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Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper 9: Civil Society and the Uncivil State: Land Tenure Reform in Egypt and the Crisis of Rural Livelihoods

24 Jun 2004

  • Author(s): Ray Bush


The author, Ray Bush, explores the links between economic liberalization, on one hand, and political liberalization, on the other, specifically as they relate to rural Egypt—rural livelihoods, asset redistribution and, especially, land. The author also considers the declared intentions of the government and international donors relating to political liberalization and the role of rural civil society, and sets those intentions against actual outcomes in terms of political representation, participation in local institutions, rule of law, improvement of rural well-being and protection of rural livelihoods.

While Egypt has declared the importance of widening political participation, and donors have stressed the need for an expansion of civil society, evidence of either is lacking. This raises two questions related to rural areas. The first relates to the likely outcome of the state’s withdrawal from the provision of agricultural inputs. How have the fellahin (peasants) coped with the reduction of government support? The second question is whether civil society organizations have been able to substitute for the state’s withdrawal from agricultural provision, and whether this has ushered in a new era for political liberalization and democratization.

Bush claims that there has been political deliberalization—a narrowing of the possibility for political action independent of the state. According to him, the state determines the extent to which a political party can recruit members, hold meetings and organize democratic opposition.

This is the political context—referred to as the “uncivil state”—within which the author examines opportunities that have arisen for the fellahin, especially those dispossessed since 1997, to mobilize and promote their interests. Bush discusses issues raised by tenants who have lost land, and the consequences for their asset base, level of poverty, social exclusion and their rights to land. He examines the violence that took place in the countryside, especially after 1997, and assesses the extent to which that might be seen as indicative of protest within the realm of civil society, or as a new and different form of political mobilization. Bush shows that while donors and the government intended the 1992 reform of tenancy to promote improvements in Egypt’s land market and, in parallel, enhanced opportunities for rural political expression, this has not taken place. Moreover, market liberalization has generated greater rural poverty and unemployment, and has resulted in greater dependence on family resources for the fellahin.

Ray Bush teaches in the School for Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. He is an editor of The Review of African Political Economy.

Order PPCSSM 9 from UNRISD ($12 for readers in industrialized countries and $ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).