SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A tiny island in the middle of the Nile River has been the subject of a years-long legal battle between farmers and the Egyptian government. Merrit Kennedy visited the island and sent this report.
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MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: It's not easy to get to Qursaya Island. You have to take a boat from the bank of the Nile in the middle of Cairo. There are no cars on the island and it's only had running water for a few years.
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KENNEDY: It's a quiet 70-acre patch of agricultural land in the middle of a megacity where farmers and fishermen have lived for generations.
MOHAMMED ABLA: Countryside in the middle of the city. And that's why I came here and I decided to live here. And I think the first years was very quiet but the problems start 2000.
KENNEDY: That's Mohammed Abla, a prominent artist who moved to Qursaya in 1997 for some quiet. He says that before 2000, the government neglected the island. But it's prime real estate and Abla says the problems began when the government told the residents that it sold the land to an investor for a tourism project. Ever since then, the islanders have been struggling with the government, the military and investors over who gets to keep Qursaya. The issue of land ownership is murky but residents won a major court case in 2010. Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch has been monitoring the situation.
HEBA MORAYEF: I think this was a good decision by the administrative court because it made a very clear ruling that the people on the island of Qursaya have the right to live there and they have the right to work there.
KENNEDY: But despite that ruling, the Egyptian army claims several large strips of land on the island are theirs. Some of the residents repossessed that land last year because it was sitting empty at the time. But before dawn one morning last November, military police landed on Qursaya and seized the areas after clashing with residents. Twenty-six-year-old Mohammed Mahmoud remembers that day well.
MOHAMMED MAHMOUD: (Through Translator) I was here in the house and woke up at dawn. I heard the sound of fighting - heavy fighting. I found the army everywhere, preventing anyone from coming through. And they set fire to our huts down on the river, our crops. They burned everything.
KENNEDY: A fisherman was killed and several soldiers and residents were injured in the violence. Mahmoud says his father was arrested that day along with 24 others. Retired Army General Sameh Seif al-Yazal says the island is government land and the army needs portions of it for security reasons.
GENERAL SAMEH SEIF AL-YAZAL: So it has a strategic area, and that's why it is inside the plan, the military plan of the army to defend Cairo for instance, or the convoy in the Nile.
KENNEDY: But Heba Morayef believes the military's interest in the island is more basic than that.
MORAYEF: They don't want there to be any questioning of what the military owns and doesn't own. They don't want any oversight of military businesses. And so I think that in and of itself is enough for them to be behaving in this way.
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KENNEDY: Three months after the clashes, island residents gathered outside a Cairo military court to hear the verdict. The court decided to release 24 of the 25 men but it did not resolve the basic dispute.
MAGDY YOUSSEF: (Foreign language spoken)
KENNEDY: Farmer Magdy Youssef's brother was found innocent of assaulting army officers. He says these months have been difficult for his family and he hopes the matter is over. Heba Morayef says this case brings up many of the major tensions between the military and civilians in Egypt.
MORAYEF: It highlights this issue of land owned by the military and the fact that they are very keen to protect their economic interests which obviously involved a lot of real estate. It also involves an excessive use of force by the military.
KENNEDY: Egypt's constitution allows the army to try civilians in military courts without oversight. Morayef is worried that incidents like the fight over Qursaya will continue to happen whenever the military's economic interests are threatened. For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo.