Sunday, November 11, 2007

Cairo farmers fight army for land

by Charles Onians
Agence France Presse.
Sun Nov 11, 2007

Bayonets fixed, the soldiers scrambled onto the island in the middle of Cairo, rolled out barbed wire and set up camp. The reasons why they did so are as murky as the Nile waters that flow around them.

Al-Qursaya island is home to 5,000 people, mostly farmers who have lived there for generations. It is one of the last undeveloped pieces of land in the mega-city's ever-expanding concrete sprawl.

The army's arrival in September heralded that of mechanical diggers swaying atop barges as they set about expanding the island, which can only currently be accessed by a small ferry.

More ominously, the farmers have been told to stop paying rent as the land "will be cleared," according to the only official document any of the residents has seen.

Officials have spoken vaguely about transforming the area into a public park, but no one on Al-Qursaya believes them.

They fear that their homes and livelihood will be taken from them to make way for yet another tourist development dreamed up by wealthy men who straddle the worlds of business and politics.

And in Egypt, no explanation is needed when the all-powerful military is involved.

Sociologist Sameh Naguib says the army is increasingly involved in development projects and that "for tourism, for roads, there is always a struggle for the land."

"The army is a major landowner in Egypt. If there's a problem with a road project the army gets involved -- they say the army owns it," says the American University professor, who is based in Cairo.

But beyond so-called projects of national interest such as roads, Naguib says that the government, pushing a programme of liberal economic reforms, "wants foreign investors."

"Because the value of real estate has tripled in recent years, because of all this the army's involvement is accelerating," he says.

One analyst who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue said that President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal -- a former merchant banker widely seen as being groomed to be the next president -- could be currying favour with the army.

One question mark over Gamal's inheritance is that he would be the first president from a non-military background, and "this could be Gamal's way of winning the army over. Maybe he's giving them a bigger cut with the businessmen," the analyst says.

The farmers are increasingly worried.

"I feel that we have no rights. We're afraid," says one, asking not to be named for fear of reprisals. "When we're asleep and the dog barks, we are afraid the soldiers are coming to kick us out."

The soft, black earth gives easily under foot, stretching half way across the Nile and marked only by the occasional cluster of ramshackle homes or a modest villa.

Just to the south lies the wealthy suburb of Maadi, home to much of Cairo's expat community and some of the most expensive real estate in this city of 16 million.

Around 100 troops have set up mini-camps in people's gardens and taken over several small homes. They have raised Egyptian flags alongside signs saying "This land belongs to the army. No photography."

Emergency laws in place for decades mean that any Egyptian will think twice about reporting on military activity, and the few media references to what is happening on the island studiously avoid mentioning the army.

Old men drink tea on the river bank, wondering what their fate will be. "This is worse than what the Israelis do to the Palestinians," grumbles one.

The ministry of defence declined to comment on the army's presence, while a security source said that the army is in fact deployed to protect the island from "a group of investors," including prominent members of the ruling National Democratic Party.

In 2001, a similar drama was played out on the nearby island of Dahab, home to 50,000 people and the prospective site of unspecified "tourist projects." On that occasion investors backed off in the face of massive demonstrations.

Many now fear developers are going for Al-Qursaya as a less-populated "soft target," with the media spotlight dimmed by the army's involvement.

"The army has long been involved in business, as an institution and as individuals," said another analyst who requested anonymity.

"There are reports that the army is becoming more aggressive in its business practices... there are stories of pressure by generals on farmers to sell their land and if they don't comply then bad things happen to them."

He says the military "has a very diversified portfolio of economic interests" from chicken farms to mineral water springs, and that if Gamal were to take over "he has to placate the senior ranks of the military."

"You're talking about fewer than 20 individuals of the top brass and the rest will follow."

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