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:

September 2010: Egypt has seen a prolonged property boom over the past five years as developers have tapped into pent-up demand from the affluent higher reaches in society.

February 2011: A real estate boom that built satellite cities around Cairo and developed the Red Sea coast created vast fortunes for politically connected businessmen, many of whom allegedly received generous terms for land that was allocated without competitive tenders.

***

September 2010: Maher Maksoud, Sodic’s chief executive, says the company now targets buyers with incomes at the upper middle level and that the bulk of the property it offers is priced between E£900,000 to E£1.5m ($158,000 to $263,000), down from a range of $702,000 to $878,000. … Mr Maksoud argues that property developers still have an addressable market of up to 12m people or some 10-15 per cent of Egypt’s 80m population. He also says that in the year to date Sodic has made sales of E£1.5bn, its best year ever.

February 2011: Political ties are an important ingredient of business success in Egypt. One big land developer, Sodic Real Estate Development, has the father-in-law of Mr Mubarak’s son Ala’a as chairman of its board.

***

September 2010: Talaat Moustafa Group, the country’s largest real estate developer, which targets the widest section of middle-income segments, has also done well. It produced a 135 per cent year-on-year increase in its sales for the first half of 2010, according to the company website.

February 2011: One of the projects named in the lawsuits is Madinaty, an area to the east of Cairo developed by Talaat Moustafa Group, which also developed Al Rehab, another east Cairo enclave. In both cases much of the land was awarded without competitive tender and payment was in kind – the government agency, which sold the land, was paid in finished plots.

Meanwhile, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times gives land grievances a highly prominent role in his recent “back-of-the-envelope guess list of what I’d call the “not-so-obvious forces” that fed [the Arab] revolt”. While Friedman references the Egyptian real estate imbroglio, the most interesting assertion he makes relates to an earlier Washington Post report on how Google Earth provided Bahrain’s Shiite majority with its first real insight into how the ruling Sunni royal family lives. To quote the Post via Friedman:

Mahmood, who lives in a house with his parents, four siblings and their children, said he became even more frustrated when he looked up Bahrain on Google Earth and saw vast tracts of empty land, while tens of thousands of mainly poor Shiites were squashed together in small, dense areas.

‘We are 17 people crowded in one small house, like many people in the southern district,’ he said. ‘And you see on Google how many palaces there are and how the al-Khalifas [the Sunni ruling family] have the rest of the country to themselves.’

Bahraini activists have encouraged people to take a look at the country on Google Earth, and they have set up a special user group whose members have access to more than 40 images of royal palaces.

Google Earth’s new significance for democracy activists is also picked up on Foreign Policy’s passport blog. This use of Google Earth represents a subversively simple wrinkle on earlier efforts to use the free software to track displacement patterns or provide evidence for property claims in humanitarian settings. And it also represents a further concrete way in which fluency in the new media of our age has illuminated some of our most abiding problems – not least, land grievances as a root cause of political instability.

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4 responses to “Another dimension of the Arab unrest: Its the land, stupid

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