Rural Society

Egypt Table of Contents

Until the time of Napoleon's invasion, Mamluk fief holders, large landowners, and the chiefs of nomadic tribes controlled rural Egypt. This rural elite--a small fraction of the populace-- derived its wealth from land, livestock, and the collection of taxes on commission. Beduin shaykhs lived among and were related to the tribal people over whom they exercised jurisdiction. The large landowners lived in villages and were usually related to some of the other families. The fief holders, predominantly Turkish and Circassian in origin, had the most tenuous links to the villages because they tended to reside in cities and often brutalized the peasants on their estates. Most fellahin (sing., fellah; peasant, from the Arabic verb, falaha, to till the soil), were socioeconomically similar. Village headmen allocated families usufruct right to village land, but the village as a whole was responsible for tax payments.

Rural society changed during the nineteenth century. Rulers made it easier for individuals to own land, and they held individuals responsible for tax payments. Large land grants to court favorites and extensive land registration frauds resulted in concentrated landholdings and an increased number of people who owned large pieces of land. During this period, the government gave tribal shaykhs substantial land grants but required that they permanently farm and occupy their parcels. The move caused many beduins to give up their nomadic way of life. Settled beduins gradually became liable for the same taxes imposed on the fellahin.

Granting land (and government administrative posts) only to shaykhs undermined tribal loyalty and solidarity. The process created a class of wealthy landholders within tribes, and the landlord-tenant relationship proved inimical to the strongly egalitarian traditions of beduin society. As tribal loyalties weakened, shaykhs began marrying prosperous settled Egyptian women, while poorer nomads married within the masses of peasants. Many of the beduin and nontribal owners of large amounts of land pursued economic opportunities in the growing cities and became absentee landlords. Many absentee landlords specialized in commodity trading and controlled Egypt's expanding agricultural exports. They also became involved in the urban credit market. The fellahin sharecroppers who tilled the land of absentee owners became increasingly indebted to the local, usually usurious, moneylenders because their share of crops generally provided insufficient income to support a family for the entire period between harvests.

Private ownership of land and increased production of export crops, especially cotton, also resulted in the emergence of landholders, who owned mid-sized plots of five to fifty feddans. This group competed only marginally with the landed elite but was prosperous by rural standards. In 1990 these mid-sized landowners continued to play an integral role in rural society.

Class differentiation increased among the fellahin throughout the nineteenth century. Small landholders with one to five feddans became poorer but were better off than tenants and sharecroppers. The tenants and sharecroppers were better off than a growing class of landless villagers who earned their livelihoods from casual agricultural labor. (By the end of the nineteenth century, one of every four people in rural areas owned no land.) Landowners who became indebted or fell into tax arrears easily lost their holdings. Until 1926 the government could expropriate land if its owner owed as little as £E2 in back taxes.

From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, large estates continued to consolidate their holdings while small farms fragmented further with each passing generation. From 1896 to the eve of the first land-reform legislation in 1952, the number of landowners with parcels of fewer than five feddans had nearly tripled. The number of large landowners with holdings of at least fifty feddans declined gradually in the same period. Large landowners controlled 33 percent of all cultivated land by 1952 (only 0.5 percent of all landowners were large landowners). In contrast, about 75 percent of all rural property owners were peasants with holdings of less than one feddan. This group owned only 13 percent of the land. The average-sized holding in the under-five-feddan range dropped by 50 percent. The number of mid-sized holders (owning six to fifty feddans) dropped from about 12 percent to 5 percent of all landowners, although their share of cultivated land remained nearly constant at 30 percent.

Frequent incidents of peasant unrest accompanied the changes in rural Egypt. Peasant uprisings, which were usually localized, were all sparked by complaints such as high taxes, intolerable landlord imposts, corvées, foreclosures, and rising rents. Some protests spread throughout a district or region and required extensive military intervention to restore control. Uprisings often took on religious or messianic overtones. By 1950 when an estimated 60 percent of the rural population was landless, it was not uncommon for groups of discontented sharecroppers and tenants to try to seize the land they cultivated.

The Free Officers made land reform a priority after the 1952 Revolution. Continuing into the 1960s, the Free Officers promulgated measures that distributed about 700,000 feddans of land to about 318,000 peasant households, i.e., 13 percent of the cultivated land to 10 percent of the country's rural families. A law in 1952 limited individual landownership to 200 feddans. The law also prevented owners from transferring more than 100 feddans to members of their immediate families; excess holdings had to be sold to small farmers or tenants. The law also limited the amount of cash rents and the percentage of the harvest that absentee owners could collect from tenants and sharecroppers. A law in 1961 limited individual ownership to 100 feddans; another law in 1969 limited it to 50 feddans. These land reforms failed to eliminate large landowners, but they did reduce the group's share of cultivated land from 33 percent of the total to 15 percent between 1952 and 1975.

Peasant smallholders (with fewer than five feddans) were the main beneficiaries of the reforms. In 1952 they owned about 35 percent (2.1 million feddans) of Egypt's cultivated land. By 1965 they owned 52 percent (3.2 million feddans). Although several thousand tenant and sharecropping families were able to purchase tiny parcels (none greater than five feddans) and join the ranks of smallholders, the majority of landless villagers did not benefit from the reforms. Landlords' creativity in exploiting the surplus rural labor market thwarted government efforts to assist these landless villagers. Landlords also learned how to circumvent legislation designed to guarantee sharecroppers half of the harvest. By the 1980s, the combination of rapid population growth, increasing production costs, and high rates of inflation had eroded the gains of the smallholders. An estimated 44 percent of all rural families lived below the officially defined poverty level.

