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Off the campaign trail, Egypt's neglected farmers worry about their future

Ahram Online visits rural farming communities to find out who they will vote for in the presidential elections and what their demands are, and finds marginalisation, debt, and security are major issues of concern

Nada El-Kouny , Monday 21 May 2012
Nebeira, Beheira
(Photo: Nada El-Kouny)
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With voting in Egypt's first post-revolution elections to kick off on Wednesday, rural issues have received little attention in the media.

While some candidates such as Hamdeen Sabbahi, Khaled Ali and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh have addressed the demands of the fellahin (small-scale farmers) in their political programmes, other candidates have spent little time discussing the key issues of Egypt's neglected agricultural communities.

Ahram Online visited two villages to find out how rural Egyptians feel about the upcoming elections.

Beheira

“I am voting for Ahmed Shafiq because I truly believe that he is the most valuable candidate in ensuring us stability and bringing back security to the country.

“Despite having the best program for the fellahin, I would not however vote for Khaled Ali, because he is ‘from the revolution’ and that is a good enough reason for me,” said Mostafa Mohamed, omda (mayor) of the village of Nebeira.

Nebeira is in the Delta governorate of Beheira, lying 200 kilometres from Cairo on the Cairo-Alexandria agricultural road. Nebeira has approximately 14,000 residents and 2,400 feddans of land, according to Mostafa.

Ahram Online spoke with Mohamed, 50 years old, as well as several small-scale farmers — Mohamed Abdel-Fattah El-Banna, 62; Mahmoud El-Say, 48; and Assem, 36.   

According to Mohammed, what is important for the fellah is not a certain candidate per-se, but rather the candidate’s political programme and what it offers the fellahin.

For Mohammed, however, all promises made by the candidates are only “rhetoric.”

While Mohamed and most omdas characterise themselves as fellahin, they are in fact part of a different social stratum than the small-scale farmers. Mohamed, who plans to vote for Shafiq, currently owns 24 feddans in the village. 

Elegantly inhaling his shisha, Mohamed explained his reasons. “I have honestly come to hate the revolution - what have we come to see of the revolution. A general lack of security has been greatly experienced, and most deeply here in the countryside."

He further went on to point out how a general lack of security after the revolution has resulted in the increase in illegal buildings on the scarce Delta arable land, which have been mushrooming at an uncontrollable rate.

While figures differ, Mohamed states that, based on Ministry of Agriculture figures, approximately 170,000 feddans have been built on in the Delta following the 25 January Revolution. This is due to lax security and a lack of efficient supervision.

While driving down the Cairo-Alexandria agricultural road, a huge mall was being constructed in an area of at least four feddans, and many more 5-storey residential buildings could also seen.

Farmer El-Banna who is undecided, believes what is important is that the next president works towards relieving the debts farmers have incurred from the state-owned Principal Bank for Development and Agricultural Credit (PBDAC).

The state-owned bank was set up by the government to provide small-scale farmers with credit, but many fellahin have ended up with significant debts which they struggle to pay off.

The bank "sucks the blood of the fellah" says Mohammed, explaining that the cycle of repayment can become never-ending.  If fellahin do not pay off their debts, their children will inherit them.

El-Banna pointed out that what is important is to relieve the fellahin of all upcoming loans with high interest rates of up to 15 and 20 per cent.  “The problem today is that [in these cases] most of the interest that has accumulated into what would be [the amount of the original] loan in the first place,” he clarified. 

El-Banna was totally against the idea of voting for a former regime candidate, whether Shafiq or Amr Moussa, but also rejected the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi.

He was, however, considering the idea of Hamdeen Sabbahi as a “safe and decent choice.”   

“We are not going to vote for the Brotherhood again. We have seen their performance over the past couple of months and it is appalling,” stated El-Banna as he reflected on the difference between the upcoming elections and the previous in which the Brotherhood gained majority endorsement from within Nebeira.

El-Say said he is leaning towards Amr Moussa, but also remained undecided a week prior to the elections. He stated the most important issue would be the Nile water issues.

“The next president would have to work hard towards reconnecting with the Nile Basin countries, which Egypt has had very bad relations with over the past twenty years,” El-Say stated.

Further issues concern the lack of adequate water supply and drainage systems, which have greatly affected the land and crop quality, in addition to the overall health of the inhabitants of rural areas, many of whom are undergoing treatment for various liver and kidney dysfunctions.

El-Say himself has been undergoing treatment for at least five years as a result of a liver dysfunction.

The inefficiency of cooperatives, mainly state-aligned cooperatives, whose main job has been to provide the fellahin with subsidised fertiliser, pesticides, and farm equipment, was another important issue.

Due to the cooperatives' lack of provision of adequate amounts of materials, fellahin have to look elsewhere and buy from black market.

After growing rice the last summer season, he stated that farmers were left with significant debts, as is the case with most crops grown. Wheat, however, grown in the winter season, allows the farmers to make a profit of approximately LE 310, noted El-Say.

Mohamed however said that, nation-wide, wheat production amounts to approximately 6 million tones, while the sufficiency need is 12 million tonnes per year. Due to inefficient state policy, Egypt ends up importing half of the amount the country needs, when it could be grown in the country.

Assem, who bought a feddan several months ago, stated he would either vote for Shafiq or Amr Moussa based on their "acknowledged history." He also added that they are the most familiar faces, "long before the revolution."

Towards the end of the discussion with the four men, sitting in a circle sipping tea and reflecting on the different candidates, a Morsi campaigner could be heard through a megaphone advertising his electoral symbol, the scale, as he travelled through the village.

“You are lucky today. The day that you come to talk to us about the elections is the first day a candidate campaigns here,” said Mohamed. 

North Giza

“Sabbahi visited us here in Werdan in 1997 when he was still part of the Taggamu Party and even then we could tell he had the fellahin as a central topic of concern,” stated Hanaa, one of the founders of the first agricultural women's syndicate in Egypt.

Ahram Online visited the village of Werdan in the North Giza governorate, which lies approximately 60 kilometres north of Cairo. Werdan has around 200,000 residents and is also home to the first agricultural women’s syndicate in Egypt.  

Hosting Ahram Online were the syndicate members — Hanaa, 40; Wafaa, 35; Umm Ahmed, 60; Sabah, 36; and Nadia 38.

Hanaa, one of the seven founders of the Agricultural Women’s Syndicate (AWS), expressed her full support for Hamdeen Sabbahi, and proudly boasted that the rest of her family has made the same choice.

She told Ahram Online that Sabbahi was one of the main leading people trying to mobilise the fellahin and defend them against the unjust Law 96 of 1992. 

Law 96, passed during Hosni Mubarak’s rule, was an attempt to liberalise agricultural land, by stipulating that all tenants had to return arable land to its original owners.

This reversed Nasser’s 1952 tenancy law, which enforced a policy when land was redistributed to small farmers. Landowners at the time could not own more than 50 feddans, an amount which was reduced twice, from 200 and then to 150 feddans.   

According to political economist Ray Bush, approximately one million families lost their land after the law was passed, and therefore approximately six million people were affected.

As a result, land prices in a lot of cases soared to twenty-two times their original level. Anthropology professor Reem Saad at the American University in Cairo notes that all tenancy since 1997 until today is “unofficial and therefore unguaranteed.”

According to Werdan resident Nadia, before the 1992 law (which came into effect in 1997) a feddan would cost somewhere between LE 36,000 to LE 57,000. Today, however, prices have reached LE 144,000 per feddan.

Instead of being able to rent one feddan as in the past, fellahin have been forced to downsize greatly, affecting their livelihoods, said Hanaa.

Hanaa, although a supporter of Sabbahi, thought that Abul-Fotouh could also be supported because “his discourse is close to Sabbahi’s.”   

In what appeared to be a reflection of Hanaa's influence over the other women, Wafaa also announced her support for Sabbahi.

“I will support him because he can be trusted and because he is eager to listen to the people,” she asserted. 

Umm Ahmed, however, voiced her resistance, as she did not feel fully comfortable about voting for any of the candidates.

Her lack of enthusiasm lay in the fact that former Salafist candidate Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail was no longer running.

Since her son supported El-Awa, she said she would most probably end up voting for him as well.

Umm Ahmed made it a point of stressing that the upcoming president should be a young candidate, a lesson learned from Hosni Mubarak. “When Mubarak first took office, he ruled the country very well but once he grew old, he messed it up.”

They made it a point to mention that while most of them supported Sabbahi, the rest of the village will sway towards either Shafiq or Morsi.   

Unions and political participation

In his study Counter Revolution in Egypt's Countryside, published in 2002, political economist Ray Bush stated that there is no long-term agricultural policy in Egypt. “The goal is to remove all small farmers from agriculture, move them into wage labour, or into the city and promote mechanisation to develop cash crops for exports to the EU, US, and Saudi Arabia,” Bush argues

Due to the fellahin’s political and geographical marginalisation, it is very difficult to unite, stated Shahenda Maqlad, a long-time defender of the fellahin who is more commonly known as "the Mother of the Farmers."  

Saad stated that historically, there have not been enough channels for the fellahin to present their demands. More importantly, a fellah is very isolated working on his own, as opposed to a worker in a factory, said Saad. 

Regardless, several attempts have been made recently. One significant development after the 25 January Revolution has been the official recognition of the independent Egyptian Farmers Union (EFU), which has existed on an informal basis since1983. Maqlad is the only female board member of the EFU.

The women's syndicate in Werdan is another example.

According to Hanaa, they were encouraged to take this initiative in September 2011 after seeing that independent unions and syndicates were springing up.

Gaining the support and guidance of the Egyptian Organisation for Collective Rights (EOCR), one of their main aims is to ensure social and health security for their members; in addition to, supporting small scale projects for the members to attempt to become self-sufficient.

Additionally, a men’s syndicate was also encouraged to form following the women's syndicate.

Hanaa said that the founders decided to make an all-female syndicate because it made us feel more “comfortable” as an all-woman team and it gave us “something to do.”

Another reason for founding the syndicate, according to Nadia, is “if God forbid, one of us did not have a husband anymore”, while mentioning other reasons such as self-sufficiency and independence. 

In Maqlad's view, Khaled Ali would be the best option for the fellahin not only because he is a fellah but also because of the several initiatives he launched over the last couple of months with the Centre for Economic and Social Rights such as the “Workers and Farmers Write Their Constitution” campaign.

Final challenges for the upcoming president

The fellahin will remain a major issue of concern for the upcoming president, as they make up approximately 30 million Egyptians.

However, without clear structural and economic policy changes, and the implementation of an efficient nation-wide agricultural policy, fellahin are concerned that agricultural wealth will continue to deplete and farmers will become more marginalised.  

“Let us hope that the focus on the fellahin at the moment is not just a trend during the elections that will then be forgotten once again, as soon as it is over,” stated Saad.

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