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The revolution and rural Egypt: a lost opportunity?

Maged Mandour

The peasantry is still missing from the discourse of the protest movement. As important as political and security sector reform are, the protest movement must include rural Egypt if it is to reach critical mass.

Press Association/AP/Amr Nabil. All rights reserved.The mass protests that erupted against the Mubarak regime in 2011 and subsequent events have primarily been an urban affair, with the locus of events around Cairo and other urban centres.

Rural Egypt, where 57% of the Egyptian population currently reside, has been eerily quiet. Even though there were instances of protest and attempts at organisation, such as the establishment of the independent farmer’s union in 2012, the emergence of a radical agrarian movement that could offer meaningful resistance did not transpire, even though the lot of small farmers has been in decline for decades.

This process of decline reached its nadir in 1992 with the issuance of Law 96, which effectively reversed one of the most important laws of the Nasserist period, the land reform law. Under this law the rent of land, which was fixed at seven times the value of land tax, was liberalized. Farmer’s rights to extend rental contracts in perpetuity were revoked, allowing landlords to expel their tenants at will. This led to a return of a pattern of land ownership that had not been seen in Egypt since the days of the monarchy; for example, 0.05% of landlords came to control 11% of agricultural lands. This law affected one million households in the Egyptian countryside, who at the time were estimated to represent 10% of the population.

This change in pattern of land ownership was also combined with a change in the nature of cultivation; it moved from labour to capital intensive cultivation, following the American model. This aided in the depression of farmers' living standards, as reflected in rising levels of informal labour that cannot be absorbed into the private sector. Informal labour levels, for example, reached 75.1% in rural Upper Egypt compared to 43.8% in Cairo. This is also reflected in poverty levels; poverty levels reach 75% in Upper Egypt, compared to 30% in urban Lower Egypt  in 2015.  

Even though the NDP has been disbanded, the power relations that have pervaded the countryside over the last half a century have not changed.

Thus, objectively, one could argue that the conditions for revolt and the appearance of an organised agrarian movement are present. However, even though there has been sporadic resistance, which involved considerable government repression, it has not consolidated into a movement with national objectives. In 2005, for example, police raided the village of Sarandu in the Nile Delta, which caused the men to flee leaving their families behind. State repression was triggered by the resistance of the farmers to landowners attempting to expel them off the land they had farmed for decades. Even though this process was taking place across the country, resistance was offered at local community levels, not taking national dimensions. The fragmented nature of the protest can be attributed to the elite structure in the Egyptian countryside, and the role played by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In order to understand the elite structure of the countryside, one needs to look at the Nasserist regime’s land reform act and its impact on social structure. The land reform act stipulated a maximum limit to the land that each individual and family could legally own; the excess land was either sold on the open market or its ownership was transferred to the government in exchange for government bonds. Most of the lands were sold on the open market, allowing the more affluent farmers, those situated between the large landlords and the peasants, to purchase. This allowed for the growth of middle class farmers, who came to be close allies of the state. This class also came to populate the Nationalist Socialist Union, the Nasserist predecessor of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the ruling party under Sadat and Mubarak.

This allowed the Nasserist regime to create a loyal support base in the countryside, coopting the elites and reproducing traditional power relations. This cooptation continued under the Mubarak regime, when the NDP contained large elements of this class, which naturally supported the land reform act since it allowed them to gain more land and to transfer wealth from the lower to the upper classes within rural social hierarchy. Even though the peasants did not own the lands, they had extensive right as tenants, which provided them with semi-owner status. This ended with Law 96.

The cooperation between the state and the rural elite continues under the Presidency of Sisi. Even though the NDP has been disbanded, the power relations that have pervaded the countryside over the last half a century have not changed. Networks of patronage prevail. The rural elites use these networks to mobilise support for the regime and in exchange the regime maintains this traditional power structure, ensuring the supremacy of rural elites.

The only possible counterweight to the prevalence of these elites is the Muslim Brotherhood who have a large rural support base, especially in Upper Egypt, as shown in the results of the presidential elections of 2012, when they were permitted to compete with minimal government interference, winning by a landslide in upper Egypt. However, the Brotherhood did not act as a counterweight, on the contrary, they openly supported the government’s policy of peasant marginalisation.

Rural elites are supportive of the land reform act, and peasants continue to be neglected.

The position of the Muslim Brotherhood on the issue of land reform has been almost identical to that of the regime and its supporters. This has been reflected in the support the Muslim Brotherhood gave to the land reform act when it was first issued in 1992 and its general support for neoliberal ideology. This support was expressed in a variety of forms, most notably in their 2007 political program, where support for austerity measures and the privatisation of the public sector was outlined; and in statements by Mohamed Habib, ex-deputy guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, when he said that the Brotherhood follows a neo-liberal economic orthodoxy, and is quick to repress any competing ideology within the group. 

This means that rural elites, whether they support the regime or are Muslim Brotherhood members, are supportive of the land reform act, and that peasants continue to be neglected. This cooptation of the elites by the state has doomed rural resistance to being sporadic and ineffective, focused on the immediate local environment rather than broader national issues. Thus, unlike in places like Mexico, where Emilio Zapata emerged as a representation of the peasant movement between 1910 and 1920, in Egypt elite structures prohibit the development of a national peasant movement that can effectively challenge the status quo and articulate its demands within a clear ideological construct.

What complicates the issue even more is the political myopia of the urban protest movement. The protest movement has a purely urban vision with little concern or emphasis on the problems of the countryside, where the majority of Egyptians live. The demands of the protest movement were limited to national issues of political reform, with little focus on the question of land reform.

Five years after the outbreak of the revolution, rural Egyptians’ grievances are still missing from the protest movement’s discourse. In order for the protest movement to effectively call itself a national opposition and not simply an opposition centered around the urban centres, it needs to understand and adopt the issues of the peasantry.

Thus, rather than focus on political reform, human rights, and security sector reform, as important as they are, the protest movement has to add a radical social component to its platform in order to attract the support of the peasantry, which can later translate into a critical mass, eventually propelling it to power.


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