“We were there for him when he needed us,” says Helaly Said al-Anwar, recalling his military service under Gamal Abdel Nasser. An army scout, Anwar served two years in Yemen and three years in the Sinai.
Tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers never returned from these disastrous wars. Those who did, like Anwar, were offered a reward: either a plot of agricultural land or a civil service job.
“I’m a farmer. I don’t know bureaucracy or offices. I took the land,” recalls Ali Mohamed Abdullah, another veteran of the 1962 Yemen war.
After returning from battles abroad, 24 local veterans were given a 44 feddan plot of land in Serso, on the outskirts of the Nile Delta city of Mansoura. Although each veteran got between one and two feddans, with few holdings larger than a football pitch, the land provided stability and a solid base for a growing family.
“We were raised on the land and because of the land,” says Sayed Atef, son of a veteran.
Fifty years after returning from Yemen, the Serso veterans find themselves still fighting, this time a battle to hold onto the land they were granted in 1967.
Instead of foreign soldiers, they are faced off with the local elite, in the form of the family local landowner, businessmen and politician Farid al-Masry.
After years of court cases, land seizures and evictions, 23 of the veterans, their families and supporters find themselves facing charges ranging from resisting arrest to highway robbery for refusing to leave the land quietly.
The land reform measures of the 1950s and 1960s were part of a rare moment in which the Egyptian state sought to take power away from the economic elite and transfer it to the masses of peasants and tenant farmers. From the beginning, though, flaws in the system ensured its eventual undoing. Regulations were cumbersome, inconsistent and insufficiently enforced, and many landowners managed to retain or reclaim estates much larger than the 100 feddans a family was allowed to own after 1961.
Only around 15 percent of the country’s agricultural land was redistributed under Nasser’s rule. Under Sadat, the land reform program was allowed to wither away.
The land granted to Anwar, Abdullah and other local veterans originally belonged to an Armenian from Lebanon named Sarsak Iskandar, who was stripped of his estate after the 1952 revolution but bequeathed the village a localized version of his name. In 1955, a local landowner named Farid al-Masry applied to have the Serso parcel swapped for a parcel of land he owned. Under this process known as “badal,” Masry asked the Agriculture Ministry to transfer the Serso land to him in exchange for a different parcel of land he would give the government — a quirk of fate that would have massive repercussions for the farmers and their children.
A 1961 law reduced the maximum land holding by half, barring individuals from owning more than 100 feddans, and the Serso plot was confiscated from Masry, explains Wael Ghally, a lawyer for the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.
In 1963, four years before the land was redistributed to veterans, Masry surfaced with a contract dated 1959. In a claim to the Committee for Agricultural Reform, Masry said that this contract, allegedly signed by a witness who had died in the interim, was proof he had sold the land to his children before the new law was put in place, and that the land therefore should not have been confiscated from him.
This case (detailed below) was the opening round in a decades-long dispute over who were the rightful occupants of the land —Masry’s children or the farmers and their families.
Eventually, two separate rulings from the Supreme Administrative Court — Egypt’s highest authority for such matters — judged the 1959 contract to be invalid, and upheld the farmers’ rights to remain on the land. Nonetheless, the Masry family found more favorable treatment in their local power base of the Daqahliya governorate, and twice succeeded in obtaining orders that allowed them to evict the farmers: first in 1996, and then again this year.
The first eviction
The history of the case dates decades back.
From 1967 to 1996, the veterans and their families farmed the land in peace, growing rice, bersim and cotton. “We made a good living,” they recall.
In the background, the Masry family continued their battle to claim the land, a struggle sustained by immense resources and strong political connections. The family owns the Gravena ceramics company and several other businesses in Mansoura. Eventually they became local power brokers as members of the National Democratic Party, which ruled under ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
The Gravena company and Masry family have not responded to repeated requests for comment from Mada Masr.
Farid’s son Abdel Aziz continued shopping around the 1959 contract, saying he purchased the land before it was confiscated from his father. In 1983, a quasi-judicial committee on agricultural reform ruled in his favor, deciding to proceed on the assumption the contract was valid.
Doubt, however, had been cast on the authenticity of the dead witness’s signature, and the General Authority for Agricultural Reform challenged the ruling at the Supreme Administrative Court. In 1986 (doc), the court ruled the contract invalid and the signature forged.
That should have been the final verdict, but Masry tried again.
“This is the definition of insanity,” says Ghally.
But Masry’s determination to keep fighting for the land proved not to be crazy after all.
A 1995 executive decision by Youssef Wali — deputy prime minister, agriculture minister and deputy chief of the NDP — created a new kind of reconciliation committee to deal with land disputes across the country.
Despite the previous court ruling, and the hundreds of livelihoods that depended on the land, the reconciliation committee decided to grant rights to the land to Abdel Aziz al-Masry.
On January 25, 1996, Masry and his hired men came to evict the farmers.
“It was the darkest day of my life,” recalls Hagga Saniya, wife of Yemen veteran Mohamed Ibrahim.
“I was walking on the land, in the middle of the field. There were too many cars to count and too many soldiers to count. They would grab us and make them renounce ownership by force,” Saniya recalls.
She fled to Menoufeya. The police broke down the door of her house to drag her teenage sons from their beds.
“With humiliation and beatings they came. They forcibly took us from the land and uprooted us,” recalls veteran Ali Mohamed Abdullah. “I fought,” he says. “The son of what’s his name, did he fight in the war?”
When they attempted to show the administration their land grant papers and court rulings, the farmers were told “You can dip it in water and drink it,” Saniya recalls.
“For 13 years, from 1996-2011, we stayed living here in this house, with the land just across the road. We couldn’t access it,” she says.
“We went through all legal channels and nobody wanted to hear it,” says farmer Ramadan Abdelatif.
