Although Egypt has urbanised fast in recent decades, it is still only 45% urbanised, as against 66% in Tunisia or 55% in Syria.
Despite big battles by peasants against agrarian "counter-reforms" pushed through by the Mubarak regime in the 1990s, the upheavals in Egypt have so far been centred in the big cities.
The following article gives some background on conditions in the Egyptian countryside.
In his recently published book “The crisis of Egypt’s rural society – The end of the fellah?” Habib Ayeb, researcher at the American University in Cairo’s social research center, sheds light on the precarious situation Egyptian farmers face today, mainly blaming excessive land fragmentation.
Egyptian agriculture is characterized by small-scale properties, threatened by an ongoing fragmentation. In the last agricultural census in 2000, 43 percent of the farmers were owners of less than 1 feddan [about one acre, or 0.4 hectares] — compared to 36.7 percent in 1999 — owning together only 8.5 percent of the total agricultural surface. Compared to this, only 3 percent of the farmers own more than 10 feddans. This 3 percent of farmers owns 33 percent of the Egyptian agricultural land.
These small holders owning less than 1 feddan are referred to by the World Bank as “poor holders”, among which the illiteracy rate is especially high.
“Only 20 percent of the small holders’ income actually comes from agriculture. They can barely survive from their land,” Ayeb said during the conference he held at the French Cultural Center last Monday. He explained that a farmer needs 3-5 feddans to generate sustainable income for the whole family.
“It is an alarming situation, but a reversible process, if the politicians are willing to radically change the current agricultural policies.”
“In the last decades, Egyptian agricultural policies have focused on developing an export-oriented agricultural production, leading to the marginalization of subsistence agriculture, a type of agricultural cultivation aiming at local consumption,” Ayeb explained.
“Nowadays, we are in a paradox situation: Egypt is a leading country in exporting agricultural goods, but does import the majority of its aliments,” he added. “Some farms that have been created in the Egyptian Western Desert export 100 percent of their production. This is not a sustainable agricultural policy.”
The reasons behind this deficit in the agricultural trade balance lie, according to Ayeb, in the failure of the agricultural reform initiated in the 1990s. “The political discourse was and is saying that property fragmentation leads to poverty and that therefore, to combat poverty, property has to be concentrated in the hands of some large-scale farmers,” Ayeb explained.
Heavily criticizing the agricultural reform initiated by former Minister of Agriculture Youssef Wali in the 1990s, Ayeb sees the fragmentation of the agricultural land in Egypt not as the reason, but as the result of these policies and subsequently the crisis in this sector. The government’s efforts were, indeed, to reverse Nasser’s inherited socialist agricultural reform through liberalization of the agricultural sector.
Before the 1992 law was applied, agricultural rental contracts were transferable from one generation to another, herewith giving the families the security and incentive to make long term investments. In addition, the rent was fixed by the state.
With the entering into force of the 1992 law on Jan. 1, 1997, all existing renting contracts were automatically terminated and all the land had to be given back to their owners.
Simultaneously, prices for rent and sale were liberalized, which led to a radical increase. “In 1997, an average feddan would cost LE 500 per year, today they are rented between LE 4,000 and LE 6,000,” Ayeb said, “And now consider that the production of an average feddan brings around LE 8,000 a year.”
The reform led to a reallocation of the agricultural land among the farmers, triggering the creation of a new group, “the farmers without land”, as Ayeb calls them. From those working in farming, percentage of owners has drastically increased up to 92 percent (mainly owning less than 1 or 10 feddans each) and the percentage of renters decreased down to 6 percent, the remaining 2 percent lost their source of income.
“Instead of trying to find work in other sectors, they mostly work on the land of some owners for a season or a year, without a contract and without being registered,” Ayeb said.
“The system gets perverted, the owners benefit from the subsidies they get from the state (pesticides, seeds, material) and sell them to the workers for the market price, thus financially profiting from this situation,” he continued.
But, the redistribution of the land did not lead to the expected concentration of property: More than 10 years after the reform, there are still — as in 1990 — around 3.5 million farmers in Egypt, among which the land is split. Ayeb explains this stagnation of the Egyptian rural population saying, “The poorer they are, the more they stick to their land, their last remaining property.”
Even if the government policies succeed in concentrating the land ownership in a way that would circumvent the excessive fragmentation, it would mean that thousands of farmers would lose their main, sometimes their only, source of income, he argued.
“But fortunately their reform did not succeed in concentrating the agricultural lands in the hands of some big agricultural companies,” Ayeb concluded. “This would be a nightmare.”