Peasants who owned between eleven and fifty feddans were able to increase their landholdings by purchasing excess land from large landlords. This group of peasants comprised 2.5 percent of all landowners in 1952 and 3 percent in 1965. By the latter date, this group owned 24 percent of all cultivated land.

In 1990 rural society was just as stratified as it had been before the initiation of land reform in 1952. Approximately 11,000 large landowners (those owning more than fifty feddans--less than 0.3 percent of all owners) were still at the top of the social hierarchy. These large landowners were typically absentee landlords and renters who worked in urban areas as merchants, civil servants, professionals, or corporate managers. Although wealthy, they lacked the prerevolutionary landowning elite's influence in rural areas, and their impact on village social relations tended to be limited. Nevertheless, they continued to be influential in national politics and exercised indirect influence in rural areas through their diverse ties to large peasant owners.

The second stratum of rural landowners consisted of two peasant groups, medium holders owning six to ten feddans and large holders owning eleven to fifty feddans. Although this second stratum accounted for only 5.5 percent of all rural landowners, it owned one-third of all the cultivated land. Both groups' holdings were large enough to generate profits from agriculture, and the more prosperous individuals among the groups tended to fill the political role previously held by the large landlords. Large peasant owners in particular exercised significant influence in local and even regional politics. The large holders tended to be commercial farmers with extensive ties to domestic capital and were frequently involved in subsidiary marketing, livestock, and transport enterprises. In most villages, at least one of the peasant families with medium or large landholdings was descended from a lineage that most members of the community considered superior. Farmers in this second stratum have also experienced substantial occupational mobility since 1952. A typical family with several sons would send one or more of them to university to prepare for careers in the civil service, the military, or the professions.

Peasant smallholders (those owning fewer than five feddans) comprised 94 percent of all Egyptian landowners. In general, holdings of fewer than five feddans were too small for profitable agriculture. Consequently, smallholders had to supplement their incomes by working on the land of larger owners, by engaging in other agricultural activities such as raising livestock, or by finding seasonal work in urban areas. Many smallholders rented their plots for part or all of the year to other peasants, especially to those who owned between five and ten feddans. About one-quarter of all land owned by smallholders was leased to larger owners.

Since 1952 there have been no reliable statistics on the number of landless villagers. Although landlessness decreased between 1952 and 1965, it has been rising since the late 1960s. Throughout Egypt the landless constituted perhaps as much as 40 percent of the rural population; the majority lived in the villages of the Delta and Upper Egypt. Landless peasants supported their families by cultivating land for absentee owners as tenants and sharecroppers; by working as agricultural laborers for large peasant owners; by providing village services such as carpentry, blacksmithing, machinery maintenance, and livestock herding; and by migrating to cities and other Arab countries in search of short- and long-term employment. Remittances from adult males working away from home and (stimulated by labor shortages in agriculture) combined to outpace a rise in rural wages inflation and helped to alleviate poverty among the landless peasants--the poorest villagers--in the 1980s.

In 1989 approximately 50 percent of Egypt's population lived in villages. In the past, urban residents had little or no contact with the villagers who produced their food. Most peasants were suspicious of urban landlords and government officials whose presence in the villages coincided with the collection of rent and taxes. But in the twentieth century, extensive rural-urban contacts developed as a result of large-scale migration to the cities, the establishment of government services in villages, and the mass media. Nevertheless, a sharp distinction between rural and urban areas persisted. Wide disparities existed between cities and villages in amenities, services, and educational and health facilities. Mortality rates, especially for infants, and illiteracy rates were notably higher in rural areas.

In the 1980s, temporary migration in search of wage labor was particularly common among villagers in Upper Egypt; men left their families in the care of relatives during the slack agricultural seasons. In some Nubian villages, for example, all males between the ages of eighteen and forty-five were gone for much of the year. Migrants served as intermediaries between rural and urban Egypt and as agents of social change in the village. Because of the increasingly important role of nonagricultural work in the Delta, many villagers found new occupations that resulted in social cleavages. For example, the opportunity to earn a living independent of their fathers permitted men to exercise more freedom from traditional authority figures. Higher education provided upward mobility for substantial numbers of rural children and led to new social distinctions within villages.

The basic unit of village organization was the patrilineal lineage or clan. Composed of various families descended from a common male ancestor four to six generations in the past, a lineage inhabited a specific quarter of the village. Lineages, controlled by elder males, were an integral force in village life and politics. Families gained their identity not as autonomous entities but as part of their larger lineage.

Lineages had a corporate identity with a recognized leadership pattern. A man's closest social contacts were with his brothers and cousins. A guest house was used to entertain visitors at the lineage's expense. Various lineages vied for power and influence within the village. The interests of the lineage were frequently more important than the interests of individuals. Propinquity was crucial in settling disputes within a lineage. In conflicts with outsiders, individuals were expected to unite in the interests of their lineage. Propinquity was so important in rural society that to suggest a person had no kin was a profound insult.

Lineages and a general disapproval of the public display of wealth blunted many of the economic disparities within and among village clans. Still, religious feasts and rites of passage provided an opportunity for lineages to display their wealth. Lineages usually invited other lineages to extravagant weddings and other celebrations. Several religious festivals required wealthy people to distribute meat to the less fortunate. Return from the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) called for elaborate decorations in the pilgrim's house. In general, the socially acceptable means of displaying wealth helped integrate prosperous individuals into the community rather than separate them from it.

A number of changes in the 1980s limited the influence of lineages. In the past, lineage elders maintained their authority by controlling land. But the recent increase in pressure on land has meant that fewer young men would inherit large plots. Many of these young men, realizing they would never own a substantial piece of land, have migrated to cities and other countries and are no longer influenced by their elders. The prevalence of nuclear families in cities has also eroded lineage ties.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress