A confidential report compiled in October 1966 by the Criminal Investigation office of the Egyptian army accused Ahmad Hasan, former member of parliament and former government-appointed head of his village, of 11 “criminal and terrorist” offenses.

“About 10 years ago,” according to the report, “he was accused of killing Muhammad al-Qalshani Ibrahim from the village,” who disappeared without trace. “No one came forward to testify against him out of fear,” and the investigation was dropped. Ahmad Hasan then “took possession of the fields belonging to the slain peasant, which amounted to more than four feddans (about four and one quarter acres) of the village’s land.” Five years later, it says in the report, Ahmad Hasan “beat and tortured the farmer Hasan Ahmad ‘Ali, known as Hasan Naqah, who was his private guard…which led to bleeding and death.”

Ahmad Hasan dealt with another farmer “by tying him to his car and dragging him along the village roads until he reached the front of his store. The victim was naked and he was beaten and maimed in front of his mother. This took place because the victim demanded the farming rights (al-hiyaza) for a plot of land he was cultivating,” of which Ahmad Hasan was the owner.

These and the following quotations come from a translation of the report contained in an appendix to Hamied Ansari’s recent book, Egypt: The Stalled Society. [1] It is one of more than 300 such reports submitted to a committee set up by President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser in 1966 to investigate the continuing influence of powerful families in provincial Egypt. [2] Although it is over 20 years old, the report offers a glimpse of a system of rural powerlessness and inequality that is still in place today.

It shows in graphic detail how large landowners can exercise control within a village. It also suggests how ordinary villagers experience both the presence of the landowners and their own vulnerability. Its details indicate the kinds of injustices that occur, and also the way they are remembered and reported by the villagers. At the same time, reading confidential documents is a reminder of another presence in the village, the official ear that listens and compiles such reports, for official purposes. Trying to understand rural Egypt involves us, inevitably, in this secretive discourse of power. The official dossiers of 20 years ago can inform us about a past still being lived; they can also remind us that such dossiers continue to be compiled. [3]

The villagers’ demands for cultivation rights were the occasion for several of the crimes mentioned in the report. In one case a farmer made the demand during the holy month of Ramadan, and in response Ahmad Hasan mistreated the man’s wife “by forcing her to break her fast. He then beat her children, while her husband was lying sick. They were expelled from the village and went to settle in Izbat al-Manshiyya.”

Another dispute involved land in a neighboring village. In this case, Ahmad Hasan “led a group of government and private guards as well as members of his gang in an attack on the estate of Hajj Ibrahim Najm…. They fired several rounds of ammunition to terrorize the peasants. The attack was caused by an old dispute between him and the owner of the estate over a piece of land.”

In other cases the reason for violence is not given, but the description is no less detailed. Three years ago, the report claims, Ahmad Hasan “beat and tortured the lawyer Abdel Azim Idrawis by burying him up to his shoulders in a cemetery at night. He was rescued by his relatives. But as a result of this incident the aforementioned lawyer lost his mind. He now lives as an insane person in the village.”

On another occasion Ahmad Hasan “beat the citizen Ahmad Yusuf in the mosque while he was praying. He also assaulted his wife.” When the local schoolteacher, a nephew of the wife, intervened, Ahmad Hasan assaulted him as well, “hitting him with a liquor bottle which he had in his hand.”

In one or two cases there are accusations of sexual misconduct, including the claim that Ahmad Hasan “enticed the wife of the fruit seller Abdel Latif Ali to run away from her marital abode and coaxed her to stay with him for a long time until her husband was forced to divorce her.” Ahmad Hasan then married the woman, “and she continues to be his wife until now.”

I do not know how reliable this report is. The army’s Criminal Investigation office was notorious for its own use of terror in collecting information, a practice that goes back at least to the early days of the British occupation. (The “Brigandage Commissions” set up by the British in the 1880s to suppress rural banditry and peasant resistance used methods of torture that included hanging people from metal collars, and burning the body with red-hot iron nails.) [4]

Despite the problems of reliability in such circumstances, the accusations against Ahmad Hasan include a kind of detail that suggests the reports come from the villagers themselves. A certain beating takes place in front of the victim’s mother, another occurs during Ramadan, the weapon used in a third case is a liquor bottle, and so on.

Discourse of Power

Although compiled for official purposes, reports of this kind convey an experience of violence and powerlessness that is almost impossible to capture in academic studies of rural Egypt. The villagers themselves, after all, have generally learned to keep silent. “Despite all these criminal incidents,” the report on Ahmad Hasan concludes, “no one dared to accuse him, out of fear.” Perhaps the lawyer ‘Abd al-‘Azim, buried up to his shoulders in a cemetery and now wandering about the village “as an insane person,” serves to remind them of the risks.

Two things stand out from these reports. First, the violence of the village is above all a fight for the control of its land, a fight between Ahmad Hasan and the farmers and laborers who are his victims. More than half the crimes listed in the report occurred in response to the victims’ demands for cultivation rights.

The demands come from those who, like most Egyptian villagers, own very little land or none at all. Even after Nasser’s agrarian reforms, an estimated 45 percent of agricultural families in Egypt remained landless. Among the landowners, 95 percent owned less than five feddans; the average was just over one feddan per owner. Under Anwar Sadat and Husni Mubarak, this inequality has increased. [5] The family of Ahmad Hasan owned 290 feddans, according to the report. He had violated the agrarian reform laws by registering the land under different names.

Ahmad Hasan’s control of the land gave him the power to monopolize the village’s labor and agricultural produce. “Tenancy contracts do not exist between him and the peasants,” the report notes, “and he exploits them in the worst manner because he appropriates all the crops, while leaving to them only meager amounts of rice and meat.” Also, “he imposes forced labor on peasants to work in his orchards without payment of wages or against very low wages. Anyone who opposes him is punished by beating and torture to be followed by expulsion from the land and the village.”

Ahmad Hasan’s power was further extended through his control of an irrigation pump and the supply of water to the fields. He attempted to monopolize the supply of fertilizer from the government cooperative in the village. When the clerk of the cooperative, a relative of his, tried to resist his demands for more fertilizer than his quota, Ahmad Hasan “put the warehouse of the cooperative on fire causing damage amounting to £180 which was paid by the aforementioned clerk. This incident took place in 1963. He also instigated some of his assistants to let the water flow into the warehouse which damaged the fertilizers stored there, in order to mete out vengeance on the cooperative’s clerk.”

The second thing about the experience of local violence that one learns from the report is its moral dimension. In describing Ahmad Hasan’s crimes, the villagers most readily evoke the horrors of their powerlessness in terms of a constantly violated morality.

This can be seen in the way they recount each event, in the details they include. In every case, the indication of the victim’s political vulnerability is the moral degradation he or she is unable to avoid. When a man is stripped naked, it occurs in front of his mother. A woman is forced to break her fast in Ramadan, and her children are assaulted in front of their bedridden father. Another man bleeds to death after being sexually assaulted. The incident with a liquor bottle occurs not in the street, but while the victim is at prayer within the mosque. A wife is enticed into deserting her husband, whose powerlessness obliges him to divorce her. A lawyer loses his power of reason, which in the life of the village is not a “psychiatric” problem, as we would understand it, but a loss of the faculty that enables one to act as a moral person. The idiom of a person’s moral capacity, and its repeated violation, provides the local way of speaking about a system of political oppression.

Restricted Intervention

A struggle over resources, above all access to the land, and an attempt to speak of the violence and immorality of this condition in an effective local idiom: these two themes found in the report on Ahmad Hasan could be taken as the two continuing themes of Egyptian politics over the last century or more, themes that precede and outlast every other political question. The two can also be taken together to explain something else the report illustrates: how government attempts to intervene in this system of local power tend to work within its limits.

Again there are two aspects. First, Ahmad Hasan’s control of resources was itself a power to evade the restrictions placed on this kind of control. He commanded access to land, employment and irrigation waters. When the government placed limits on landownership, he simply re-registered certain fields in the name of less powerful relatives or employees, supplying fictitious contracts of sale. When the government began to regulate tenancy contracts to help the landless, he refused to give contracts. When the government set up village cooperatives to handle the distribution of seeds and fertilizers, he used the fictitious contracts and the threat of violence to demand more than his share.

When the government tried to increase production and limit the price of basic food crops, he seems to have planted orchards instead, something only larger landowners have the capital to afford. He could then profit from the uncontrolled price of citrus fruits. When the government set up a political and party apparatus to extend its authority into the village, he took control of the local offices. He had his son elected secretary of the Arab Socialist Union in the village and his brother’s son was chosen to represent the district in the National Assembly.

