Over the past twenty years, the issue of land dispossession has been of dire concern to Egypt’s rural population. After Egypt's recent unrest, however, new momentum has been afforded to farmers' protests due to lowered inhibitions about dissent as well as the creation of opportunity for farmers to establish a political presence.
The issuance of Law 96/1992 allowed pre-Nasser era landowners the incontestable right to take back their land, which resulted in the displacement of over a million farmers from their land and homes.
Since the law came into effect in 1997, farmers have attempted to retaliate through protests and by creating awareness through the media. Due to a lack of organization on the farmers’ part and poor representation in the media, their efforts floundered, allowing systematic mistreatment to continue unnoticed.
This history is not exclusive to Egypt. Throughout India, various forms of violent land grabbing have continued to plague Indian rural communities since the 1960’s.
Though the details differ in each case, there are strong resemblances between the rural injustices of Egypt and India, according to Reem Saad, an associate research professor and director of the Middle East Studies Center at the American University in Cairo.
“It’s the same model of polarization between rich and poor, as well as land grabbing and the consequences of dispossession,” he says.
In India, land acquisition is enabled through the alignment of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and the joint greed of wealthy landowners in connection with the state. Post-1991 economic reforms, with their emphasis on privatization, further exacerbated the state’s hunger for land — a state of affairs similar to that in Egypt.
“But at the same time,” continues Saad, “India is more exposed in terms of what we should be doing and learning — not necessarily in terms of militant resistance, but in terms of politics and cooperatives.”
A significant contributor to the publicized image of India’s rural affairs is the existence of militant, revolutionary and anti-repressive groups, such as the Naxalites, which emerged in 1967 and spread to 15 Indian states. Their activity has intensified across the country in response to systematic violence committed by the state against peasant rights and livelihoods.
The Naxalites are trying to organize farmers to bring about land reform through radical means, including violence.
The existence of an entity, such as the Naxalites, is particularly disquieting considering the routine violence committed towards the rural population of Egypt, which comprises 40 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million. This raises the question: What if Egypt’s peasants were to follow suit?
According to Sons of the Soil, an Egyptian organization formed in 2005 to organize farmers, militant responses have occurred in the past in Egypt, though sporadically and in a less organized way than that of the Naxalites.
In 2005, a group of landowners accompanied by police attempted to take land from the village of Sarando in the Beheira Governate by force. Thousands of rural workers retaliated, but according to many involved, the response of farmers was misguided.
“We hope not to see organized militant peasant groups forming in Egypt at the current time,” says Saad. “There is no guarantee that it could be implemented in a productive and effective way and it could end up getting very ugly. Considering the recent revolution, the focus must be on gaining political presence.”
In India, the existence of functional unions and bottom-up syndicates represents a counterweight against land dispossession. The country's 73rd constitutional amendment of 1992 granted its poorest citizens a political presence through which to voice their opinion.
“Although in India the state has often treated Naxalism as a law-and-order issue and followed a security-centric approach, this suppression rationale has given way lately to a more "developmental" rationale — representative in the constitutional amendment of 1992,” states Dalia Wahdan, assistant professor of anthropology and comparative urban studies at the Foundation for Liberal and Management Education (FLAME) in Pune, India.
“Besides allowing the disadvantaged and weaker sections of society to run for elections, the amendment was a key step towards devolving the distribution of rural responsibilities and resources to the grass roots level,” says Wahdan.
India, however, is a federal democratic system that runs state elections independent from, yet politically associated with, the elections of the central government. Every state within the country regulates itself independently from the central government, thus creating divergences within the country itself.
Egypt, on the other hand, functions under laws that govern the entire country, making the implementation of a single representative syndicate a promising possibility.
“Since the revolution, many organizations have appeared calling themselves the 'farmer’s syndicate'”, states Mahmoud al-Mansy from Sons of the Soil. “The most prevalent one is headed by ex-NDP official Mohamed Borgosh. What they are trying to do is fraudulently claim to represent the farmers, get them to sign, and then take control of the situation from the inside.”
Since 2005, Sons of the Soil have been focused on guiding and implementing a bottom-up syndicate in Egypt that represents different areas and districts.
Unlike in India, where state divisions create internal conflict, a bottom-up syndicate in Egypt may be able to transform rural injustices into single-focus, addressable issues, potentially avoiding the need for future Naxalite-like entities that have turned the Green Revolution in India into a Red Revolution.
“We can learn a lot from India,” concludes Saad. “But what will happen really depends on how the farmers strategically address the situation.”
“If the peasants get organized, form a syndicate, and try to do the right and defensible thing, then things will work out well for them. If not, then who knows where it could go.”