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Economy

"The Mine Of The Dead": Inside Egypt's Desert Gold War

There is a long history of mining in Egypt that goes back thousands of years, but has largely been dormant over the past century. But it's picking up now, with troubling ramifications.

Militia gang holding guns.

Hamdy Abu Saleh, the head of one of the militias attacking gold miners (left) with members of his gang.

Moataz Hagag and Mourad Higazy

ASWAN – Standing at any point in the deserts of Aswan and looking out across the vast expanse of sand that stretches out toward the horizon in all directions, the vastness, the seeming emptiness, it is hard to imagine that this is the staging ground of a slow brewing war.

But in the last few years, the Eastern Desert has become a warzone.

Warplanes conduct reconnaissance missions. There are ambushes along desert roads, raids, military trials, the deaths of security forces, men toting guns on social media to tout their strength.

But this isn’t a war of ideology or a political struggle over the fallout of revolution and counter-revolution. No. The frontier lands of Aswan are the site of a different conflict: a gold war.

“Gold is like fish, and the desert is like the sea,” says an informal miner in Aswan, describing their work to Mada Masr. And the fishermen are many, from smugglers and local tribesmen to groups of Egyptian laborers, migrants and miners.

Estimates put the reserves of the Sukari mine, one of the biggest mines in the Eastern Desert, at around six million ounces of gold alone. The price of a single ounce of gold in Egypt is now over $1,900.


The potential payout from these rich gold reserves means these fishermen are not alone. They are also flanked by armed militias who work to protect their stake in the valuable commodity under the sand.

And while there is conflict between militias, the violence in the desert has escalated since the state decided to make its own claim to gold mining, which had largely escaped its security regulatory oversight for years.

Mada Masr has spoken to a number of official and unofficial sources, including these desert fishermen, and collected dozens of photos and videos to help paint a clearer picture of this war. This is the story of the Gold War.


The history of mining in Egypt

Despite the long history of mining in Egypt, one that goes back thousands of years, mining has largely been dormant over the past century, only picking up in the new millennium.

The government during these years started to facilitate mining activity in the desert. In 2004, the Egyptian Geological Survey, which was responsible for managing mining activity, was renamed the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority and was transferred from the auspices of the Petroleum Ministry to the Trade and Industry Ministry, effectively signaling the liberalization of mining.

This led to a number of foreign companies beginning to invest in the mining sector. In 2006, the International Finance Corporation, under the World Bank umbrella, announced its decision to buy $2 million in shares in the Australian company Gippsland Limited, which was just beginning its mining operations in Egypt at the time.

In these years, most activity was centered on quarries from which clay, granite and stones were extracted in the desert adjacent to Aswan, according to two sources, one of which works in a mining company owned by the military’s National Service Projects Organization and another at the mineral resources authority. Mining for gold was still limited.

This continued until the revolution in 2011. The economic crisis following the political revolt prompted many to think of mining for gold in the desert. A diving instructor who had lost his job with the tourism downturn explained in an interview that one of his friends suggested he get into gold mining, and so he did.

In 2013, the facts on the ground had shifted considerably. The state decided that it needed to regain control of the scene. A key part of this plan was the founding of the Shalateen Mineral Resources Company. According to its website, the company aims to legalize the status of those working in informal gold mining in the Eastern Desert and to collect the state’s share. Stakes in the company were split between four parties: the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority (35 percent), the National Service Projects Organization (34 percent), the National Investment Bank (24 percent), and the Egyptian Company for Mineral Resources (7 percent).

By the end of the next year, 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had issued a new law governing mineral resources. The law set parameters for obtaining a mining license and rules for contracts, offerings and rewards for mines and quarries “without being held back by legislation on tenders and auctions.” It also set new fees.

Over the last decade, the state’s strategies to enforce the law have varied.

According to a mineral resources authority engineer who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, security forces started harassing quarry owners in 2014. This harassment came in many forms: raising toll prices for trucks carrying raw materials for quarries, such as clay and stones; arbitrarily imposing fines on heavy trucks carrying large stones; and limiting access to diesel necessary to operate mining equipment.

This did put constraints on informal mining operations.

A man extracting gold in a mine.

Extracting gold process in a mine in Edfu, Egypt.

MadaMasr

Setting their sights on gold

An employee in a National Service Projects Organization-operated mining company who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity says these restrictions forced many quarry owners to abandon their quarries. “If you once had 20 quarries, now you have four,” the employee says.

Restrictions reached a peak by 2020, when Sisi signed into effect amendments to a law that granted the ministers of petroleum, local development and housing the right to contract the Egyptian Mining Company to manage quarries and salt mines owned by the military projects organization. This applies to the quarries and salt mines present in the lands under the jurisdiction of governorate municipalities and the New Urban Communities Authority.

