There are growing fears that a wave of agrarian violence could hit rural areas of Egypt and sweep across the country. This is thanks to a rent liberalization law passed five years ago that makes tenancy no longer an economical way of life.
Newspapers in Cairo reported a gun battle between tenants and landlords in the Tamia hamlet of Ezbet Abu Nisar that left four people dead, and set off a series of similar conflicts in other villages.
Until now, tenants were protected by laws dating back to the time of President Gamal Abdel Nasser that fixed rents at sub-market levels and forbade landlords from ejecting tenants.
Subsequent laws gradually increased the legal rent - today it stands at 22 times the tax value of the land. This barely amounts to a third of the true market value.
This will change next month when the grace period on Law 96 of 1992, liberalizing rents, expires. All current contracts will then be null and void.
Rents are expected to skyrocket towards something in the region of LE2500 a year per acre from around LE 850 today, far more than most families can afford. ($1=EL3.5)
Moreover, landlords will be encouraged to consolidate their holdings, or sell them off to agri-businessmen to form thousand-acre farms that can take advantage of the economies of scale.
This consolidation is expected to increase production, but at a high social cost. According to the Central Agency for Population Mobilization and Statistics, Egypt's main statistical bureau, 710,000 households -about a quarter of rural Egypt- have members working as rent-paying tenants, and around 230,000 more have members who work as sharecroppers. Slightly more than half of these tenants have a little land of their own, the other half have nothing. Presumably some families will be able to scrape enough together to pay the increased rent. Others might find work as agricultural laborers, though already there's a huge surplus of labor in the countryside. Some, particularly in the Delta, can fall back on other ways of making a living. But many more will probably be driven to the slum districts of the cities.
With these bleak alternatives, the fear is that many farm families will use any means necessary to stay on the land, taking up arms to defend what they believe is rightfully theirs.
"They've been living on the soil for generations, while the landlord often lives in the city," Adly Salem, the doctor who treated the Abu Nisar patients," told Cairo Times.“They don't see why they should give it up."
According to reports in the Egyptian press, the confrontation began when Dr Omar Ezzam, patriarch of a family who once lived in Ezbet Abu Nisar but has since moved to Giza, successfully sued to eject the local tenants from his land, even though they had dutifully paid the rent.
During a feast held by the Ezzams to celebrate the court ruling in their favor, a fight broke out in which a villager was shot dead. The feast dissolved into a running gun battle in the fields in which three members of the Ezzam family were killed, and up to 50 others-from both sides-were wounded.
Though Law 96/1992 was not directly responsible for the Ezbet Abu Nisar violence, the atmosphere of tension it has created has set off dozens of clashes reported in the papers in recent months.
In the Al Nasser district of Beni Suef, the local agricultural cooperative refused loans to tenants, considering it a poor investment if they were about to get evicted. Five thousand angry farmers cut the main Upper Egyptian highway and train line in protest on 11 April; police intervened and dozens were arrested.
The village of Ezbet Al Zeiny in the north Delta governorate of Daqhaliya has been under Central Security occupation since 13 March, when hundreds of troops fired tear-gas to expel peasants occupying land that the owner had put up for sale. Smaller clashes have been reported throughout the length of the country, from Qena in the south to the Mediterranean coast.
Egyptian economic experts note that in the five years since Law 96 of 1992 was passed, the government has not come up with a single initiative to compensate tenants for the probable loss of their livelihoods-in stark contrast with the retraining programs, early retirement schemes, and social projects to lessen the shock of privatization on industrial workers.
Some political parties have suggested setting up a fund to help the tenants buy their land, but the total value of the land in question, accounting for inflation over the decades, would top several hundred billion pounds.
Salah Al Amrousy of the Land Center for Human Rights, which provides legal aid to tenants, suggests several alternatives-to compensate tenants including the offer of newly reclaimed land in the desert, government jobs, or cash settlements.
In the meantime, the peasants are organizing themselves to fight the changes . A thousand tenants from Ezbet Al Zeiny have formed local "defense force," vowing to resist the ejection of farmers by all peaceful means. But such action is sporadic. The absence of an organized peasant's movement does not, however, mean that individual families will let their land and their livelihood go without a fight. The government has embarked upon the most potentially dangerous stage of structural readjustment with hardly any preparation. If the events of the last month are any indication, there will be plenty of blood shed in the years ahead.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )