Discontent flaring in rural Egypt
A lack of democracy under Mubarak leaves few outlets for peaceful resolution of disputes.
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Trouble on the land has been a recurrent theme in Egypt's history. The grain surpluses that made the great pyramids possible in Pharaonic times were generated by mandatory crop-sharing with the government, and until independence, agricultural workers were largely serfs tied to the land.Skip to next paragraph
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But Egypt's first president, the socialist-leaning Gamal Abdul Nasser, imposed strict limits on private land holdings starting in the 1950s, taking much of Egypt's arable land into trusts that rented to tenants at fixed and low rates.
But this system had severe drawbacks of its own, and in the past decade Mubarak's government, led by a team of free-market-oriented officials clustered around his son Gamal, has sought to concentrate land holdings into what they say will be more productive larger farms.
But such moves have sparked instability and violence in the countryside, given a stagnant economy and the limited job opportunities for dispossessed tenant farmers.
As Nasser's halfhearted land reforms - which took land into trust but left nominal ownership in the hands of the original holders - have been rolled back, rural education and communications have improved, giving once-illiterate peasant farmers a keener understanding of their theoretical rights and how they fit into Egyptian society.
Government officials and economists argue that liberalizing Egypt's land market will revive its banking system, making loans more available and creating jobs that could ease the shock of change.
But Egypt's gross domestic product has grown at a rate of 3 percent or less in recent years - half the rate annually that economists estimate it needs to reverse rising unemployment.
Mubarak, in a rare television interview earlier this week, said he was frustrated that average Egyptians don't see the long-term merits of his approach and appealed for patience.
The dispute over land in Sarando has been simmering since 1997, when the laws changed to allow former land owners like Nawar to petition the government to regain full control of their land. Nawar, who lives in Alexandria, says large landholdings have been in the family for "centuries," a claim underscored by the family's sprawling Moorish-style mansion in a palm grove a few miles from the tin-roofed huts of Sarando.
A tough and vigorous man who retired as the director of a government-owned textile trading company a few years ago, Nawar says he became more involved in trying to get his family's old holdings back after the law changed.
"Our land was put under government protection by Nasser the leftist in 1965," says Nawar, his arm in a sling - a result, he says, of the peasant attack in March. "But in 1972, the land was released to us again. Most of our farmers have paid rent without any problems. I'm very well liked in town."
He says a smaller group of families have always refused to acknowledge his ownership, and that while he tolerated this for years, he can't afford too anymore. "The economic situation isn't good in Egypt, and I have bills to pay,'' he says.
The real problem in Sarando, he says, generously dishing out lunch in his son's elegant Alexandria apartment, is the activism of outsiders, which he says started late last year.