For the first time in Egypt's history, the last four months have seen tens of thousands of peasants and farmers formally establishing unions and federations to defend their rights. These associations have been established in 16 governorates from Aswan to Alexandria. But questions remain about whether these agrarian associations can make their presence felt.
The first independent union was established on 13 May. Since then, numerous initiatives have emerged in attempts to organize in defense of peasants' and farmers' interests.
This is not an entirely new trend. Initiatives to establish farmers' unions date back nearly 30 years, but they have traditionally been met with official resistance and outright rejection from President Hosni Mubarak's Manpower and Agriculture ministries. With the onset of the revolution, political players, including leftist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, have been involved in these organizational initiatives.
"Since the 25 January revolution numerous groups of farmers and activists have come forth with initiatives to establish independent unions and federations,” said Shahinda Miqlad, a veteran farmers activist.
Miqlad is a founder of the recently established Independent Federation of Egyptian Farmers, which is still in its early stages. This federation has its roots in the first general assembly of farmers' unions, which was convened on 30 April, 1983. The state refused to recognize the union.
“We're still in the process of collecting notarized signatures from farmers nationwide to officially establish our federation as a viable entity able to represent farmers, and to protect their rights," Miqlad said. Thousands of signatures have already been gathered, Miqlad said, who hopes the group will collect thousands more.
The Independent Federation of Egyptian Farmers is temporarily headquartered in the village of Kamshish, in the Nile Delta governorate of Monufiya. This village and its farmers have a long history of anti-feudal resistance. Miqlad's husband, Salah Hussein, was killed in such an act of resistance in April 1966.
The federation seeks “cooperation and coordination among farmers, to have them organize themselves independently of the state and its municipal councils. We are also aiming for agricultural self-sufficiency in Egypt, along with the protection of farm lands from unplanned urban encroachments, and to confront poverty in all its forms, to raise the living standards of farmers nationwide," Miqlad said.
The Muslim Brotherhood had announced the establishment of a similar federation in May, but little is known about this endeavor. The Brotherhood's labor affairs spokesman could not be reached for clarification regarding the initiative.
Miqlad dismissed questions about cooperation between the Brotherhood and left-wing forces on agriculture issues.
"There is no such thing as Muslim Brotherhood farmers and leftist farmers,” she said. “We seek a democratic unionist federation amongst all farmers, independent of all parties and religious platforms. We seek the unity of all Egyptian farmers. The farmers must organize themselves by themselves and for themselves, not for this or that political current."
But some are skeptical of the organization's viability.
Khaled Badawy, director of the Rural Studies Center, said the unionization of peasants and farmers is long overdue. But Badawy has concerns about the current configuration’s future.
"The farmers' federations being organized by the leftists and by the Muslim Brotherhood are both likely to fail if they do not democratically represent farmers, their interests and their aspirations," he said.
“Such unions or federations cannot succeed if they are organized from above by political actors who are not farmers," said Badawy.
"Their success is contingent upon their ability, or inability, to improve farmers' working conditions,” he said. “This will be determined by the actual number of members, their organizational bylaws, their electoral process and democratic policies, and by their services in fields, towns, villages and hamlets."
Badawy went on to say that both federations have exaggerated their membership figures.
"If these federations do not place a cap on land ownership as a guideline for membership, then members' interests will conflict with one another. A large land-owning farmer does not have the same interests as a landless peasant – on the contrary."
Some farmers have spoken of establishing a land-ownership cap as a condition for membership in the Independent Federation of Egyptian Farmers.
"We would like to have a limit on land-ownership, specifically 10 feddans or less, as a precondition for membership in our federation," said Bassiouny Harb, a small-farmer from the Nile Delta City of Tanta.
Harb claimed that there are some 1500 farmers in and around Tanta who have submitted their signatures to join the Independent Federation, while an additional 3000 to 4000 have expressed interest in joining but are waiting to see what services and benefits are provided.
"If the federation and its local unions prove capable of assisting farmers in safeguarding their lands and livelihoods, then the number of members will increase exponentially,” Harb said.
Amgad Faramawy, a small-scale farmer from the Nile Delta City of Mansura, said the federation has collected over 5000 signatures in Daqahlia Governorate for membership.
"We farmers expect this federation to assist us in acquiring the lands on which we have been laboring for decades,” Faramawy said.
"We labor on this land like our ancestors before us, yet it does not belong to us. It is state-owned land affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Endowments. The ministry refuses to grant us this land; instead, it sells off large plots of farm land, along with buildings, homes and other properties… to private investors," he said.
Faramawy explained that the federation can best prove its credentials by defending the rights of small farmers and landless peasants. "Members of the federation have recently supported five farmers who were arrested while protesting outside the cabinet. It has organized for their release. This is the sort of work which will help the federation gain members,” he said.
Mohamed al-Shendy, a farmer in Alexandria, said that the federation has collected about 2000 signatures in that governorate, but they still lack a local union office.
Shendy hopes that the federation will benefit local farmers economically.
"Chemical fertilizers cost LE70 per sack, but the agricultural cooperatives sell them at LE75. Traders will sell you a sack for LE150. We want our unions to help provide chemicals to us poor farmers." he said
"We hope that the federation will help us in the distribution of our produce at good prices. We hope that the federation will supply us with agricultural machinery and services, and we hope it will protect the rights of farmers which have been trodden upon for… centuries."