In November of the same year, after years of reluctance to take on exploration due to concern over red tape, 11 companies applied and were granted the rights to explore and mine for gold in 80 regions in the Eastern Desert. This was the new law’s first test: could it allow for large companies to come into a field that was still largely dominated by small-scale actors?

The mineral resources authority engineer says the range of fees quarry owners had to pay, from insurance to royalties to licenses, saw another increase, doubling after the amendments were issued. For many contractors, the writing was on the wall. Quarrying salt and clay was no longer profitable. This led many to set their eyes on gold, the engineer says, with the equipment and labor power previously allocated to quarrying being repurposed for gold mining, which was seen as more profitable and less risky.

Both the engineer and the mining company employee agree that the gold rush began around Edfu in Aswan. From there, it spread throughout the Eastern Desert, down to Qena and as far south as the borders with Sudan, being concentrated in specific sites: Gabal Um Araqa, Umm Hibal, Um Ghazal, Abu Ramad, Shalateen, Berenice, Allaqi village and the surrounding regions.

The Shalateen Mineral Resources Company tried to control gold miners by offering tenders for the exploration of sites specifically designated for local and informal miners. Per the issued tenders, the company would receive a percentage of the gold extracted by each miner who won the bid. But this proposal was rejected by the miners because they viewed the company’s stake in raw gold as too high. Instead, they continued their work outside of legal parameters, according to the engineer. The company’s attempts failed and its losses continued.

Two ways to mine

The owner of a mining site, who operates chemical sluicing pools that are used to extract gold from other minerals, explained that there are two ways to work legally, both under difficult conditions.

The first is to obtain a permit from the Shalateen company for undefined mining activities in an area decided on by the company in exchange for supplying a percentage of raw gold agreed upon each month. The company in turn secures permits from the Egyptian intelligence required to go into the desert. The only requirement, in this case, is that the applicant be an Egyptian national. But the problem is that the company decides where to mine, and the sites are often “without any yield because its reserves have been depleted because of the number of companies that had been there before,” the excavation owner says. “They can spend four months digging in the rocks and barely get back 10 grams.”

According to a gold mill owner and informal miner who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, “The Shalateen company distributes the good sites between themselves.”

The second way allows miners to work at a 10-square-kilometer site of theirchoosing. This is done by providing proof to the Shalateen company that there are gold reserves at this site. Submitted samples are sent to the company’s offices in Marsa Alam, and then to their headquarters in Cairo. But this process requires the miner to have an established company with a tax card, which requires LE1 million in holdings. Another LE1 million is needed in insurance upon the approval of the miner’s application, an amount that exceeds what most local miners can pay.

Local gold miners have tried to organize. The owner of the mill explains that he and 50 other miners tried to form a union, but the company rejected the idea. According to the source, a border patrol officer and company officials told him that the state would not allow this syndicate to exist.

The gold mill owner believes that the reason behind the refusal is that most mining companies that obtain official permits from the Shalateen company are owned by retired generals. “It feels like the government doesn’t want to give out permits except to people on the inside,” the owner says.

In the end, the government’s ambition to control the desert clashed with its locals’ desires. Locals who are split between informal gold miners, known as dahaba (or “golders”), and others who formed militias to extract a protection fee, in addition to the thousands who have come from Sudan and other African countries, known as gharaba, and who are at the core of this process of extracting gold from the earth. They all beat the state in the race to claim the desert.

Map of sites with a concentration of gold mining activity.

Map of sites with a concentration of gold mining activity.

MadaMasr

Gambling with gold

In the past ten years, there have been different methods of extracting gold, according to the gold mill owner. First, miners worked with a metal detector, but when things increased in scale, miners turned to extracting gold through a mechanized sieve or looking for gold veins in quartz extracts.

The sieve method relies on sifting through the earth with a large sieve. Despite the simplicity, there is still risk because of how difficult it is to get the equipment inside the site due to the informality of the work, which opens it up to confiscation or destruction by the Egyptian military.

Sometimes a mine can reach 100 meters.

The most commonly used method is to extract gold from veins in quartz deposits because it only requires simple tools in the extraction process. “We scan an area with a metal detector. When we find quartz stones, workers dig wells the length of a quartz piece,” explains the gold mill owner. “Sometimes a mine can reach 100 meters, so we use workers as a measurement unit. We say a hole five men deep, which would mean it is about 10 meters deep.”

In order to extract the gold, the quartz stones are crushed in mills located mostly in Edfu, hidden in homes and large warehouses. The process of crushing takes about 12 hours and costs around LE1,000. The percentage of raw gold extracted is between 3 and 15 grams per ton. The percentage and purity of the gold vary depending on the mining site. “In the village of Allaqi, the percentage of gold decreases but the purity increases,” says the mill owner. “It can reach 99.9 percent, pure gold, followed by 21 karats, which starts at 87.5 percent, and any less than that is 18 karats. But in the desert adjacent to Edfu, the percentage of gold increases and the purity decreases.

