Land Ownership and Reform
On the eve of the 1952 Revolution, ownership of land was
heavily concentrated in a few hands, more so than in the twenty
preceding years. About 0.1 percent of owners possessed one-fifth of
the land and 0.4 percent controlled one-third, in contrast to the
95 percent of small owners with only 35 percent of the land. In
addition, 44 percent of all rural inhabitants were landless. Egypt
as a whole was experiencing political instability, which was
manifested in the countryside in the growing insecurity of property
and in peasant resistance and demand for land. Although several
land reform bills were presented to the Egyptian parliament, for a
variety of reasons none passed.
The task of mending conditions in the countryside thus passed
to the new regime, which in 1952 initiated a phased land reform
program that targeted the property of the upper class of
landowners, dubbed "feudalists" by the government, for
distribution. The 1952 land reform law limited individual
ownerships to 200 feddans. The beneficiaries were to be
tenants, estate workers, and the poorest villagers. The law also
fixed rents, set tenancy duration at a minimum of three years, and
established a minimum wage.
The 1952 law was followed by others in 1961 and 1969 that aimed
at deepening the reform and further reducing the maximum size of
landownership. The ceiling was reduced to 100 feddans in
1961 and to 50 in 1969. The land reform was implemented with a
reasonable measure of success, perhaps because its aim was somewhat
modest. More than 700,000 feddans were distributed (864,500
feddans according to official statistics), or about 12
percent to 14 percent of the cultivated area, and more than 341,000
families, primarily tenants who presumably were more skillful at
farming than other workers, received land. The pyramid of
landownership was truncated at the top and widened at the base:
whereas large holdings were not entirely eliminated, the share of
those owning fifty feddans or more dropped to 15 percent,
and 95 percent of owners came to control 52 percent of the land
instead of the 35 percent they had owned before the reform.
Official accounts indicated that this general picture remained
relatively stable in 1984, with a slight reduction in the area
owned by the upper stratum of those with fifty or more
feddans. However, the number of small owners, those with
fewer than five feddans, increased to nearly 3.29 million in
1984 from 2.92 million in 1961, while the area they owned dropped
from 3.17 million feddans to 2.9 million feddans.
This suggested that land fragmentation worsened, as a result of the
continual division of land among heirs in accordance with Islamic
inheritance laws. Land reform laws in Egypt never had a land
consolidation component as they did, for example, in Jordan. The
number of landless families also rose because of population growth.
Students of agrarian Egypt had not resolved satisfactorily whether
the middle strata, those who owned between eleven and fifty
feddans, shrank after the reform.
Land tenure, however, rather than landownership reflected how
land was actually operated in Egypt. Land was either operated by
the owner with family and/or hired labor, rented for cash, or
sharecropped. The system was complex in that the same person might
be engaged in several arrangements at the same time. The
operational unit was called the hiyazah (holding);
(see below) kept records of such holdings in allocating
government crop quotas and amounts of subsidized inputs.
The tendency was for the number of holdings to be smaller than that
of ownerships, indicating that a measure of consolidation took
place in practice. Nevertheless, the average size of a holding was
probably less than two feddans by the end of the 1970s; no
figures were available subsequently.
The rapid changes that occurred in Egypt after 1975 and the
increasing mechanization and intensification of agriculture led
some scholars to conclude that landownership might no longer be the
sole instrument of land control or wealth. Land leasing and
ownership of other assets, such as tractors, were also significant
To implement its agricultural policy, the government at the
outset established agricultural cooperatives in rural areas.
Initially, only land recipients were obligated to join; by 1962 all
farmers were required to do so. The cooperatives performed several
functions. They consolidated resources through distribution of
inputs; preserved private incentives, such as profits; determined
responsibility for planting government quotas of particular crops,
such as cotton; and bought the government share of procurement
crops at prices fixed by the government. The cooperatives, on the
one hand, enhanced agricultural growth by encouraging farmers to
use fertilizers and other inputs and to adopt the three-year crop
rotation that the Ministry of Agriculture considered ecologically
superior to the traditional, two-year rotation
(see Cropping Patterns, Production, and Yield
, this ch.). On the other hand, the
cooperatives came under the control of the well-to-do farmers.
There was also evidence of widespread corruption among those who
managed cooperatives. Their role was downgraded under Sadat, and
more prominence was given to the Principal Bank for Development and
Credit. The role of the cooperatives diminished further in the
1980s as the government relaxed its controls over agriculture.
Agriculture grew at respectable rates after the land reform and
the universalization of cooperatives. It was difficult, however, to
tell how much of the credit should go to these two factors and how
much to investments in irrigation and other inputs.
Data as of December 1990