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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

Civil Society and the Uncivil State: Land Tenure Reform in Egypt and the Crisis of Rural Livelihoods

In this paper, Ray Bush examines the impact of recent changes in the relationship between landowners and tenants in Egypt. He does so by looking at Law 96 of 1992, which revoked rights of tenure that had been a hallmark of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s social revolution. In this context, 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. Bush also considers the declared intentions of the government and donors (the United States Agency for International Development—USAID, and the World Bank, in particular) 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 the government of Egypt has declared the importance of widening political participation, and donors have stressed the need for an expansion of what they call civil society, concrete evidence of either is lacking. This raises two immediate questions related to Egypt’s rural areas that the government is reluctant to address. 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 (CSOs) 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 democratisation.

Bush claims that recent years have seen political deliberalization. There has been a narrowing of the possibility for political action independent of the state. According to the author, the state continues to determine what constitutes formal political practice—the extent to which a political party can recruit new members, hold meetings and organize democratic opposition to the regime, for example.

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 wider rights to land. He examines the violence that took place in Egypt’s 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.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 30 May 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD