August 02, 2005
Tsar Mubarek & Reforms for the Neo Mamlouks
An article that merits close reading and attention; in fact I believe it is deeply indicative of the real challenges in Egypt, and in some ways the wider Arab world in regards to transition costs - if in general with moderately less severity.
In Egypt's Countryside, Farmers' Anger Seen As 'Silent Time Bomb'
Recent Revolt Over Rents and Evictions Draws Support of Mubarak Opponents
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 17, 2005; A16
I would cite this as something highly indicative of the real position of the Mubarek government as well as the liberal urban classes, what I might call the "kefaya" chattering classes in one of my less charitable moods (although one supposes one can validly ask if I have charitable moods). I mean by that, the generaly comfortable proper liberal opposition who rather uncomfortabley ressemble a similar opposition in the fading years of the tsarist empire in old Russia.
In my opinion the key problems for opposition groups such as the Kefaya program and liberal reforms reside in issues seen here in this article.
To front load my comments I would suggest that first there is a limited scope for manoeuvre in effecting badly needed liberal economic reforms. Further, the political space for real and substantive (and painful) reforms is weak given neither the "reformers" in the Mubarek clan nor the liberal opposition have the popular legitimacy to pull off painful economic change, in the near term deeply painful and immiserating, without "revolution" marking a power and responsibility break for a variety of reasons including the incredible upfront transition costs.
The article then, and comments
SARANDO, Egypt -- Tractors are a rare sight in the Nile River delta, where tenant farmers still labour with hand and hoe, so the arrival of three loud machines in early March created a stir in an already volatile community.
Sarando peasants had been feuding bitterly with a landlord over rents and evictions. Were the tractors there to destroy crops? they recalled wondering. To plow fields on disputed land? Who were the brawny strangers who said the landlord had sent them? No one waited to find out. Within a few hours, fighting with fists and rifles had broken out, one visitor was dead, farmers had fled in fear of the law and police had placed Sarando under a six-day siege.
Whether city or country, farm or factory, dissatisfaction with President Hosni Mubarak is palpable as his quarter-century of rule nears its end, either by the weight of failed policies or by the logic of his age, 77.
Emphasis added. That there is deep discontent is clear. Rather to retain is the question of where the political capital will come from to make reform happen.
In Cairo, political activists hold demonstrations aimed at driving him from power. ...Intense poverty, arbitrary justice and botched government programs that draw widespread complaints in Egypt all contributed to the explosion in Sarando. When the violence broke out here, lawyers and activists hurried from Cairo to side with the farmers.
Whether Egypt is awakening or just turning over in its sleep is an open question. Mubarak's government is trying to manage change through free market reforms and by holding presidential elections that are open to a limited selection of rival candidates. Opposition groups, though loud, have been unable to mobilize large numbers of ordinary Egyptians onto the streets.
Emphasis added. Of course the impetus for further liberalization is the crushing failure of the "Arab Socialist" economic system and the vast wealth sapping, deadening and incoherent system of interlocking rents that feeds Mubarek's clientele system.
The problem is how this might be unwound by the very people who profit from it, and what positive political capital will be available to carry the regime through the initial pain. This article underlines the problems.
A third of Egypt's 70 million people live on the land, and they have largely remained on the political sidelines. Yet observers see in Sarando the potential for rural conflict in a time of change. "There is a lot of anger on the farm. There is no development, economic program or political power. It is a silent time bomb," said Karem Saber, director of the Land Center for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization.
The rights group has noted a general upswing in rural violence, some of it directed against landowners, some of it in feuds among farmers, Saber said.
I note in upper Egypt, much of what passes for Xian-Muslim rural violence is clearly land disputes between clans that also maps on to religion.
Now, pay attention to the following:
The Sarando landlord, Salah Nawar, a white-haired patriarch of an extended family of landowners, regards the conflict as signaling a larger danger. "If the peasants get away with this, such things will spread all over. They will revolt and attack all the owners," he said in an interview in his apartment in Alexandria.
Emphasis added. The landlord is right, of course, although wrong in his overall desire to put a lid on the boiling pot.
Sarando sits in the wide, green delta about 20 miles east of the provincial capital of Damanhour. On the surface, the fields present a picture of bucolic, eternal Egypt. In canals that carry precious water from the Nile, women wash pots and clothing, men bathe their donkeys and naked boys splash around in glee...Except for the occasional three- and four-story brick house and diesel-powered pump, a pharaoh would have no trouble recognizing the scene.
A closer look reveals dilapidated schools, illiterate children, under-equipped clinics and dissatisfaction over new agricultural policies. Starting in 1997, rents for tenant farmers were freed from government regulation, and they recently shot up from the equivalent of about $4 an acre annually to as high as $60, the Land Center estimates. That sum can be three months' earnings for a farmer in Egypt.
Presumably those are yearly figures. Of course liberalization is desperately needed, but after some 30-40 years of controls and distorted prices, very clearly there are enormous pressures in the system, and nor is it clear how to best transition.
The deregulation was part of a drive to end state control of economic activity dating from the rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and '60s. The measure effectively reversed Nasser's land reform program, which had stripped landlords of control of their property but left them with title. Now, if peasants refuse to pay the market rates, the landlords can evict them. This has been the source of Sarando's conflict.
First, among the prime problems facing Egypt is the legacy of the half-assed "reforms" both in the Nasser era and after. Certainly it is typical of Egypt that land "reform" merely froze prices rather than transferred title, and "liberalization" has been without real measures to create productive ownership. No, indeed, quite the opposite. This will, sadly, tend to discredit liberalization rather than the distorted process that is really simply feudal rent extraction.
