Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (641)
Sons of the earth
The 1938 government saw itself the saviour of farmers, whose plight the previous cabinet ignored. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty became the document through which their situation would be brought to the nation's attention, as Professor Yunan Labib Rizk relates
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The fellah has, until today, been the primary victim of the tragedy of capitulations
In its 12 January 1937 issue, Al-Ahram printed the text of an address given the night before by "Daughter of the Shore", Aisha Abdel-Rahman, who later became a PhD holder. The relationship between Abdel-Rahman and Al-Ahram was not new, and in fact Al-Ahram remained her chosen writing venue for the rest of her life. On this particular occasion, she had selected as her topic "Our duty towards the fellah [farmer]".
This young lady's focus on the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty's effects on peasant farmers, or fellahin, was attention grabbing. Yet it was also not unusual, for Egyptians have always been accustomed to tying major political events to the affairs of their daily lives, sometimes even in an irrational manner, as occurred some 40 years later following the signing of a peace treaty with Israel (1979) when some thought that the pact would solve Egypt's economic and social problems. This particular conception turned out to miss the mark, however. Such events should remain within their natural scope; it was merely a political act ending a long conflict, or perhaps not even ending it.
But let us return to Abdel-Rahman and her conception of the treaty's effects on the greater part of the Egyptian people, the fellahin. She said, "today Egypt stands between two eras: an era that has passed and was all struggle, and the coming era, which we hope will also be replete with struggle. The turn of demands is over, and the turn of choice and transformation has come. This is one of the most difficult in the history of nations seeking glory. Gentlemen, we are in need of piercing, discerning eyes that can penetrate the veil of hypocrisy wrapping the vulgar toil of the Egyptian countryside that disregards the dressed up, beautiful cities to focus on villages, as though they hold the elements destructive to Egypt's glory."
The means of meeting this goal, according to Abdel-Rahman, was to prepare fellahin for anticipated reform, a preparation that entailed three parts. The first was to make fellahin aware of their humanity through the saving of money and the maintenance of minimal living standards. The second was to reform the system of governance in the countryside, and the third was to spread agricultural education in villages through programmed radio broadcasts and secondary agricultural education.
In all of this, there is nothing of any relation to the treaty whose ink had not yet dried. Yet one paragraph of her paper included the following: "Following its application, Egypt will be freed of the restrictions of the capitulations it was subjected to for a period of time, and it will be able to earn new monetary gains from the taxes imposed on foreigners. As the fellah has, until today, been the primary victim of the tragedy of the capitulations, the time has come for this exhausting burden to be thrust from his shoulders, and this is the path to making him aware of his humanity." This would thus meet the first part of the fellah 's preparation for reform.
In any case, this seminar re-opened the file of the Egyptian fellah one that only closed to be reopened. This is made clear by a review of the Egyptian newspapers at that time, and particularly Al-Ahram, which, in keeping with its commitment to political neutrality, opened up large sections of its pages to economic and social issues, among which were issues related to the fellahin.
The most unusual aspect of this young lady's presentation was her opening attempt to explain the reasons for the Egyptian fellah's acceptance of oppression and patience with injustice. These reasons were that the fellahin had "been raised on land for which the vigilant care of the oppressed had been invalidated due to the lengthy time that educated Egyptians have been preoccupied with their disasters to the exclusion of others and the time that pious leaders have been preoccupied with battling the usurping occupiers to the exclusion of heeding the class of fellahin as it falls into a deep chasm of oppression and servility."
The second part of the preparations Abdel-Rahman called for in order to reform the fellah 's circumstances was reform of the system of village governance through ending the permanence of the post of village chief. She rejected the call of some at that time to wrest all power from the hands of village chiefs as that would result in the spread of chaos and subject the fellahin to more despotic authority "represented by evil persons and criminals who highly value their bullies and undertake a life of crime." She called for the system of governance in villages to rely on the principle of "making the best selection of a chief to start with. Then there would be no danger in widening the circle of his responsibilities as long as his power is contained by guarantees for the protection of the rights of the fellah."
The most important of these guarantees, as outlined in the address of this famed orator, was to limit the term of the post of village chief to five years so that they could win the confidence of residents. This would also provide an opportunity to remove them from their post if they lost their legal minimum of property, "or if he let himself be tempted to misuse his power and exploit small farmers in an oppressive manner." Yet despite her inclination towards submitting the selection of village chiefs to the system of direct election, Abdel-Rahman demonstrated fear of that because this very system, as she said, "opens the arena to rancor, malice, and shameless retribution. It is better to leave the issue of the election of village chiefs to the village councils, whose term, in the necessity of their democratisation, it was insisted be limited to five years after which elections would be repeated."
With this solution, the Abdel-Rahman did not satisfy any of the political players in the field at that time. The system of direct election that she rejected was one of the Wafd Party's original demands that was opposed by the palace and the authorities at the British Embassy because they held that it would lead to the "Wafdicisation of the administration." In turn, her rejection of appointment in her speech angered Abdin Palace.
The third and final part to the fellah 's preparation, social reform, was presented as a four-point programme. It included the promulgation of a law that would preserve five feddans of land for every farmer in Egypt and not only for those who owned less than five feddans. She thus called for an agricultural reform law more than a quarter of a century before one came into existence. Her programme also called for the saving of money for fellahin to make them aware of their humanity through working to increase their productivity and by decreasing taxes following the imposition of the income tax, while not even thinking about imposing a single milleme on small landowners. Thirdly it involved the reform of the village governance system by establishing village councils and granting them the right to elect an appropriate and upright village chief "who writes well and owns at least 20 feddans of land". Finally, it included the preparation of a programme fit for broadcast and turning compulsory school programmes in the countryside into agricultural offices.
NOT A SHORT TIME HAD PASSED following this seminar before the fellahin 's concerns were forgotten amongst the ups and downs of a struggle between the Wafdist government and the palace. As had happened before, the matter ended with the dismissal of the government, followed by another cabinet loyal to the palace and led by Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha. This new government wanted to appear as though it were the saviour of the fellahin, whose concerns the previous government had forgotten. A few short days following the formation of the new government, on 25 January 1938, it took its first measures in facilitating "the treaty's fellah " through a decision to lighten the burden of new taxes on land property starting from the beginning of January "in consideration of the requirements of living standards for the majority of small landowners. It was incumbent upon the government to prepare for them means that would allow them to raise their living standards in keeping with the requisites of conditions for social advancement based on the spread of education and the widening of individuals' intellectual capacities."
The parliament decided that the tax reduction would be valid for five years at various rates. It would be 50 per cent if the tax per feddan did not exceed LE1.30 per cent, if the tax exceeded LE1 but was less than LE5 per year, and 20 per cent if the tax exceeded LE5 but was less than LE20. "It is estimated that the annual value of this reduction will total LE1 million."
Al-Ahram and the other newspapers welcomed this step taken by the Mahmoud government. Al-Ahram noted that even as the cries rose of those calling for reform and demanding means to raise the Egyptian countryside above the misery enveloping most of its populace "and from a state that is incongruent with the manifestations of speedy and noticeable development in the lives of city dwellers, the government has been able to pardon these farmers from paying LE1 million annually. This is a sum not difficult to arrange elsewhere. The interest taken over the last two years in implementing projects to assist fellahin in reforming their affairs in terms of health, science and construction is a source of comfort."
But this welcome was not limited to the newspaper itself. A number of writers contributed commentaries that demonstrated their defence of the fellah 's issues. At the head of them was Mohamed Zaki Abdel-Qader, who wrote a long article titled, "Reducing taxes for small landowners -- the first practical step towards saving the fellahin ". It was the opinion of this well-known writer that this approach was more useful than thinking about building model villages, connecting drinking water or similar types of projects that would not treat the source of the scourge but only reduce their symptoms and manifestations. He held that the salvation of the Egyptian fellah depended on two principles. The first was lightening the financial burdens of fellahin by reducing land taxes and cooperating with them to sell their harvests at the best prices. The second was to spread education among them.
Abdel-Qader added that these two principles were sufficient to solve many matters. The educated fellah would be concerned with raising his living standards, improving his home, and seeking out potable water. "In short, he will possess the behaviour of every educated person. He will know the dangers of filth and poor living standards. On the other hand, education alone is not sufficient, for it must go hand in hand with lessening the fellah 's financial burdens. One is useless without the other."