Just as it is extracted informally, the gold is also sold informally in the city of Aswan, especially in the neighborhood of Sadaqa. The sale is “all illegal and shady,” according to the gold mill owner, who adds that it is monopolized by merchants known to the government and the locals, most of whom own big gold stores in Cairo, and “they gather up all the gold coming from the mountain.”

All sources agreed on the profitability of the activity despite its precarity. But the gold mill owner likens gold mining to gambling. “When the mountain gives, you might be holding half a million in five minutes, and you might lose it in your future attempts,” he says.

The owner of the mining site distributes the profits from extracted gold as follows: the workers get LE400 a day or a monetary percentage of the gold as agreed upon, while the provider of the car gets LE7,000 per trip, which takes three to four days. The owner of the equipment gets a third of the profits.

Miners are either locals or migrants. Workers live on the mountain, or “up there,” as the locals in Aswan say. “On the mountain, there are all sorts of people: the thugs, the religiously inclined and the addicts. We do everything on the mountain. We cook. We slaughter. And we bake bread,” says one of the gold workers.

The period each worker spends on the mountain is up to them. But according to the worker who spoke to Mada Masr, “there are always four workers in a mine” in case of theft. And the mountain cannot be separated from the city because all supplies are brought from there in trips lasting about six hours to replenish critical items.

The compensation workers receive depends on the amount of gold they extract. “With money, it depends. The first time I went up to the mountain, I got LE800 for a shipment (a ton), which we moved in a week. On my most recent trip, I made LE2,500 in one day,” says the worker. On special occasions, such as Eid, they will receive “bonuses of around LE1,000 and meat.”

This worker is currently working in a mine known as the “mine of the dead,” a reference to the 15 people who discovered it and died in a fire resulting from the collision of two cars. Road accidents are common there, in addition to other risks, such as the detonation of the rudimentary explosions used to break up rocks.

The exploitation of migrants

In addition to local workers, there are thousands of migrants from Sudan and other African countries, known as gharaba, whose influence has increased because the informal mining sector depends on their expertise. Most enter Egypt through informal migration routes.

The migrants are divided into two groups: Arabs from Sudan and other migrants from Chad and Eritrea, who are estimated to number in the thousands in the desert.

The migrants have to put up with very harsh working conditions. One of the chemical sluicing tank owners who spoke to Mada Masr says that the migrants’ ability to withstand difficult work in the mines and desert, in addition to their expertise, make them the preferred workers.

They can live a long time without water and can withstand what we Egyptians cannot.

“They’re like camels. They can live a long time without water and can withstand what we Egyptians cannot. They can even go down a 200-meter well to get the gold,” he says. “An Egyptian would refuse to go down a well if it is deeper than 20 meters, but a Sudanese wouldn’t care. That’s why many of them die of suffocation in the wells.” He adds that this is another reason employers prefer them: if they die, they can be buried anywhere, as they are not officially in the country.

“The desert is vast. If the loader puts some dirt on top of a body, no one will find it,” says the gold mill owner. “I’ve lost four Sudanese workers so far.”

Being able to withstand mountain work in the midst of militias and drug dealers, who fill a niche of helping some miners deal with the abject conditions, is not easy, sources indicate. Therefore, tribes resort to bringing their sons to work on the sites, as the gold mining worker notes. “If something happens up there on the mountain, you must be prepared. If you call out, you’ll find 5,000 of your cousins by your side, armed.” He clarifies that some tribes do not have weapons on the mountain, but instead, they keep them in the cities and villages and use them as needed.

“Who is backing you and the reputation of your tribe determines your standing on the mountain,” he says. “Whatever your connections are, you must have backing and weapons. There are people without backing, or who are Christian. Their cars are stolen or militias take their sites by force.”

It begets greed

The state, and in particular security institutions, has tried to take control of mining areas and expel militias and miners. But as the state dealt with the crisis, the security strategy turned into an armed confrontation, which has taken a dangerous turn since the last quarter of 2022.

One of the incidents included the death of First Lieutenant Mohamed Kilani in an attack carried out by the Ahmed Abul Abbas militia on a police car near the Barramiya area on the Marsa Alam-Edfu road, in response to one of Abbas’ men being taken in by security forces in Red Sea Governorate in mid-January. He had been carrying large quantities of raw gold, weapons, and half a million Egyptian pounds, according to miners and engineers in government mining companies affiliated with the Armed Forces who spoke to Mada Masr.

The sources all agreed that the state is currently trying to work with a crisis it created in the past few years, when it restricted quarries, where most Aswan locals worked, and gave the Egyptian Mining Company unbridled access to the desert.

“When the gold is giving, it begets greed. And greed begets weapons,” says the gold mill owner about the violence in the desert.

