Egypt’s government stepped up its efforts in its perennial struggle against illegal construction on agricultural land with the drafting of a new law, which farmers consider to be a measure of questionable efficacy in tackling a deep-rooted issue.
The draft law, according to a statement made by Minister of Agriculture Ayman Abu Hadid this week, will impose an LE500,000 ($70,000) fine and a three-year jail sentence on all parties involved in building on agricultural land.
The country has long been struggling with the dilemma posed by the fact that its fast-growing population is concentrated in 7.7 percent of its total area, the Nile Valley and Delta, also home to Egypt's most fertile arable land, which accounts for a mere four percent of its surface, according to official figures published by state-statistical body CAPMAS.
Before Egypt's 25 January 2011 Revolution, violations had led to the loss of an average of 20,000 feddans (roughly 20,760 acres), as per the estimates of a former high-ranking ministry official.
The near absence of law enforcement which followed the revolution led to an explosion in unlicensed construction on agricultural land, further compounding the problem.
In the two and a half years that followed the revolution, over 38,000 reported cases of unlicensed building have claimed 903,000 feddans (roughly 937,314 acres) of land designated for farming, according to Abdel-Hamid Shehata, head of the Services Department at the ministry, which deals with the matter.
The most affected areas are in the Nile Valley and Delta; Monoufiya Governorate, northwest of Cairo, tops the list with over 125,000 violations in that period.
“The practice has become an organised business,” explained Shehata, who echoed the minister in labelling the perpetrators a “mafia.”
Traders reap large profit margins from purchasing agricultural land, sold by the feddan, and then selling it as real estate by the square metre, he said, adding that “you can buy a feddan for a quarter of a million pounds ($36,289.75) and sell it for LE2 million ($290,318), once it has been built on.”
The process of reclaiming the land for agriculture once it has been built on is an arduous and often fruitless one.
“The main problem is the reliance on the local governor to issue a demolition order,” complained Shehata. “By the time this happens there is already a finished building with a family living in it, which makes it nearly impossible for the authorities to implement the order without provoking a riot,” he elaborated.
According to the official, the new draft law will allow law enforcement authorities to interfere sooner, by doing away with the need for local approval.
Since the revolution, the government has ordered the demolition of over 90,000 unlicensed constructions nationwide, according to the ministry.
The demolitions, however, are often meaningless as they fail to return the land to its original use, said Abdel-Fattah Mekky, the mayor of a village and landowner in Egypt’s Delta Governorate of Al-Sharqiya.
"'Demolition' simply means the government comes and rams a wrecking ball through a building and leaves, after which the inhabitants just rebuild what has been destroyed," Mekky explained.
According to the mayor, the bureaucratic delays and expenses of seeking a construction license drive people to prefer building without one despite the risk they run of incurring a fine.
"The price of renting a flat has gone up tenfold in our village over the past 10 years," Mekky highlighted, "whoever has sons to marry will happily pay the one-off fine -- if the court does not acquit him altogether -- to be able to build them a home without delay."
In Mekky’s view, the harsher penalties considered in the new law may increase its deterring power, but not enough to deracinate the problem brought on by the unmet demands for low-cost housing.
With some 84 million inhabitants already, Egypt’s population is expected to reach 103.7 million by 2025, with an average annual growth rate of 1.6, according to the US Census Bureau.
According to Shehata, the government is currently drawing up a blueprint for the expansion of the designated building area around urban centres, which had not been updated since the revolution, in order to catch up with demographic pressures.
“But it is a very complex issue, and it needs to be tackled from many sides at once to be truly brought under control,” Mekky concluded.