First Published: 2007-10-16

 
Rural Egypt's Return to the Ancien Regime
 

The farmers of Egypt are protesting against moves to dismantle Nasser’s agrarian reforms. Beshir Sakr and Phanjof Tarcir tell the story of the fifty years since Nassar's agrarian reform -- mostly a history of the curtailing and cessation of reforms.

 

Middle East Online

When Che Guevara visited Egypt in 1965, President Gamal Abdel Nasser took him to Kamshish, a little village in the heart of the Nile delta. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre visited it in 1967; in 2005, the international peasant movement, Via Campesina, made a call.

Geographically, Kamshish lies between Kafr al-Meselha, where President Hosni Mubarak was born, and Mit Abu al-Kum, the birthplace of Anwar al-Sadat; nearby is Denshawai, the scene of a revolt against British occupation in 1906.

But Kamshish is more important in the struggle of Egyptian farmers for access to land, as it illustrates both the political gains they have made and their current difficulties. Before the 1952 revolution most of the rural population lived in poverty, with terrible working conditions. Beside relatively free but small-scale peasant farming there was an overwhelmingly feudal agricultural sector that imposed bonded-labour sharecropping. Farming families lived in small villages on izba, or latifundia-style estates, servicing the landlord’s crops under the supervision of a bailiff. In lieu of wages they got access to land, an insecure tenure providing barely enough to feed the family.

Kamshish was ruled by the Fiqqi family, owners of some 600 hectares in the late 1940s; two-thirds of Fiqqi land lay within the village boundaries. The Fiqqis were influential in the agricultural cooperative created in 1936. They controlled access to credit, seed and fertiliser, and with this power -- and influence on the village council -- could force the exchange of land, requisition labour for their crops, or improve their access to irrigation.

It was accepted at least by the end of the second world war that there was a need for agrarian reform. On 9 September 1952, within two months of seizing power, the Free Officers led by Nasser passed legislation that limited the size of agricultural holdings.

At first the Fiqqis, like many of the other large land-holding families, succeeded in avoiding the effects of the law. Until 1961 they managed to satisfy the authorities through subterfuges that they held no more land than the law allowed, although each family member owned over double the legal limit. As early as 1952, however, a group of young students and villagers rallied to calls by Salah Hussein Maqlad, from a poorer, medium-sized, landholding family. With Salah Hussein they called on peasant farmers to take back the land they had been forced to sell to the Fiqqis at the ruinous prices provoked by the crisis of the 1930s.

In 1953, there were violent armed confrontations. Salah Hussein was sent to live in the provincial capital Shibin al-Kom. He was imprisoned for over a year (accused of membership of the Muslim Brotherhood) before being stripped of his rights until 1965. The state, despite its anti-feudal principles, was not prepared to tolerate the development of an independent peasant movement.

In July 1961, Nasser’s regime announced through “socialist decrees” the sequestration of the assets and land of 4,000 families, over 50,000 hectares. Although it took six months to review all the cases in Kamshish a committee was finally able to establish that the Fiqqi family had holdings well above the legal limit. The authorities confiscated its property and redistributed it to 200 small farmers. The Fiqqis were sent to live in Alexandria, while Kamshish had a reputation for peace and social justice, thanks to socialist reforms.

Five years of peace

The peace lasted five years. Salah Hussein returned to Kamshish in 1966, his rights restored, but was seen as a dangerous communist agitator and placed under official surveillance. He wrote to the leaders of Egypt’s sole political party, the Arab Socialist Union, calling for the confiscation of the palaces abandoned by feudal lords, proposing their conversion to use by the health and education services. He died a few days later, on 30 April 1966, during an “altercation.” Although two members of the Fiqqi family were suspected of organising the killing, only the hired assassins went to court.

The second reform law of 1961 was politically motivated: The regime hoped to break the power of the land-holding and royalist aristocracy by destroying its socio-economic base. Its success seems to have been limited: The large landholders and their inheritors continued to occupy and even gain posts in political and administrative positions at local and regional level throughout the 1960s.

After the 1961 law and the socialist decrees there were different statutes for confiscated land.

There was the land confiscated from the large estates under the terms of the 1952 and 1961 reforms: Farmers working it could become its legal owners through 40 annual payments to the state.

There was also the land sequestered by the state during the 1960s under the more radical Nasser regime: These holdings did not leave the possession of large landowners, who, however, could no longer control them as they wished. The property was placed under state control and managed by government offices, which leased the land to small farmers and returned the rent to the owners.

The reforms are ‘rectified’

In May 1971, a year after Nasser’s death, Sadat launched a “rectification revolution” and “denasserisation” process. In June 1974, he passed a law cancelling all sequestration operations under the decrees of 1961. The legislation provided for the return of 60,000 hectares to their former owners, or substantial compensation. The operation was opposed in the villages. As the villagers held permanent leases at modest and binding rates they did what they could to resist eviction.

At Kamshish the Fiqqis recovered all their sequestered land and the family house that had been used for the school and social services. The authorities banned Shahinda Maqlad (Salah Hussein’s widow and the leader, since June 1971, of a regional protest movement) from residence in the village, and detained her.

By 2005, Kamshish was a town of 40,000 people, which had benefited since 1990 from the remittances of migrant workers in the Gulf states; there are three pharmacies, and a new garden with a wall provided by Suzanne Mubarak, the president’s wife. Near the garden is a palace abandoned by the Fiqqi family, a relic of the struggle against a feudal culture.

Many farmers over the years suffered threats and isolation, imprisonment and torture, were banished from the villages or even killed; they have paid a heavy tribute in the struggle for land rights. Even today, 55 years after the reforms, there is still fear in rural areas of overnight eviction.

The fears are justified. In 1992, a new law on agrarian reform provided for major changes in the relations between the landlord and tenants of farming land and allowed a five-year transition, during which land rents would rise from 7 to 22 times the cost of the land tax. From 1997, rents could be fixed at free market rates, and those unable to pay could be evicted. A fixed term was imposed on the rental period (with a one-year minimum); land had previously been leased under indefinite and hereditary tenure. Annual rents became payable in cash on the date of signature -- before any harvest. None of the many reports on agrarian reform devotes space to the fate of those affected.

The 1992 law affects at least a million of the three million farmers officially recorded, with a potential impact on six million people. It reflects the convergence of interests between the land-owning class and the neo-liberal elite. It has provided landowners with an opportunity to recoup their assets through major rises in rental values and the recovery of their power to use the land as they wish. For the neo-liberals, the law entrenches free market efficiency, demonstrated by the “benefits” of the new reform. Neo-liberals welcome the rise in rents, forcing farmers to increase productivity (and to modernise) and ending uneconomic micro holdings, allowing their incorporation into modern estates.

The previous system has been caricatured: An army of “uncaring” tenants had “exploited” landowners, raking in profits thanks to low rents, and buying up the land for a pittance once they had impoverished it.

The reality is different: Egypt’s smallholders use intensive practices and obtain yields that are among the best in the developing world; their horticultural plots can deliver three crops a year. Although farmers aim first for self-sufficiency, to cover their household needs, they also seek to maximise their income by cash cropping, despite the risks of a fluctuating market. Tenant farmers are often willing to improve the fertility and productivity of their land by investing in labour and other inputs, as long as they are assured secure, long-term tenancy. Tenants liable to eviction at the end of a year could never consider investing in the land, even if they had the means once the rent was paid.

When the law was passed in 1992, there was some concern among farmers, but most were unaware of its importance until later; the press foresaw a “peasant revolt” when the law was implemented in 1997. There were clashes in isolated villages without political consequence, as farmers resisted the rise in their rents and forcible eviction. The Cairo NGO, the Land Centre for Human Rights, recorded 119 dead, 846 injured and 1,409 arrests between 1998 and 2000, as a result of evictions or conflicts over access to land.

If the bomb never really went off, it was due less to the official reconciliation commissions, much praised by the regime, than to the ban on independent trade unions and the efficiency and pervasiveness of state intelligence, repression and control. It can also be put down to the complexity of social relations in rural Egypt: a well-entrenched parallel market for rents (in which prices were already high), the client/patron relationship between landlord and tenant farmer, and the presence of non-farming small landowners beside the landed aristocracy.

Social explosions

The 1992 law changed farmers’ lives profoundly. Average rent values have risen 10-fold, and now represent between a third and a half of gross annual income. Perhaps three-quarters of the farmers renting in 1996 have given up because of debts. Farmers have had to indebt themselves to pay rent, and households sell jewels and livestock, reducing expenditure (less meat in the diet, fewer children at school). As the number of very small holdings has declined, those over 10 feddans (4.2 hectares) have improved in number and surface area. It is clear that inequalities in the distribution of agricultural land are again rising, despite the advances between 1952 and 1980 and the relative immobility thereafter.

Over the past 10 years there have been social explosions over land in the governorate of al-Minufiyya, where Kamshish lies. They are the result of manoeuvres by former landowners and have been ignored by the media. Dispossessed families used the new legislation to recover their previous holdings, or obtain more attractive parcels. There have been violent clashes between farmers and the police or hired agents working for these families. Villagers have been intimidated, illegally imprisoned (and tortured), or summarily tried and heavily sentenced. The Land Centre for Human Rights considers that between 2001 and 2004 there were 171 deaths, 945 injuries and 1,642 arrests.

In Sarando, a town of 10,000 in the northwest Nile delta, the Nawar family decided in 2005 to recover by force the 2,100 hectares it had owned before 1952, counting on the confusion over its legal status. Between 5 January and 15 March, police sacked houses, terrorised residents and arrested many, charging them with carrying arms, destroying crops and attempting to kill policemen. They arrested dozens of people, including a 40-year-old woman who died on 14 March of injuries sustained under torture.

There was also violence at Izbat Mersha, 200km northeast. Although farmers who had received land under the reform had paid all the annuities required from 1964 to 2005 to qualify for possession of their land, the government agency refused to hand over the deeds. The previous owner took the farmers to court, evicting them one by one as the courts found in his favour. He was able to recover up to half of the 42 hectares he had lost. The farmers, however, did get their deeds and appealed against their evictions. As the appeals had no suspensory effect on the court’s decision, on 21 May 2006 17 police vans and dozens of police in plain clothes entered a property to evict the family. They surrounded 600 supporters from Izbat Mersha and some journalists, expelling them with batons and tear gas. There were 25 arrests and a journalist was injured.

Thanks to the presence of the press and the work of the farmers’ support committee set up in Kamshish in 2005, the crisis made news overseas. The support committee attended the European Social Forum in Barcelona in June 2006. As faxed protests flooded into Egyptian embassies across the world, the authorities dropped the charges and transferred the officer in charge of the operation. The farmers in prison were able to return home.

Small farmers have since decided to refuse individual agreements with former landowners, preferring to act collectively through the courts. For the farmers of Kamshish this is a major advance in the struggle to stop the erosion of their entitlements.

[Translated by Robert Corner]

Beshir Sakr is a journalist and Phanjof Tarcir is an anthropologist.

© 2007 Le Monde diplomatique

 

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