T. Cliff

The Problem of the Middle East

Part III
The Economic Structure of the Arab East

<p. 75>

Chapter IX
The Agrarian Question in Egypt

This chapter will describe the economic and social relations in Egyptian agriculture. First land property relations will be analyzed, then the development of the form of production in agriculture, and finally the class forces which are based on them.

I. Land Property Relations

The Egyptian Statistical Annual for 1942 gives the following tables of cultivated land distribution in Egypt for 1940:–

Size of Holding

No. of Owners


Total Area Held
(feddans [1])


Average Holdings

Less than 1 feddan






1–5 feddans






5–10 feddans






10–20 feddans






20–30 feddans






30–50 feddans






over 50 feddans












Thus 70 per cent of the landowners own only 12.4 per cent of the cultivated land, while 0.5 per cent own 37.1 per cent.

This table, however, had certain noteworthy deficiencies. Firstly, an owner of several parcels of land appears several times as proprietor in the statistics in question, if his parcels are situated in different fiscal administrative units. Secondly, all farms larger than 50 feddans are thrown together in one category with no details given of the divisions in it. If these deficiencies were not present, the degree of concentration would show up to be even more extreme. A complete census of farms free of these defects has been made only once. It is the agricultural census of 1929. Its only fault is that it does not differentiate between the farms according to their cultivated area, but according to their total area. The census gives the following picture of the large latifundia:–

Size of holdings

No. of holdings

Total Area Held

Average Holding

50–100 feddans




100–200 feddans




200–500 feddans




500–1,000 feddans




Over 1000 feddans








Thus 331 people own 1.5 million feddans, i.e. three times as much as one and a half million poor peasants own. A few colossal feudal lords have estates far larger than the average. Thus, for example, Emir Yussuf has 23,000 feddans. Egyptian economists also point out that the landowners own a major part of the areas where development schemes are undertaken, so that their lands are of the best quality too. A special place among the large latifundia owners is taken by the king. On coming to the throne King Farouk had private estates amounting to 28,000 feddans, and that excluding the 45,000 feddans which were in theory Waqf [2] lands, but the income of which was in practice at the disposal of the king.

A description of land property relations in Egypt is incomplete <p. 76> without a description of the special place taken by foreign capitalists. They appear mainly among the large estate owners, as the following table shows:–

Size of Holdings

No. of Holdings
(in 1000s)


Total Area Held
(1000 feddans)




% of F



% of F

Up to 50 feddans







Above 50 feddans















*E: Egyptians
*F: Foreigners

There are 27 Egyptians and 27 foreigners who own more than 2,000 feddans. Actually various companies own very much larger holdings: thus, for instance, Kom Ombo Company has 85,000 feddans. The regions in which foreigners own the maximum amount of land are: the Bukheira region in the Northern Delta area – about 32 per cent of the land; Aswan region in the South where the large dam is – about 35 per cent.

Besides the large feudal landowners and the foreign capitalist companies, an appreciable place in landownership is taken by the Waqf. In 1940, of the total agricultural area of Egypt, amounting to 5,841,011 feddans, the Waqf owned 662,700, or 11.3 per cent. In actuality about 90 per cent of the Waqf lands are private property, even if in name they are not so, being entailed estates belonging to the families of large landowners.

II. What is the Feudal Mode of Production?

For the existence of a feudal mode of production the following basic conditions were necessary: Firstly, the existence of a natural self-sufficient economy. The feudal lord’s estate was a unit which satisfied its own needs and had extremely weak contacts with the outside world. The production of agricultural goods for sale was the harbinger of the break-up of the feudal mode of production. Secondly, the land-cultivator had to be owner of the means of production. Thirdly, he had to be bound to the earth, for if the cultivator who owned the means of production was legally free, free of all ‘non-economic’ compulsion, he would not produce surplus products or do surplus labour for the feudal lord. The form and degree of this compulsion were different at different levels of development – from complete serfdom to more complex forms. Fourthly, a condition for the existence of the feudal mode of production, and also a result of its existence, was a backward technique, for the land was cultivated by peasants suffering from poverty, personal dependence and boorishness.

According to these four conditions, the Egyptian agricultural economy is far from being typically feudal. It is an economy of transition, complicated and rent with contradictions. We shall dwell on each point separately.

III. Egyptian Agriculture as an Economy of Transition

a) Agriculture and the Development of Commerce

Egypt’s transition from a natural economy to a commercial economy took place with the infiltration of goods from the West, with the contact of her feudal lords with European living standards, and with the pressure of heavy government taxes collected in money.

Various factors saw to it that the contact of Egypt’s agricultural economy with European markets did not bring with it a departure from feudal barbarity to a quick development of the forces of production.

Firstly, the transformation of the agricultural economy to a commercial one producing cotton was accompanied by Egypt’s financial subjugation to foreign capital. A large part of the agricultural product is used only as tribute. The increase of export, therefore, was not accompanied by an <p. 77> improvement in the fellah’s position, but by a greater exploitation and sucking of his blood.

Secondly, the fact that even before the agricultural mode of production in Egypt had fundamentally changed, it had become monocultural, so that the disturbances which passed over the capitalist world in the period of its decline (crises, the strengthening of autarchy, wars, etc.) to affect her most seriously. The following figures show the enormous fluctuations in Egypt’s cotton exports: 1913/14 – 100, 1914/15 – 60, 1919/20 – 255, 1921/22 – 122, 1924/25 – 206, 1928/29 – 161, 1931/32 – 66, 1936/37 – 104, 1940 – 67, 1941 – 55. Obviously this instability of Egyptian agricultural exports affects very badly the possibility of the accumulation of capital in the hands of the upper layers of peasants and their transformation into a layer of capitalist peasants.

Thirdly, the development of merchant and usurer’s capital in Egypt gave a push forward to capitalist development, but at the same time retarded it.

As Marx so brilliantly showed, merchant and usurer’s capital make up the same category of economic phenomena as industrial capital (the capital invested in production, both industrial and agricultural). Merchant and usurer’s capital are also historic forerunners of industrial capital and constitute a necessary condition of its appearance. And not only this. Merchant and usurer’s capital do not necessarily bring in their wake the dissolution of the feudal mode of production and its giving way before the capitalist mode of production.

‘To what extent it [merchant and usurer’s capital] brings about a dissolution of the old mode of production depends on its solidity and internal articulation. And to what this process of dissolution will lead, in other words, what new mode production will take the place of the old, does not depend on commerce, but on the character of the old mode of production itself.’ [3]

And if all other circumstances do not cause the rise of the capitalist mode of production in place of the old mode, then the development of merchant and usurer’s capital is in inverse proportion to the development of industrial capital. Merchant capital in itself does not bring about

‘a revolution in the old mode of production; it much rather conserves and retains it as a condition of its existence … It is everywhere a stumbling block on the course of the latter’s development. Without revolutionising the mode of production it but worsens the position of the direct producers; it transforms them into mere wage-earners and proletarians under even worse conditions than of those directly subordinated to capital and it appropriates to itself the latter’s surplus labour on the basis of the old mode of production’ (Das Kapital , III, p. 319) [3]

Thus merchant and usurer’s capital by itself caused the pauperization of the toiling masses, the increase of their exploitation on the basis of the old mode of production, and the conservation of outworn relations of production.

This came about in Egypt not only for the above-mentioned reasons, but also for two additional ones: the support that imperialism gives to the old economic and social forms and the special monopolistic position of foreign capital in the sphere of commercial and merchant capital.

In another part of the book we shall dwell at length on the first point. Here we shall deal with the position of foreign capital in the sphere of commercial and merchant capital.

The control of foreign capital over various channels of contact between Egyptian agriculture and the world market was a basic factor preventing much progress in the forces of production in agriculture accompanying the destruction of Egypt’s natural economy. The export of cotton is concentrated in very few hands. ‘For the year 1935/36 the six biggest British exporting firms alone accounted for 30 per cent of the total export of raw cotton from the country.’ (E. Monroe, The Mediterranean in Politics, London 1939, p. 32) Another agricultural product, the market of which is even more concentrated, is sugar cane, and it thus also has a monopolistic position over the buying of the sugar cane produced in Egypt.

<p. 78> In addition the Greek and Egyptian merchants do not lag behind in cruelly exploiting the poverty and illiteracy of the peasants. If the fellah’s position is very difficult and he is badly in need of money, he sells his produce without waiting for the season when the prices are highest. Very often his harvest is mortgaged before it is ripe even. The fellah has no conception of stock exchange prices and it is very easy for the merchant to swindle him. H. Habib-Ayrout relates that ‘Crédit Agricole’ pays 120 piasters for an ardeb of wheat, taking an ardeb as 150 kgs, while in the village an ardeb of wheat is 175 kgs. The fellah does not know that there is a difference between the ardeb in the town and in the village, and the merchant makes a profit not only from buying the wheat at lower prices than the bank pays, but also by falsifying the calculation of the weights. Sometimes in order to buy produce cheaply, the merchants also create a panic in the cotton market. Is there any wonder that the fellaheen call the merchants ‘Harami-al-Fai’ (robbers of the shade)?

Usurer’s capital is no greater a factor of progress for agricultural production. The banks do not give loans to poor and middle peasants. It is not worth their while to deal in direct transactions covering small sums with thousands of separate peasants, and it was made very much less worth their while by the ‘Five Feddans Law’, which allows the peasant to complain against the expropriation of his land because of a debt. This law defended the cultivator in theory but owing to the fellah’s economic position he was often in need of loans and this law only chained him faster to the usurer who takes loans on relatively comfortable terms from the banks and lends on his part at exorbitant rates to the fellaheen. H. Habib-Ayrout was not mistaken when he said that ‘the land debt is the cancer which devours the small owner.’ (Fellahs, Cairo 1942, p. 69) What a burden the interest constitutes for the fellah, this interest which sucks his blood, lowers his standard of life, deepens his poverty and illiteracy, may be realized if we remember that the average debt of a fellah’s family amounts to £E 40-50 while its yearly income only seldom reaches £E 20.

A great part of the surplus value produced in agriculture is taken by foreign land companies and mortgage companies. The former own about 8 per cent of all the cultivated land in Egypt. As regards the latter, the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture states in L’Égypte Agricole (1937) that the sum of mortgage debts in Egypt amounted to £E 35,000,000, and that the area of land mortgaged on receipt of these loans was 844,000 feddans, i.e. about 16 per cent of the whole cultivated area. And so we see that foreign capitalists have full control over about a quarter of Egypt’s entire agriculture. Obviously this capital, by squeezing out the surplus value for foreign pockets, holds back the development of the forces of production of Egyptian agriculture. Foreign capital employed in production brings about, only sporadically and to a very limited extent, a certain development of the agricultural economy. This, of course, cannot change essentially the parasitic function it fulfils in general.

The results of the mortgage credit are described by Professor Emile James in L’Organisation du Crédit en Égypte (Égypte Contemporaine, No. 186–187, 1939) as follows:

‘The burden of annual payments due to the creditors becomes more and more oppressive and the instances of eviction are progressively increasing. Hence a greater centralization and not decentralization of fixed property. The lands are passing into the hands of speculators and foreigners.’

Thus, for instance, in the course of only seven years, land amounting to the huge figure of 205,695 feddans, i.e. about 4 per cent of the total area of private land, was expropriated; and in the expropriation sales the prices were only 50 per cent of prevailing market prices. Foreign companies therefore make tremendous profits buying expropriated land and selling it back to the fellaheen and the landowners. A large part of the profits goes into the hands of local speculators. The burden of this speculation in no way spurs on the development of Egyptian agriculture, but only retards it.

The Egyptian economy is thus far from fulfilling the first condition of existence of a feudal economy – that it be a natural economy. But at the same time the transformation of the Egyptian agricultural economy into a commercial one is not accompanied by a great extension of the capitalist mode of production, but only by pauperization of the cultivators and the increasing pressure of the great latifundia. It is a regeneration of the past on the basis of the backwardness of the forces of production, the activity of the capital of the merchant and the usurer, the surplus <p. 79> agricultural population, etc.; and with its regeneration all the excrescences that grew upon it formerly also regenerate. And this in spite of the fact that in a limited section of Egyptian agriculture rapid progress took place towards capitalist methods of production, towards accumulation and concentration of capital; but this development too is subjugated mainly to foreign capital, and does not bring with it the all-embracing rule of capitalist relations of property and production free from the yoke of the former feudal system.

b) The ‘Freeing’ of the Toilers from the Land

We shall now examine whether the second condition essential for a feudal mode of production exists in Egypt’s agriculture: whether the cultivator is the owner of the means of production.

