Land expropriation, not Mohamed Ali protest calls, behind demonstrations in Aswan village
An archival photo from the Facebook page of the Ministry of Local Development

While contractor and former actor Mohamed Ali made a renewed call for demonstrations on the one-year anniversary of the limited September 20 protests, the residents of the Aswan village of Gharb Suhail took to the streets for another reason. 

For the villagers who took to the streets in limited demonstrations on the evening of September 20, the impetus for protests was comments made by Transport Minister Kamel al-Wazir, who had visited the village on the same morning to check in on the progress of the construction of a new bridge for the Aswan Dam on villagers’ lands. 

During his meeting with the project manager, Wizar said that the state would pay out compensation to only 20 people whose lands would be expropriated for the construction of the new bridge, while all other affected families — as many as 70 people, one resident estimated — would not receive payment, as the remaining land belonged to the state. 

News of Wazir’s comments to the project manager soon spread throughout the village, and dozens of protesters headed to Sidky Selim Square, located near the vacation houses of the governor and the president, according to Mostafa al-Hassan, a lawyer and the director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center’s office in Aswan. The police, however, quickly intervened, arresting several demonstrators. 

Both Hassan and a village resident who spoke to Mada Masr stated that the protests had nothing to do with the calls for demonstrations made by Mohamed Ali, even though they coincided. 

Construction of the new project began in May of 2019. The reported cost comes in at almost LE2 billion. The alternative central axis of the Aswan Dam is supposed to connect the Bernis-Aswan Road with the Aswan-Cairo Road. The axis consists of two main bridges, one above the Nile and another on the Western Desert Road, in addition to a tunnel. The axis is 5.4 kilometers long and 29 meters wide, with three traffic lanes in each direction. 

The village of Gharb Suhail is south of Aswan, on the road leading to the Aswan International Airport. It is mainly inhabited by a Nubian population that works primarily in the tourism sector. The village can be accessed either by crossing the river, using small boats (the most popular route during booming tourism seasons), or via a road that passes through the Aswan Low Dam. The dam, which was inaugurated in 1902, marshalled the first mass displacement of Nubians due to the elevated level of water stored behind the dam. 

“Developing the village is a good thing, and we completely support it. But what is more important is to compensate the people of this village,” says a resident from Gharb Suhail. 

The resident, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, is one of the 20 people who is entitled to damage compensation for the construction of the new bridge. However, he told Mada Masr that he doesn’t know what the compensation will look like for the lands originally granted as compensation for the sacrifice made by their fathers and grandfathers that allowed the state to build the Aswan Dam. 

“No one told us what the compensation would look like. They only said that it’s called ‘resident compensation’ and that it will be a good thing, but we don’t know what it is. My land is no more than 300 square meters. My siblings and I inherited it from our father, and we don’t have another place,” he says. 

In addition to the anger over the minister’s statements, the resident pointed out another layer of frustration felt by the village residents since the Senate elections in September. A Nubian candidate from the village ran in the elections independently, but the Nation’s Future Party sabotaged the elections by distributing food cartons and LE200 payouts in exchange for votes. The resident says that the villagers interpreted this as an intentional move to block the only Nubian candidate from winning in the elections. 

According to the resident, the police arrested at least four village residents on September 20, including two minors, who were later released among the 68 minors who were arrested in sporadic protests across the country, according to a statement published by the prosecution on September 27. Hassan estimated that seven to eight residents of Gharb Suhail were arrested and transferred to Cairo. Hassan says that lawyers have not been able to identify their place of detention or whether they have been brought before the prosecution yet. 

A lawyer who has attended the State Security Prosecution’s investigations into defendants facing charges in Case No. 880/2020, which is the case that includes those arrested in the security crackdown in the leadup to the September 20 anniversary, told Mada Masr that the prosecution has investigated more than 1,000 people and the total number of those arrested is close to 2,000. The prosecution issued 15-day detention renewals on Sunday for hundreds of defendants who have been charged in the case, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which previously announced that 147 defendants had been released, 68 of whom are minors. 

The charges in the case included “joining a terrorist group, misusing social media websites, participating in a protest, and disseminating false news.” The DAAM Center for Democratic Transition and Human Rights Support outlined the geographical distribution of arrests in the wake of September 20, and the updated version published on September 24 states that 36 people were arrested from Aswan. 

Apart from the two children who were released, the two Gharb Suhail residents who remain in custody are Nabil Abdelmalek Khodary, the secretary of the Gharb Suhail Sporting Club, and Ahmed Mohamed Maghrabi, the head of the Community Development Association in the village. According to the resident from Gharb Suhail, the two men are still detained even though they were trying to calm the young protesters down. 

Hassan also added that for a few days after September 20, there were more demonstrations in the Karur and Kalabsha areas protesting the arrest of the villagers. On October 1, a group of Gharb Suhail villagers, most of whom were women, gathered in front of the Aswan Security Directorate to demand the release of children, according to the village resident and Hassan.

On Friday, September 25, the village was relatively calm amid a heightened security presence. The government family health unit office close to the village’s entrance had been turned into a security checkpoint flanked by armored vehicles and Central Security Forces cars. Military forces were stationed near the Aswan Dam to conduct heightened search procedures. Inside Gharb Suhail, only a few residents were outside, scattered among the side roads. All the tourist bazaars were closed, and only a few grocery shops were open. The riverside, which is usually packed on Fridays as residents go to escape the summer heat, was almost empty. Meanwhile, construction work on the new road axis was ongoing.

Hadeer El-Mahdawy 
Hossam Abdullatif 

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