Defending Old Ways on an Oasis in the Nile

Mahmoud Ali Abou-Steit is one of a few thousand farmers on an island at Cairo's rim fighting Egypt's plans to develop it.
Mahmoud Ali Abou-Steit is one of a few thousand farmers on an island at Cairo's rim fighting Egypt's plans to develop it. (By Ellen Knickmeyer -- The Washington Post)
Cairo, Egypt
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 22, 2007

CAIRO, Dec. 21 -- Night and day, the farmers of the island in the Nile keep watch at the lapping brown edge of the river for the return of the Egyptian army. When the island's mosques call the Muslims to prayer, Christian farmers take the watch.

Soldiers landed in September on the Island of Gold, a green nest of islands at the southern edge of Cairo's concrete-gray sprawl. When angry field workers tried to force them back, the troops fired into the air, farmers recalled.

The soldiers fenced off fields on the island's far edge. Barges brought in red and yellow dredgers and bulldozers. Steel jaws tore into the island's brown-black loam.

Neither the military nor the government has told the island's residents who wants the farmland or why, farmer Maher Yusef Ibrahim Gomaa said last week. "They only said they want to hit us over the head and throw us into the waters," Gomaa added bitterly.

The seizure of land has opened another front in the elemental battle of life in Egypt: the losing struggle of poverty against power.

Ninety-five percent of Egypt's more than 80 million people live along the Nile, where land is precious. The wealthy of Cairo inhabit the luxury hotels and apartment buildings that cloak the riverbanks.

Concrete high-rises and slums hold the rest of Cairo's more than 16 million people. Experts estimate that half of them live in so-called informal housing -- crowding into dank tenements, building hovels on rooftops, making homes out of tombs in cemeteries on the city's edge. These people are sometimes pushed aside.

Magdy Rady, a spokesman for the Egyptian cabinet, said the government intends to turn the farmers' land into a "public venue or outlet." It has no firm plans or timeline, he said. Officials say the island's residents are renters or squatters.

The people on the island counter that past government decrees and generations of residency make the land legally theirs. Gomaa, 44, said his is the fourth generation of his family to live on the Island of Gold.

Three weeks ago, boats brought more soldiers. This time they wanted Gomaa's land.

The first boat arrived in the chill of early morning. Gomaa was alone in his farmyard on the Nile's banks. The officers asked for tea, he said. When more boats arrived with dozens of troops, the officers stood up.

"They said: 'Thank you very much. Now please move aside. We want your house, and your land,' " recounted Gomaa, a gray-stubbled man with an easy manner and quick eyes.

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