A billboard behind Luxor Temple sums up the government’s plans for the city. In one picture, locals are picnicking in a park with the words "Luxor Before" above it. The other picture is of an open, concrete square with a handful of people and the words "Luxor After" above it. The message: locals out, tourists in.
The Egyptian government is currently demolishing homes in a plan to turn Luxor into an archaeological tourist haven. Residents living between Luxor and Karnak Temples along the "Avenue of the Sphinxes" have recently been given three-day eviction notices as heavy machinery begins quickly tearing down buildings on the East Bank.
"It is our philosophy now to evacuate the whole city between the two temples [Luxor and Karnak] to an area west of the railway line," Luxor Governor Samir Farag told Al-Masry Al-Youm in late October.
Residents say it remains unclear how much they will receive for their homes, with compensation varying depending on who you ask.
"They take everything and remove all homes near the Nile," said local resident Mustafa Lotfi. "No buildings over the Nile. Why? People who come from abroad bring the money for antiquities."
It is a sensitive issue in Luxor. The government has been trying to move residents on the West Bank in el-Gourna for decades. While the authorities assert that locals have been robbing archaeological sites and selling the booty on the black market, tourism development now appears to be the main reason for the planned relocations. Construction of a luxury hotel is planned in el-Gourna near the Colossi of Memnon, for example.
"Samir Farag wants to make Luxor a tourist city so that when foreigners come they see it as the number-one city in the world for antiquities," said Hussein Diab, a teacher from el-Gourna.
The government has a long-term plan for the development of Luxor covering the next 20 years. Farag declined to share details of the plan, but said it includes a few major projects. He said the government was paying LE300 million to convert the corniche into a pedestrian walkway. Farag wants to build an industrial area in the desert for processed food production and double the number of hotel rooms to 40,000. He is also looking for foreign investors to fund a US$3 billion marina for cruise ships.
Construction on the corniche is expected to begin soon. The government seized a portion of the private lands along the corniche last year for this purpose. But once the corniche is exclusively pedestrian, fleets of tourist buses will have no route by which to traverse between the Luxor and Karnak Temples. So residents who are currently being evacuated along the Avenue of the Sphinxes are making way for the buses.
"Tourists come here to see the normal people, the villagers," said Ramadan, a local shop owner. "To make this like a European city is wrong."
Luxor residents are generally not opposed to the idea of tourism development in and of itself, with many of them depending on it to make a living. They have major concerns, however, that they will be will excluded from planned development and will not be fairly compensated for leaving their homes.
"When you try to remove me, take my home and house, you have to give me compensation," said Lotfi, whose sisters’ home was recently demolished. "When you give me LE40,000, what can I do with it? We can’t buy land, we can’t build homes."
Life has become expensive in Luxor. Rents have nearly tripled in the last two years, forcing many people to the outlying areas far from their main source of income: tourists. Evacuated residents are supposed to live in el-Tob, a reclaimed desert area.
Farag, for his part, claims the site is within walking distance of the city. "It’s a five-minute walk. It’s nothing," he said. "Luxor is so small."
A visit by Al-Masry Al-Youm took 15 minutes walking to a bus station from Luxor Temple, followed by a half-hour ride by car to el-Tob.
Although homes are demolished every day, el-Tob is nowhere near complete. Landowners have demarcated their properties with white bricks and wire. Only a few structures have been built. One landowner, who declined to give his name, said he paid LE300,000 for a feddan (1.038 acres) of undeveloped land — far more than what residents can expect to receive for their homes.
"There is a problem," said Ramadan. "If you have a piece of land and they take it, you don’t get money for two years."
Locals cite a variety of figures for compensation. Three interviews produced three different numbers: LE40,000, LE60,000 and LE75,000. Most give answers ranging between LE40,000 and LE60,000. If they are worried they will never see money, they have good reason. Several years ago a public park and swimming pool were sold to the Pyramisa Hotel Group with the promise of a new club. The club never came. Pyramisa officials declined to be interviewed.
Across the Nile on the West Bank, local residents fear a similar fate. The board of the Nadi el-Shabab, or Youth Club, created a petition in September against the possibility of losing their land. The board said that Farag had approached them four years ago to acquire the club, which is located on prime real estate along the Nile across from Luxor Temple.
"We don’t want money," Diab said. "We want the place. Samir Farag wants us to go, but we are here."