There isn't much of the Sinai village of Abtal left — just some bricks and twisted metal scattered across a swath of upturned earth.
More than 60 families used to live here among fruit tree-studded agricultural land near Ismailia, northeastern Egypt. Late last year, however, they were swept aside by what has been touted as the national project of the century, the "New Suez Canal". Lawmakers claim the undertaking, a 45-mile supplement and extension of the existing shipping channel, will make billions of dollars and create a vast number of new jobs.
Its architects forecast that it will more than double annual revenues, from $5 billion to $12.5 billion, by allowing two-way passage through much of the canal and create countless new employment opportunities via new logistics, commerce, and industrial zones. The construction time was originally set at five years, before being reduced to three, then just one at the express order of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
The mad rush to meet this ambitious deadline swiftly transformed the landscape. What was Abtal is now a vast construction site encircled by huge mountains of yellow earth with seemingly tiny bulldozers just visible on top. Access is only possible through an army checkpoint at the end of a newly widened road cutting straight through green farmland and lined with resting dumper trucks, uprooted trees, and huge new workers' camps.
Part of the canal expansion near Abtal. Photo by John Beck.
This village and others on the eastern edge of the current canal, including nearby Qantara Sharq, were razed in September 2014. More than 1,000 families lost their homes along with an average of five to 10 acres of agricultural land each to this national prestige project, according to Sherine al-Haddad, a lawyer working with the displaced residents. Haddad told VICE News that many had been in the villages for as long as 30 years and had cultivated the arid ground there, mostly through mango farming.
Muhamed Mohamed al-Mahdy, 65, is one of displaced. A small man with tanned, crinkled skin, and dark gray hair under a white silk headscarf, he isn't originally from the Sinai. He first came here during the 1973 Yom Kippur war when, as a soldier with the Egyptian Army's 3rd Mechanized Infantry Brigade, he was among the first over the bridge in an offensive against Israeli forces there, driving his Zil-131 truck filled with anti-tank missiles and other supplies.
Mahdy says he fell in love with the region. So when, due to an administrative mix-up, he didn't receive a job or property promised to war veterans, he eventually sold an acre of land near Cairo inherited from his father and bought an agricultural plot in the Sinai instead.
His new land was sun-beaten, empty, and with no irrigation, but he reclaimed it from the desert and made it green, carrying water by hand then cultivating and eventually harvesting an orchard. "We grew mangoes, lemons, all kinds of fruit, even though there was no shade," he told VICE News. Mahdy raised a family of two girls and two boys here. Eventually, after a decade, electricity and water came and he built three houses on the land — his own and one each for his now-married sons, Ahmed and Messin.
Mahdy in front of the shack where he now sells goods on the street. Photo by John Beck.
But soldiers arrived in Abtal last year and gave everyone there a week to leave, telling them their homes were in the way of the canal expansion. Mahdy had nowhere to go and lost everything, including his furniture and animals, along with his property and land.
Others refused to move, so the army demolished their houses with everything they owned still inside, said Haddad.
Mahdy now lives in bamboo shack a few hundred meters from the now-construction site and sells chocolate bars, chips, and drinks by the side of the road to anyone that will buy them. "I'm just sitting in the street selling things instead of begging," he blurted out in a stream of angry complaints about the perceived injustice of the situation, adding that other former Abtal residents, including the elderly and infirm, are forced to sleep on the streets "like dogs."
Life is now a humiliation to him and to others, he said, also claiming that some local women have even had to give birth in similar shacks. Their families strung up blankets for a semblance of privacy.
'I was there, in front of my house when they demolished it.'
He hates the Sinai now and feels immense guilt for raising his children there. "I'm crying for the younger generation, that I'm the reason they're here," he said. "We died many times over during the war, but God saved us, and this is our destiny."
Almost the entirety of the Sinai Peninsula is owned either by the military or state, and the region around Abtal belongs to Ismailia Governorate and the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), so private claims of ownership are complex. Some villagers say they bought land originally from army officers or local Bedouin tribesmen and therefore have deed papers, while others don't even have those.
Haddad said, however, that Egyptian occupancy law stipulates that permanent dwellings that have been in place for more than between five to 15 years are legally recognized. The legality of this position is backed by the villagers' history of bills paid to the governorate for gas, water, and electricity, she added. "What proves this is right... is that they [the authorities] provided the villagers with infrastructure like electricity and water, and even the local schools," she added.
The village in which Abtal's residents were provided with small plots of land by way of compensation. Photo by John Beck.
With residency established, she continued, private property is protected under the national constitution ratified in 2014 and forced eviction can only take place with a court order, if it's in the public interest, and if "fair" compensation is paid in advance.
As a large infrastructure project, the canal meets the public interest clause. However, the compensation was not paid in advance and was certainly not "fair." The land that was seized was worth as much as 300,000 to 400,000 Egyptian pounds ($39-52,000) per acre, Haddad says. In exchange for that, however, each displaced household was given a single 50x32 foot plot of land in the nearby villages of Amal and Ahrar, worth, she estimates, a maximum of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($650).
Haddad has now filed a case against the SCA and the governorate for further compensation. It's still in the first phase but so far there has been little progress. "There are no results until now from the judiciary system," she says, going on to charge SCA with attempting to portray the displaced villagers as squatters who owed decades of back rent. "This is totally not true. If it was, they wouldn't have provided them with any services or schools or anything," she says. The SCA didn't reply to repeated requests for comment on the issue from VICE News.
Most of the new plots are pits around eight feet deep prepared for a local authority housing build that never happened. Each stands back to back in a group of four. Some are now in stages of development with pillars sticking out of the ground or walls, others still just holes that their new owners can't afford to fill.
Most have piles of dirty, cracked, and broken bricks in the middle, which have been ferried from the demolished houses to be recycled.
Qatawy in front of the new home he's building. Photo by John Beck.
Here, Sayid Ibrahim al-Qatawy is at least managing to build a new home. A big man with a clipped moustache and boisterous manner, he too moved to Abtal 30 years ago and farmed mangoes on land that he told VICE News he'd "received as desert."
His property was once the nicest in the area, he boasted, showing pictures of a colorful three story villa set among seven acres of land in which he brought up his three daughters and two sons, and which was home to four families before it was razed. Later, he took VICE News to the site where it once stood. Pulling up at an army checkpoint he rolled down the window and said, "I'm going to see my house," before being waved through by a bored looking young soldier. It wasn't a long tour, the only visible remnant was a mound of earth topped with broken concrete and bent reinforcing bar.
Qatawy also saw his home flattened. "I was there, in front of my house when they demolished it," he said, adding ruefully that just before he was evicted, a car dealer offered him 2.5 million Egyptian pounds for his estate. "Now I wish I'd taken it," he said with a sad smile.
'If I knew Sisi would do this to us, I wouldn't have voted for him. Now I hope God takes him.'
He has at least managed to rent a small house while his new home is constructed. It currently shelters a number of people, including his son Mohammed and daughter-in-law Amal, 18, who gave birth two days before they were evicted. One of the three rooms in the rental house is full of furniture and there's more piled up outside.
Mohammed used to work on the farm along with Qatawy's other son Ibrahim, 19. Now they have jobs with the project that cost them their home, laying pipes on a construction site for 2,000 Egyptian pounds per month. It's now the family's only source of income.
Even this is progress. To begin with, local residents weren't allowed jobs on the site, because they were considered a security risk, Haddad said.
Qatawy in front of several of the small plots provided as compensation. Photo by John Beck.
The Suez Canal project was meant to revitalize Egypt. But here at least, it has caused dissent in a region that overwhelmingly supports Sisi's government.
In their quest for compensation, villagers met with local officials but were spurned. As a former man of means Qatawy was at least able to get an audience with those in positions of power, albeit an unsuccessful one. "[They] told me there would be no compensation because it was seized land," he said. "The canal president said the same."
The SCA refused even to see a delegation that Mahdy visited with and left them standing on the street. Only the agriculture ministry and farmers syndicate were sympathetic, he recalled, but they in turn said that nothing could be done.
Villagers here said that everyone in the area voted for Sisi in 2014's elections, describing widespread support, constant TV campaigns, and pro-Sisi meetings. "We chose him because he was a military man, a good man, he knows our country," Qatawy said, adding that his opinion has now changed. "I didn't elect Sisi to remove us, but to improve the country… to improve the place, making jobs for youth, not to put my family on the street.... If I knew Sisi would do this to us, I wouldn't have voted for him. Now I hope God takes him."
The whole area hasn't soured against the president yet, however. Ahmed Mohammed, 35, broke in mid-tirade to express his approval for the president. "Sisi good!" he exclaimed in broken English, flashing two thumbs up. "But he hasn't lost his house," Qatawy retorted.
The remains of Qatawy's Abtal home. Photo by John Beck.
Mahdy, meanwhile, refused to condemn the president. As a veteran and once-proud Egyptian, it is obviously still hard for him to criticize the government. And he said he still supports the canal venture, but wants justice and for authorities to meet their legal obligations. "What about the constitution which I heard about on TV?" he asks. "I hear about it, but I don't see it. In fact, the opposite."
"The blood in my veins is patriotic," Mahdy said. "We have faith in Sisi, but some of the poor people are mute, paralyzed, and can't support themselves... I had big hopes [after he was elected]. I thought he came to raise the poor people, to make a second Egypt. Now we are being stepped on." He added hopefully that perhaps this has happened without the president's knowledge and is only the doing of local officials. But he is disheartened nonetheless, and belief in his country seems to be evaporating. He compared Egypt unfavorably with Europe, and even his former foe Israel, saying that there, at least, governments look after their citizens. "I just need the big people to make me live like a pig in the garden.... Every country saves their people, but Egypt won't support us."
Nevertheless, in this hard to reach and underreported part of the country, Mahdy doesn't expect any real outcry or popular response his pleas are ignored. "The people here don't do strikes and demonstrations, and now, they just wake up and search for bread." Still though, he said that nothing will deter him from speaking out. "If they arrest me, or sentence me, I'm not afraid. I'm afraid only of God. If we don't have justice here, the whole country will suffer."
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck