Discontent flaring in rural Egypt
A lack of democracy under Mubarak leaves few outlets for peaceful resolution of disputes.
Before dawn on March 4, police trucks rumbled into this hamlet and rousted seven men from their beds. They were jailed for allegedly stealing crops and illegally occupying the land of Salah Nawar.Skip to next paragraph
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A few hours later, Mr. Nawar, a hereditary landlord, arrived with dozens of supporters, some armed, from southern Egypt. What happened next depends on whom you believe.
Nawar says he was simply trying to evict deadbeat tenants, who then attacked him. The farmers say the 25 acres aren't his, and that they rallied around families Nawar's men had attacked.
What is undisputable is that by 9 a.m., vehicles owned by Nawar were in flames, and a relative of his lay dead. By 10 a.m., more than 50 villagers had been arrested.
Focus on political change in Egypt - like most of the Middle East - has been aimed at the capital, with protests and calls for President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
But the Sarando episode and other land conflicts mushrooming in the fertile Nile Delta show that change at the top will be irrelevant to real freedom if it is not joined by the institutional development that protects rights and provides clear, peaceful means to settle grievances.
In the decades since Egypt's independence, the grievances of the working poor have occasionally flared but rarely coalesced into a broader movement, making it easier for the government to isolate democracy activists in the capital.
But if these groups begin to back the movement for change, President Mubarak's regime could face trouble.
Such small, seemingly isolated incidents like the one in Sarando - an impoverished town of rickety homes nestled in the delta's flat farmlands and crisscrossed by dirt irrigation canals - are becoming increasingly common on Egypt's farms. At least 24 million of the country's 70 million people still make their living working plots that are usually smaller than five acres.
Two weeks ago, two landowners were killed and 40 peasants arrested in a land dispute 50 miles away from Sarando, just outside the town of Damanhur.
According to the Land Center for Human Rights, an advocacy group, there were 49 deaths and 430 arrests in land disputes last year, a growing trend as Egypt changes its laws to a more market-oriented capitalist model, allowing big lander owners to sell and aggregate their holdings into bigger and more efficient farms.
While the facts are almost always disputed, peasants and their advocates allege that the police usually side with large landowners, and action is taken in most cases to prevent peasant protests and deny them access to the court of public opinion.
Though Sarando's peasants have been released from prison, many have complained beatings at the hands of the police. Nafissa Zakaria, one of the arrested villagers, died in hospital a day after her release. She was 38 years old.
Some of the farmers say they were pressed by police to sign documents acknowledging Nawar's ownership of the land. Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel-Wahed conducted a brief investigation into Ms. Zakaria's death, saying all evidence pointed to natural causes.
"What happens with the peasants and farmers will be the real litmus test of political change in Egypt,'' says Karem Saber, director of the Land Center for Human Rights. "Right now, liberalization is just for big businessmen. Workers aren't free to unionize, and farmers can't form cooperatives or associations to protect themselves."