Land Ownership and Reform

Egypt Table of Contents

On the eve of the 1952 Revolution, ownership of land was heavily concentrated in a few hands, more so than in the twenty preceding years. About 0.1 percent of owners possessed one-fifth of the land and 0.4 percent controlled one-third, in contrast to the 95 percent of small owners with only 35 percent of the land. In addition, 44 percent of all rural inhabitants were landless. Egypt as a whole was experiencing political instability, which was manifested in the countryside in the growing insecurity of property and in peasant resistance and demand for land. Although several land reform bills were presented to the Egyptian parliament, for a variety of reasons none passed.

The task of mending conditions in the countryside thus passed to the new regime, which in 1952 initiated a phased land reform program that targeted the property of the upper class of landowners, dubbed "feudalists" by the government, for distribution. The 1952 land reform law limited individual ownerships to 200 feddans. The beneficiaries were to be tenants, estate workers, and the poorest villagers. The law also fixed rents, set tenancy duration at a minimum of three years, and established a minimum wage.

The 1952 law was followed by others in 1961 and 1969 that aimed at deepening the reform and further reducing the maximum size of landownership. The ceiling was reduced to 100 feddans in 1961 and to 50 in 1969. The land reform was implemented with a reasonable measure of success, perhaps because its aim was somewhat modest. More than 700,000 feddans were distributed (864,500 feddans according to official statistics), or about 12 percent to 14 percent of the cultivated area, and more than 341,000 families, primarily tenants who presumably were more skillful at farming than other workers, received land. The pyramid of landownership was truncated at the top and widened at the base: whereas large holdings were not entirely eliminated, the share of those owning fifty feddans or more dropped to 15 percent, and 95 percent of owners came to control 52 percent of the land instead of the 35 percent they had owned before the reform.

Official accounts indicated that this general picture remained relatively stable in 1984, with a slight reduction in the area owned by the upper stratum of those with fifty or more feddans. However, the number of small owners, those with fewer than five feddans, increased to nearly 3.29 million in 1984 from 2.92 million in 1961, while the area they owned dropped from 3.17 million feddans to 2.9 million feddans. This suggested that land fragmentation worsened, as a result of the continual division of land among heirs in accordance with Islamic inheritance laws. Land reform laws in Egypt never had a land consolidation component as they did, for example, in Jordan. The number of landless families also rose because of population growth. Students of agrarian Egypt had not resolved satisfactorily whether the middle strata, those who owned between eleven and fifty feddans, shrank after the reform.

Land tenure, however, rather than landownership reflected how land was actually operated in Egypt. Land was either operated by the owner with family and/or hired labor, rented for cash, or sharecropped. The system was complex in that the same person might be engaged in several arrangements at the same time. The operational unit was called the hiyazah (holding); cooperatives (see below) kept records of such holdings in allocating government crop quotas and amounts of subsidized inputs. The tendency was for the number of holdings to be smaller than that of ownerships, indicating that a measure of consolidation took place in practice. Nevertheless, the average size of a holding was probably less than two feddans by the end of the 1970s; no figures were available subsequently.

The rapid changes that occurred in Egypt after 1975 and the increasing mechanization and intensification of agriculture led some scholars to conclude that landownership might no longer be the sole instrument of land control or wealth. Land leasing and ownership of other assets, such as tractors, were also significant factors.

To implement its agricultural policy, the government at the outset established agricultural cooperatives in rural areas. Initially, only land recipients were obligated to join; by 1962 all farmers were required to do so. The cooperatives performed several functions. They consolidated resources through distribution of inputs; preserved private incentives, such as profits; determined responsibility for planting government quotas of particular crops, such as cotton; and bought the government share of procurement crops at prices fixed by the government. The cooperatives, on the one hand, enhanced agricultural growth by encouraging farmers to use fertilizers and other inputs and to adopt the three-year crop rotation that the Ministry of Agriculture considered ecologically superior to the traditional, two-year rotation. On the other hand, the cooperatives came under the control of the well-to-do farmers. There was also evidence of widespread corruption among those who managed cooperatives. Their role was downgraded under Sadat, and more prominence was given to the Principal Bank for Development and Credit. The role of the cooperatives diminished further in the 1980s as the government relaxed its controls over agriculture.

Agriculture grew at respectable rates after the land reform and the universalization of cooperatives. It was difficult, however, to tell how much of the credit should go to these two factors and how much to investments in irrigation and other inputs.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress