“We will protect our giant national project with our blood and souls. Yes, Mr. president, the residents of Dabaa are telling you they are up for the challenge,” says one of the community members who gathered for the government’s February 25 “societal dialogue” convention on the construction of a nuclear power in the Matrouh governorate city of Dabaa.
While indicative of the general atmosphere at the convention held to announce residents’ acceptance of the 13-year US$30 billion Egyptian-Russian project, which was meant to be officially signed in December 2016, these words strike a notably different chord than the initial opposition to the government’s long-held plans to construct a nuclear power plant on the land. After the January 25 revolution, for instance, community members organized a sit-in to protest the government’s 2003 decision to forcibly evict residents from the land the government initially allocated for the construction of a power plant in 1981.
Despite the jubilation of the conference, some of this history of discord still made its way into the event’s discourse, albeit by way of negation. Matrouh Governor Alaa Abu Zeid praised Dabaa’s residents, saying that they “were not fooled by tendentious rumors circulating about the negative effects of the project and were not affected by ideas that aimed to keep the project away from their area.”
نظرياً دي جلسة الحوار المجتمعي حول “المفاعل النووي الجديد”…
Posted by Ahmd Omr on Saturday, February 25, 2017
Hamdy Hafez, a member of the Dabaa residents’ coordination committee and a founder of the Dabaa Youth Association, contests the governor’s claims, however, and provides an alternative account of residents’ opposition as being a legitimate response to grievances. Protests against the project, he tells Mada Masr, “were for real reasons, mainly focused on the fact that the project was being pushed without consultation with residents, and due to the violent manner which former Matrouh Governor Abdel Hamid al-Shahat adopted when he forced residents to leave the land and, without warning, and built a fence around it.”
Nonetheless, the transformation seen at the February 25 convention marks a definitive end to residents’ opposition, according to rights lawyer Hamdy Khalaf, who attended the conference and worked on several campaigns to secure residents’ land rights that he says placed significant pressure on the government.
“The residents expressed their full support for the project [at the convention],” says Khalaf. For him, this is a sign that they must be satisfied with the compensation and privileges the state has provided. Although, he says the February 25 convention felt more like an electoral rally aiming to renew confidence in the government than a community dialogue.
While residents may be happy with the immediate short-term gains they were able to extract from the government, the long-term questions about the environmental safety and economic justice of the project seem to remain.
In a report published in 2012, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights documented several violations that Dabaa residents have faced over the course of project’s history, including unfair monetary compensation for the land the government confiscated in 1981, the forced displacement of residents in 2003, the destruction of residents’ homes, plants and wells, and discrimination against Dabaa residents in the provision of services and opportunities that disallowed them from maintaining a suitable standard of living.
Many of these violations were contributing factors in residents’ decision to launch a sit-in in November 2011 – which security forces ultimately dispersed in 2012 – according to Hafez, who says he harbored doubts about the safety and feasibility of the study as late as 2015. However, the residents’ coordination committee member adds that a transformation in the way authorities had dealt with the issue followed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s election to office in 2013. For the first time, authorities were responding to residents’ demands, he says.
Hafez says the Dabaa coordination committee demanded the government compensate owners of land that was confiscated as part of the 2,300 feddans allocated to the project; carry out serious studies about the environmental and health risks of the project, as residents were afraid of nuclear disaster; grant residents land overlooking the sea; and release and drop the charges leveled against anyone detained for opposing the project.
Egypt’s military intelligence took over management of the Dabaa nuclear power plant project and communications with residents in 2013, according to Hafez, who joined the Constitution Party after the January 2011 revolution and Sisi’s presidential campaign in 2014.
He says that military intelligence was more responsive than the ministries of interior and electricity that had previously handled the issue, presenting residents’ demands directly to Sisi, who was the defense minister at the time.
According to Hafez, the state promised to build 1,500 housing unit for Dabaa residents, as well as 110 apartment blocks for the projects’ workers. Dabaa residents would also be given employment priority in the future power plant. Each landowner was granted LE30,000 in compensation per feddan, regardless of whether the land had been left vacant or was on mountainous or agricultural land. The prosecution also dropped investigations into cases where residents had been detained in the 2003 eviction and released those who were being held in detention.
Hafez also says that officials assuaged his concerns over safety, echoing the comments Electricity and Renewable Energy Minister Mohamed Shaker made during the February convention, which centered on claims that the nuclear power plants will use third-generation reactors that are designed according to high safety standards to prevent meltdowns like those seen in Chernobyl or Fukushima and radioactive leaks.
The project’s putative development benefits are also among the advantages Hafez cites, saying that Dabaa’s residents had not been granted the employment and energy benefits that the power plant will bring, in addition to the investment, schools and education missions that will be necessary to train workers, technical staff and engineers.
While saying that some issues have yet to be resolved – such as the disposal of nuclear waste, as “officials are not clear” about residents’ questions concerning the matter – Hafez is optimistic. “Compensations have indeed begun to be paid, and officials, such as Matrouh Governor Alaa Abu Zeid, are constantly available when needed.”
In the end, Dabaa residents pushed for a resolution through dialogue, according to Hafez. “The other options were either peaceful sit-ins, which we didn’t have to do in the end, or confrontation, which Dabaa’s residents did not even consider. We delegated the issue to the Armed Forces, and they showed us complete honesty and sincerity.”
Ragia al-Gerzawy, an environmental researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who attended the convention last month, tells Mada Masr that the project stills requires a serious dialogue between scientific researchers to determine the power plant’s economic and social costs, describing the state’s study as insufficient.
“The dialogue must focus on all aspects of the project, such as why the state did not build conventional, gas-powered stations, which can produce twice as much energy at a fraction of the cost, such as we see with the recently inaugurated Siemen’s plants in Upper Egypt? What about the high costs of securing such a facility over the coming decades, costs which wouldn’t be incurred in other types of power stations?” says Gerzawy.
Regardless of residents’ acceptance of the project, the EIPR researcher says the feasibility of the project has yet to be discussed, setting aside concerns over safety and the fear of nuclear accident.
The government has not yet signed the deal with the Russian state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom – the company that is in advanced talks to build the reactors and provide technical support in its operation – despite officials saying last October that a deal was to be signed by December 2016.
Egypt’s electricity minister announced in January that negotiations with Rosatom are nearing their final stages. Sputnik News quoted an unnamed Rosatom official saying that the signing of the deal head been postponed due to “issues relating to Dabaa’s commissioning and subsequent servicing,” and that finalization of the contract would be delayed to March 2017. Matrouh Governor Alaa Abu Zeid reiterated this information in his comments at the convention, asserting that preparatory construction work is being done to accommodate construction equipment.