Not all these actions were criminal. They were an exercise of the local powers that land reform left intact. Nasser’s reforms had eliminated the vast estates of the largest landowners, most of whom lived in the city, beginning with the king himself. But the position of medium and larger capitalist farmers like Ahmad Hasan, provincial families owning from 20 to a few hundred feddans, was reinforced. [6] The stories of the villagers in the report are their protests against this solidified system of power.

The second aspect of the government’s intervention in the village is illustrated by the very business of reporting. As its agrarian reforms tended to consolidate an unequal distribution of land and power, the regime tried to consolidate its own control though a continuous process of reporting, investigating and policing. Occasionally the objects of these attempts at surveillance and control were the powerful, those like Ahmad Hasan whose own local power exceeded that of the government. But more often the reporting and the policing were done in cooperation with local landowners, and their objects were the landless and the powerless.

Constant Listening

Another example borrowed from Hamied Ansari’s book illustrates in more detail this process of government-by-surveillance. The case, to which Ansari devotes a chapter, is the story of a murder that took place in 1966 in the village of Kamshish. [7] The tale is often retold, because of the way wider events are reflected in the particulars of one individual’s life and death.

Again, what is interesting is the question of local language. In this instance one sees how the government employs its own authoritative vocabulary in the attempt to control provincial Egypt. But a language can outrun its official speakers. It can be subverted and used against authority. Preventing this kind of subversion requires a constant listening, a local supervision of every village.

The murder victim, Salah Husain Maqlad, belonged to a family from Kamshish village that had fallen into debt in the 1930s. Like tens of thousands of peasant families during the Depression, they were forced to give up their land. The sons later found work in Alexandria. Salah Husain’s brother joined the air force (he was a classmate of Nasser’s brother, and was killed in the war in Yemen in the 1960s). Salah joined the mass political movement born in the Depression years, the Muslim Brotherhood. He owned a gold-leafed copy of the Quran, Ansari mentions, which he sold to raise money to go and fight for the liberation of Palestine.

After Nasser and his fellow officers seized power in 1952 and announced the first agrarian reforms, Salah Husain, back in Kamshish, told a meeting of the villagers that the revolution would return to them the lands they had lost. He urged them to “refuse forced labor and live freely on their lands.”

There followed several confrontations between the villagers and the large landowner to whom they had lost their land and for whom many of them now worked as laborers. But on each occasion the landowner called in the police and the army, and no land redistribution took place. Salah Husain was arrested, exiled from the village, and then placed under house arrest in a nearby town. Imprisoned on two further occasions as a suspected member of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, he spent the next decade on the list of those in “political isolation,” banned from all political activity.

In 1965 he was removed from the list and began working in the village as a local member of the government political party, the Arab Socialist Union. He continued to argue for political change, warning villagers and local party officials about the power of the large landowners. Although their estates in Kamshish had now been officially confiscated, the landowners still wielded influence and were threatening to reassert control over the village. His warnings were to prove accurate.

These “reactionary forces of feudalists and capitalists,” he wrote in a letter to the party secretary in Cairo, borrowing phrases from the government’s own rhetoric, “are acting as fifth columnists for world imperialism and the reactionary forces of the Arab world.” He accused the Muslim Brotherhood of having joined this fifth column, which promoted religious values and authenticity instead of revolutionary change. Praising the government for its support of progressive movements in Vietnam, Cuba and Yemen, he urged it to round up the large landowners and send them to labor camps, where they would learn to work like ordinary peasants.

On receiving this letter the government security forces quickly placed Salah Husain under surveillance. They discovered that he was the leader of a group of “communists” in the village, some of whom worked in the nearby town. A list of names was drawn up: “Shawqi Abdullah Sharif, official in the social security unit in Shibin al-Kom, who has communist inclinations; Ahmad Ali Rajib, peasant; Badrawi Ahmad Aman, sports director at the Agricultural Institute, Shibin al-Kom; Kamal Attiya, elementary school teacher, secretary of the Arab Socialist Union in the village; Abdel Hamied Attiya, peasant and brother of the former.”

The group of friends was found to be holding meetings among the peasants of Kamshish at which they “exploited the hatred of the village inhabitants” towards the large landowners. They were making their own interpretations of the government’s socialist rhetoric. On March 2, 1966, a top secret memorandum from the local office of the General Investigation Bureau reported that at the village meetings “the aforementioned [Salah Husain] and his friends…call for the collectivization of agriculture and the abolition of private property…. They maintain that the socialist thinking in the Arab Republic is very close to the Marxist ideology and that its recognition of private property is temporary, dictated by the peculiarities of the present stage.”

