Egypt: Rebellion against the Free Market

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For over half a century the small Egyptian village of Kamshish in the Nile Delta has been a battleground between Egypt's landlords and its impoverished peasant farmers.

The British-backed monarchy which ruled the country before the revolution of 1952 was propped up by a handful of rich landowners - some of them honoured with the title Pasha - who lived like feudal lords on their estates. Today children and grandchildren of the last generation of Pashas are returning as part of the neo-liberal onslaught on the world's farming poor. Shahinda Maqlid's husband, Salah Husain, was assassinated by the landlords in 1966. Today she is facing a jail sentence as the same landlord family which killed her husband tries to stop her campaign for peasants' rights.

"The landlords have been evading the land reform laws ever since they were passed in 1952. These laws distributed land to the poor peasants, giving them secure rights to cultivate their farms," Shahinda explains. In the 1990s the Egyptian government removed controls on land rents, and gave the landowners the right to evict tenants who did not pay the full market rent. "This law was brought in under the name of the free market in agriculture and globalisation. It is all about the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund. They have got rid of all the laws which allowed the peasants to carry on farming."

In many villages peasant farmers have bowed to the pressure and either paid or been forced off their land. But resistance is growing, Shahinda says. "The landlords are trying to take the land by force with the help of the police and the security services. They are using all their financial and political power to take the peasants' land. But the peasants are resisting. They are refusing to leave and are occupying the land." A movement in solidarity with the peasants has also sprung into life. "We've set up a committee to defend the peasants including lawyers, journalists and peasants," says Shahinda. "And we've begun to win victories. In Fayyoum we won a court case, and then committees were set up in Kamshish and Mit Shahala. We began to win wide support for the peasants and build solidarity. One of the cases we took concerned the lands of the Fiqhy family in Kamshish."

Resisting the landlords

It was this same family which dominated Kamshish during Shahinda's childhood. "Before the revolution of 1952 there was a landlord in the village who ruled over the peasants as a tyrant. After 1952 one of the slogans of the July Revolution was 'Down with feudalism'. So a group of villagers, including Salah Husain, began to encourage people to resist, and encouraged the peasants to demand the land which had been taken from them. When the state was unable to protect them, the peasants took up arms themselves to resist the landlords."

The story of Kamshish is being repeated today in Sarandu, a village in Bahariya province. The landlord, Salah Nawwar, sent armed thugs to destroy their crops and attack their families. In March 2005 lawyers were set to obtain copies of documents proving that the peasant families who have tilled the land for generations are the legal owners of areas of the village claimed by Nawwar. Police besieged the village, arresting and abusing men, women and children. One woman, Nefissa Zakaria, died shortly after being released from police custody.

"It was clear that one of the police officers was leading the campaign against the peasants in the village," explains Shahinda. "I visited the village, and it was like a ghost town. The women were in hiding and the men were on the run." In response to the terror, the villagers armed themselves. During a clash with the landlord's armed thugs, a relative of Nawwar's was killed, leading to another police siege of the village, and another round of arrests.

Shahinda now also faces the prospect of jail, after being sentenced to six months for libelling the Fiqhy family of Kamshish. Shahinda's lawyers are appealing the verdict on 15 June. "There is an Egyptian magazine called Nusf al-Dunya, which published an interview with me. They asked me about my life and the battles that I've taken part in, the campaigns I've built, why I've won the confidence of the peasants. So I told them about what I've lived through, including my part in the battle with this landlord family. This family, in order to terrify the peasants, sued me for defamation. But they won't succeed. There is fantastic solidarity here in Egypt."