FAYOUM, EGYPT — Even as the struggle for control of Egypt’s future has played out in Cairo between the military power brokers and the Muslim Brotherhood, a parallel struggle has been playing out in the farm belt between dispossessed peasants and cronies of the old regime.
How each ends may be determined by the other.
Under the military dictatorship of former President Hosni Mubarak, farmers say, many small-scale growers were forcibly evicted by government security forces so that political elites could settle or develop their land. Since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster they have been fighting through the courts to get it back. The land wars pitch members of the old guard’s inner circle against the Brotherhood’s grass-roots supporters and their outcome may reveal who pulls the strings in post-revolutionary Egypt.
Khamis Abdel Khaled recalls the day in October 1997 when he and about 50 other residents of Fayoum, an ancient oasis in the Western desert, were rounded up and driven to the local police precinct. They were held there and beaten for three days without food or water, he said during an interview this month.
“They even kicked the women,” said Mr. Abdel Khaled. “They told us the land was not ours but ‘gifts to the Wali family from the state.’ We had to bribe a junior officer to use the bathroom.”
Youssef Wali was the minister of agriculture for two decades under Mr. Mubarak, who routinely gave huge tracts of land to loyal judges, generals and ministers. Driven from 400 feddans, or about 415 acres, the Fayoum growers spent the next 14 years as itinerant laborers or public-sector workers in Cairo. After Mr. Mubarak was ousted last year they resettled the land, but are now in a legal battle with the family of Mr. Wali, who recently was sentenced to 10 years in prison on corruption charges arising from his time as a minister.
The land feud in Fayoum, 130 kilometers, or 80 miles, southwest of Cairo, is part of an escalating war for control of Egypt’s most precious resources: arable land and fresh water. In 2010, according to data compiled by Sons of the Soil Land Center, a nonprofit organization in Cairo, 270 people were killed resisting dispossession, up from 197 in 2009.
Rural Egypt provided much of the support for Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s victorious presidential candidate, and the group’s campaign manifestos were accordingly sympathetic to the plight of small farmers. “Hosni Mubarak killed Egyptian agriculture over a 30-year period,” said Mohamed Gouda, a Brotherhood economist and a member of Mr. Morsi’s planning committee. “He did it with the help of people like Youssef Wali.”
The Agriculture Ministry did not respond to requests for comment, and attempts to reach Mr. Wali’s lawyer by telephone were unsuccessful.
Lawlessness in the countryside, where nearly 60 percent of Egyptians live, is one of the most malign symptoms of an industry in disarray. While agriculture accounts for 13 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and nearly a third of employment, it is perhaps the most neglected sector in the troubled post-revolutionary economy.
Among the many constituencies vying for Mr. Morsi’s attention, tenant growers have a compelling claim. “The farmers have feared the government for decades,” said Mahmoud al Mansy, who heads Sons of the Soil’s human rights center. “The banks are controlled by the landholders and any gathering of farmers is attacked by thugs. Finally, they are beginning to organize.”
Once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, Egypt over the past several decades has become heavily reliant on imports to meet its nutritional needs. Estimates go as high as 80 percent, though the data are unreliable. Economists and farm experts attribute the shortfall to rapid population growth and poor dietary habits as well as corruption, bad management and a controversial policy, led by Mr. Wali in the late 1980s, to encourage the development and export of high-value-added products like fruit and flowers at the expense of lower-margin crops like wheat.
Egypt is not the only country in the Middle East that relies on foreign sources for a growing share of its food. Along with North Africa, the region depends more on imported produce and grains than any other part of the world. The situation is especially acute in Egypt, where food prices rose 37 percent from 2008 to 2010. “Bread, Dignity and Social Justice,” the clarion call of the revolt last year, is noteworthy not only for its elements but for the order in which they are ranked.
A number of various agencies, from ministries to chambers of commerce, compete for influence over dwindling resources. Seeds and fertilizers are distributed by a government-owned cooperative and credit is allocated through a state-owned bank — at usurious rates of interest, farmers say. Despite government lip service to free-market policies, growers say, it is largely Cairo that determines which crops they will produce, where they will grow them, and what their land is worth.
“Egypt suffers from a disconnect between farmers and the government,” says Ray Bush, a professor at the University of Leeds, in Britain, who specializes in Egyptian agriculture. “Policy makers cannot account for how many farmers there are and what is produced within a range of plus or minus 30 percent. They don’t know what’s going on.”
Even large-scale growers are frustrated. The Wadi Group, a local agribusiness giant, operates 5,000 feddans of land, employs 4,500 people and exports much of its output in an economy that, since the revolution, has been running short of hard currency. Yet recently, when the group decided to purchase desert land with brackish well water because of the scarcity of available estates in the more fertile Nile Delta, the government charged it 20,000 Egyptian pounds per feddan, or about $3,180 per acre, while refusing to support that investment by providing irrigation systems.
Such an investment, said Khalil Nasrallah, a Wadi Group partner, can be recovered only by selling into the lucrative European markets. Yet accessing those markets has been made harder since the post-Mubarak interim government suppressed a modest subsidy for exports to the European Union.
“Since the revolution, there’s been no clear direction from the government,” Mr. Nasrallah said. “There is a great mistrust between the private sector and the government.”
Promoting agricultural export revenue was a signature policy of Mr. Wali, who, some growers say, was encouraged in that direction by Washington through the United States Agency for International Development. The policy intensified Egypt’s reliance on imported staples, these farmers claim, by encouraging large producers to switch from their traditional cotton and grain crops to the higher-margin specialties like bananas and cut flowers.
“U.S.A.I.D. played the principal role in these ideas,” said Habib Ayeb, a geographer and professor at the American University in Cairo. “It is their way of thinking, to give money to agribusiness while refusing to give to small farmers.”
A U.S.A.I.D. official disputed this. “We don’t make decisions for farmers about what products they should grow,” he said. “We certainly don’t encourage them to bet the farm on flowers.”
Another legacy of the Wali years is legislation, signed in 1992, that allowed former landlords to reclaim property appropriated in the 1960s by the then-Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser. Law 96, as it is known, invalidated the transfer of land in perpetuity from the original owners to tenant farmers, who after 30 years of paying property taxes had become eligible to own the plots outright. Almost overnight, the government restored an earlier era in which tenant farmers were indentured to a handful of aristocrats who controlled the country’s most fertile land.
Immediately after Law 96 was passed, rents tripled. According to Karam Saber, director of the Land Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization that represents aggrieved farmers, the Agriculture Ministry became a clearing house for counterfeit documents that conferred to the bearer ownership of farmland that more often than not would be razed to make room for a property development. In other cases, he says, farms were sold in secret auctions by the ministry as well as the state’s charitable trust. In the two decades since Law 96 was signed, 10 percent of Egyptians lost their farms.
“What the government did was change tenure for all kinds of farming,” Mr. Price said. “The consequences of this to rural employment were huge.”
This month, more than 100 Fayoum farmers demonstrated in front of the Justice Ministry in Cairo against a guilty verdict rendered against one of their own for refusing to concede his farm to a nephew of Mr. Wali. By the standards of Egypt’s once-passive tenant growers, it was an impressive display of unity and resolve. Since the revolution, according to Mr. Saber, some 35 growers’ unions have been established.
“They’re fighting the government, and they’re starting from scratch,” Mr. Saber said. “No one is helping them, and they have nothing to lose.”