A week later two party officials were sent to the village, as another surveillance report mentions, to hold a meeting at which “they explained our socialist ideas.” But according to the report Salah Husain “insisted after the conclusion of the discussion in telling the peasants that our socialism is influenced by Marxist thought.” He was causing “dangerous divisions” among party members in the village. His influence on the villagers was said to be a threat to the country's “internal security.”

The subversive use of official rhetoric had to be halted. “We are of the opinion,” the report concludes, that all political meetings in the village “should be held under the supervision of the Executive Bureau [of the Party] and the General Secretariat in the Governate.”

The following month Salah Husain was shot dead in the village. Unlike the killings attributed to Ahmad Hasan, the murder quickly gained attention beyond the village. As Ansari explains, this was partly because Salah Husain’s family had connections, via his brother in the air force, to the family of the president. And it was partly because the case was taken up by the Egyptian military. Following a campaign begun by the leftist intellectuals, the army used the murder to justify an assault on the enduring power of the large landowners.

End of Reform

Another wave of military surveillance and investigation followed, beginning in the summer of 1966. Hundreds of secret reports were produced on landowners who had evaded the agrarian reform laws (and lacked friends in the military to protect them), including the report on Ahmad Hasan. Many had their property confiscated.

But all this was short lived. The defeat of the army in the war of June 1967 ended its assertion of power against the landowners. In July their confiscated lands were returned, and in May 1968 most of those accused of complicity in the murder of Salah Husain were acquitted, including the large landowners of the village.

Over the following years large landowners reasserted their authority, both locally and through organs like the National Assembly. One of their particular allies was the Speaker of the Assembly, Anwar Sadat. When Sadat succeeded Nasser as president in September 1970, the power of Egypt’s larger landowners became secure once again.

Since 1970 there has been no further agrarian reform, and many of Nasser’s measures have been weakened or reversed. Redistributed land has been returned to some of the large landowners, including the powerful families of Kamshish, as Salah Husain warned. New lands reclaimed from the desert have been auctioned to the rich rather than distributed to the landless. Land rents have been increased and the security of tenant farmers further reduced.

The village cooperatives no longer function today, except as a mechanism for enforcing the government’s production and price controls on the poorer farmers. Larger landowners have been free to move more and more into producing fodder crops for cattle raising, or fruit and vegetables. These supply the consumption needs of the better-off in the cities, or are exported for Europeans to consume. Meanwhile the supply of basic food needed by ordinary Egyptians, including the farmers themselves, declines.

So the system of poverty against which Ahmad Hasan’s victims and the villagers of Kamshish complained remains in place. The reports of 20 years ago were kept top secret at the time, and today we continue to hear almost nothing. What leaks out from provincial Egypt suggests that the villagers find a language based in their own sense of moral outrage still the most compelling. No doubt the ears of the authorities continue to listen and report.



[1] Hamied Ansari, Egypt: The Stalled Society (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986), pp. 255-60. I have altered the translation at certain points, mostly to replace Arabic terms left untranslated by Ansari.
[2] Further examples of these reports can be found in Muhammad Rashad, Sirri jiddan: min milaffat al-lajna al‘ulya li-tasfiyat al-iqta‘ (Top Secret: From the Dossiers of the Higher Committee for the Liquidation of Feudalism) (Cairo: Dar al-Ta‘awun, 1977), pp. 209-352.
[3] Scholars of South Asia have been using this kind of “intercepted discourse” found in official archives, both to show how writing on peasant resistance has formed part of a discourse of power and to reexamine some of the consequent assumptions about peasant political consciousness. See Ranajit Guha, “The Prose of Counterinsurgency,” Subaltern Studies 2 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983) and ,em>Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).
[4] See Timothy Mitchell, Colonizing Egypt (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), chapter 4.
[5] Samir Radwan, Agrarian Reform and Rural Poverty: Egypt, 1952-1975 (Geneva: ILO, 1977), pp. 19, 23; Mohaya Zaytoun, “Income Distribution in Egyptian Agriculture and its Main Determinants,” in Gouda Abdel-Khaled and Robert Tignor, eds., The Political Economy of Income Distribution in Egypt (NY: Holmes and Meier, 1982), pp. 279-80.
[6] Radwan, Agrarian Reform, pp. 7-10.
[7] The following account is drawn from Ansari, chapter 1 and appendix C.

How to cite this article:

Timothy Mitchell "The Ear of Authority," Middle East Report 147 (July/August 1987).

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