The reason presented for this was that if thought were only given to the education of the fellahin then their misery would be compounded, for education, by its very nature, would inspire them to think about a better living standard. Meanwhile, their filthy surroundings would drive them to think of emigrating from their villages, work and agriculture to turn to the city in search of work that would allow him to meet his ambitions for a better, more sophisticated life. "Harm is also dealt if thought is only given to improving the fellah 's living standards without addressing his education, for he would then be incapable of managing his affairs in an appropriate manner. He would remain the victim of ignorance and superstitions, and an easy bite for money lenders and swindlers."
The issue of the "treaty's fellah " soon became an object of interest for numerous classes of Egyptians. This fact led Al-Ahram to allocate a permanent section of its mail to readers' opinions on it. One reader preferred to sign with his classification rather than his name -- " fellah ". He did not deny the government's right to raise its moneys without abatement or in excess. And yet he wished that it would be merciful in the collection of these funds, for harshness drove fellahin into the arms of moneylenders. Administration officials had received instructions to bar farmers from transporting their cotton before receiving a statement from the treasurer that they had paid their required dues. " Fellah " asked how he was supposed to pay this sum as long as the cotton he depended on remained captive and useless and he had no right to sell it in order to be able to pay his taxes and debt. He then added that the government did not need to do this, for it held the right of concession over the fellahin 's land. He wrote that he would not sell his land through a public auction because it was his source of wealth and the basis of his life. "If the government doubts that, it is able to balance between its desire to guarantee its funds and gentleness with the fellahin. It can allow them to transport their cotton to the traders of their liking, or cotton rings, or the storehouses of the lending bank under protection of a guard. This would allow the fellahin to sell their cotton at a reasonable price and pay their government dues without having to resort to loans and borrowing."
Another reader, Hussein El-Habrouk, wrote from Damanhour on the same topic. He pointed out the harm caused to farmers by withholding their agricultural harvests to pay off government monies and agricultural bank debt as well as the costs of combating worms. "When most farmers were unable to meet these demands and the administration held back their harvests, they were forced to pay the fees of sequesters and the costs of judicial procedures for holding, selling, and transport. The costs of their harvests are not enough to meet this in any case." El-Habrouk urged the minister of finance to appreciate this situation and divide government monies and that of the lending banks into instalments to allow fellahin to make their payments and to ward off death and destruction.
A third reader called Mahmoud Abdel-Meguid wrote about the rent system and its relationship to the fellahin 's agricultural and economic circumstances. He took special interest in the Al-Menoufiya directorate given his experience gained from a lengthy residency there. Despite this directorate being known for its fertile land and crowded population, the overwhelming majority of its residents were extremely poor and forced to resort to renting land, a situation that had sown misery.
Large landowners exploited the fellahin 's need for their land by raising rent value up to LE12 per feddan in these circumstances. "The raising of rent value has been assisted by their tight rein and illegal subletting, which is when someone rents land and then rents it to someone else after keeping for himself an exorbitant gain in the rent value. To all this can be added the toils of cultivation and its many exhausting costs and crops being subject to drought, pests, and low prices, leaving the renting farmer after his long year's struggle with not enough to buy bread for his children." Abdel-Meguid ended his intervention with a request for the government to look into the rent system and to lighten the pressures on residents by sending the poor to under-crowded agricultural areas.
A lawyer from Alexandria, Mohamed Abdel-Latif, also wrote on this topic of interest. Because he was not a fellah, he wrote in a manner characterised by poetry more than realistic fact. It is sufficient here to quote the first lines of his intervention to understand its nature: "The Egyptian fellah is among the most wretched of people alive -- his clothes are worn, his food is corn bread, his drink is polluted, tainted water, his home is filthy and despicable, housing himself and his children as well as his livestock, animals, chickens and dogs."
"His work is more toilsome than anyone's and he exerts the most effort. He works in the field all his life and is never tired of it -- boredom does not creep in. He does not know the meaning of fatigue, is not harmed by the heat of summer, and is not pained by the cold of winter. Moreover, he remains simple, naive and gullible. This poor soul is the backbone of the Egyptian revolution, and has no saviour."
INTEREST IN THE AFFAIRS of the fellahin increased with the holding of an international cotton convention in Egypt starting on Wednesday 26 January 1938. This crop was the main support of Egyptian agriculture, and many grasped the opportunity to write on its history and its relationship with the Egyptian fellah.
The most interesting of that published by Al-Ahram on this matter was a long study published by Maamun Abdel-Salam on the contemporary history of cotton in Egypt. Abdel-Salam commenced his article with observations made by one of the scientists with the French occupation that it was within Egypt's capacity "if it finds someone to manage its affairs with reason and encourage its people, to open new doors that will allow in general good and gain for it extensive wealth through the cultivation of cotton, sugarcane and indigo."
