Co-opting Egypt’s farmers no longer feasible after 25 January

Amid rising labor and social protests across Egypt, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) planned to breathe life into a Nasser-era celebration: Farmers’ Day.

Egypt's Farmers’ Day, which occurs annually on 9 September, was informally commemorated in the 1950s and 1960s when the regime of then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser advocated socialist policies.

On Friday, the SCAF attempted to restore the celebration after 40 years in a move seen by many analysts as aiming to calm social tension among Egypt’s 11 million farmers and agricultural workers.    

Farmers' Day was celebrated by various groups of agricultural workers and unionized farmers across Cairo. The Ministry of Agriculture and the SCAF organized a commemorative service in honor of Egypt's farmers at Cairo Stadium, for which over 20,000 employees of the ministry along with farmers and agricultural workers were bused in.

At the stadium, Agriculture Minister Salah Youssef spoke in honor of Egypt's agricultural workers. He pledged the ministry's support and distributed land entitlements to dozens of farmers. Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Hisham Qandil and Governor of Cairo Abdel Qawi Khalifa were also in attendance, along with a host of celebrities including actor Mohamed Sobhi.

The planned 8-hour celebration soon backfired when hundreds of farmers gathered outside the stadium to demand the dissolution of state-run agricultural cooperatives and purging government bodies of corrupt bureaucrats.     

Indeed, representatives of the newly-established farmers' federations and unions chose to boycott the state-sponsored celebration and protest in Tahrir Square instead. They joined several hundred – recently unionized – farmers who conducted a protest march from the Ministry of Agriculture in Dokki to Tahrir Square where they denounced Youssef and his ministry. They criticized the Mubarak-era policy of bussing in people en masse to support to the ruling regime, and claimed that this was a ploy to keep farmers away from planned pro-democracy protests in the square, which demanded that the SCAF set a clear timeline to hand over power to an elected civilian government.  

"The Ministry of Agriculture has paid LE5,000 to each agricultural cooperative in order to mobilize and transport farmers from their respective governorates to Cairo Stadium. Each farmer and ministry employee has been given LE100, a free meal, and they also pay for transportation expenses," alleged Mohamed al-Barbary, spokesman for the Kafr al-Dawwar Farmers' Union.

“We demand the resignation of this minister because he does not recognize our unions, and because he and his men are generating huge profits by hoarding fertilizers and selling them at black-market prices. The minister is trying to hijack Farmers' Day for his own political gains," he added.

Other farmers believe that celebrating their day is merely a symbolic farce.  

"We demand concrete measures and policies to assist farmers, not a politicized celebration in Cairo Stadium," said Abdel Latif Abdel Gawwad, president of the same union. These concrete measures include subsidized fertilizers, market prices for agricultural produce, improved irrigation networks, access to agricultural machinery, provision of desert lands for agricultural reclamation, and recognition of farmers' unions and federations.

Abdel Gawwad added that various farmers’ unions will be organizing another protest in Tahrir Square next Friday for the realization of these demands.

“We expect a turn-out of tens of thousands, maybe up to 80,000 if we bring along our wives and children,” he said.    

Yehia Abu Qamar, a unionized farmer from Monufiya Governorate, said the government and Ministry of Agriculture protect the interests of large farmers and foreign investors, as opposed to protecting the interests of small farmers and landless peasants.

"We demand the release of all farmers imprisoned due to debt, and we demand that fertilizers be sold at the cost of production – that is LE75 per sack, not LE250, which is the average price available in the cooperatives, markets and black markets," he said. "Farmers are the ones that feed the Egyptian populace – without us the masses will go hungry. We hope that the revolution will save us from poverty and protect our rights, but our conditions continue to deteriorate."

Farmers’ demands were echoed by other political forces.

“Authorities must stop jailing indebted farmers,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading presidential contender, in a statement on Friday. “Fertilizers and pesticides should be provided to farmers at fair market prices and not through the black market."

In August, farmers’ rights watchdogs said around 60,000 farmers could be jailed for failing to repay loans due to the state-owned Agriculture Development and Credit Bank.    

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