/ 5 July 2010

El Alamein clears mines for tourist season

Along Egypt’s white-sand Mediterranean coastline, an enormous metal advertising hoarding is being hauled into place by the roadside. “Blissful indulgence, natural splendour,” it declares in huge letters above a picture of a child snorkelling in azure blue waters. “Marassi: It’s where you’ve always belonged.”

Behind the sign lies a messy scrub of beach and desert, pockmarked with a few half-built houses on stilts. Across the highway is Egypt’s Western Desert — and somewhere beneath the ever-shifting sands lie 16-million pieces of unexploded World War II ordinance.

Eventually, this patch of land near the city of El Alamein will become a 6,25m² gated holiday resort incorporating luxury villas, artificial lagoons and an 18-hole golf course. To Egypt’s government Marassi is a symbol of regeneration in a beautiful region. To many locals it represents marginalisation and betrayal.

“This sort of development does nothing for us,” said Eissa Murgan, a 37-year-old Bedouin who used to work as a shepherd before his leg was blown off by a landmine. “There are no benefits here for those who truly need them.”

Battles over El Alamein’s future are nothing new; the town and its surrounding shores have long been contested by rival armies, most notably in 1942 when Axis and Allied forces met in a confrontation that changed the tide of World War II.

Now a new struggle is taking place over how best to confront the legacy of that conflict: the buried ordinance that is estimated to have killed and maimed thousands of Egyptians over the past seven decades has condemned the region to economic stagnation.

Victims such as Murgan find themselves fighting for justice on two fronts: from their own authorities, whom they believe are more interested in extracting profits than in promoting sustainable development; and from the British and other European governments, whom they hold responsible for the carnage left behind.

“This is an area immensely blessed in natural resources,” said Fathi El-Shazly, the official responsible for transforming its fortunes. “We’re looking at highly significant oil and gas reserves under the ground, plus 3-million acres [1.2-million hectares] of fertile land and a staggering potential for tourism. But all of these assets are difficult to access, at least until demining takes place.”

Officials have spent years lobbying their British, German and Italian counterparts for more funding to tackle the problem, largely without success. Although all three countries laid mines, most Egyptians identify Britain as the primary culprit. Egypt was effectively still under British colonial occupation, and many Egyptians believe Britain has a moral responsibility for bringing conflict to Egypt’s shores. The other countries have also been quicker to offer financial help on the issue.

“We have a local proverb here that we trust,” said Omda Abdel Rahman, whose tribal lands witness the construction of more high-end private resorts every day. “It goes: ‘No right can be lost as long as there are people still demanding it.’ This compensation is our right, as is the demining of this area — demining for the benefit of those who live there. So we will fight for those things. Until then, we remain paralysed.” — Guardian News & Media 2010