Daily Archives: March 2, 2011

Another dimension of the Arab unrest: Its the land, stupid

by Rhodri C. Williams

Having spent the last few weeks apologizing copiously for exceeding the remit of this blog every time I have written on the current Middle East turmoil (as here and here), I am now beginning to sense that I might not have been so far off base after all. It turns out that land issues – and particularly anger at decades of tenure insecurity, crooked deals and discriminatory allocations – have been one of the seeds of the current unrest.

The case of Egypt is particularly illustrative at a number of levels. First – and most practically important in a country that remains almost 60% rural – former President Mubarak presided over a quiet reversal of earlier land reforms in the 1990s with profound negative implications for rural smallholders. According to a very revealing posting in the Landesa blog, Mubarak’s predecessors had accorded former tenant farmers significant tenure security, but in a form that never extinguished the ownership rights of powerful rural landlords. The failure to complete the land reform process by according ownership rights to smallholders would ultimately be its undoing:

In 1992, with little fanfare, and the acquiescence of President Mubarak, the Egyptian legislature adopted a five-year phase out of the registered tenancy provisions of the 1952 land-reform law, beginning with an immediate tripling of rent levels. By 1997, tenants would once again be as they had been under the old monarchy: evicatable at the landlord’s pleasure, and subject to any rent the landlord wished to charge; or replaced by hired day labor.

There is no happy ending to this story. During the five years 1992-97 that is precisely what happened. Roughly one million tenant households (about six million people, or close to one in ten Egyptians) went from being secure, moderately prosperous farmers who enjoyed owner-like status and paid a low fixed rent, to being traditional insecure sharecroppers, or someone’s source of day labor.

At the same time as rural smallholders were losing their shirts, a new generation of politically connected business interests had begun to benefit from sales of peri-urban land for as little as $1 per square meter, often without competitive tenders. One of the interesting aspects of this story is the extent to which the graft underlying the ensuing real estate boom was not prominently covered in the international media despite the intense domestic resentment it generated. A comparison of two articles in the Financial Times, one from September 15, 2010 (‘Egypt’s building progress’), and the other from February 13, 2011 (‘Focus on Egypt land deal fortunes’) is instructive:

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