An examination of the development of land ownership shows us that during the thirty years 1910-1940 the number of those who had Lilliputian plots of less than a feddan, which are nowhere near sufficient to provide for a family, more than doubled itself, and in numbers rose from 782,639 to 1,765,702. The average area of each holding fell by 12 per cent, from 0.47 feddans to 0.41 feddans. At the same time the total area of all holdings of from 30 to 50 feddans rose by 9 per cent while the area of the large latifundia of more than 50 feddans fell by 12 per cent.

Thus the extent of poverty in the village rose tremendously, while the area of the holdings of the peasant bourgeoisie and capitalist landowners rose very little and the area of the large latifundia, which are in the main feudal, even fell to some extent.

We see, therefore, that the pauperization of the peasant masses is of much wider and more rapid incidence than the capitalization of the agricultural economy in Egypt.

This fact is brought into prominence not only from an analysis of the change in the relations of land ownership, but also by an examination of the implements of Egyptian agriculture. According to the agricultural census of 1929, there were 3749 steam and motor ploughs, 564,144 native ploughs, 569 threshing machines, 746 segregating machines, 7676 winnowing machines, and 302, 023 native threshing sledges. In the same year there were 331 holdings of over 1,000 feddans, 574 of 500–1,000, 2,272 of 200–500, 3,888 of 100–200, 8,377 of 50–100, and 27,545 of 20–50 feddans. Thus only a tiny minority of the large latifundia and farms of the village bourgeoisie employ modern means of production.

On the other hand, if we remember that there were 1,120,928 holdings of less than 20 feddans and that there were more than a million agriculturists without any land at all, we see that only a small minority of agriculturists owns even the most primitive means of production.

Thus the destructive phenomena bound up with the rise of capitalism – the ‘freeing’ of the toiler from the means of production – are here shown in all their force and intensity, while at the same time the accumulation of capital remains very backward.

c) ‘Non-Economic’ Compulsion

Does the third condition essential for a feudal mode of production exist in Egyptian agriculture – that the cultivator is subject to ‘non-economic’ compulsion?

The more the cultivator becomes free from the means of production the more the economic factors forcing him to create surplus value strengthen, and the less the landowner and the capitalist farmer need to maintain non-economic compulsion. But it would be wrong, on the other hand, to see in the Egyptian agriculturist a man freed from all personal dependence and all remnants of personal subjection.

According to law, he is supposed to be free except for diverse corvée <p. 80> labour for the benefit of the ‘community at large’ – war against insects, protecting the land from the overflow of the Nile, etc. But besides this there are also a number of other ways in which he is personally dependent. The fact that wide possibilities of absorption in the towns are not open to the villagers, and also the fact that many of them have parcels of land, albeit Lilliputian, put many obstacles in the way of their migration from place to place, and thus renew the personal dependence of the cultivator on the landlord, the rich peasant and the omdeh, a dependence now based on a new economic foundation. This new dependence is much more oppressive for agriculturists, as now it is not accompanied by any economic assurance whatsoever.

This dependence of the poor fellah is very clearly expressed in the relations that exist between him and head of the village, the omdeh, or between him and the maamour, who has authority over a number of villages and whose power is almost unlimited. Ayrout tells a characteristic story of this omnipotence: a certain peasant blessed the Khedive Abbas in these words: ‘May God save you and make you a maamour among us.’ As has already been said, the omdeh, elected from among the rich of the village, conscripts hundreds of the village poor for gratuitous work on his fields during an attack of worms, for dredging the irrigation canals, for building his house and for building the road for his motor car. He has at his disposal 20–25 ghaffirs, and his despotic position over the fellaheen is such that he can confine under arrest for 24 hours without trial, and can impose a fine not exceeding 15 piasters. At first sight this may seem quite a small sum, but, firstly, for the poverty-stricken villager it is quite a burden, and secondly, the omdeh can constantly repeat the imposition of the fines. The omdeh also has the right of judgment. If the fellah is not satisfied with his sentence he may in theory turn to some other court of law, but in face of his poverty, his inability to hire a lawyer, and his fear of the omdeh’s vengeance, he is mostly forced to submit to his sentence. The omdeh’s omnipotence reaches such proportions that there is no obstacle to any act of despotism or open pillage that he may desire to do. Thus one of the villagers relates to Ibneth-esh-Shati (Ar-Rif Al-Misri, p. 36):

‘The leader [of a robber band in the neighbourhood of the village] is from the same family as the omdeh. And all the while that he can rely on this relationship, he will rule over us. He will rob and attack, and no-one will question his deeds …’

Is there the necessity of any additional instances to show to what extent the village poor in Egypt have not been freed from non-economic compulsion, which is the fruit of the pressure of feudal property on the one hand and world capitalism on the other?

d) The Technique of Agriculture

A condition for the existence of the feudal mode of production, and at the same time a consequence of its existence, is a primitive technique and routine cultivation of the land. A decidedly major portion of Egyptian agriculture is still based on the most primitive methods of production. A description of the fellah’s implements will throw light on this.

In 1900 Legrain estimated the value of the fellah’s house as amounting to 7.4 francs, all the household utensils to 3.25 francs, and all his property (besides land) to 50 francs. Since then almost no change has taken place in the value of his property and especially not in his working implements.

His plough is very primitive, and not more modern than was the Pharaonic plough. It is made of wood and only scratches the surface of the earth. It costs £1. The fellah’s pump is able to raise the water to a height of only 50-60 cm, and seeing that the difference between the lowest level of the Nile and the banks is in some places six or seven metres, many pumps must be used, countless days of work thus being wasted. According to a calculation made, during the course of one twelve-hour day, it is possible to raise about 60 cubic metres with this pump, i.e. a quantity sufficient to irrigate an area of about a feddan. Thus, for example, if the difference between the level of the water and the field is 3 metres, then the irrigation of 5 feddans, the area necessary to sustain a family, will take 30 days. To work with this pump is very difficult, and even the strongest people cannot work it for more than three hours without a break.

<p. 81> As far as the big estates are concerned, a large part even of these are cultivated with very primitive means of production. On the one hand, the landowners cultivate portions of their lands as capitalist farms: they employ hired labour and invest much capital in agricultural machinery; on the other hand, they let other portions to small tenants who use primitive implements, or they employ workers using such means of production, or make a combination of the different means – using modern pumps for irrigation and drainage side by side with primitive ploughs; preparing the land for cultivation by the digging of canals, building of roads, etc., with the help of hired labour, and afterwards selling or letting tiny and medium parcels to peasants and tenants.

Nevertheless, in the midst of this welter of backwardness, primitivity and routine, some progress did take place. The use of chemical fertilizers rose from 0.1 kg per feddan in 1901 to 59.8 kg in 1933. A certain advance was also made in mechanization even if it was restricted to a small section of agriculture. As we have already shown, working side by side with hundreds of thousands of simple native implements, are some few thousands of modern steam and motor machines. Progress in agriculture has taken place, but the scale is very limited, as may be seen from the following figures of the import of agricultural machinery (in £E thousands):–


























Other Agricultural


















Notwithstanding its advances, the introduction of machinery has remained very limited. This will be brought into relief if we compare Egypt with some advanced capitalist countries. In the USA, the country with exemplary capitalist agriculture, the farmers bought machinery in 1929 amounting to $458 million (£92 million). In Germany, whose agriculture is far less developed, agricultural machinery amounting to 245 million marks (£12 million) was bought. Thus although the agricultural population of the USA is only three times larger than the Egyptian, and the German twice, the purchase of agricultural machinery in the USA was 450 times greater than that in Egypt in the year of the latter’s greatest purchasing of machinery, and in Germany 60 times greater.

To complete the picture of the general backwardness and poverty of Egyptian agriculture, a comparison is brought of the farm capital per capita of the working population in agriculture in different countries. (The figures for Egypt are for 1937, for the other countries for 1913):–

In International Units

















These figures do not bring the poverty of Egyptian agriculture’s inventory in comparison with other countries into sufficient relief, as the data for Egypt are for 1937 while those for the other countries for 24 years earlier, a period in which very great and even revolutionary changes took place in the agricultural technique of the advanced capitalist countries.

The ‘power of land’, i.e. the power of feudal property relations, still has a tremendous hold over the country, as may be seen if we compare the price of the total Egyptian agricultural land with the agricultural inventory. In the 1930 the price of Egyptian agricultural land was estimated at £E 670 million, while the total investment in farms was estimated at only £E 116 million.

<p. 82>

IV. Peasants, Tenants and Workers

The ‘freedom’ of the land cultivator from the means of production means, first and foremost, the proletarianisation of the tenants. And indeed the army of agricultural workers in Egypt has grown by leaps and bounds during the last decades, while at the same time the number of tenants not only did not rise in parallel, but even fell rapidly, and the number of owners rose, but less rapidly than the number of workers (1907 = 100):–










































Thus the number of tenants dropped to about one-fifth while the number of owners rose about four-fifths, and the number of workers more than trebled. The workers thus rose to become the decisive majority among all who earn their livelihood from agriculture.

