GIZA — At 5 in the morning on Sunday, Nov. 18, Khaled Mahmoud was with his family and friends guarding a stretch of agricultural land on the Nile island of Qursaya when the military raided the place.
“First they used batons and electric prods. When people resisted, holding on to their land, they used live rounds,” Mahmoud said later in the afternoon. The troops “came in four boats. They were beating every creature in sight, man or animal. They were burning everything they came across.”
Mahmoud had access to a motor boat, into which he jumped with a group of friends, escaping the raid with “screams of pain” in the background.
“There were children sleeping in the shacks. I carried some with me. They were trembling in fear. […] Other [residents] were jumping in the Nile to escape the bullets.”
One was killed, several others were wounded and about five were missing.
On the mainland on Sunday, residents who blocked the El-Bahr Al-Azam Road in protest were in disbelief.
“I didn’t believe our military killed civilians, but now I’ve seen it,” said Sahar Ahmed, referring to the army’s deadly crackdowns on protesters, which she had once dismissed as false reports. “They took us by surprise and attacked without a warning. We didn’t have anything to defend ourselves with.”
On the pavement around Ahmed, women dressed in black were wailing in grief and anger. Ahmed’s brother Yasser was among 25 arrested by the army. He was questioned by military prosecutors and remained in custody for 15 days, facing charges of appropriating state property. Lawyer Islam Khalifa said none of them received medical treatment, including two questioned while on stretchers.
The raid seemed like an episode out of Hosni Mubarak’s rule: state protection of financial interests at the expense of the livelihood of the poor, a policy which fueled anger in the buildup to the 2011 uprising. President Mohammed Morsi’s handling of recent events has put him in the hot seat. With a continuing legacy of security abuses, injustice and decaying infrastructure, pundits accuse him of benefiting from maintaining the status quo rather than enforcing sweeping reforms.
The dispute over this piece of land northeast of the island goes back to 2007, when the government tried to evict residents in order to sell the land to an investor. The combination of lush greenery and fresh air with a Nile view is a real-estate gold mine in southern Cairo. In a statement released Sunday, military spokesperson Col. Ahmed Ali said the land was registered under the army’s name in July 2010.
This was five months after the Higher Administrative Court upheld a 2008 ruling giving the residents the right to stay. Except for a camp the army maintained on the island, residents remained in control of the land but without ownership. They pay taxes for their real estate and farmland, and for services like electricity.
“I’m 38 and I was born here. People live on the produce of the land,” said Ahmed. Her brother is one of many fishermen who split their time between boats and wicker huts or one-room apartments in the cluster of low-rise buildings in the south. Fishery, agriculture and dairy products are the main sources of income in Qursaya, whose population is estimated to be more than 5,000. A manually operated chain ferry carries the residents across about 100 meters separating the island from Giza.
Concerns about a military evacuation of the entire island have been looming over the place for years. Residents say they were once offered relocation to the new satellite cities. “We are fishermen and farmers, what can we do in the desert? The only thing to do there is to sell drugs,” said Ahmed.
Mahmoud, whose family claims decades-long ownership of a spacious farm, rebuffed a military statement describing the disputed land as vital to its mission to secure the capital. “Over the past five years there were no more than 10 or 20 soldiers there. They cultivate our land and sell the food […] to us.”
Taking advantage of the low military presence on Friday, residents took back part of their land. Mahmoud said they held a “positive” meeting with a high-ranking official the same night, and that “We gave him the court papers proving we are the owners and he promised to look into them.”
Col. Ali said the raid only intended to reclaim army property.
The military’s economic projects include farms, cement factories and ventures in tourism and energy, and may constitute 8% to 40% of the Egyptian economy. Over the past year and half, the army lent the state of Egypt at least $1 billion to aid its plummeting economy. It has been resisting all forms of monitoring of its budget. The new constitution, drafted by an assembly dominated by Islamists, is expected to quell most army concerns.
Details about its business activities were only subject to speculation until March, when the then-assistant to the minister of defense, Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Nasr, said the army would never cede ownership of its businesses. He vowed to fight for what he described as the sweat and blood of the armed forces.
The Qursaya plot, however, is small in comparison to other army property, and the farmers were surprised the military would be interested in it for agricultural purposes.
“The military is especially sensitive, even nervous, when the issue is land they own or control,” explained Tewfik Aclimandos, a political scientist and consultant. “And the military is ill-prepared for conducting police operations.”
The troops that raided the island on Sunday destroyed several huts and all the furniture of two of the handful of villas there. “Soldiers were shouting 'God is Great' when they were attacking us, as if it were war,” Mahmoud said.
The military spokesperson said gunfire was only used in response to shooting from the residents. Mahmoud said none of the residents were armed. He said a couple of the villas’ hired guards had guns but didn’t use them during the attack. “They only fired shots in the air at one a.m.,” hours before the raid.
“They want us to be thugs, to take up arms. This is how criminals are created,” Ahmed said. She and other residents felt betrayed by Morsi.
Ali Eid, an agricultural engineer, said he voted for Morsi, but now he wonders about his status as a citizen. The problems are beyond what happened on Sunday. “We are not talking about long-term plans, but about simple problems Morsi could solve over the phone,” he said.
Eid, a grandfather, explained how residents are robbed of their sense of belonging. “We can’t operate the bakery we built because we can’t get the contracts that would allow us to get the subsidized wheat. No one can set up projects on the island.”
Outside the island, where a road block ended Sunday night without answering the residents’ demands, Nagat Ahmed said, “I supported Morsi, but I regret it. Mubarak’s hell is better than Morsi’s heaven.”
Sarah El Sirgany is a Cairo-based independent journalist. She contributes to Al-Akhbar in Lebanon and CNN among other regional and international publications and networks. She was the deputy editor of Daily News Egypt and has co-authored Diaries of the Revolution. You can follow her on Twitter, @Ssirgany, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.