Middle East

Egypt's Lake Fayoum hotel project seen as test case

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe development is in the area of Fayoum, south-west of Cairo

A controversial land deal in one of Egypt's most famous beauty spots is proving an early test of the question everyone is asking here: Has anything really changed, following the departure of President Hosni Mubarak?

At the moment the north shore of Lake Qaroun (also known as Lake Fayoum), south-west of Cairo, is an unspoilt wilderness.

Flamingos enjoy the tepid waters. It is a world-renowned haven for ducks and migrating birds. A handful of local fishermen are the only humans you are likely to meet.

A rich treasure of fossils includes one of the world's best preserved fossilised whales, still waiting to be fully excavated, a petrified forest, and the remnants of prehistoric crocodiles and sea life, from the days when this barren desert was under water.

Image caption The drive to the site passes basalt rocks used to build the pyramids

Strange geological formations add to the air of mystery. Thousands of years ago basalt rock from the hills was quarried to form part of the pyramids. The remains of the world's first paved road, used to transport the stone, still form a line in the sand.

Bitter fight

Much of the area has protected status under Egyptian law. But in the dying years of Hosni Mubarak's presidency, a chunk of this virgin land, 10km by 10km (6 by 6 miles), was designated for development and sold off.

No-one seems to know quite when, or by whom, that decision was taken. But environmental campaigners are now fighting bitterly for it to be reversed.

"If you had connections at that time you could buy anything, you could buy the pyramids," said Marwan el-Azzouni, of the pressure group Nature Conservation Egypt.

He argued that the proposed tourist development would destroy an area that has been nominated to become a Unesco world heritage site.

"No-one cares about the environment, they care about economics, money. If it's bringing in money, who cares about the environment?" says Mr Azzouni.

"They don't look to the future. They don't look to the generations ahead, and they don't look at what they are destroying, something that cannot be bought by money and we might not ever find again," he adds.

'Need for jobs'

One of 14 developers who have won the right to build on the site is Mansour Amer, who has built a chain of holiday resorts across Egypt.

Critics fear his proposed Porto Fayoum resort will follow the pattern of his other hotels and holiday apartments, which rise uncompromisingly along some of Egypt's most beautiful beaches.

Mr Amer argues that his development will be environmentally friendly. And he insists it needs to go ahead.

"We need to create jobs for our people," he said. "We need to develop our country - within respecting the rules and within respecting what should be done."

No evidence has been presented of corruption in the Lake Qaroun deal, though the two previous tourist ministers, who were in charge of handling the issue, are both in prison, one being investigated, and the other already convicted of corruption in other matters.

Campaigners point out, however, that this deal was typical of what went on under President Mubarak.

They point to little or no public consultation before a deal was done with the president's friends or allies. They also criticise the price paid for the land.

Under a strange pricing structure, the Amer Group will pay only $28,000 (£17,500) initially for use of the land, though that figure increases in each year of the 99-year lease granted on the land.

Mansour Amer himself is a former member of parliament and of the NDP - the ruling party whose headquarters were torched by protesters in January. The party has since been disbanded and its assets seized.

Unlike some of Egypt's top businessmen with similar links, he is not under investigation for corruption. One anti-corruption campaigner told me he believed Mr Amer was an honest businessman. Mr Amer himself was quick to come forward to defend this project and his role in it.

"I totally understand that people think that anyone who has done a success story could be related to corruption. But this is not true," he said.

Activists energised

Image caption Work on an approach road has already shattered the calm of the desert

The current tourism minister, Munir Fakhry AbdelNour, who was appointed after the revolution, said he had sent the file on the development back to the environment ministry for re-consideration.

"What I can assure environmentalists is that the whole project is under close consideration and study. If there is any development on the protected land it will be cancelled, as simple as that."

The current antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, has also now said that he never approved of the development, despite some earlier claims to the contrary.

Already work on an access road is shattering the calm of the area. So it is the eleventh hour, for the environmentalists who are putting up such a tough fight.

But Marwan el-Azzouni says that after this year's revolution, at least they can make their voices heard, in a country he believes is changing for the better.

"Now we can speak more freely, we can knock on doors, we have even had a response from one of the ministers," he said, as we admired the views along the remote lake shore.

"It's changing. It doesn't happen overnight… we are in a state of flux. People like me, and there are many people like me, will stand forward and raise their voices and say stop when we need to say stop."

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites