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Fourth International, September-October 1952


S. Munir

The Military Coup in Egypt


From Fourth International, vo.13 No.5, September-October 1952, pp.139-144.
Transcribed & marked up Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I. The Causes of the Military Coup d’Etat

On the night of July 23, General Naguib occupied Cairo with the help of a group of young officers. On the same day the Hilali Pasha government resigned after having been in power only 24 hours. Three days later, on July 26, King Farouk was dethroned and expelled from Egypt. Events, foreseen neither by the diplomats, the journalists nor the Egyptian politicians themselves, were occurring with a dizzying speed. What is behind the military coup d’etat? What social forces caused it? What are the forces it will have to confront? What is its program? What has it accomplished and what will it be able to accomplish?

There are three profound causes for the crisis which led to the military coup d’etat: 1) The difficult economic situation which accentuated social tensions. 2) Anglo-Egyptian relations which had reached an impasse. 3) The ferment in the army, the most important and most powerful pillar of the old regime.

a. The Cotton Crisis

For almost a year, Egyptian economy has been going through a serious crisis caused by the situation on the international cotton market. Cotton accounts for more than 80% of Egyptian exports; the whole situation of the Egyptian economy depends on the price of this raw material. When prices are low and the demand for Egyptian cotton limited, Egypt cannot pay for its primary imports; government revenues deriving from the land tax, export taxes, etc., decline; the buying power of the population falls even lower than it is ordinarily and the economic machine as a whole is thrown out of joint.

This is precisely the situation that has wracked Egypt for a year. The price of cotton on the international market has fallen more than 25%. Egypt’s cotton exports have dropped almost 50%. During the 1951-52 season, Great Britain, Egypt’s principal customer, purchased only 48,000 bales of cotton as against 284,000 in the previous season. The Egyptian trade balance for 1951 shows a deficit of 40 million Egyptian pounds, the balance of payments a deficit of 20 million pounds. (An Egyptian pound is equivalent to about 4/5 of the British pound sterling.) An even larger deficit is expected for 1952.

Despite growing demands by the health and education departments, for irrigation works and transportation, the Egyptian government was obliged to reduce its budget by almost 20%. At the same time a serious crisis occurred in Egypt’s most important industry, textiles. Its market was still further restricted because of the very low buying power of the masses. To that, there has recently been added foreign competition, which has lowered prices. Thousands of workers have been laid off. Wages have been cut as much as is possible with wages already on the hunger level.

The entire “social equilibrium” has been violently shaken by this economic development. The Egyptian ruling classes were ready to support any force which provided any chance whatever of reestablishing this equilibrium. After the failure of numerous attempts – five different governments in the course of the last six months – they accepted General Naguib’s military dictatorship almost without resistance.

b. Anglo-Egyptian Relations

The extraordinary anti-imperialist upsurge at the close of 1951 and at the beginning of 1952 assumed a clearly proletarian character from the outset. The movement overwhelmed the WAFD which had unleashed it. (The WAFD has been the leading capitalist party in Egypt. – Ed.) The upsurge was then led into a blind alley and suppressed by imperialist troops. The abrogation of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty in October 1951, and the WAFD’s anti-British declarations which followed, prevented this party from resuming negotiations with Great Britain without completely discrediting itself in the eyes of the masses.

The ruling classes, led by King Farouk, then decided to get rid of the WAFD. The occasion presented itself on January 26 when the enormous indignation of the masses was diverted by the King’s provocateurs to the burning and plundering of foreign property. Nahas was ejected from office and replaced by Ali Maher. His task was the formation of a common front of the royalist parties and the WAFD for the purpose of resuming negotiations with Great Britain.

When this attempt collapsed, Hilali took power in order to curb the WAFD and come to agreement with the imperialists within the framework of the Middle East Pact. But Hilali failed in turn; he could neither undermine the WAFD’s popularity nor build his own mass party. At the same time the WAFD made known to the Americans that it was not hostile to participating in a Middle East pact (in the event of its return to power), especially if the principal partner was to be not Great Britain but the United States.

Hilali had to get out; but the King as well as the WAFD preferred that the power not be turned over immediately to Nahas Pasha but to Sirri Pasha who would provide a transition for the WAFD’s comeback and would organize new elections. But as a transition government, the Sirri Pasha cabinet could not seriously negotiate with the West. When Hilali succeeded him three weeks later, all chances of an agreement had again vanished for domestic reasons. Hilali had already proved once that he could not crush the WAFD, and any agreement with Great Britain not supported by the WAFD was without significance.