“You can bring Abdel Nasser back from the dead to bring you your rights,” they were told.
“The state and police were protecting the person with whom we had a dispute,” says Saniya’s son Said.
In 2007, a lower administrative court ruled again in favor of farmers, nullifying the decision of the reconciliation committee established by Yousef Wali (doc). Legally, that decision should have been implemented despite a subsequent appeal by Masry.
For five years, the farmers were unable to retake the land, and the government made no effort to enforce the ruling. Eventually, in 2012, the legal commission of General Authority for agricultural reform issued a formal opinion recommending a freeze on the enforcement of the court ruling, pending the final outcome of the appeal before the Supreme Administrative Court.
The 2011 revolution
The system that supported Abdel Aziz al-Masry and his claims to the land was briefly swept away by the January 25 revolution. During the uprising, the police and military disappeared from the countryside. Armed with the 2007 administrative court ruling, the farmers retook the land.
This wasn’t simply a matter of opportunistic timing, Saniya says. For the farmers, it was their way of participating in the revolution happening in the cities.
Before long, the tide of the revolution receded, putting Masry once again in a position to reclaim the land.
He also had new impetus: In 2010, Spanish sanitary ware firm Roca bought a 50 percent stake in his Gravena company. The Spanish company, which did not respond to requests for comment, had big plans to expand operations in Egypt.
The Serso land plot is adjacent to the Gravena-Roca factory, a key location if the factory is to expand.
Shortly after re-taking the land, the farmers had another legal recommendation in their favor. On May 16, 2011, the local district prosecutor reviewed Masry’s claim, and decided that the case should be closed. Two weeks later, the prosecutor’s boss issued a contradictory decree, allowing Masry to retake the land.
The legal basis for this decree, Ghally explains, was essentially squatters’ rights. The decision referred to an Egyptian legal principle that grants rights to people who occupy a piece of land for more than a year. Masry had held the plot from 1996-2011. The farmers, meanwhile, had held the land for more than 30 years.
In July 2014, the Supreme Court again ruled in favor of the peasants, in response to a 2007 complaint by Masry to evict them.
Despite prevailing in court once again, pressure on the farmers began to intensify in late 2014, they recall. Farmers were finding themselves hassled by police, getting picked up. Four men were arrested from one household.
“I, myself, got taken twice,” says veteran Amr Atef.
Scores from the 2011 revolution were being settled, says Anwar, “It is a kind of revenge.”
On February 7, 2015, the police entered the land, pulled crops, took equipment, kicked farmers off the land. Those who were arrested face prosecution later this month, with a hearing scheduled for June 14.
They came and ruined the crops and dug up land, says Atef. “The green was on the bottom and the dark was on the top,” he recalls.
On April 25, the farmers went back to the land, leading to a clash with Masry’s hired hands and the arrest of 21 farmers, two local socialist activists and four of Masry’s men.
A months-old baby was also taken. Mona Sami Ibrahim was pulled off the land and held for four days, accused of carrying weapons. With her in prison, she says, was her baby daughter Hend. With her husband arrested too, Ibrahim’s two other young children were left to the care of neighbors. “For four days, I didn’t know what was happening to them,” she says.
“They insulted me, said things I don’t want to repeat,” recalls Taysir, the elderly wife of a veteran, whose home was raided by local police. “They snarled at me, called me daughter of a whore, said we’ll split you in half,” she says. “I thought the law was supposed to protect you. I don’t see any of that.”
The men who were detained also say their hair and moustaches were shaved, an attempt to publicly humiliate them.
On the land itself, after eight hours of arresting, beating and grabbing, the land was enclosed, and units of local police kept it under watch for weeks, says Atef. The plot remains surrounded by fencing and watch towers.
According to Serso veteran Moamen Abdel Maksoud Khafaga, the equipment confiscated during the eviction is being kept in storage space at the Gravena-Roca factory.
“We went to get it and we were told we could get the equipment if we sign away land,” he claims.
“It’s like a war of attrition. They are just trying to exhaust them, so when they get tired, they will sign the papers,” says lawyer Ghally.
Out of 24 title holders, around 10 have signed papers, giving up their rights to the land in exchange for LE70,000 per feddan and the promise of a peaceful life. The land is worth around LE1.3 million, the farmers say, assuming the owner could get around regulations forbidding building on agricultural land.
In any case, these contracts are not valid, Ghally says. Among other issues, under the terms of Egypt’s land reform laws, the veterans and their descendants have the right to cultivate the land, but ownership remains with the government. The farmers cannot sell the land, nor can the ministry sell it to a third party without their consent.
“That money, there is no way to make people pay it back legally,” Ghally explains. Nonetheless, the farmers say those who took the money feel “a moral obligation” to return it.
Last month, the farmers appealed again to the Administrative Court, asking for the farmers to be released and the past rulings from the Supreme Court to be carried out.
Although they have consistently succeeded in court, the farmers seem grim about their chances this time.
“He is the seventh president in the country since I’ve been here,” says Anwar, referring to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who just completed his first full year in office.
“These are the worst days. You let the dogs eat the peasants. It’s important to tell people that the country is rotten from top to bottom,” he adds. “If he doesn’t come out and make sure people are treated well, the entire country will go up in flames.”
For these former soldiers, their current struggle is particularly poignant as Egypt once again finds itself in wars in Yemen and the Sinai, the same battlegrounds they fought as young men.
“The people going to fight these wars, if they saw how we were being treated, probably wouldn’t go,” says Anwar, a veteran of two of Egypt’s wars.
Ramadan Abdelatif vows not to let his son into the army. “Over my dead body. I’ll send him abroad first. If take him into the army and he dies and his rights aren’t given to him, what’s the point?”