Villagers protest Upper Egypt land seizures

Protests erupted on the steps of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate’s downtown Cairo headquarters this evening after a group of Upper Egyptian villagers, lawyers and civil servants were prevented from holding a press conference–despite having obtained previous syndicate approval. Conference organizers had hoped to address the forced eviction of residents of Maris, a rural village near the city of Luxor, to make room for a massive luxury port for tourists.

Construction of the port, which will be geared towards wealthy vacationers, has already been approved by the government.

In an attempt to keep their land, livelihood and homes from being forcefully seized, a number of Maris residents–along with supporters from neighboring Luxor–arrived in Cairo this afternoon for a pre-scheduled press conference aimed at raising awareness about their situation. They were shocked to learn, however, that the conference had been canceled, apparently by journalist syndicate head Makram Mohamed Ahmed.

Consequently, dozens of villagers were forced to make their stand on the street. From behind the inevitable police blockade, villagers chanted for justice while their lawyers and elected representatives furiously relayed the history of their predicament to a growing crowd of journalists and news crews.

“This storm has been brewing for four years now,” fumed lawyer and MP Hisham el-Kady Hanafi. “Now these people aren’t even being allowed to talk about what’s being done to them. We came to have an intelligent discussion that would hopefully lead to a solution. We want to propose a way to defend the rights of citizens seeking justice. Instead, we’re relegated to yelling on the street.”

“The land that the government is trying to take is some of the best in the country,” Hanafi added, pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow. “It produces 75 tons of sugar cane a year. You can grow mangoes in the winter. I’ve even taken some of these magoes to court with me, just to show everyone what the government is throwing away.”

Hanafi says he has approached various authorities, courthouses and administrations in an attempt to resolve the predicament–to no avail. Although his efforts have until now been met by disinterest and false promises, Hanafi is determined not to give up. “I’m with these people,” he growls, throwing an arm over a bewildered villager. “I’m with them to the end.”

As the crowd continued to swell, the villagers’ chants attracted yet more bystanders and reporters. Two men draped in Egyptian flags took turns passing a megaphone back and forth. “The head of the journalists syndicate is prohibiting freedom of speech!” yelled one. “Taking this land is illegal and we urge the president to stop this unnecessary rape!” shouted the other.

The chaos culminated in a brief but sudden fistfight over waist-high police barriers. In the background, villagers repeated: “The head of the journalists syndicate has abolished our rights, broken the law and forced us onto the street!”

Amidst the commotion, Abdel Aati Arabi Orabi, member of the Maris Municipal Council, provides a more detailed explanation. “We were all surprised in 2006 when an administrative decision was taken to make Maris a part of Luxor," he said. "We were surprised again by decree number 264 of 2007, which stated that over 1000 feddans of the best agricultural land in Maris was to be used to build some sort of tourism project.”

According to Orabi, the news sent local lawyers into overdrive. Gathering extensive proof of the illegality of the proposed project, they took the case to court, only to have it thrown out. “But we didn’t give up,” insisted Orabi. “We lodged an appeal with the Supreme Cairo Court several months ago.” Sadly, Orabi admits, they have yet to receive a response.

“We came here today to hold a press conference under the supervision of Mohamed Abdel Koddous, head of the journalists syndicate’s liberties committee," added Orabi. "It was a peaceful attempt to reach journalists and the media, and we were shocked to hear of its cancellation.”

While there has been no official explanation for the last-minute cancellation, rumors quickly spread through the angry crowd. “Apparently, the syndicate head received a call from the governor of Luxor,” said Orabi. 

“The real tragedy is how unnecessary this all is," he continued. "Environmental engineer Mamdouh Hamza recently came up with an alternative plan for this port project that would see it built in a more suitable location, where the government would only need to take 20 feddans of other people’s land. But that doesn’t seem to interest anyone.”

“There are over 20 lawyers here all making the same plea,” Orabi went on. “We want President Mubarak, the father of all Egyptians, to turn a sympathetic eye to our situation. We’re asking him to show some mercy and intervene. If he doesn’t, there are 2400 homes and 12,000 people who will lose everything they have.”

A jolt of energy suddenly ran through the crowd with the arrival of an official-looking individual who the lawyers present immediately recognized as the syndicate chief. Moments before being descended upon by enraged protesters, the man was correctly identified as Shawqy el-Sayed, a member of parliament’s consultative Shura Council.

“This case will be decided in court,” said el-Sayed, struggling to be heard over a stream of angry demands and accusations. “But I will say that these tourism projects do not justify taking away land from its rightful owners. And prohibiting freedom of speech is an inexcusable mistake. There are several high-ranking officials we need to see behind bars.”

Moments later, el-Sayed disappeared into the building, yet the crowd remained restless. One of the flag-wearing protesters then walked up to the police barrier with his megaphone, aiming it at a senior officer and yelling: “The government serves the rich and nobody else!”–to which the officer leaned back against a parked van, smiling widely.

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