Naguib promised to get out of this ‘impasse by holding up the perspective of an agreement with the western powers to be concluded under the pressure of his military dictatorship either with the WAFD’s consent or by crushing it in passing.

c. The Army

The discontent of the young officers dates from the war in Palestine. They had acquired the conviction at the time that corruption in ruling circles was partly responsible for the defective provisioning of the front, and therefore for the defeat. The arms trial publicly disclosed these scandals. In December 1951, General Naguib was elected President of the Cairo officers’ club against the candidate supported by King Farouk, who wanted to give the position to a high officer of the corrupt old guard. Later, the officers’ club was closed down.

When the Cairo troubles broke out last January 26, the impotence of the ruling classes and of the court was impressively revealed. The army’s bitterness against the aristocracy and its confidence in its own strength could not but grow in these events. Naguib demanded that he be given the Ministry of War in the Sirri Pasha cabinet. The King vetoed it. When Hilali appointed Ismail Sherin, the King’s brother-in-law, as War Minister, the officers’ indignation reached its peak. Young officers were asking this question: If the corrupt ruling classes of Egypt are incapable of governing without the support of the army, why should the army itself not take power? That is the third cause of the July 23 coup d’etat.

II. Naguib and the Old Regime

To measure “the scope of the intervention of Naguib and his officers into Egyptian society, and to analyze the revolutionary possibilities opened thereby, requires an examination of the developments which have occurred in the following spheres since the coup d’etat: a) The court and the clergy, b) Relations with foreign capital and imperialism, c) The agrarian question, d) the labor question.

Farouk’s departure undoubtedly constitutes an enormous shakeup of Egyptian society. Farouk was the symbol of the corrupt aristocracy which dominated Egypt. The spontaneous mass demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria which accompanied his departure are very clear indications of the popular hatred of the plundering ruling class. At the same time they indicated how far the masses were ready to go in their enthusiasm and dynamism in overthrowing the whole superannuated social structure of the country. W’hat they needed was a revolutionary leadership.

Of course, Naguib and his officers were far from being such a leadership. Naguib himself had not gone further in his thinking that curbing of the royal prerogative. When Farouk resisted, he was removed. The monarchical constitution was retained and the doors of the Abdin Palace were thrown open to three regents, one of them a member of the royal family. The civil list has been reduced from 1.5 million pounds to 800,000 pounds. There is talk of a careful constitutional reform through a constituent assembly (which remains to be convened) whose task

would be to curb the right of the King to dissolve parliament and to recall governments. But all that is music of the future.

What is certain is that the foundations are not to be altered. Ali Maher, Naguib’s prime minister, declared: “Revision will not change its (the constitution’s) fundamental principles which are not only intangible but immortal” And Naguib himself said: “We have no intention of transforming Egypt into a Republic. The state form will remain exactly the same as in the past: a constitutional monarchy.” (Al Misri, July 31)

Nor has Naguib any revolutionary intentions toward the clergy. That is clearly shown in his relations with the University of Azhar, the bastion of clerical reaction in Egypt and in all the Near East. He stated during a visit to this institution: “The most important task is to raise the moral level. That can only be done by adhering strictly to religion. Toward this end, Azhar should be supported in its mission. The army and Azhar have one aim for which they are orienting in common.” (Al Misri, Aug. 10)

The coup d’etat of the Egyptian army therefore does not in any way constitute a revolution. The old institutions are preserved. If Naguib is limiting their functions here or there, it is because they were no longer capable of preserving the existing social structure. Naguib means to demonstrate to the ruling classes, the landed proprietors, the big merchants and the capitalists that the military dictatorship can preserve this structure.

The degree of his cooperation with the traditional institutions depends therefore solely on their willingness to adapt themselves to his plans. Farouk did not want to, and he had to leave. Ali Maher, an erstwhile, faithful, court politician, has been ready up to now to go along. (Since the writing of this article, Ali Maher has resigned. – Ed.) The traditional Egyptian political parties have not yet made a definitive decision on this score.

III. Foreign Capital and Imperialism

The touchstone of any revolutionary movement in a colonial or semi-colonial country is its relations with foreign capital which exploits the country, and its attitude toward the imperialist power, or powers which directly or indirectly dominate the state. Exploitation by foreign capital is particularly striking in Egypt. 40% to 50% of all private fortunes are in the hands of foreign capitalists; deducting landed fortunes, this percentage rises to 75%. The key positions in the banks, insurance, credit and mortgage companies and in industry are dominated by foreign capital.

In the past, the Egyptian bourgeoisie made some timid efforts to supplant foreign capital. One of these attempts was the famous 1947 “corporation law” under whose provisions 51% of the shares of all new corporations were to be held by Egyptian citizens. Since that time, several governments have attempted to modify this law. Negotiations for this purpose have dragged on. But Naguib cut the Gordian Knot and altered the percentages: henceforth only 49% of the shares need be in the hands of Egyptian citizens.

