The publication in 1988 of the fifth Egyptian agricultural census, conducted mostly in January 1982, provides the most accurate and comprehensive description to date of the changing patterns of landholding and ownership of agricultural assets over the 20 years following President Nasser’s land reform decrees of 1961.

The census establishes several trends:

• Growing inequality of access to land;
• The division of Egyptian agriculture into an impoverished, peasant sector on the one hand and a larger, relatively well-capitalized sector on the other;
• Land loss by small holders, consolidation of holdings by larger ones, and a sharp decrease in the area rented, as owners regained control over their land at the expense of former tenants, mostly small peasants;
• Traditional peasant agriculture is being semi-proletarianized, as very small holders must seek off-farm employment, exploit on-farm family labor at an ever increasing rate, or sell their plots to larger holders;
• Large landholdings have captured a growing share not only of the cultivated area but of the production of high-value agricultural commodities as.well.

The census does not lend support to the widespread assumption of continuing fragmentation of landholdings. Indeed, it demonstrates that considerable consolidation has occurred at the expense of very small and small holders.

Landholdings of ten feddans and more, which by the Sadat era constituted less than three percent of all holdings, signify real wealth. While holdings of more than ten feddans are not uniform, as a group they nevertheless differ dramatically from the smaller holdings.

By contrast, there are sharp distinctions in modes of operation and levels of capitalization between holdings of less than three feddans, those of between three and five feddans, and between five and ten feddans. Landholdings of less than one feddan differ in several respects from those slightly larger. For most purposes, then, we will present data according to Mohaya Zaytoun’s suggested categories: very small holders (under one feddan); small holders (one to three feddans); lower middle holders (three to five feddans); upper middle holders (five to ten feddans); and large holders (ten feddans and above). [1]

Landholding Changes

There has been a sharp decline in the number and land area of very small landholdings between the mid-1970s and 1982. From 1961 until 1977-1978, the number of landholdings of less than one feddan had increased from 434,200 to 1,458,800, but by 1982 the number had dropped back to less than 800,000. The area in such holdings shrank from some 920,000 feddans to just less than 400,000 feddans. So while the number of holdings declined by over 45 percent, the area exploited by very small holders decreased by almost 57 percent. One of the major trends stimulated by the agrarian reforms, the rapid growth of very small landholdings, had been reversed by the end of the Sadat era.

Small landholdings — one to three feddans — were affected similarly but less profoundly. The number of such holdings actually increased slightly, but their area decreased by more than 100,000 feddans between the mid-1970s and 1982. Between 1977-1978 and 1982, the landholdings of very small and small holders together were reduced by almost 635,000 feddans, about 10 percent of the total cultivated area and equivalent to 78 percent of the 817,500 feddans that had been distributed to land reform beneficiaries between 1953 and 1970.

Of landholdings of less than five feddans, only those in the 3-5 feddan category held their ground in the later Sadat period. This points to a process of increasing differentiation of the peasantry: Those with less than three feddans were progressively marginalized; those with three or more feddans managed to stabilize or even improve their positions.

The transfer of land from very small and small holdings to larger ones was accomplished by reducing the area leased. [2] Whereas in 1961 about 40 percent of the total cultivated area had been leased, by 1982 rented land constituted less than one quarter of the total. More than 900,000 feddans were transferred from leasehold to freehold in this period.

While lower middle landholders (three to five feddans) were able to hold their ground, upper middle landholders (five to ten feddans) were prospering. This category rose from 4.2 percent to 7 percent of all landholdings, and occupied 311,400 more feddans in 1982 than in 1977-1978 — an increase of almost 40 percent. These landholders of 5-10 feddans have probably been most successful in regaining control over land formerly leased, for they commonly reside locally and depend more on their incomes from land than do larger landholders.

The number of individual landholdings ten feddans and larger grew from 65,200 to 70,700 in the years 1975 to 1982, but they added over 400,000 feddans to their total holdings. Land controlled by large landowners went from less than one fifth of the total cultivated area in 1974-1975 to about one quarter in 1982. There are also large holdings held by corporations. These are only a few hundred, but they are very large in area and drive the percentage of the area in holdings of ten feddans and above to over 30 percent of the total area.

Companies with holdings of 100 feddans and above control by far the largest amount of land held by corporations — in excess of 346,000 feddans. They are a mixture of public and private sector and joint venture undertakings, some involving foreign investors. The largest is Salhiya, a parastatal enterprise operated by Osman Ahmad Osman’s Arab Contractors. It farms more than 50,000 feddans in Ismailiyya governorate. First Arabian Agribusiness is a 10,000-feddan farm in Nubariyya owned by a Gulf investor and managed by Bechtel International agribusiness division.

The “Second Stratum”

The census appears to confirm emphasis placed by John Waterbury, Leonard Binder and others on the relative importance of the rural middle class. This class, defined by Waterbury as those owning 10-50 feddans, has, according to him, remained remarkably stable in numbers and area of ownership throughout the twentieth century. Its economic and political positions were not seriously undermined by Nasser’s reforms and its political influence expanded very rapidly under Sadat. “The former rural middle class,” Waterbury notes, “is today the rural upper class.” [3] The area in landholdings in this 10-50 feddans range increased by over 215,000 feddans between 1975 and 1982, or some 22 percent. In 1982, 10-50 feddan holdings accounted for only 2.7 percent of all holdings, but almost 20 percent of the cultivated area, suggesting a rapid recovery during the Sadat era from the agrarian reform-induced redistribution of the 1960s.


The total number of landholdings, which increased steadily from 1.6 million in 1961 to a peak of almost 3 million in 1977-1978, had fallen by 1982 by some 17.5 percent, to just under 2.5 million holdings. The cultivated area held by individuals changed very slightly over that entire period, but the average size of landholdings rose by 23 percent, from two feddans in 1977/78 to 2.46 feddans for land held by individuals (and 2.69 feddans if corporations are included).

Holdings of less than three feddans, though, became on average smaller. The smaller the holding, the greater the land loss by individual holders. At the other extreme, holdings of ten feddans or more increased an average of 21 percent in their size between 1977-1978 and 1982. Clearly fragmentation of landholdings was no longer affecting middle and large landholdings by the late 1970s. But the gap between small and very small holders and medium and large holders in average size of holdings increased substantially in this period.

Other Agricultural Assets

Other principal agricultural assets are fruit and nut trees and cattle. All landholding groups substantially increased their planting of fruit and nut trees — by more than 20,000 feddans annually from 1977-1978 to 1982, but middle sized holdings showed an increased concentration of fruit and nut trees in 1982, with most of the loss in share absorbed by very small holders.

Cattle account for more than a quarter of gross agricultural income, but their importance varies inversely by size of holdings. Small and very small holders are much more heavily dependent upon income generated from cattle and dairy products than are large holders. [4] Cattle ownership has not been immune to the general pattern of increasing concentration of agricultural assets in the hands of large holders. Very small holders’ contribution to such production declined significantly, further evidence of the process of semi-proletarianization. Small holders enhanced their share of cattle ownership, but so did large holders, and at a much faster rate.

Landholders and Families

The census also provides information on landholders and their families. According to the semi-proletarianization thesis, very small holders are forced to seek off-farm employment to supplement farm incomes, leaving the holder’s wife and children to perform an increasing share of agricultural labor. In Egypt, labor migration to oil-rich states probably exacerbated this tendency.

The census data confirm previous indications of significant labor participation rates of women and children in peasant agriculture. Among very small holders, 69 percent of males work permanently on their holdings. That percentage increases steadily as the size of holdings increase, reaching 77.8 percent for holdings of 50 feddans or more. Conversely, 31 and 25 percent of female family members of very small holders work permanently or temporarily on the holding, compared to 22.2 percent and 13.6 percent of the female members of families with very large holdings who work permanently or temporarily.

The percentage of all family members employed on the landholding is lowest for the smallest and largest holding groups — 42 percent and 41 percent, respectively. Families with very small holdings have to seek off-farm employment, while those with very large holdings frequently have other occupations and employ personnel to manage their farms.

Over 15 million Egyptians are members of landholding families. The World Bank estimates that slightly more than a third of a feddan is required to support each rural resident dependent on agriculture. [5] Members of families with very small holdings have on average less than one tenth of one feddan each, while individuals in small holding families have an average 0.28 feddans each. There are about 1.9 million Egyptian families of very small and small holders — more than 11 million people, who have, on average, less than one third of a feddan each. This suggests that up to 70 percent of Egypt’s farming families may be living below the poverty line, certainly to the extent that they have no other sources of income.

The new census indicates that the Sadat period was characterized by increasing inequality of access to land and possession of agricultural assets generally. Fragmentation of holdings was halted as land consolidation occurred at a very rapid pace in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These observations are not novel, but they are now based on authoritative data, which suggests that these trends were gathering pace after 1977-1978. It is likely that such changes have continued under Mubarak. Fortunately, we now have this base line, drawn almost at the moment the new regime came to power, to which comparisons can be made as new data come to hand.


[1] “Income Distribution in Egyptian Agriculture and its Main Determinants,” in Gouda Abdel-Khalek and Robert Tignor, The Political Economy of Income Distribution in Egypt (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982), p. 274.
[2] John Waterbury, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 282-302.
[3] Ibid., p. 267.
[4] See James B. Fitch and Ibrahim Soliman, “Livestock and Small Farmer Labor Supply,” in Alan Richards and R. L. Martin, eds., Migration, Mechanization and Agricultural Labor Markets in Egypt (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983), pp. 45-78.
[5] Arab Republic of Egypt: Economic Management in a Period of Transition, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1978), p. 2.

How to cite this article:

Robert Springborg "Rolling Back Egypt’s Agrarian Reform," Middle East Report 166 (September/October 1990).

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