27. Problems on hold; Dispossessed!

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The author discusses a dispute between 29 Coptic families who were evicted from their land under the premise that it was state owned, and presents the opinion of the region’s governor on the issue, as well as Watani International’s critique of the way in which the dispute is being handled.

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Last October Watani reported on Ezbet Hanna Ayoub in Minya, Upper Egypt, a tiny hamlet inhabited by 29 Coptic families who know of no other home. Their parents and grandparents had always lived there adjacent to what had once been a swamp in the property of the large landowner family of Hanna Ayoub. Being among the poorest of the peasants, the landowners promised them they could settle down in that spot once they managed to fill the swamp. So the land they today live on was never ‘land’ in the first place; they had salvaged it from the swamp. In 1962 the agrarian reform law was passed, and landowners were stripped of vast areas of land. Among these were the 20 qirats of land (3,650 sq.m) belonging to the peasants of Ezbet Hanna Ayoub, who were then informed they were living on State property and had to be evicted. They repeatedly offered to purchase the land in order to legalise their residence but were told it could not be sold but would be auctioned off according to the law.
The General Authority for Agrarian Reform (GAAR) procrastinated on the issue until last year, when it sold the 20 qirats to one Taher Abdel-Hafez Stouhi, a land owner and resident of the nearby village of al-Birka and head of the Islamic Society there, to build an Islamic Azhari institute. No-one could figure out the logic behind building an Islamic school in a predominantly Coptic village, and worse, it was to be built on land usurped from the Copts. The peasants’ houses were bulldozed but, even then, they refused to give up their land, stayed on and tried to rebuild their homes. In desperation, they turned to Minya governor Fouad Saad-Eddin who met them but, sadly, announced he was not taking sides in the dispute—as though the two sides were equal, not that one was the aggressor and the other the crushed victim. He declared the governorate would itself purchase the land—he never said how when the land had already been sold to Stouhi and a court case was ongoing—and would establish a school or youth centre there. So where would the peasants go? The wise, just governor replied it was none of his concern.
Last week Watani received a letter from General Saad-Eddin, which I hereby print, given our full respect to the right to reply.
“The 20 qirats in concern are owned by the GAAR. Some people transgressed the law and built thereupon huts of palm fronds to shelter their cattle. The huts were removed on 15 February 2007, in coordination with the GAAR. It should be indicated that the people whose huts were removed have homes in Ezbet Hanna Ayoub, and the huts’ purpose was to shelter cattle not villagers.
“Taher Abdel-Hafez Stouhi had filed an appeal to the GAAR to buy the land on behalf of the Islamic Society for Development to build an Islamic Azhari institute and an orphanage. Since the district is in dire need for services, and since there is no need for an Azhari institute—there is a similar one close by—the governorate appealed to the Agriculture Minister to halt the sale and sell the land instead to the governorate to use for service projects.
“The Agriculture Minister approved the new sale to the governorate which, having now fulfilled the required procedures to buy the land, is preparing to sign the purchase contract.
“It is thus obvious that the move by the GAAR to remove transgressions over land it owns was legitimate, since the land is to be used for public benefit, and the hamlet’s residents had no right in their complaint.”
The governor’s reply obviously contradicts the peasants’ compliant, since it discounts the issue to a mere infringement by the peasants on a plot of land they do not own. The governorate moreover was fair enough to refrain from taking sides, to say nothing of its magnanimous initiative of buying the land to establish service projects to help those miserable wretches.
The fact that Watani did not satisfy itself with accepting point blank the peasants’ story but conducted its own investigation of the case appears to have been lost on the governor. Yet this independent investigation poses a host of issues the governor’s reply did not cover:
First, the plot of land in question is inhabited by the peasants themselves, not only their cattle. Second, Rosa Hanna Ayoub granted the 20 qirats—which had been a swamp, and hence the neighbourhood’s name of al-Birka (the pond), and which the peasants transformed into cultivable land and lived upon—to the peasants some 50 years ago. In 1961, when the Ayoubs’ land was confiscated, the peasants offered to buy the land from GAAR which did not object but said the land would be auctioned off according to the law.
The governor’s reply did not mention that the case of the disputed land is now in court, nor that the GAAR sold the land directly to Stouhi without auctioning it off. It thus disregarded the undisputed right of first claim of the residents, and instead accused them of being transgressors who had to be disciplined.
The governorate seized the land under the pretext that it would use it to provide services to the residents. What services could be provided to people who have nowhere to live? Does not secure and appropriate accommodation represent a precondition to benefiting from services? How could the governorate displace the peasants then offer them services? When they asked the governor where were they to go his answer was: “it is not my concern”. I denounce this shocking reply, since the governor is the de facto president of the region. God forbid service projects that render the poor homeless. If the governor is so keen on services projects, he should first offer the 29 families new housing. Then would Watani wholeheartedly applaud the project.

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