Cairo targets illegal land-grabbers amid economic unrest
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.”