Of course part of the issue is a chicken & egg one, as first the overall economy is to sclerotic to adequatly absorb surplus labor fleeing the agricultural sector, while at the same time that sector itself is organized in such a manner - effectively feudally - so as to discourage investment by either farmer (the ideal) or landlord.
Nawar, the Sarando landowner, said a half-dozen peasants refused to pay their rent, which he said he had set at $20 an acre. He began making arrangements to turn the land over to others, and as early as January, resistance broke out. Police arrested several of the peasants for firearms possession and thuggery, he said.
"I could never imagine this could happen," Nawar said. "They called me a feudal lord. A pasha! I provide wheat to hungry families. Peasants used to be courteous and virtuous. Now they are worse than people in the city," he said.
The irony in his statement is thick. Of course he sounds like a (liberal) Russian boyar before the revolution.
Indeed the Egyptian situation fairly stinks of that kind of rot.
On March 4, Nawar sent in the tractors along with several hired hands and relatives to plow for new planting. They arrived in the early morning. A phalanx of farmers met them. Some had rushed to Sarando from surrounding villages to help defend the hamlet.
Shouts turned to punches and shots were fired. A group of men beat to death one of Nawar's relatives, Alaa Abdel Wahab Nawar. They burned the tractors and pushed a pair of cars into a canal...
Nawar lives in an upscale Alexandria neighborhood. He granted an interview in a living room adorned with embroidered screens and gilt mirrors. He said he owned only about 30 acres but that his extended family had hundreds more in the Sarando area. Until his retirement a few years ago, Nawar was director of a state-run textile company. One of his relatives is a candidate for parliament from the National Democratic Party, Mubarak's ruling group.
While the last note situates our neo-feudal landlord (why not say Basha of the Mamlouks) as a Moubarek supporter, the liberals I knew from Cairo had similar social backgrounds. I believe it would be overdrawing things.
Nawar blames the peasant revolt on outsiders. "People come from Cairo and tell them they can have all the land. The peasants never acted like this before," he said.
Ah yes, outside agitators. Actually in a limited sense he's probably right.
Women in the hamlet tell a different tale. They said the land Nawar is claiming is not legally his. It was property that his family kept off the land registers when the lots were turned over to the peasants, they asserted, saying he cannot reclaim it now.
This may or may not be true, but the problem of land registry games and weak property protection for all is a highly believable one
...Abdulla [a local widow] told her story in her mud-and-wattle, dirt-floor house. She has five children; one of her daughters works as a maid in Alexandria and provides support money. Abdulla said the detained women were kept in a house commandeered as a police headquarters. One woman, Nafisa Zakaria Al-Marakbi, died in a hospital the day she was released from the lockup. The villagers said she was abused while in custody. "The police took our wheat. They broke down doors. They insulted us and pulled off our veils," Abdulla said. The police siege lasted until March 10.
Whether exaggerated or not, the underlying point is the narrative of abuse, especially of "innocent women." Fairly powerful in the Delta, I recall getting in a bit of trouble once there for some ... well issues.
For now, Sarando is in limbo. The charges of violence and murder are outstanding. Men are still missing from the hamlet, and women are doing the heavy work of farming. Both Nawar and Abdulla used identical phrases to describe the situation: "Sarando will never be the same again."
A year ago, Sarando's tale would not likely have echoed beyond the delta fields. But a budding network of human rights groups has begun to make inroads into the countryside. When police came in numbers to Sarando, representatives from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the Egyptian Association Against Torture, the Nadim Center for human rights and other organizations traveled here to investigate the violence.
One phrase. Cell phones. Internet a little bit, but cell phones vastly more important here.
Mohammed Abdel Aziz, a young lawyer from Kifaya, a Cairo-based coalition of anti-Mubarak forces, is defending the peasants in court. ....
And will it follow through?
However, more important is the larger question of how Egypt can manage to effect the painful economic changes it must if it is to avoid a malthusian system collapse. A government will have to find a deep legitimacy and confidence to force the necessary changes, changes that if genuine will be as painful to the neo-Mamlouk class as the farmers. Further, it has to be orchestrated to create growth to absorb massive amounts of surplus labor in the countryside.
I am unable to believe the Moubarek neo-Mamlouk system has that capality. It is possible the Kefaya Movement will be able to pull something off, although it is hard not to see them as reruns of 19th century Russian liberals-good people but facing a situation where liberal gradualism and pragmatism (normally well recommended) will be overwhelmed.
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A couple of questions. First of all, do you know if the Brotherhood or their associates (the soon-to-be-legalised Wasat party) have a policy on land ownership rights and the agricultural economy? I'm sure they have various positions, based on respect for property or social justice, but I am not aware of them having anything more than that.
Second, does the Egyptian government have a view on this? As far as I can tell, the priorities of the new government has been fiscal reform, restarting privatisation and attracting FDI. All good stuff, but agriculture has been seriously forgotten (the new minister, who could not be worse than the crooked Wali clique, is most famous for saying there are no locusts in Egypt on the day the buggers swarmed Cairo).
I wonder whether agricultural issues are seen as another problem from the countryside. The government's attitude to the Said has always been to crush uprisings and generally put a bit of stick about when necessary, but otherwise let clan leaders get on with it. The smoothies surrounding Gamal M don't inspire a great deal of confidence on this front, having little experience of and even less interest traditional agriculture (organic farmers on NDP committees don't count).
Posted by: Simon at August 4, 2005 11:38 AM