Amnesty International says two killed in unrest over law demanding residents pay fines to legalise homes
Rights groups say two Egyptians have been killed and hundreds more detained in a recent wave of protests, as the population continues to be hit by the economic fallout from coronavirus.
The protests, mostly in impoverished remote areas, were spurred on by a growth in anti-government sentiment, in particular over a law demanding residents pay fines to legalise homes built on agricultural land. Many say they cannot afford the fine, despite government threats to demolish the homes of those who can’t pay.
“People protested because the government said land on which dozens of houses are built, housing dozens of families, belongs to the Ministry of Endowments,” said a resident of Atfih, a village in Giza, whose brother was detained.
The resident said they had seen police officers storm the village, surround the streets, and start to arrest people. Some protesters, he said, attacked a few police officers, and then torched a police car.
“Whenever we hear the government is coming to demolish a house we gather to stop them, then they come back at night to arrest random people,” he added.
Amnesty Internationalsaid security forces have responded to the unrest with birdshot, tear gas, and in some cases live rounds. One person was shot dead on 25 September, according to Amnesty, with a second, Oweis al-Rawi, killed in Luxor in the early hours of Thursday morning.
According to the Cairo-based NGO Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, 510 people have been detained since 20 September, with most aged between 18 and 30, but others have put the total higher. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information has said 600 people are currently detained, while Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer, has listed the names of 735 detainees.
At least 68 minors have been detained, according to Egypt’s public prosecution. In anti-government protests in major cities last year, Egyptian security forces later arrested more than 4,000 people, including children.
Police brutality and a reaction to austerity measures are the backdrop to the most recent wave of protests. Citizens’ financial woes increased following the economic burdens of Covid-19, in a country where a third live below the poverty line and, according to a government information centre, at least half of all Egyptians have borrowed money to meet their basic needs.
Critics say the government’s demands to legalise buildings on agricultural land amounts to a land grab, one targeting citizens with few options left. For those who built their homes in remote areas and paid bribes to receive basic services, this widespread practice was never an issue until now.
The Egyptian president, Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, gave a furious speech railing against illegal construction in late August. “If it becomes necessary I will deploy the army to all of Egypt’s villages to enforce the law,” he said.
The result is a harsh choice for some of Egypt’s poorest. “Most of the people in the Atfih are very poor and those who own land can barely feed their children,” explained the Giza resident. “Our family lives in a flat in a building built by a contractor. Now they are telling us each flat has to pay 8,000 EGP [£3,923] or the whole building will be demolished. Where are we going to live?”
An extended deadline looms for alleged building violators to pay hefty fines to legalise their homes by the end of October. In the interim, protests have taken hold in areas where they have rarely done so previously, in a country where demonstrations have been all but banned since 2013.
The deaths of the two protestors fuelled further grievances against the state, particularly in the southern city of Luxor.
A relative of Rawi, shot dead on Thursday, described the protests. “People were chanting for Sisi to go,” he said. He said security forces later swarmed the family home searching for a young family member who protested. When Rawi cursed at them as they left, he said, a policeman shot him in the face and neck.
The relative asked not to be identified, citing threats from police. Amnesty International verified video showing security forces attacking Rawi’s funeral procession.
Diaa Rashwan, the head of the country’s state information service, did not respond to a request for comment.
The protests were also submerged beneath a cloud of online disinformation, distorting news occurring far from Egypt’s densely-populated cities. An analysis found use of bots and fake accounts to artificially inflate protest hashtags from both pro and anti-government perspectives.
An Egyptian pro-government television channel boasted about creating a fake protest video and sending it to Qatari network Al Jazeera, regarded by some as an enemy of the Egyptian state.
“The point of the Twitter campaign and this faked video is to create a general climate of disbelief,” said Joey Shea, a researcher with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, who analysed the protest hashtags.
“The online campaign doesn’t discredit the reality of people being disaffected with the regime, and still being willing to go onto the streets despite brutality and violence,” she said.