Touted as Egypt’s national project of the century, the construction of a navigational bypass known as the “New Suez Canal” is projected to replenish the state’s coffers with billions, while providing one million new job opportunities in the process. However, it has thus far displaced well over 2,000 longtime residents living by the planned course of this new megaproject – rendering them both homeless and jobless.
According to lawyers for the displaced, well over 1,000 residential units have been torn down and their agricultural lands confiscated since the beginning of this month, in the villages of Qantara Sharq and Abtal, just east of the central part of the Suez Canal.
No monetary compensation has yet been paid for the demolitions, nor has alternate housing been provided, although state officials have pledged allotted plots of empty land, amounting to a mere 150 square meters per family.
Displaced families have been told that they will be repatriated in the villages of Amal and Ahrar, near Qantara Sharq, around 130 kilometers northeast of Cairo.
Neither the Suez Canal Authority nor the governorate of Ismailia has thus far made any mention of compensation for loss of agricultural lands and farmers’ livelihoods.
Attempts to contact the Ismailia governorate’s media spokesperson for specific details regarding these relocation efforts went unanswered.
In addition to being displaced from their homes, lands, and livelihoods, these evicted residents are being denied work opportunities in the New Suez Canal Project, due to unspecified security concerns.
A lawyer for the displaced families, Sherine al-Haddad, warns that as this new megaproject pushes forth from the central canal governorate of Ismailia, and hundreds of additional homes may be demolished. According to her, an estimated 2000, or more, residents living and working along its trajectory may also potentially be displaced from their villages, which lay along the route of the planned bypass.
Earlier this month, the Armed Forces and governorate of Ismailia began the process of evicting some 2,500 locals and demolishing their homes, while simultaneously confiscating hundreds of feddans (one feddan = 1.038 acres) of their family-owned agricultural lands.
Many, if not most, of these uprooted families have resided in the town of Qantara Sharq and the nearby village of Abtal for up to 30 years, whilst reclaiming their surrounding desert environs into farmlands, primarily through the cultivation of mango trees.
Haddad tells Mada Masr there are approximately 500 families, whose members total well over 2,000, that have been hastily displaced from their homes and lands.
“These families were given very little notice prior to their eviction – just around one week – and have not received any concrete form of compensation. Only promises from the officials involved in the New Suez Canal Project.”
Haddad adds that an additional 500 families, amounting to another 2000–2500, may be evicted from their homes over the course of the year, and may also have their farmlands confiscated to make way for the planned route of the canal, along with its planned zones for industry, services and investment.
“Beyond Qantara Sharq and Abttal, additional villages located to the east of Ismailia’s Bitter Lakes may similarly be wiped away to make space for the new project,” she says.
The project, which is actually a new artery (rather than a second canal) for the existing international waterway, is planned to run 72 kilometers parallel to the Suez Canal, and lies east of the original canal.
The lawyer points out that the Sinai Peninsula is virtually all military and state-owned land, and that “all civilian claims of land ownership here are thus considered contentious.”
It is on this basis that the authorities have evicted the residents of Qantara Sharq and Abtal, tore down their homes, and dug up their farmlands. “They’ve been evicted from these two villages as they are situated on land between the old Suez Canal and the new project,” she explains.
Regardless of original land claims, Haddad points out, “The evicted residents had been residing on these lands for nearly three decades. Thus, by virtue Egypt’s occupancy regulations and the construction of permanent homes on these lands for more than eight to 15 years legally recognizes it as their abodes.”
“Further recognizing their residency on these lands are the utility bills that these residents have been paying the governorate of Ismailia over the course of the years and decades in which they have lived there,” she adds.
Diaa Eddin Negm has been residing and farming in the village of Abtal for the past 30 years. He and his nine sons have been forced off their lands, and are now internally displaced people with no means of income.
Negm explains that his family’s lands are not officially registered in their name with the governorate of Ismailia, “yet we’ve been paying our gas bills, electricity bills, and landline phone bills to the governorate from our address for well over 20 years.”
