Amidst little fanfare, Egypt commemorated its National Farmers’ Day on Tuesday, marking 62 years since populist agrarian reforms were introduced by the country’s military leadership on September 9, 1952.
However, Egypt’s 12 million farmers do not appear to have much to celebrate this year, and this symbolic commemoration appears to have gone largely forgotten.
Unlike Labor Day – which is officially celebrated on May 1 – September 9 is not a paid holiday away from work.
Osama al-Khouli, a farmer from the Nile Delta governorate of Monufiya told Mada Masr that “National Farmers’ Day is no longer celebrated or even recognized as a holiday in our governorate.”
“The condition of Egypt’s small farmers seems to be moving from bad to worse,” he added.
“The commemoration of Egypt’s farmers ended after the days of [former President Gamal] Abdel Nasser, and is no longer of any real relevance in Monufiya, or the other governorates.”
After overthrowing the monarchy in July 1952, populist agrarian reform laws were issued by the then-ruling Free Officers within weeks of their military coup.
Celebrations, as well as the recognition of the rights of peasants and farmers, followed in September 1952, along with attempts to limit mass land ownership by feudalist families – who controlled a majority of the agricultural land and production.
The Free Officers’ Movement decreed the establishment of state-sponsored agricultural cooperatives for farmers working on less than five feddans (little over five acres), while a maximum limit for land ownership – 300 feddans – was imposed on large land-owning families.
However, most of these reforms have since been turned back under the regimes of Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak and their successors.
In an interview with the privately owned news website Al-Mogaz on Tuesday, farmer Ramadan Gamal said: “We don’t know when Farmers’ Day is commemorated,” adding that it is of little significance to him.
“We feel forgotten and marginalized,” Gamal claimed, adding that National Farmers’ Day is merely a “symbolic state commemoration.”
“In reality,” he added, “the state doesn’t care about our rights.”
Khouli explained that over the past few decades, peasants and small farmers across Egypt have been demanding – and occasionally protesting for – access to affordable chemical fertilizers, improved irrigation networks, the sale of their produce to the Ministry of Agriculture for adequate or profitable prices, the provision of empty plots of state-owned land (for reclamation and farming), along with the lifting of interest or accumulated-debts from agricultural loans from banks.
“We’ve witnessed little to no action from the state in terms of assisting needy farmers,” Khouli said. “The Ministry of Agriculture and its cooperatives appear to have washed their hands of our many grievances.”
“In Monufiya, the globally renowned long-staple cotton is disappearing from our fields. This is a phenomenon that is happening nationwide, and is also affecting our production of textiles. Both Egypt’s agricultural and textile industries now face a grim future,” he warned.
Khouli and his late father, Abdel Meguid, were central to the founding of the Independent Federation of Egyptian Farmers over three years ago.
The Egyptian state did not recognize the establishment of unions and federations for farmers or peasants until the January 25 uprising in 2011 when, of their own initiative, several different farmers’ unions emerged nationwide.
“There are many farmers’ unions which claim to represent farmers, yet they actually represent certain political parties or governmental interests,” Khouli claimed.
One of these prominent organizations is the Egyptian Farmers’ Union, which was founded late last year under the auspices of former agriculture minister, Mohamed Abu Hadeed.
The Egyptian Farmers’ Union has featured prominently in the country’s mainstream media outlets, while other farmers’ unions and federations have largely been ignored.
Over the past year, Osama al-Gahsh has run the organization. Under him, the union has openly denounced former President Mohamed Morsi and mobilized farmers to vote “yes” in January’s constitutional referendum and then again in the presidential elections in May.
The union is also currently busy promoting the New Suez Canal Project, championed by President Abdel Fatth al-Sisi.
Despite their support for Sisi, the incumbent president was reportedly unable to attend Tuesday’s commemoration of National Farmers’ Day, according to local media reports.
Egypt’s mainstream media focused much of its coverage of the commemoration on the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamist group’s calls for protests the same day.
Privately owned website Al-Bawaba reported on Tuesday that the “Brotherhood’s terrorist society” sought to further destabilize the country, and “instigate social unrest for their own political ends” – thereby exploiting the historic commemoration of National Farmers’ Day.
However, very little of the aforementioned unrest – if any at all – was reported in other media outlets today.