Cultivation of jomil cotton spread during the era of Mohamed Ali. Accounts of how the crop entered Egypt differed. One told that it had come from India via a dervish, while another indicated a Frenchman had taken some of its seeds to present to Mohamed Ali. He told him that it was a new type of cotton that had been discovered and that if it were cultivated it would fill his treasuries with gold.
At first the fellahin shied away from planting this type of cotton due to their unfamiliarity with it and their long being accustomed to cultivating native cotton. Yet soon after they learnt of its value, its cultivation spread, its harvest reaching 30,000 kantar in 1823. Jomil cotton was cultivated across Egyptian territory and that it was most successful on land that maintained its moisture. Their means of cultivation was to soak the seed in water for 24 hours and then plant between two and four in a hole eight to 10 centimetres deep and about a yard apart and water it every 12 days. It would remain in the ground for three years, and be harvested twice a year.
The success of this crop encouraged Mohamed Ali to bring in new kinds of cotton from Malta. In the beginning, fellahin had to gin the cotton with a simple instrument that turned by hand and was called Al-Dulab, and clean it of dirt, particles, and knots with a carding bow. This continued until the era of Said Pasha, who introduced the American cotton gin. Following that, the fellahin packaged their cotton by pressing it with their feet into bales that weighed up to 219 pounds.
"The first cotton renaissance" was a description coined by Maamun Abdel-Salam for this crop in the era of Ismail. It was a renaissance that began as a result of the consequences of the American civil war in terms of a cotton shortage in the United States. This caused a serious crisis, and Ismail grasped this golden opportunity by increasing this crop's output from 600,000 kantar at the beginning of the war to 2.5 million kantar before its end. As the author of this study wrote, during those years Egypt was infected with "cotton fever," an episode that brought about its own consequences.
The most significant of these was Egyptians stopping the cultivation of grains and fodder, causing a decrease in the amount of wheat Egypt exported from 1.25 million ardeb in 1862 to nearly 8,000 ardeb in 1864. The year following that, no wheat was exported from Egypt at all. Added to this was a drought that struck Egypt, causing the government to rush to import grains of all kinds to feed both humans and animals. Grains arrived from Marseilles and Trieste, and yet this did not stop the market from being gripped with fear and prices rising.
Other consequences included the scarcity of fodder and the spread of plague among livestock. This increased sharply due to fodder being forsaken to prepare the land for the cultivation of wide swathes of cotton without taking interest in feeding livestock. Nearly 600 heads of livestock died, a fact that led the khedive to import a large number of horses from the Levant and Europe. Upon arrival, however, it turned out that they were weak and unfit for work, and so he imported a large number of water buffaloes from southern Russia. Most of them died en route "causing a severe deficit in nutritional meat and a critical shortage of milk and clarified butter, for which the fellahin suffered greatly".
This hardship was increased by the shortage of fodder forcing the fellahin to augment their cultivation of clover and delay the lessening of its irrigation in order to increase its number of cuttings. They planted it in August and continued to irrigate it throughout May and June. This resulted in an ideal environment for cotton leaf worms, which wrought devastation on the white gold.
Moreover, along with the types of foreign cotton brought into Egypt came pests the country had never seen before. The boll weevil appeared in 1865 and devastated crops.
The final of Abdel-Salam's articles was, "The relationship between the fellah and the cultivation of cotton", and the effect of permanent irrigation on the production of this crop. This kind of irrigation became common following the construction and rise of the Aswan dam and the construction of the Assiut and Aswan barrages. According to Abdel-Salam, this was a reason for the deterioration of the cotton crop and a drop in its yield. "The excessive moisture caused a decrease in yield per feddan, which dropped from 5.8 kantar in 1897 to 4.3 kantar in the period between 1904 and 1908. It thus became clear that the matter called for urgently improving the drainage system so that its projects would go hand in hand with those of irrigation."
In short, Abdel-Salam conveyed that the Egyptian fellah had long suffered and that his suffering was ongoing, until the time of his writing (1938). He suggested that this fact required a second consideration of the fellah 's life. Many parties attempted to do so following the signing of the treaty, but the desired results were not achieved. Political events do not always necessarily bring about economic and social results.