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.

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.

Disputes mount

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."

Dating back to the pharaohs

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.

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.

"What you have to understand is that the peasants aren't educated; they're very simple and it's been easy for the activists to brainwash them,'' he says. "The activists have lied to them, saying that the land isn't really mine, and have really stirred things up. So I had to call in the police."

He sighs, saying things have gone from bad to worse in the countryside. "There used to be a saying that you went to the countryside for morality, and the city for immorality. Now it's the exact opposite," he argues. "The farmers have lost their moral direction. I blame television and their lack of education."

Nawar says he reached a settlement with all the farmers last month. "I just want this to settle down, so we've agreed to let them stay on as sharecroppers. I think the peasants understand now that this was all the civil rights activists' fault."

A villager's fear

"Mohammed," a young man from the village who asked that his name not be used, has avoided his hometown since what everyone calls "the incident." He says the local police chief, Mohammed Ammar, will "punish" him if he returns home.

"This land is our land - we always had contracts with the Land Reform Institute,'' the government agency that administered land-reform efforts.

"Then in the late 1990s, Nawar's men started coming around again, demanding rents," he says. "He was like a little dictator; whole families were thrown out by him. My parents are illiterate. They didn't know their rights so they just paid sometimes. My generation knows our rights."

Mohammed says he and another group of young men started seeking legal help in January, and scoffs at Nawar's claims that they were brainwashed by outside activists. "We went looking for help because we know he wants us off," he says. "Land is everything to us, it's our food, our livelihood, and it prevents us from being thrown out into the world with nothing."

Talking to enough people to get an accurate and independent picture of what precisely happened in Sarando is difficult.

When the Monitor visited Sarando in early April, the men of the village stayed out of sight, an emissary later saying they were afraid of reprisals if they talked to more outsiders.

After about 20 minutes chatting while sitting on the floor with a group of women in a home bare of furniture or even a radio - and frequently interrupted by arguments between those who wanted to tell their stories and others who worried they'd "get in trouble" - Mr. Ammar, the district police chief, arrived, striding into the house and demanding all the outsiders' IDs.

Human rights activists have alleged the strapping Ammar, who goes about in civilian clothes, played a role in Zakaria's death. He denies that.

After about 15 minutes of questioning, in which Ammar provided Nawar's numbers, which were stored on his cell phone, the visitors were firmly told to leave, with warnings from Ammar that it's a dangerous place.

"This is for your own protection,'' he said. "We are the government here and there are people who are still wanted by us in the area."

Shortly before Ammar arrived, one of the village women stopped the interview. "Nawar claims this is his land, but he can't prove it," she said. "But I've been told that if I talk to outsiders, they'll hold my son in jail for another 15 days as punishment. I really don't think this is a good idea."

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