SHARM El-SHEIKH: Essam Gamil, who has been operating a diving center in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh for 15 years, is now ready to sell off his house, pack up and move away.
Gamil lives in El-Rowaisat, 4 km west of Sharm’s town center, surrounded by breathtaking mountains, but now finds it impossible “to survive amid this chaos, as he calls it.
“Just walk around here to realize why many people like me have decided to flee, he says.
That chaos would soon speak for itself. El-Rowaisat is commonly referred to as the slum of Sharm El-Sheikh, the high-end “Egyptian Riviera which attracts millions of tourists every year to its coral-rich sea, desert and warm climate.
Housing a motley crew of middle-class Cairenes and Sinai Bedouins as well as villagers who settled in Sharm decades ago seeking better job opportunities, parts of El-Rowaisat can hardly be distinguished from the capital’s infamous squatters.
Home-bred ducks and chickens are seen roaming the streets alongside small herds of sheep and stray camels, all strangely juxtaposed with the latest four-wheel drives parked in front of posh villas guarded by angry-looking German Shepherds.
Some residents have already locked their homes disgruntled at the onslaught of random wood and brick constructions dotting both the heart of the area and the as well as the foot of the surrounding mountains.
After several attempts by licensed residents to contain the rise of random settlements by Bedouins who illegally claimed pieces of land, and built makeshift homes on it, many simply gave up on the government and decided to leave.
“Just behind my home, says Ehab Mahmoud, “some Bedouins put up a wooden hut. I lodged a complaint at the municipal council attached with a photo of the violation but no one responded.
Gamil explained that often construction workers or low-ranking policemen drafted to the area would build a room to live in, then eventually asks the rest of his family to join him, building another one next door, all in the hope that they could claim the land at some point.
Residents complain that the police never responds to any complaints and with the only healthcare center in the area far from reliable and the fire station poorly equipped, it seems merely a matter of time before disaster strikes.
Gamil adds that soon officials are bound to realize that this total chaos will turn the area into a real security threat.
According to news reports, in 2003 security forces bulldozed most of the random constructions in the area but did not follow up the crackdown with restrictions to block the large-scale random settlements. Since then, the only action taken by the police was in 2007 when some 20 unlicensed houses were pulled down.
“At first, the municipal council tried to contain the chaos by removing some of the squatters, but because the workers who live there were badly needed for the tourism and construction sectors, it loosened restrictions on the legality of their residential status and allowed them to live anywhere to ensure the steady flow of workers into Sharm, said Abdel Samee Hamdy, an electrician who also lives in El-Rowaisat.
But the land encroachment is the least dangerous issue plaguing El-Rowaisat. According to residents, the area’s surrounding mountains shelter gangs of extremists and drug-traffickers whose exchange of fire can often be heard by the residents below.
Following the terrorist attacks on Sharm El-Sheikh in 2005, the government proposed building a 1.5-meter-high fence that would stretch about 20 km along the ring road surrounding the town to the west around the resort. The plan, was, however aborted amid protests by El-Rowaisat residents who believed the wall will not prevent terrorism, but on the contrary would serve as a psychological prison for the residents.
Workers also protested the fact that any barrier would obstruct easy access into the city.
So instead the authorities raised a wall around the El-Rowaisat’s neighboring industrial zone, where many of the residents work, as well as a one-meter-high concrete barrier opposite the residential area and set up a checkpoint at the entrance to better control all vehicles going into or out of the area, and when necessary, to station patrolmen along it.
According to workers and residents, prior to any major conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, security forces would randomly raid the workshops and round up the “usual suspects.
“These measures usually target those who are exiting rather than those trying to get in. The mountains in El-Rowaisat are teeming with outlaws who can easily gain access to the city through El-Rowaisat, said Hamid El-Nagih, a construction worker from Minya.
A Bedouin from El-Rowaisat, however, believes that the next crackdown on random settlers will not be triggered by security concerns, but because of the rising value of the land.
“Sooner or later the government will clamp down on the area to re-distribute the land, said the Bedouin on condition of anonymity. “A small plot of land here is worth no less than LE 300,000.
Khalil Aboud, 25, a diver from Alexandria who’s been working in Sharm for the past nine years, says that it would be impossible for him to simply lay claim to a random plot of land.
“There is fierce competition in neighborhoods like El-Rowaisat that are so close to Sharm. They are bound to come under the government’s control very soon, he said.
His only option is to settle is a further, remoter area that is likely to escape the government’s attention.
According to Egyptian law, citizens have the right to claim ownership of public land if they prove that they have been living on it for 20 years.
Mohammed Shaker, 35, another diver from Alexandria who moved to Sinai when he was 15, argued that not everyone deserves to get land for free.
“The Bedouins should have priority because they are the ones who suffered the aftermath of three consecutive wars in Sinai and they are the original residents of the area.
“As for Egyptians who hail from Cairo and other provinces, I suggest a policy should be drawn up to give priority to those who participated in the reconstruction of Sinai or others who were born in it provided they prove they don’t own any property in their home towns.
The reality is, however, that Bedouins have the upper hand when it comes to the sale of land in Sinai, where any land sale deal has to go through Bedouin leaders who use their right as original residents to buy and sell Egypt’s vast swaths of communal desert to the highest bidder.