At over 60 years of age, Negm says “I’m a farmer, as was my father and grandfather before him. This is my profession and that of my children. I’m an ageing farmer who is too old to learn a new profession, or to seek alternate job opportunities. Farming is all I know.”
Further adding to their plight, Negm explains that “after our eviction, I sought other employment opportunities for my nine sons, each of whom has a family of his own.”
When the elderly farmer asked security authorities in Ismailia for permits to allow his children and grandchildren to work with contracting companies on the New Suez Canal Project, he and his extended family were all denied work permits.
“When he found out that we were evicted residents of Abtal, the presiding police general told me that due to security concerns we were not allowed to work on the project. He did not specify what these security concerns are,” he says.
According to Haddad, “the security authorities consider these evicted residents as potential subversive elements.”
“These authorities don’t trust them, as several families and residents have been resisting or protesting their evictions, and some have been detained for doing so. The authorities fear they may stir up trouble along the new project,” she adds.
“So what else are they to do for a living these days?” she asks.
Negm and his extended family are currently living north of the village of Serabium in Ismailia. “We’re all renting apartments now, with the rent being paid from our own pockets. We’re all unemployed now. We’ve received no compensation or alternate housing has yet been provided,” he says.
Negm hopes that the Ismailia governorate will specify the exact location of the 150 square meters on which they will be allowed to build new, permanent homes.
“Together we owned 34 feddans of mango orchards from which we earned our livelihoods, and nine separate homes. The average size of these units was 250 square meters.”
“Regarding the New Suez Canal Project, I am personally both pleased and distressed with it,” Negm concludes.
“To President Sisi, I say: we support your national project and nationwide ambitions. Yet we require agricultural land to sustain ourselves, even if just three or four feddans per family. We are willing to reclaim desert lands, to plant them and turn them into fertile farmlands.”
On August 5, Sisi addressed the nation, stating that this megaproject would serve as a “new artery of life benefiting Egypt, its great people and the whole world.”
However, the forcefully evicted residents of Qantara Sharq and Abtal have not felt any of these benefits.
Another displaced mango farmer from the village of Abtal, Ibrahim al-Sayyed, also sent a message of despair to the president. “My family and I voted for President Sisi, and will vote for him again in the upcoming presidential elections. We support the president and his great national project that will help the economy of the whole country. However, we also want to have homes and farms of our own, as we did just three weeks ago,” he says.
Sayyed hails from a family that has been living and farming in Abtal for the past 30 years. “We have bills and receipts to prove our residency here.”
Together with his family, the 25-year-old Sayyed worked and owned six feddans of mango orchards. The displaced family of 12 had owned a home measuring over 260 square meters.
Like most other residents of Abtal, Sayyed claims he was given a 10-day notice to vacate his home and farmland. Like the others evicted, they were not given any compensation – only the pledge of a 150 square meters of land on which they are to build a new home – using their own resources.
They now rent two small apartments in the village of Serabium, “one in which we all live together, and another in which we have placed all our furniture and belongings,” he says.
They are now paying LE1,000 in rent for both units, although they’ve lost their land and only source of income.
“I have asked about any sort of paid work or service that my relatives or I could provide on the new project, but were turned down when the officials learned that we were displaced from Abtal,” he says.
“In the 1980s, under President Hosni Mubarak, my family and other farming families were encouraged to settle to the east of the canal in Sinai. Now we’ve been pushed back to west of the canal, have been driven from our homes, lands and jobs,” Sayyed explains.
Haddad says she aims to reach an amicable settlement with the respective state authorities – the governorate of Ismailia, Ministry of Agriculture, Armed Forces, and the Suez Canal Authority – through the channels of legal mediation and arbitration.
“Failing this, I will take my clients’ cases to the State Council Court.”
According to Egypt’s Constitution of 2014, Article 35 stipulates that private properties shall be protected and the right to inheritance thereto guaranteed. Private property may not be placed under sequestration except in those cases specified by law, and with a court order. Private property may not be expropriated except for the public interest, and with fair compensation paid in advance in accordance with the law.
Constitutional Article 63 stipulates that arbitrary forced displaced of citizens in all its forms and manifestations is prohibited and is a crime with no statute of limitations.