More than five decades ago, local farmers of Sirso village at Talkha city in the Dakahlia governorate gained More than five decades ago, local farmers of Sirso village at Talkha city in the Dakahlia governorate gained the rights to their land, but recently they have been forcibly evicted and punished by shaving their heads.

What is ostensibly a legal dispute over land ownership could form a dangerous precedent, according to politicians and activists, who see the case as a precursor for further expropriations of small-scale farmers in favor of ‘major landowners’.

Last April, Egyptian security forces arrested 24 local farmers and their family members from Sirso village, including an elderly man and a seven-month-old infant. They were charged with ‘infringement of land owned by others and defiance of the authorities.

The farmers were charged despite a legally obtained a 42-acres piece of land in 1967, six years after the Agrarian Reform Law. Previously it had belonged to the major landowner Fareed Masri.

The site has always been subject to a legal dispute between the two parties. During the past half-century, a number of small-scale farmers faced a series of expulsions. They returned to their plots several times, most recently in 1996. Legal wrangles continued with the original owners and their inheritors, affected by the changing security and political conditions in the country.

When the local farmers gained a final legal verdict from the administrative court in 2007, they thought that the case was closed and the land was finally theirs. To their surprise, they were recently evicted once again.

Following is a report on the facts surrounding the case and the dispute between the farmers and Abdul Aziz Masri, the inheritor of feudal landowner Fareed Masri.

Confiscated land

Seventy-year-old Saniya’s husband Mohammad Ibrahim Mustafa from Sirso village was allocated a 40-acre piece of land during the reign of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser and gained the right to use it for life for himself and his successors. As with many others, the land was allocated to him as a reward for his participation in the war of Yemen and the war of attrition.

The inheritor Abdel Aziz Masri, however, obtained an order from the Attorney General in Mansoura whereby he expelled Saniya and others from her land by force.

Her son Hussein said his late father cultivated the land for 30 consecutive years without any problems until the feudal property owner’s successor in 1996 expelled the peasants from their land, although they obtained a final judgment by the administrative court allowing them to use the land.

During the revolution of January 25, we got hold of the disputed land again in accordance with the judicial rulings,” he said.

Ibrahim, Hussein’s brother, explained:Last February, we were surprised to find that the police and security forces chased us and filed reports against us. Our land was seized and bulldozed. On April 25, 11 central security vehicles sealed off the land and forced us out assisted by Abdul Aziz Masri’s men who opened fire on us.”

On that day, according to the testimonies of a number of village residents, the security forces arrested 24 farmers and filed a report accusing them of possession of unlicensed arms and another report for infringement on others’ property and resistance of authorities. They shaved the heads of all the arrested villagers.

Four days later, the prosecution released 13 women and a baby girl. 15 days afterwards, the rest were set free.

Our only source of livelihood

Mohammed Ibrahim, one of those arrested, explained how his world collasped after the arrests. “The police force shaved our heads after arresting us. I lost my job after I was out of prison pending further investigations. Besides, Abdul Aziz Masri, the landlord’s successor, expelled my brother from the factory he owned although he was at work during his arrest. A police report was filed against him for infringement on others’ property and resistance of authorities.”

Hilali Sayed Anwar, a seventy-year-old man, and his infant granddaughter Hind were among those arrested. He, like many other peasants who acquired the land under agrarian reform act, was allocated a piece of land as a reward for his war contribution in Yemen and the war of attrition.

Hilali said the land was their only source of livelihood. He criticized his detention along with his family members including his infant granddaughter.

Awaiting the final ruling

Wael Ghali, the villagerslegal representative and an activist in the ‘All Egyptians Human Rights’ organization, emphasized that the final judgments issued by the judiciary support the villagers.

He added that Fareed Masri’s inheritors have exploited the reconciliation law on disputed land of 1994 and were able to “come to terms with the government”. They managed to buy the land at 20 Egyptian Pounds an acre. In 1996, the peasants were expelled from the land by force.

Ghali explained that in 2007, the administrative court ruled for the invalidity of the Magistrate’s decision and pertinent consequences. The villagers were unable to return to the land until 2011 in the wake of the January revolution.

The lawyer and the villagers await the administrative court’s final decision on July 28 regarding the land ownership case. “The decision will either provide for revocation of Abdul Aziz Masri’s ownership of the land and return of the disputed land to the Agrarian Reform authority or to keep the present status of the land, leading to the enforcement of the law in favor of Fareed Masri’s inheritors,” he concluded.

The Sirso village dispute has moved from courts to political parties’ offices and Internet forums, raising concerns about the expulsion of more villagers and the possible return of old landowners under new legal names.

Ahmed Ezz, Secretary of Students Bureau at the Socialist People’s Alliance Party in Dakahlia was among those who declared their full solidarity with the villagers, said his party voiced legal support through appointing a team of lawyers.

Ezz himself was arrested along with Mahmoud Mohammad, a member of the People’s Alliance Party, because of their solidarity with the peasants. They were accused of inciting riots and resisting authorities.

Abdul Aziz Masri’s men attacked and beat us and the villagers. Nevertheless, the security forces colluded with Abdul Aziz Masri and did not arrest his men who carried unlicensed arms,” he said.

Mass rallies

The Socialist People’s Alliance Party in Dakahlia supported the villagers through mass rallies which highlighted the case via media outlets “demanding the return of villagers’ rights in the face of feudal landowners,” according to Ezz.

Ezz noted that Sirso’s case is not the only case of this kind. There are other disputes before courts in other villages in Kafr El-Sheikh, Alexandria and Fayoum with a standoff between villagers and feudal inheritors.

Since the renewed dispute in the village over land acquisition, activists have supported the villagers’ cause by using the hashtag #Support_Sirso_Peasants on Twitter and Facebook. Parties, political forces and a number of organizations including the People’s Alliance party, Popular Movement, Dignity Party. Independent activists also joined this support campaign. They all warned against ‘the return of feudalism’.

The Sirso dispute is not the only dispute in the country. In 2004, a similar dispute broke out at Bahout village, in Nabarouh city, between the villagers who owned about 56 acres from Agrarian Reform and Badrawi family’s inheritors. The outstanding dispute is still unresolved.

In this context, Eid Mohammed, a farmer from Bahout village, said, “In 2004, we were surprised by an agent of Badrawi family named Hussein Baily telling us that the ownership of 56 acres which were earlier allocated to 28 locals would be returned to Wafaa Badrawi’s inheritors.”

He reported cases of landed property infringement to the public prosecutor and although the ruling issued by Talkha District Court was in our favour, the appeal court upheld the decision made by the Attorney General of South Mansoura legal adviser Ahmed Swaif under which it was decided that the land be returned to Wafaa Badrawi’s inheritors. Hussein Baily, Badrawi family’s legal representative, filed lawsuits demanding the local farmers to pay the inheritors land proceeds and rent,” he added.

The villagers now have to pay an annual rent of 10,000 Egyptian Pounds for each acre to Wafaa Badrawi’s inheritors. The peasants refrain from paying that amount without a court order to pay or face imprisonment.”

The villagers’ lawyer, Wael Ghali, shared widespread concern, warning that returning the land to the inheritors of major landowners could be an initiative that ultimately “aims to annul the Agrarian Reform Law.”