Those earning their livelihood from agriculture were divided as follows (percentages):–





















Thus during the years 1907–1929 the army of agricultural workers rose at the expense of the tenants. During the same years the number of owners rose, albeit to a lesser extent, also at the expense of the tenants. From 1929 to 1937 the increase in the army of workers took place not only at the expense of the relative proportion of tenants but also at the expense of the owners. The proletarianisation affected not only small tenants, but also petty owners and their children.

As we have already mentioned, many of the agricultural workers in Egypt also own tiny plots. This does not alter the fact that they are proletarians, as their main income comes from the sale of their labour power. Even in the advanced capitalist countries a high percentage of agricultural workers have little farms on land belonging to them or rented by them or given them by their employers as part of their wages, and as a means of binding them to their place of work. The fact that a capitalist landowner who manages his farm and wishes to assure himself of working hands lets small plots to his workers, has an entirely different meaning economically to letting land when the landowner does so in order to get rent.

The patriarchal-personal relationship between the landlord and the tenant is more and more giving way to an impersonal relationship, and class relations are becoming freed from their cloak of tradition, even though, as has been said, the process does not take on its classical form as in advanced countries. Large numbers of workers work on a single farm. The process of production on a large farm, especially when mechanized, gradually brings with it the consolidation of the workers. Furthermore the creation of an agricultural proletariat is connected with the process of migration from village to village, district to district, village to town and back. There are not many statistics on this process in Egypt, but here and there data have been gathered. Thus the migration from Upper Egypt to Lower Egypt between 1917 and 1927 has been given as 254,000 people. This process of migration is a very important factor in the development of the proletariat. As Lenin said:

‘Migration is one of the most important factors which prevents the peasants from “gathering moss”, of which history has gathered too much for them already. Unless the population becomes mobile it cannot develop, and it would be foolish <p. 83> to think that the village school can give the people what they can learn from their independent experience of various relationships and conditions both in the South and the North, in agriculture and in industry, in the metropolis and in the remote provinces.’ (The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 294) [4]

Thus the agricultural proletariat is progressively becoming a class ‘for-others’ and the first shoots of its becoming a class ‘for-itself’ can also be noticed.

V. The Class Structure of the Agricultural Population

We shall now pass on to an analysis of the class structure of the Egyptian agricultural population. It is divided into the following groups:

  1. The agricultural proletariat – wage workers (seasonal, migratory or daily) who extract a livelihood from wage labour on farms, or in industrial enterprises connected with agriculture (seasonal workers in this type of industry are estimated at 50,000). In this group are included all those who have no land of their own or whose plot does not exceed one feddan.
  2. The semi-proletarians – ruined peasants who extract a livelihood partly from wage labour and partly from toil on a strip of land, their own or leased, which provides only part of the necessities of life. There is no clear boundary between groups 1) and 2). In category 2) are included nearly all the tenants, and also nearly all owners of plots of about 1–5 feddans.
  3. Small peasants – agriculturists who own or rent small plots which provide the necessities for their families and their farms, but no more, and who do not hire labour power from outside. In this group are included owners of plots of about 5–10 feddans.
  4. The middle peasantry – farmers who own or lease areas of land which generally provide not only the needs of their household, but also bring in small surpluses which can be turned, at least in good years, into capital. They from time to time hire an agricultural worker to help them. In this category are included owners of plots of 10–20 feddans.
  5. Peasant bourgeoisie – owners of capitalist farms who employ hired workers. In this category are included owners of plots of about 20–50 feddans.
  6. The feudal latifundia owners and large capitalist companies – owners of holdings of more than 50 feddans.

This classification is not exact, firstly because the paucity of Egyptian statistics does not give the possibility of classifying the tenants according to the area of their farms, secondly the area of a farm is not the only criterion for measuring the richness of the farmer, and thirdly a large part of the feudal latifundia has ceased to produce according to the feudal mode of production. Nevertheless if we keep these reservations in mind, the given classification gives a generally true picture of the situation.

