QURSAYA ISLAND, Egypt (Reuters) - The Egyptian flag flaps in the breeze between two army tents, an unwelcome symbol of state power in a confrontation between the government and the independent-minded inhabitants of an island in the Nile.
Under army protection, dredgers are working round the clock to reshape Qursaya island, a low-lying undeveloped expanse of reeds, farmland and country houses just a short ferry ride from the bustling centre of the Egyptian capital Cairo.
When a squadron of soldiers armed with assault rifles landed in surgeon Mohamed Moustafa’s garden on the eastern shore late in November, the islanders reacted quickly.
Grabbing clubs and staves, they rushed to the river bank and confronted the landing. Some dug shallow graves while others wrapped themselves in white shrouds and lay in the mud, trying to send the message they would die sooner than leave the land.
They were already on high alert because for the past few months state officials have been refusing to accept rent from the Qursaya families, many of whom have been living there for generations and have converted the land from swamp to farmland.
The islanders say successive governments have tried to intimidate them into leaving and they suspect the authorities will cite rent arrears as grounds for evicting them. They say army contractors have already covered two acres of farmland with rock, destroying a rice crop.
The land nominally belongs to the state, but many of the 5,000 inhabitants have squatter’s rights and ample documentation showing they have paid their bills and fulfilled obligations.
‘RIFLE AND BAYONET’
Now they suspect the government, backed by the army as the only force capable of removing them, intends to make the land available to a large investor with plans for luxury hotels.
The case illustrates popular mistrust of a government often seen as beyond accountability, impervious to dialogue and usually biased towards the interests of big business.
“The government believes the Nile wasn’t created for ordinary people. It was created only for the nobility,” said Mohamed Moustafa, who has lived on the island for 22 years with his wife Brigitte, a Swiss consular official.
“We speak Arabic. They speak in the language of the rifle, the bayonet and the cattle prod,” he added, speaking of his attempts to obtain an explanation from the army officers who led the landing in his garden last week.
Mohamed Abla, an artist who has been living and working on Qursaya for the past 12 years, said finding someone to listen to their case was one of the hardest aspects of the crisis.
“The authorities don’t speak to us at all. It’s as if we don’t exist. Nobody pays us the slightest attention,” he added.
“We just want them to reveal what they are doing and make us feel that we are not just numbers. We are also human beings, and whether they are poor, middling or rich, the people living here should be treated humanely,” said Moustafa.
Cabinet spokesman Magdy Rady did not respond to Reuters’ questions about the government’s intentions. An army spokesman told Reuters the army was responding to encroachments on the Nile but he declined to elaborate further.
In the meantime the islanders are living on edge, watching the army closely, starting legal action and trying to mobilize Egyptian public opinion in their favor.
A few independent newspapers have covered the conflict but the large state-owned media have largely ignored it.
Mohamed Abla is organizing concerts and painting workshops to draw attention to the dispute. Prominent lawyer Amir Salim, who represented imprisoned opposition politician Ayman Nour, told Reuters he had agreed to represent the islanders.
The poorer inhabitants say the threat from the army is not just to their homes but also to their livelihoods, in a country where fertile land is scarce and jobs are hard to find.
Mohamed Hamid Ali, who lives off both fishing and farming, said that when he came to the island in 1970 from southern Egypt the land was waste and he reclaimed the land he now farms.
“Now that we’ve cleaned the island and made it beautiful, if a guest came and sat down and saw how lovely it is, should he be able to throw me out of my house and my land?” he asked.
“If they throw us out where will they put us? Will they build a lake in the mountains for me to fish in? Will they give us some land to live off? I’d have to turn to crime,” he said.
The islanders said they were especially angry that the army had deployed for civilian, possibly commercial, purposes.
“Look at them,” said boatman Ibrahim Mustafa, nodding towards the military encampment. “They’ve planted the Egyptian flag on the island as if they’ve liberated it from Israeli occupation. But really they’re taking it from the people.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith