State land corruption cases: Pre-election PR or inter-NDP discord?

As contractors and parliamentarians, and even ruling party officials, blow the whistle on various state-owned land sale violations–with the government appearing to be guilty as charged–two questions rear their heads: Why has the sale of state land become such a mess and why are we only learning about it now?

In earlier statements to Al-Masry Al-Youm, analyst Yehia al-Gamal and Muslim Brotherhood senior member and MP Ashraf Badreddin linked the issue to upcoming elections, saying the government saves faces by allowing corruption cases to be uncovered, then congratulates itself for its transparency. Months before parliamentary elections and less than a year before the presidential contest, the government is undergoing a cleansing ritual, according to the analysts.

However, prominent Brotherhood member and MP Saad al-Husseini, during an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm, added another layer: “inner-party rivalry.” “The government uses the revelations linked to cases of violations to its benefit, there’s no doubt about that,” said al-Husseini.  “But this is not what all  this is about. Why do you think MPs belonging to the NDP [the ruling National Democratic Party of President Hosni Mubarak] have recently been exposing such cases?”

“It's because of the elections. They’re purposely defaming members of their own party so they can rise and take their place, either in election seats, through gaining more votes, or in party or cabinet reshuffles,” he added.

The MP said that “we’re looking at a shake-up inside the ruling party,” one that has probably led to some revelations and, in turn, the “naming and shaming” of rival members of the party.

Al-Husseini, along with another 44 independent and Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians, is responsible for bringing complaints against construction magnate Hisham Talaat Mustafa, in what has become a court case that has so far annulled Mustafa's contract for the land on which his multi-million-pound project Madinaty is based. Mustafa, and the New Urban Communities Authorities, have both appealed the verdict, and the lawsuit remains pending.

The MP said that, in the case of Mustafa, despite major violations, “the government was still forced to reveal the contract, since it was already part of the documents presented in the Suzanne Tamim murder case [in which Mustafa stands accused], and so it was easier to dig out." He added that, in other cases, like the sale of Tut Amoun land to Palm Hills, whose shares are partly owned by Housing Minister Ahmed al-Maghraby, “the violation was revealed because of conflicts and rivalry among the NDP–people who were not happy the land went to al-Maghraby.”

In July 2004, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif appointed several businessmen to key ministerial positions. The same trend was seen in  the ruling party, as younger faces and big names–such as steel mogul and chairman of parliament's planning and budget committee Ahmed Ezz and Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid–clawed their way up at the expense of the party's old guard.

Both parliament and Nazif’s cabinet were quickly populated by businessmen-cum-politicians, courting big investment projects and moving the country ever further away from its socialist past. And under the direction of Gamal Mubarak, the NDP’s second-in-command after Secretary-General Safwat al-Sherif and son of the president, that shift has become even more apparent.  

In the past, and according to state laws, only projects that promised to provide middle-class or lower-middle-class lodgings at low prices were to be granted cheap state-owned land, facilitation and tax exemptions.

The Housing and Development Bank, in addition to public companies, would make the land sale from the Urban Communities Authorities and provide, in advance, a log of the projected retail prices of these lodgings–a kind of insurance that they would be low-priced. But this is not the case anymore, and both construction experts and analysts blame the change of policy for the rising incidence of law-breaking and fraud in land sales.

“In the past, the state was involved in producing these urban communities to benefit the poor and provide affordable housing. Now the trend is different. There’s no future planning. It’s not about producing housing anymore, it’s about making money,” explained contractor and urban communities expert Sabry Fawzy.

“Now, land is given to businessmen in abundance–good land in important locations. This land is given to them at very cheap prices, almost for free, but the main point now is to let these businessmen make huge profits,” added the contractor.

Former MP and Tagamu Party member Abul-Ezz Harriry agreed, blasting the current cabinet for raising the profile of businessmen and granting them vast tracts of land.

“And this is mainly because the government does not represent the people anymore, but is comprised of a group of thieves–these men are not even capitalists," said Harrirry. "Capitalism follows rules that are decided by the market and does not involve corruption or monopoly.”

According to Fawzy, public bids have become rare under recent cabinets, with the allocation of land usually occuring through direct deals between ministers and businessmen.

Fawzy told Al-Masry Al-Youm that “the same few names own land all over the country, bought cheap from the state, under the guise that they would be used for big housing or agricultural projects.”

“The state didn’t even tax some of these businessmen,” added MP Badreddin.

“Look at all the land 500 kilometers south of Hurghada, down to Sahl Hashish–they’re all owned by the same business moguls. The same people own land in Sinai, Adabiya, Ain al-Sokhna and the Red Sea,” said Fawzy.

According to the contractor, some of this land was sold at 30 piastres per meter after having been “frozen” for years, during which it was left un-used. Harriri cited similar violations in land sales near the coastal town of Safaga. According to the former parliamentarian, over 50,000 feddans on both sides of the Safaga road have been “seized” by businessmen.

“You see, there’s no liability,” added political analyst al-Gamal. “There isn’t one authority that can be held accountable for what happens, because there are no clear rules. It’s obvious that there are centers of power among businessmen and politicians and each of these pulls strings and tries to work according to an agenda.”

Al-Gamal declined to elaborate on who exactly he believed these “centers of power” to be.

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