The following table gives a general description of the class structure of the agricultural population of Egypt (1939):–





1) Agricultural proletariat



2) Ruined peasants



3) Small peasants



4) Middle peasantry



5) Peasant bourgeoisie



6) Feudal latifundia owners
    and large capitalist companies



Clearly the interests of the first two groups are entirely identified with those of the urban and industrial proletariat. The two groups together make up 95.5 per cent of the agricultural earners. Besides them stands the layer of small peasants who are inured in the habits of trade and ownership, who are petty bourgeois. During a time of proletarian revolution, however, this petty bourgeoisie will generally side with the proletariat, and not with the feudal and capitalist landlords. By abolishing the taxes that the middle peasantry has to pay, by annulling their debts and also by supplying agricultural machinery, electricity, etc., the revolutionary proletariat will draw it over to its side or at least neutralize it at the outset. These four groups make up 99 per cent of all agricultural earners.

<p. 84> These figures show clearly the deep class differentiation prevailing in Egyptian agriculture. The peasantry is not one class, but is broken up into strata far removed one from he other, the thin upper layer of the peasantry has strong ties with the feudal system and feudal property relations; and taking part in commercial and money-lending undertaking too, it is also bound up with foreign capital. There is a deep abyss of antagonism between the 99 per cent of the village inhabitants and the feudal lords, large land companies, merchant and commercial capital and the kulaks. All these exploiters are not swept away by the masses awing to the firm support given them by imperialism.

It would be very interesting to examine the distribution of the agricultural income among the different classes. Unfortunately the statistical material is too scarce to make an exact and detailed analysis and we shall be forced to be satisfied with a very general calculation, made in 1930 by Emile Minost, Director-General of the Crédit Foncier Egyptien. At the outset we may safely assume that as director-general of a bank connected by every fibre with the existing economic and social order, he is not likely to exaggerate the extent of exploitation of the cultivators by the landlords, merchants etc.. According to this calculation the annual gross income of Egyptian agriculture totalling £E 102.5 millions is divided as follows:–


£E 000,000


To production expenses, taxes etc.



To large landowners



To merchants






But if we differentiate between the production expenses and the taxes which the government takes (only direct taxation is included here) we see that the net income amounts £E 80 millions. This sum is distributed in the following manner:–




To taxes


To large landowners


To merchants


To fellaheen


Thus in the hands of three million fellaheen there remains more than £E 80 millions, or about £E 7 per family. Actually this calculation is far from exact because, among other reasons, fellaheen of different groups, both poor and rich, are included in one category. Nevertheless a generally true picture is gathered from these figures.

VI. The Standard of Life of the Agricultural Toilers

On the condition of the fellaheen:

‘ … What, after all, is the great hardship of poverty – provided always you have enough to eat – when you can spend your whole life in sunshine and fresh air, when the lightest clothing will supply sufficient warmth, the modest cabin sufficient shelter, when you have no hard winter to provide against, no coals to buy, no shivering children to shield from frost or tempest? If the means of the Egyptian peasant are scant, his wants also are few, and his position, always supposing that he can be protected from injustice on the part of the Government, is a fairly independent one.’ (Viscount Milner, England in Egypt, 3rd edition, 1926, p. 315).

Let us examine the standards of living of the Egyptian peasant and agricultural worker.

The income of the small fellah was generally estimated before the war as about £E 7–8 per annum. The income of the agricultural worker was even lower. The daily wage of a male agricultural worker was 3 piasters, of a female 2 and of a child 1–1½, and they were sentenced to long periods of unemployment every year as the season of work lasts 6-8 months. Even a foreman did not receive more than £E 2 a month, a clerk 3, and a cart driver and a ghaffir 1–1.2. Although during the war wages about doubled, the cost of living rose by much more. And there are places where even today the wage of a male agricultural worker does not reach 1/-. Thus in Assuan, for example, it is 3½–4½ piasters.

