Cairo targets illegal land-grabbers amid economic unrest

Sunday 04/06/2017
Bold move. Authorities raze buildings constructed on land that was acquired illegally in Egypt. (Saeed Shahat)

Cairo - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seeking to retrieve state land ille­gally acquired by private investors in a move he hopes could salvage the country’s foundering economy.
“The reclaiming of illegally ac­quired plots of land was hampered in the past by the [political] influ­ence of those who acquired them,” said Farouk Megrahi, a retired po­lice general. “This is a tough mis­sion that makes it necessary for all state agencies to join hands.”
The return of such plots acquired under previous governments is the biggest move that Sisi has made in the fight against corruption, which is estimated to cost Egypt tens of billions of dollars a year.
“No one is above the law and its legitimacy. I assure the Egyptian people that they will be able to re­cover their land,” Sisi said in Dami­etta on May 23.
“This is the land of Egypt and whoever takes it without due pro­cess is a thief, whoever he is.”
Sisi ordered security forces to restore hundreds of thousands of hectares of state land unlaw­fully acquired by people, including members of previous cabinets.
Many warned that, while Sisi’s decision would prove popular with ordinary Egyptians, it would anger the powerful business community when Cairo is trying to establish Egypt as a regional centre for in­vestment.
Such fears should not be taken lightly, Megrahi and other security experts said. Egypt’s powerful busi­ness community has traditionally played a major role in domestic poli­tics, with many businessmen serv­ing as parliamentarians.
The turmoil Egypt experienced for three years after the ousting of longstanding President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 was largely blamed on pro-Mubarak business tycoons whose interests were threatened by the revolution.
Sisi said those who had illegally acquired land had to either surren­der it or pay market price for the property. Cairo estimates that land, including plots in the fertile Nile Delta and coastland, valued at $500 billion has been illegally acquired over the years.
Tens of thousands of army troops and policemen began reclaiming plots from those occupying and who could not prove legal own­ership. The process included the demolition of many buildings con­structed illegally on farmland and areas overlooking the Nile.
A previous commission, headed by former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, tasked with the same mis­sion reclaimed $55 million worth of land over the past months, commis­sion spokesman Ahmed Ayoub said.
“Recovering all the plots of land taken illegally in the past years requires a lot of time and effort,” Ayoub said. “Some of these plots of land are totally unknown to the au­thorities.”
Sisi has given the army and police two weeks to return a record of re­covered plots of land. By late May, land worth $2.1 billion had been re­covered.
Economists said that the money raised from the reclamations could prove vital to Egypt’s flagging econ­omy and could help the government bridge the budget deficit, which is expected to reach $16 billion by the end of the current fiscal year.
“This money will come at an op­portune time,” said Yasser Omar, a member of the Egyptian Parlia­ment’s Budget and Planning Com­mittee. “It will do a lot to reduce pressure on millions of poor Egyp­tians who need support.”