The gold mill owner says that weapons first became common in the gold mining sector about three or four years ago at the most, pointing out that Hamdy Abu Saleh, of the Jaafra tribe, and Rashid Abbas, of the Azayza tribe, were the first to form mountain militias. Both were active in Barramiya, one of the areas with abundant gold reserves.

A second site owner says that the activity of these militias began in earnest in 2017 when Rashid forced a large protection fee on small gold miners. Rashid “killed more often than he spoke,” according to him.

Shortly afterward, Abu Saleh and Rashid seemed to become enmeshed in conflict. One of the gold workers says that most of the Abu Saleh militia were of Sub-Saharan African origins. He had brought them in illegally from Eritrea and Chad, giving him a qualitative advantage over Rashid because of their experience in wielding weapons.

So the gold miners went to Abu Saleh to protect them and take back mining sites in exchange for a cut of the gold, which Rashid took by force. The site owner and the worker both agree that Abu Saleh was a “strong force” on the mountain in the face of Rashid, and the situation continued until 2021, when there was a direct armed confrontation between both militias over a mining site where guns were used liberally and dozens were killed. This brought gold mining to a halt on the mountain, for informal and formal operations alike.

Photo of a man holding stones and a gun.

Ahmed Abul Abbas, a leader of one militia that targets gold miners.

MadaMasr

To reign in the militias

According to the sources Mada Masr spoke to, this was a pivotal moment on the mountain. Security campaigns were launched to pursue the militias, and in November 2021, Abu Saleh was killed, while Rashid was injured and rumored to have escaped to Sudan.

The security solution took out the heads of the biggest militias, but the situation on the mountain became more complex. The militias split into smaller, independent groups doing the same thing. The mountain became filled with dozens of armed militias, forcing protection fees on gold miners and expanding their operations to include stealing gold miners’ cars filled with raw gold as they left the mountain. In many instances, they killed those in the car. They began to go down from the mountain into cities, where they carried out kidnappings and killed locals, according to the sources.

In the years that followed, new leaders took control of the militias, most of them from the Azayza tribe, especially the Absiyeen clan. The most prominent of them was Ahmed Abul Abbas, who tried to consolidate the disparate militias under his leadership, which led to further killing, kidnapping, a rise in protection fee prices and never-ending carjackings.

To reign in the militias, security bodies struck a deal with the Ababda tribe two years ago. The cooperation centered on giving the tribe the autonomy to take on the militias, in exchange for letting them mine productive sites for raw gold, according to several sources who spoke to Mada Masr. The Ababda are known in the south as the “kings of the desert,” and they are the oldest residents in the Allaqi Valley, which has vast gold reserves.

The police’s role was limited to surrounding the international roads leading to the mountain to cut off the militias’ supply and provision lines. As for the military, it was watching from above with drones and would accompany the Ababda in attacking sites run by militias and informal miners, according to the site owner.

The war rages on

Events took a turn in November 2022 when Ahmed Abul Abbas’ militia set up an ambush on police forces during the transfer of prisoners who were militia members near Edfu. They managed to break seven of them out, killed one police officer and injured several police members, shooting them in their feet, which a medical source described to Mada Masr as “incapacitating.”

Two months after this incident, police set up an ambush to arrest some of those responsible for the attack but accidentally killed civilians instead, which led to locals clashing with the police and cutting off the main road, according to three sources.

The army consolidated its control in tandem with the militia attacks by sending anyone arrested in the mountain to a military trial and burning any equipment found that belonged to miners, according to the site owner. Police have also been increasing their raids on the residences of Sudanese miners in Aswan, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Daraw, as well as stopping miner cars coming from the mountain.

In an attempt to break the siege, Ahmed Abul Abbas’ militia attacked the police car and killed First Lieutenant Mohamed Kilani on January 23.

Military and police forces responded by tightening their control, with the participation of the Ababda in the area of Baramiya, close to where Kilani was murdered, according to the site owner. Therefore, site owners in the cities lost touch with workers on the mountain, from the end of January until mid-February, due to a lack of signal and a siege on the roads leading to the mountain. People could descend from the mountain, but not the other way around.

By mid-July, security forces launched the largest security campaign in the region since 2020, targeting the Salah mine, located near the Wadi al-Gamal reserve, and the informal Abkar mine.

Three days before the raid, drones were seen flying overhead, according to a miner working at Salah. “They burned the loaders and the excavators, confiscated vehicles and expelled miners.” Those who stayed on were threatened with a military trial.

Dozens of miners were arrested and others have gone missing as the military drones hunted for them in the desert, the previous miner and a second miner tell Mada Masr.

Nonetheless, these campaigns, with the different institutional and legislative attempts undertaken by the state, have not succeeded in controlling those fishing for gold in the Eastern Desert. So far, the war rages on.

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