The food of the fellah is deficient both from the point of view of quantity but also quality. The great majority live on millet bread with a little onion and cheese and a small quantity of fruit and sugar. According to the calculation of M.B. Ghali in his book The Politics of Tomorrow, (Cairo, Arabic, 1936), the consumption of wheat in Egypt per capita is 71.3 kgs, of millet 136.2, beans (mainly for raising money) 17.5, rice 15.4, sugar 7.4, meat about 5 kgs. Of course the poor fellah’s consumption is lower than this average, and this average itself is much lower than the optimum. (Optimum according to Sir John Boyd Orr in Food, Health and Income, London 1937). Wheat consumption is only 46 per cent of the optimum, sugar 25 per cent, and milk products 8 per cent. It is interesting to note that according to Ghali’s calculation, the nutritional situation was much superior in 1905–11 than in 1931–35. During the interval between these two periods, the following changes took place in food consumption in Egypt:–


Increase or Decrease in
Consumption per Capita








+  7%


no change


no change

The hard economic conditions of the masses impair their health very much and cause terrible mortality, as he following table shows (1938):–

<p. 85>



Per 1000

Mortality of infants below 1 year
to every 1000 born alive



















Only India reaches the death rate of Egypt.

Besides ‘normal’ deaths, famine and epidemics take their toll of life. Thus during 1944 malaria managed to wipe out tens of thousands of fellaheen in Upper Egypt, whose bodies, weakened by continued hunger, were susceptible to the disease in its severest form. According to one estimate, which we may be sure is not exaggerated, 140,000 died of the malaria, (Al-Ahram, April 14, 1944). Of the workers of one large foreign land company alone (Kom Ombo) 5,000 died (Al-Ahram, March 1, 1944).

Because of the poor conditions of health, the expectations of life is very low, males – 31 years, and females – 36. In the United Kingdom the expectation of life is 60 years for a male and 64 for a female. Those who live to be adults are very weak. Among those conscripted from the villages in 1941, only 11 per cent were medically fit for army service. 90 per cent of Egypt’s population suffers from trachoma, 50 per cent from worm diseases, 75 per cent from bilharzia, 50 per cent from ankylostoma. The number of people afflicted with tuberculosis exceeds 300,000. One of the main causes of disease is the lack of modern water system in the villages. According to Hafez Afifi Pasha (May 1942) the construction of such a system would demand the investment of 10–15 million pounds. The government complained that this was beyond its capacity. This sum makes up about one quarter of the income of the landowners, and it does not exceed the total expenditure of the police and army for one year.

Poverty is inevitably accompanied by ignorance. Only 37 per cent of the children go to school. And what sort of ‘education’ is provided may be understood from the description of Mustafa Shukri, general inspector of elementary education (Al-Mukatam, December 7, 1941):

‘Anyone who has not seen it with his own eyes, would not imagine the state of the pupils in most elementary schools in the villages of different regions. It is an awful and heartrending state. Oppression stares out of these infants, oppression due to poverty, hunger and want, reflected in the build of the feeble body, and the malignant diseases. One shrinks back – from the dirt on their bodies and their clothes. Their faces express unwillingness to learn and lack of desire to work. And it is a permanent state of affairs that half the pupils are absent from school every day.’

Concerning the extent of illiteracy: there are no figures relating to the villages alone, but there are figures for the whole of the country. Seeing that illiteracy is less widespread in the towns than in the villages, it is clear that the illiteracy in the villages is even greater than indicated in the figures for the whole country. In 1937 according to the census, there were no more than 2,570,496 who could read and write, i.e. about 16.1 per cent. Actually, it should not be concluded that 16.1 per cent of the population have any real learning, as among those who know how to read and write, only 205,618 or 1.3 per cent of the total population completed any school whatsoever. Of these, 128,029 completed elementary education, and 2,185 completed police and military schools. An Egyptian paper described the cultural state of Egypt in a pithy manner when writing about the results of the 1937 census: ‘We have about 30,000 holders of diplomas as against 14 millions who know neither how to read nor write’ (Al-Mussawar, August 28, 1942).

Ignorance is the product of the existing social system, and also one of its pillars, and the ruling class knows very well that the illiteracy of the masses is one of the greatest assets of the regime. Thus a certain Egyptian senator thanked god that his country took first place in ignorance (Al-Ahram, July 7, 1944).

Riches, pleasures and hilarity of some tens of thousands of Egyptians and foreigners on the one hand, and hunger, disease and ignorance of the millions on the other – this is the picture of agricultural Egypt.


1. 1 feddan = 1.038 acres.

2. Land under the supervision of the Moslem religious institutions.

3. For a more modern reference and source, see: Marx, Capital, vol. III, Harmondsworth 1981, p. 449 or www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/ch20.htm. (Editor’s note)

4. A more contemporary reference can be found in The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin, Collected Works, vol. III, Moscow 1972, p. 251. (Editor’s note)

Last updated on 2.6.2011