Peasants living above treasured tombs defy eviction from mud homes

THE Egyptian authorities have evicted hundreds of peasants from a small village in southern Egypt because their mud brick houses, which have sat on top of some of the world's most treasured tombs for centuries, were leaking sewage on to priceless antiquities.

The families have been resettled in a nearby new town with running water and telephones. But 80 are holding out, saying they want more from a government that has been reluctant to use brute force.

The standoff in Gurna, near the Valley of the Kings, illustrates the challenges facing an authoritarian government that for decades imposed its will on the people.

In recent months, thousands of workers in bloated state-owned factories have staged wildcat strikes, out of fear that privatisation will take their jobs.

"The state told its citizens to expect everything from it," said Nawal Hassan, a sociologist who has worked closely with the people of Gurna, referring to promises of free education, low-cost food and guaranteed jobs.

"The economy was centralised, activities were controlled, and it was the government which was providing people with what they needed," he said. "You can't tell them now, 'Keep that mentality and manage on your own'."

In Gurna - which sits on tombs that date back 3,500 years - much of the familiar tableau of village life has been razed into piles of mud brick rubble. Egyptian officials say that in Gurna they will finish the task because science and decency are on their side.

Under the plan, every married man receives a two-bedroom house in what is known as New Gurna. But opponents are pressing for one house for every son.

"Each family man is asking for a house for himself, and for one for his children," said Sabry Abdel Aziz, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Sector. "It is a problem of greed."

The government considered having the villagers pay for the new houses with low-cost loans. But officials ultimately decided to give the houses away - part of a broad effort to keep the peace.

"The president says you are not allowed to remove anyone without providing him with an alternative he agrees to," said Muhammad Tayeb, head of the local council for the governate of Luxor. "It is impossible. It is against our humanity to force people out."

But others see a more pragmatic explanation for the government's approach. "The bureaucracy is heartless and usually heavy-handed unless it will cause bad publicity abroad or wide-scale popular outbreak of violence or rioting," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a democracy advocate who was jailed in connection with his work monitoring elections.

Ibrahim said president Hosni Mubarak's strategy of trying to co-opt rather than confront was rooted in two major riots that shook the country in 1977 and 1986.

In Gurna, any hint of civil disturbance could undermine a hub of Egypt's tourist industry in Luxor, so the government has tried to avoid confrontation.

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