Egypt Table of Contents

EGYPTIAN SOCIETY IN 1990 reflected both ancient roots and the profound changes that have occurred since Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the country in 1798. Land tenure, crops, and cultivation patterns had all been transformed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the country had become increasingly urbanized and industrialized. Nevertheless, approximately half the population still lived in rural areas where settlement patterns remained defined, as they had been since pharaonic times, by the Nile River and irrigated agriculture. Villages were clustered along both banks of the Nile and along myriad irrigation canals in the Delta.

The rise of commercial agriculture in the nineteenth century set in motion a transformation of rural society. Land that was previously held in common by a village and granted in usufruct to individual families was transferred to private ownership. The transfers created a small class of wealthy absentee landowners, a somewhat larger class of relatively prosperous farmers who owned medium-sized parcels of land, and an enormous class of small farmers, sharecroppers, and landless casual laborers.

The land-reform measures implemented by the government in the 1950s and 1960s led to the redistribution of nearly 15 percent of the arable land to about 10 percent of the rural population. Land reform limited individual landownership to twenty-one hectares, thus forcing the wealthiest landed families to sell most of their holdings. Small peasant proprietors were the main beneficiaries of the redistribution. By the early 1980s, however, continued population growth and rising production costs had eroded many of the accomplishments of land reform. Inheritance tended to fragment already small holdings, and the number of landless people increased.

Land reform was only one of several social programs initiated by the Free Officers who led the 1952 Revolution. The majority of these officers, who came mostly from the middle class, was determined to broaden opportunities in a society that had been dominated by a narrow elite. They perceived education as a critical force for change. Beginning in the nineteenth century, secular education provided the country with the foundation for a civil bureaucracy. Access to a university education and government employment, however, was generally limited to the urban upper classes until the mid-1930s, when sons of urban and rural middle-class families were accepted into the military or civil administration. Following the 1952 Revolution, educational opportunities from primary school through university increased substantially. Through the 1980s, university enrollments swelled as increasing numbers of middle- and lowerclass youth pursued higher education in the hope of obtaining prestigious employment.

By the 1980s, overstaffing in the state bureaucracy had become a major problem. Periodic discussion by the mass media on the need to reform the government's hiring and promotion systems, which gave preference to university graduates, caused anxiety among students, many of whom had migrated from rural areas and faced limited employment prospects in agriculture. Most of these students perceived higher education and government employment as means for achieving upward mobility. They therefore showed little support for the proposed reforms, which would reduce their opportunities.

Massive urbanization beginning after World War II has had a pervasive and accelerating impact on the nation's cities, especially Cairo and Alexandria. These cities, which were once the enclaves of the relatively prosperous and privileged, have attracted millions of rural migrants, including landowning families' children who wanted to pursue an education and illiterate sons and daughters of poor, landless peasants who were willing to work as unskilled laborers. The migrants have adapted to urban life by attempting to replicate the social organization found in villages. Residential patterns, employment practices, and socializing have tended to reflect and to reinforce relationships formed in the countryside.

Religion, mainly Islam, is an integral aspect of social life. Although most Egyptian Muslims respect and agree on the basic tenets of Islam, their religious perspectives differ. Trained theologians, for example, practice orthodox Islam while villagers practice a simple form of the religion. Since the 1970s, there has been a resurgence of Islamic political groups. Activists ranged from persons fervent in religious practice to individuals who favor the adoption of the Muslim legal code as the basis of Egyptian law to others who espouse the violent overthrow of the government to achieve an Islamic social order. Some leaders of the Islamic political groups are former university students or recent graduates whose families migrated from rural areas. Many Muslims have responded favorably to these leaders, who are likely to remain a potent political force in the 1990s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress