Economic liberalization is now hitting the Egyptian countryside. After decades of Nasserist regulations favoring small land tenants, a new law will “reform” the relationship between landowners and tenants in favor of the first. It will more fully integrate the Egyptian countryside into the global market because it gives owners the right to dispose of their land as they see fit. These rights constitute a precondition for modernizing production methods in the countryside and planting more risky export crops. With agrobusinessmen able to invest and extract more income from the land, economists hope that Egypt will be able to decrease its annual agricultural deficit of $2.7 billion.
Black flags, set up at many villages and fields as a sign of anger, express the other side of the story. The reform will come at a high price to small tenants, who are threatened with eviction from their fields. This could mean the end of relative social peace in the Egyptian countryside because most tenants have little left to lose. Without alternatives, they will just be added to the army of unemployed with many of them possibly ending up in the growing slum areas of Cairo or Alexandria.
Kamshish, a village with 25,000 inhabitants in the lower part of the Nile Delta (about an hour north of Cairo), is a case in point. Farmers here are quite experienced in disobeying authorities as the village is famous for its history of conflict between large landowners and small peasants that reached its peak in the 1960s.
Kamshish may very well return to old times. The new law means that the 500 tenant families in Kamshish face eviction. “We would rather die than be evicted from our land,” is the response heard in many houses. “Where should I go? I do not have anything else besides this half an acre of land, and all these years I have not saved a penny,” says ‘Abd al-Rasul, one of the threatened tenants. “Should I send my children to steal?” he adds pointing to half a dozen of his children, who play barefoot around the hut where the family lives under one roof with its livestock.
For Egypt’s “left,” the law may provide a chance to breathe new air into their cause. After little action during the first four years after the law was passed, mobilization against the law has been in full force since the start of the year. In Cairo, organizations like the Land Center for Human Rights or the Farmers Union of the leftist Tagammu‘ Party have been working to transform the farmers’ despair into political action. Opposition parties including the Tagammu‘, the Nasserists and the Islamist-oriented Labor Party joined forces to call on the government to delay the implementation of the law for another five years. “People who seriously believe that tenants will give up their land are dreaming,” says Karam Sabir, director of the Land Center, an institution run by voluntary lawyers and researchers to defend the rights of farmers. “So far tenants have confined themselves mostly to writing petitions or collecting signatures, but the mood is becoming more radical as we come closer to the October deadline.” His organization is currently considering a strategy of nonviolent strikes and sit-ins.
While organizations in Cairo try to mobilize farmers and discuss non-violent strategies, farmers, in some areas, have taken matters into their own hands. Small sporadic riots have taken place in the Delta and southern Egypt. In early July, several thousand tenants gathered for a protest march in two villages in the southern province of Minya. In the confrontations that followed, the crowd burned the houses of local landowners, blocked main traffic thoroughfares as well as a train track and set fire to a public bus. Police regained control of the situation, but not before three people died and another 20 were injured. One day later, the tenants of al-‘Attaf, a village in the Nile Delta, set the local branch office of the Agriculture Ministry on fire in an attempt to destroy official records establishing land ownership. More than 160 people were arrested. In other incidents landowners resorted to violence. On July 28, in the village of Qamaruna, northeast of Cairo, a 70-year old farmer and his wife were beaten to death by a landlord and his son after refusing to pay the rent increase. According to the Land Center, these confrontations cost the lives of 15 people while more than 300 were injured. Hundreds of farmers and protesters have been arrested for protesting the new law and nearly 200 remain in prison. Many observers believe that this is only the beginning.
In Kamshish, too, the situation is tense. The local police have been reinforced. Rumors circulate of a coming police raid to search for illegal weapons, a common sight throughout Egypt’s countryside. “If they indeed come to take away our land, what do I have to lose, then? So I do not care if I end up in prison,” warns one of the tenants there. “God has put us in different circumstances — you are rich, I am poor, but how can it be right that you take away the little bread I own?” asks another.
For some time, many tenants have refused to face the reality of the law. “Something like this after all those years I burned my skin out in my field,” growls 64-year-old ‘Abd al-Ghanim, who looks as if he is 20 years older. “But we’re slowly waking up here,” he announces. Many farmers only began to believe that the law would come into effect when the state agricultural bank announced that there would not be any more loans to tenants without the agreement of the landowner. “That was the point when we knew it would get serious.” “We simply could not imagine that water would flow upriver,” adds an older tenant, showing his fear that the new law will bring back the period when a single big landowning family determined the fate of the village. At that time, whoever refused to submit ended up in the private prison of the patron.
It is unclear whether or not today’s farmers can be easily mobilized. The opposition is doing all it can to exploit their anger through the press and by organizing countless small meetings in the countryside. The government’s response to this has been one of intimidation. Tenant meetings are regularly besieged by the police and those who dare to come are harassed. ‘We have started announcing our meetings only a few hours in advance so that the riot police have no time to mobilize,” says one activist against the law.
Farmers are not the only ones who get into trouble with the police. In mid-June a journalist, a veterinarian and two lawyers were arrested after the police found documents in their houses that criticized the new law. According to the police report, they had organized meetings against the law, led campaigns to collect signatures and sent letters to the president. They are now charged with incitement and distributing propaganda that threatens public security and harms the public interest. On September 25, the four were given another 45-day prison sentence without a trial, despite several appeals from national and international human rights groups. Egyptian human rights activists believe that the four will remain in prison until the situation calms down.
On the political level the government is trying to play down the severity of the problem. “Ninety percent of the issue is already solved and for the rest there will be a solution by October,” stated President Husni Mubarak at a recent press conference. For the government, the law is a test case of how economic liberalization can be forced through against the will of large parts of the population. Many of the old Nasserist laws are under scrutiny. A new law to reform apartment rents that have been fixed for decades and a new labor law that gives entrepreneurs the right to lay off workers are also in the pipeline.
As the resistance of the tenants increases, the government has belatedly recognized the need to address the situation. A month ago it promised to compensate tenants who lose their land with a plot of land reclaimed from the desert. Mahmoud Gabr, a researcher at the Land Center, dismisses the idea: “To compensate all the tenants we would need twice as much land as has been reclaimed since the beginning of the reclamation program in the 1950s.” More over, farmers would need substantial capital because newly reclaimed land requires continuous investment for the first five years while returns only rise gradually. This may be a lucrative business for big investors, but it is hardly an alternative for small farmers with no savings. As one farmer puts it: “If you send me out there with just my galabiyya, I starve.” Several weeks ago the Agriculture Ministry proposed giving tenants long-term credits under favorable conditions so they can buy the land and allocated $33.3 million for that purpose. With costs of around $35,000 per acre, however, billions would be needed to implement this plan.
While the government is trying to blur the issue, the conflict continues to simmer as the October ultimatum draws nearer, a potential time bomb with both social and communal explosives. In Upper Egypt, landowners are in many cases Coptic Christians while their tenants are Muslims. Here economic conflict could quickly turn into religious strife. An indicator of what this could mean occurred last year in the village of Kafr Damyan, inhabited by 1,000 Copts and 3,000 Muslims. A crowd of several hundred Muslims raided Coptic houses, killed their animals and burned down their stables. The attack was triggered by rumors of an illegal church construction, but the real reason seems to have been of a more economic nature. Tensions rose sharply after it became clear that the mainly Muslim tenants would have to give back their rented land to its Coptic owners after the October deadline. Karam Sabir from the Land Center also expects a rise in vendettas between families. “In many parts of Upper Egypt we still have blood feuds and the law will break open old family wounds.” His colleague Mahmoud Gabr predicts revenge attacks such as poisoning wells, burning crops or opening irrigation canals to flood fields. As a farmer in Kamshish warned, “Once the avalanche starts, it will be hard to stop. Then there will be war in the land of Egypt.”