In attempt to increase the political weight of Egypt’s farmers, NGO the Sons of the Soil has been hosting workshops throughout various governorates to provide extensive educational services on how to develop and implement an influential, bottom-up farmers union.
The Sons of the Soil has been fighting for farmers’ rights since the mid-nineties, when legal changes favored the interests of private business owners over farmers — particularly with Law 96/1992 concerning the relationship between the owners and tenants of agricultural land.
According to Mahmoud al-Mansy, spokesperson for the NGO, Egypt has yet to see a union that is representative of farmers’ real needs, and that any previously established unions — during the Mubarak era or post-25 January — are not influential enough or are established for appearance only.
The workshops, which have so far been held in five out of Egypt’s 27 governorates (Alexandria, Daqahlia, Sharqiya, Gharbiya and Beni Suef) offer farmers a crash course on legal and human rights issues and access to health services and agricultural products, among other issues that affect them.
The farmers are advised to create councils in each governorate, the elected leaders of which would constitute a new farmers union. Organizers hope the formation of the union will pressure Parliament to ensure farmers' rights and improve their working environments.
Since the first session of the People’s Assembly last month, the Sons of the Soil have been coordinating with MPs sympathetic to the cause, such as Second Deputy Speaker Abdel Aleim Dawood and leftist Abul Ezz al-Hariri, among others.
“Farmers have no protection and very little rights,” Hariri told Egypt Independent. “On any day, they could wake up to find their livelihood taken away from them. With a functioning Parliament, their issues are some of the most important issues that need to be addressed.”
The workshops are also bringing farmers together and facilitating the election of union leaders.
“We are educating and empowering them so that they can govern and represent themselves,” says Mansy. “Educating, not manipulating, because it is crucial that this union be for the farmers, by the farmers; something Egypt has never seen.”
Khalil Reda, a farmer from Daqahlia Governorate working with the initiative, says the majority of farmers don’t recognize that they have political rights equal to that of every other Egyptian, and that many of those who do have become jaded after decades of negligence and rights abuses.
The workshops also work with illiterate farmers who are often left at the political whims of those looking to exploit them for their own interests. Mansy alleges that many illiterate farmers were misled during recent parliamentary elections by campaigners pretending to help them with their voting cards.
“This is just one recent example of abuses that have to be officially challenged,” says Mansy.
The union expects its first branch to open within the next two months after it has made the rounds to all the governorates, though the Sons of the Soil expect that it will be another year until it is fully established. The NGO says workshops will continue indefinitely.