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Egypt-UAE deal: Ras el-Hekma's Bedouin threatened by megaproject

Residents of the prime Mediterranean area acquired by Emirati investors protest Cairo's failure to compensate them fairly after evicting them from their homes
Ras el-Hekma beach as illustrated by a promotional video by Egypt's government in 2020 (Facebook)
Ras el-Hekma beach as illustrated by a promotional video by Egypt's government in 2020 (Facebook)
By Shahenda Naguib in Ras el-Hekma, Egypt

Over the past two weeks, residents of the Egyptian Mediterranean area of Ras el-Hekma have been in anguish, fearing displacement from their lands to pave the way for Emirati investments.

Many have been circulating comic memes and videos on WhatsApp and social media, widely shared by other Egyptians online, mocking the envisioned prosperity of the Egyptian people following the massive $35bn deal with the United Arab Emirates intending to turn the Ras el-Hekma peninsula into a lucrative tourist hub.

Egypt views the deal as a lifejacket to rescue its drowning economy.

However, for the city’s residents, the memes imply forced eviction from their homes and the onset of endless legal battles with the government. 

Ahmed and Al-Saed, recent young college graduates and members of the Al-Zeeri tribe, are among those who feel threatened by the deal.

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They showed Middle East Eye text messages from their fellow tribesmen featuring pictures of wealthy Emirati men in jalabiyas with expensive sunglasses and Jeep cars, accompanied by captions reading, “Ras el-Hekma Bedouins when the dollars start coming in".

“There is no consideration for the people and their rights. How can you hear that your house and lands are sold to a foreigner without having any say in it?” said 25-year-old Al-Saed.  

'Older than the UAE'

Ras el-Hekma, located on the northwestern coast of Egypt, approximately 350 kilometres northwest of Cairo, is administratively affiliated with the Matrouh Governorate, and covers an area of more than 170 million square kilometres.

Home to 10,000 people, most of the area is an underdeveloped desert, with a predominantly Bedouin population working in agriculture and trading.

According to government officials, Ras el-Hekma produces 17 percent of the country’s olives and 26 percent of its figs, both crops that require a desert environment to grow.

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“We’ve been living here since the British [occupation], and these olive trees are older than Madbouly, Sisi, and even the UAE itself,” Muammar Al-Zeeri, 63, a farmer, told Middle East Eye.

Zeeri’s family has been farming olive trees and figs for decades, and their farms are adjacent to hundreds of others. He travelled to Libya to work as a construction worker and returned in the 1990s to buy more land with his brothers and cousins.

He owns three feddans (1.26 ha), while his brother owns one and a half, all of which are expected to be removed to make way for the new city.

“No amount of money is worth the history and pride of my family, but if we are forced, we expect to be compensated fairly, at least enough to continue our profession,” he said.

The Ras el-Hekma area had been officially owned by the Egyptian Armed Forces before the UAE deal.

But a presidential decree in late February transferred it to the New Urban Communities Authority, a civilian agency affiliated with the Ministry of Housing. 

The Egyptian government is hoping the development of Ras el-Hekma will transform the area into a tourist destination, like the Red Sea coast.

The northern coast of Egypt west of Alexandria so far has only 4,174 licensed rooms compared with 87,000 on the east coast, according to Egypt’s tourism minister.

An Emirati consortium led by ADQ acquired rights to develop the area for $24bn as part of the $35bn deal. The remaining $11bn, according to ADQ, are earmarked for urban development projects elsewhere in the country.

The Egyptian government is a partner in the agreement with 35 percent of the shares.

It remains unclear whether the agreement with ADQ represented the sale of the land or just the right to use.

'No amount of money is worth the history and pride of my family, but if we are forced, we expect to be compensated fairly'

- Muammar Al-Zeeri, farmer

A presidential decree giving Arab investors the right to own desert land was announced only one day after the agreement, which added to the doubts surrounding the nature of the acquisition.

Walid Abbas, deputy head for planning and projects at the New Urban Communities Authority and the housing minister’s office manager, said the project "is no sale of assets." 

"It's a partnership to create an integrated urban community," he told MEE, reiterating Madbouly's description of the project. Asked to provide a copy of the agreement, Abbas said the government cannot provide a copy to journalists, and that the details can be known from the prime minister's and ADQ's press statements following the deal. 

Abbas also refused to respond to questions about the offered compensation for residential blocks and agricultural lands, or residents’ fears of not being compensated.

Meanwhile, Senate member Saleh Sultan, representing Matrouh governorate, blamed the residents for “blocking the path of development".

Speaking to MEE, Sultan added that the government is committed to compensating residents financially. “The state will not abandon them, and no Egyptian citizen will be harmed by the project at all.”

MEE has contacted ADQ for comment but has not received a response by the time of publication. 

Double displacement

During his conference with ADQ on 23 February, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly promised that his government would fairly compensate Ras el-Hekma residents.

But those who spoke with MEE have expressed little trust in the state.

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Many are concerned that the government might either not compensate them or offer prices far below the actual value of their lands and property.

“They cannot announce that these lands will be worth billions and expect us to sell for thousands,” said Al-Saed.

The first phase of the government’s plan to develop Ras el-Hekma began in June 2018, with the government acquiring approximately 28 kilometres of beachfront land.

The second and current stage, part of the UAE deal, aims to remove houses and land up to six kilometres deep from the beach.

Osama Al-Zeeri, a 30-year-old farmer and father of four from Ras el-Hekma, told MEE that the residents have been displaced twice over the past seven years.

During the first round of displacement in 2018, he said that the armed forces, represented by then army general Kamel al-Wazir, offered residents EGP 150,000 ($8,426, based on the average 2018 exchange rate of 17.8071 Egyptian pounds to the dollar) for a feddan of agricultural land, and EGP 2,000-5,500 ($112-$309) per square metre for houses, but not everyone has received their full payments. 

Egyptian minister and army general Kamel al-Wazir meeting with Ras el-Hekma residents on 5 March 2024 (Supplied)
Egyptian minister and army general Kamel al-Wazir meeting with Ras el-Hekma residents on 5 March 2024 (Supplied)

Osama's family-owned lands were compensated for EGP 300,000 ($16,853) and a house was compensated for EGP 400,000 ($22,471). The money was supposed to arrive in instalments as cheques. 

“Not all of us received the allocated money in full. We received some and are still trying to get the rest to this day,” Osama said.

Osama and many others used this money and added more to build houses farther away from the beach, in the new area where phase two of the development plan is supposed to take place. 

Now, the government wants to evict them from their new homes.

'They want to displace us again... We feel like we're fighting against our own country'

- Osama Al-Zeeri, farmer

“They want to displace us again,” he said. When he demanded compensation for evicting the new house, government officials told him he had already been paid.

“We feel like we're fighting against our own country,” Osama added.

The same situation occurred with Ahmed and his family of traders.

He said they were initially displaced in 2021, when they were forced out of their home in the al-Dabaa city east of Ras el-Hekma to pave way for the Russian-funded nuclear power plant.

Now Ahmed’s family face a new eviction order after they built a new home in Ras el-Hekma.

Mostafa*, 46, a trader and contractor who has been active in protests and lobbying activities against displacement since 2020, owns a house and a feddan of land. He stated that the price of a feddan is EGP 1m ($20,247) anywhere in Matrouh, but the government offered them only EGP 250,000-300,000 ($5,065-$6,078).

Mostafa said the local population should have advocated forcefully for their rights once the plans were first known in 2015.

He said that the Egyptian government “fears” the Bedouins, recalling an incident in 2018 when residents besieged a police station to protest the arrest of fellow Bedouins who opposed the government’s plan.

“The state should not underestimate the power of the Bedouins. We’d rather die than be evacuated without the compensation we deserve.” 

Creating tribal tensions

Mostafa and Osama Al-Zeeri suspect that the government is trying to create divisions between the different tribes.

Both Osama and Mostafa attended tribal meetings, the latest on Tuesday, with military general and transportation minister Kamel al-Wazir, who is spearheading negotiations on behalf of the state. 

Al-Wazir offered EGP 250,000 ($5,065) for each agricultural feddan, and suggested constructing housing units for all displaced people, which will be settled south of the International Coastal Road near the Fuka district, promising residents a piece of land in addition to housing.

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However, Osama said that there are already residents living in this suggested area who refused the state’s takeover and construction of a new project.

“If he [al-Wazir] compensates some people with 150,000 for the first phase and others with 250,000 for the second phase, while the first group still hasn’t received their money, it will create tension between the tribes,” Osama claimed.

“If you want to displace one tribe to settle another, you will open the door to tension,” Mostafa added.

The Al-Zeeri tribe, one of the city’s largest, is scattered throughout Ras el-Hekma and Marsa Matrouh. Al-Sonqara is another large tribe with closer connections to the government and the military. 

Both have publicly voiced their rejection of the displacement unless the residents get decent compensation.

During a meeting with al-Wazir on 26 February, tribal elders withdrew in protest against the compensation prices.

“They are trying to favour some tribes and empower them to speak on behalf of all Ras el-Hekma residents. When that happens, each tribe will negotiate alone, and the government will get the best prices when compensating,” Osama explained.

He cited the example of MP Eissa Abu Tamr, a member of the Al-Sonqara tribe. “If he is appointed to represent us, and another from the same tribe, he will set high prices for his tribe’s houses and not do the same for others.”

'The people of Ras el-Hekma do not bow to anyone. Our families and lives are at risk. We will not be threatened'

- Fadel Al-Zeeri

He added that the meeting resulted in the formation of a specialised committee to price all houses.

“No one trusts this committee, which will comprise employees from the governorates and the House of Representatives. We don’t trust any of them because they will be on the government’s side,” Osama added.

The Matrouh Bedouins, like those in North Sinai, have more trust in the military than the police and civilian government due to years of marginalisation.

“We address the president. The people of Ras el-Hekma do not bow to anyone. Our families and lives are at risk. We will not be threatened,” Fadel Al-Zeeri said.

“It is unacceptable that minister al-Wazir comes to visit us during the day, and the state police come at night to threaten us because we were passionate in the discussions,” Fadel, who attended the meeting with al-Wazir, said.

“Without a fair agreement, we will not leave our lands.”

*Name changed to protect the interviewee's safety.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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