Egypt’s Fellahin, or small farmers, who were once considered the backbone of Egyptian self-sufficiency, have over the last four decades become increasingly imperilled due to a number of debilitating internal and external factors.
Basheer Saqr, veteran activist for farmers' rights and founder of the Farmers Solidarity Committee – an initiative launched in 2005 to work towards ensuring these rights – is attempting to draw attention to one of the country’s most pressing concerns.
Despite last year's January 25 Revolution, he explains, Egypt's fellahin have remained largely marginalised, remaining in a position of financial vulnerability and dependency.
"The revolution was largely a revolution of the cities, mainly Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. The countryside didn't really take part in it," Saqr told Ahram Online.
"No leadership emerged to mobilise [revolutionary] forces in the countryside," added Saqr, on a rare visit to Cairo from the Nile Delta city of Shibin Al-Kom.
"If all those who had roots in the countryside had gone back to their villages and attempted to mobilise, it would have made a big difference," he added, puffing on his shisha pipe. "The revolution today would involve a much larger demographic."
Almost twenty months since the Tahrir Square uprising that saw the end of the unpopular Mubarak regime, Egypt's farmers – who for decades had been marginalised by the state – continue to nurse the same traditional grievances.
The problem of debt
To what extent the government of President Mohamed Morsi is set to focus on farmers' demands remains unclear. While certain steps have been announced, they have yet to be carried out.
In early August, the presidency announced that approximately 44,000 farmers – of those whose debts amounted to less than LE10,000 each – would have their outstanding debts forgiven.
Egypt's farmers currently owe some LE1.9 billion in total debts, including LE400 million in agricultural loans and LE520 million in investment loans, according to official figures.
The debt issue has remained a longstanding grievance on the part of farmers who have incurred large debts after taking loans out from the state-owned Principal Bank for Development and Agricultural Credit (PBDAC), originally established to provide small-scale farmers with credit. Interest rates on loans to farmers, however, can end up reaching as much as 20 per cent (including administrative expenses) – this up from 4 per cent during the 1960s and early 1970s.
As a result, interest payments can often exceed the principal loan. Saqr believes that the PBDAC now operates like any other commercial bank, making it very hard for indebted farmers to pay off their loans.
He does not put much faith in Morsi's recent announcement, noting that similar announcements were made under ousted president Hosni Mubarak. While Morsi's decision garnered considerable media attention, "it will remain meaningless given the other issues currently facing Egypt's farmers," Saqr said.
"Is there a genuine intention to reduce interest rates on agricultural loans?" he asked. "This is one of the important questions that needs to be asked if the government wants to address the root of the problem."
"We must break down such statements to accurately gauge their significance," Saqr added. "And to do so, a number of structural factors must be assessed to fully understand the plight of Egypt's fellahin."
Since the 1970s, under late president Anwar El-Sadat, many of Egypt's farmers have preferred to sell their land as opposed to trying to cultivate it, due to the relatively meagre profits associated with farming.
One of the main reasons for this is the Mubarak-era Law 96 of 1992, the 'Owners and Tenants Law.' This legislation was an attempt to liberalise agricultural land by selling it at high prices while stipulating that all tenants must eventually return the arable land to its original owners.
The legislation reversed Nasser's 1952 tenancy law, which had enforced a policy of redistributing land to small farmers. Landowners at the time could not own more than 500 feddans, an amount subsequently reduced to 50 feddans (1 feddan = 1.038 acres).
As a result, approximately one million Egyptian families lost their land after the law was enacted in 1997, ultimately affecting some six million farmers.
"Prices have also soared exponentially as a result," said Saqr. "In the Minya governorate, for example, a feddan has reached LE7,000, compared to LE600 in 1992 before the law was passed."
He added that, in some villages today, land prices had increased by some 1200 per cent over the same period.
"These factors have all served to strip the Egyptian farmer of his land, and thus his identity," Saqr lamented.
Egyptian farmers' main source of materials and hardware needed for cultivation were the agricultural cooperatives set up by the state to provide them with subsidised seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and farm machinery. The lack of adequate materials distributed and the deterioration of quality of those materials, however, eventually hampered farmers' ability to raise viable crops.
Additionally, El-Sadat in the late 1970s opened the door to foreign companies that produce and market agricultural goods, which came at the expense of their locally produced counterparts.
"Those in control of production inputs are basically in control of agricultural production in general," noted Saqr, who went on to point to a handful of companies that had managed to secure monopolies on so-called 'production inputs.'
Monsanto, a multinational agricultural-biotechnology corporation and leading producer of genetically-engineered seeds (which have an adverse effect on the land's biodiversity), is one such company. Saqr warned that, by not being dependent on their own local seeds, Egyptian farmers are caught in a vicious cycle in which they are prevented from achieving self-sufficiency.
Moreover, under Mubarak and his notorious agriculture minister, Youssef Wali – who spearheaded several agricultural reforms pushed for by the IMF and the World Bank – the Egyptian countryside witnessed large numbers of adverse health effects.
This was due largely to the importation by the state of large amounts of carcinogenic pesticides, which led to a health crisis throughout the country, noted Saqr. Wali is currently facing a ten-year jail sentence for squandering public funds during his tenure as minister.
Morsi and the fellahin
"Not only has the current government adopted the same economic policies of the former regime, but the Muslim Brotherhood – from which President Morsi hails – has for decades been hostile to farmers' core demands," Saqr asserted.
Most importantly, he pointed out, the Brotherhood opposes the notion of land redistribution, which it believes contradicts the tenets of Islamic law. Therefore, many Brotherhood members support Law 96/1992.
"While it remains unclear at the moment what the coming government is set to achieve in regards to farmers' demands, we can look to past experiences as an indication," said Saqr.
Moreover, when it comes to the issue of farmers' debts, for example, Saqr pointed out that, in 2008, a similar decision was issued by Mubarak – but nothing ever came of it. This is the fear this time as well, especially since the PBDAC has yet to be informed of Morsi's decision, according to Saqr.
In any case, Saqr believes that it will be crucial in the coming period to implement real, effective agricultural policy – something, he says, that was largely missing during the Mubarak era. For example, he notes that, except for one amendment introduced in 1990, the Egyptian Agriculture Law of 1966 remains exactly the same as it was upon its inception.
"Sooner or later, policies must be carried out to provide Egypt's farmers with the guidance they need to ensure self-sustainability – for the farmers themselves and for the nation at large," Saqr concluded.