls to their homes.

“They used to go and collect people from their homes at 3am, which terrified these small farmers who usually sleep at sunset, and then force them to sign over their deals,” he says.

One farmer, Hasan Shendy, from the Helaleya farm, was murdered when he tried to fight them. He was found with his legs tied up and a message scrawled on his corpse: “The turn is on Salama Korayem to be shot, you leaders of peasants.” Salama was Shendy’s friend who was helping him fight off attempts to take over the land.

“The people of these farms have been passed through the ringer the last few years,” says El-Kebeer. “They have done everything to intimidate them and force them to give up their rights. The people are now exhausted and just want a solution to their problem.”

Throughout Egypt

This crisis is not only taking place in Alexandria but across many cities in Egypt, where poor families are being displaced from their homes to make way for investors. The scenario was repeated in several areas, including three islands on the Nile: the island of Al-Qursaya, the island of Al-Warraq and the island of Al-Dahab. The government began harassing the residents of these islands and repeatedly attempted to evict them when they realised that the land they lived on was an invaluable piece of real estate.

There were reports that a foreign businessman had planned to buy the land and build a tourist project on them. It was also reported that the government had promised to get rid of the inhabitants on the island so that he can proceed with the project. There were additional reports that the islands would be transformed into public parks once their residents were evicted.

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