Another new law facilitates the conditions of sojourn in Egypt of “foreigners useful to the Egyptian economy” and permits them to become permanent residents. Several declarations have been made along the lines of encouraging the influx of foreign investments and of giving them the necessary guarantees. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abd el-Aziz Salem, vehemently denied the rumor that the Ali Maher government or the army had any intention of nationalizing private enterprises or corporations. (Al Misri Aug. 10) These declarations were given much prominence in the U.S. where it is hoped that a new era of American investments in Egypt is in the offing (AP dispatch, August 1).

It is clear that by this policy Naguib desires to obtain the economic and military aid from America which would facilitate the solution of the present crisis. That is why he has been very prudent in his political declarations. He has made no statements on the question of British troops in the Suez Canal zone, on Sudan and on the Middle East Pact which could commit him in one way or another. But he has let it be understood that he is favorably inclined to the pact.

It is logical therefore that Great Britain and the United States should have granted him their complete support. The NY Times, Aug. 4, compared Egypt to Iran and eu-togistically pointed out that the Egyptian government “had no need of catering to public opinion.” In any case, American imperialism has come to the conclusion that democracy is not a good export commodity and that the national and social mass movements in the Middle East can only be repressed with the help of dictatorships.

British imperialism itself is trying to save everything that can still be saved in Egypt and to win over Naguib by some dramatic gestures. On August 24, British troops turned over to the Egyptian army the port of Eirdan in the Suez Canal Zone, which they had occupied during the October 1951 troubles. And at the end of August, the British government declared that henceforth it was prepared to resume deliveries of war materials to Egypt.

As a result, Naguib believes himself able to assure the Egyptian propertied classes under his domination the long-hoped for agreement with foreign capital without having to fear the anti-imperialist sentiments of the people. American and British imperialism are doing everything possible, each in its own way, to strengthen this belief in him.

IV. Naguib’s “Agrarian Reform”

One of the principal reasons which has led the Egyptian ruling classes to grant Naguib their support was the heightening social tensions in the cities and in the countryside. They hope Naguib will succeed in calming the revolutionary ferment of the Egyptian masses by a wise dose of “reforms” on the one side, and by using a “strong hand” on the other. They had good reason for worry. It has been a common occurrence recently for the fellahin (poor peasants) to refuse to pay their rent. They even began to attack the domains of the landed proprietors and to burn their estates. It was not surprising therefore that one of the first points of Naguib’s program was agrarian reform. What is its real significance?

According to recent statistics, 2 million fellahin owned less than .4 hectares of land each; the average size of their property is .16 hectares although at least from .8 to 1.2 is necessary to feed a family in Egypt. (A hectare is slightly over 2 acres. – Ed.) These two million poor peasants constitute 72% of all owners of land. To them should be added 1.5 to 2 million poor peasants without any land whatever! These 3.5 to 4 million poor families make up more than 80% of Egypt’s agricultural population. 72% of the landed proprietors mentioned above owning the smallest properties, occupy in total only 13% of the agricultural domain. On the other side of the social pyramid are 12,000 big landed proprietors each owning more than 20 hectares. In all, they constitute .04 of all the proprietors but occupy 35% of all the agricultural domain. Among them are the richest group of 200 large proprietors each owning more than 400 hectares; on an average each of them owns 880 hectares.

Around 10% of the Egyptian agricultural domain is represented by land called waqf (lands left in wills for the public benefit). One of the largest landed proprietors in Egypt is the throne itself. King Fouad, father of Farouk, owned 11,200 hectares of land at his death, and in addition managed some 8,000 hectares of waqf land. King Farouk himself can claim for the dynasty ownership of more than 40,000 hectares and the management of some 52,000 hectares of waqf land.

The Minister of Waqf Territories has now announced that religious, cultural and charitable institutions to whom these lands were given in usufruct have not received a penny of their revenues during their management by the King. The King “used these lands as if they were his own.” (Al Ahram, Aug. 11) Since landed rent is today going up on the average to 50 pounds a hectare, the King obtained from his landed property as well as the lands he managed an annual income of 4.5-5 million pounds, or an amount equivalent to annual income of 700,000 poor peasant families!

What then do the reform’s announced by Naguib promise? On Aug. 12, Al Misri published the plan of agrarian reform elaborated by the army (official sources have since confirmed this news). According to this plan, no one henceforth can own in Egypt more than 80 hectares. The state will buy all lands above this figure. The former owners will receive state bonds, redeemable within 30 years and carrying an annual interest rate of 3.5%. The lands thus taken from the former owners will be divided among the landless peasants and among those who own less than .8 hectares. They are to pay for the purchase of the land in annuities spread over 30 years. In addition the breakup of properties under .8 hectares will be proscribed. The new inheritors of the soil have in one way or another to compensate the old heirs. Finally the share of proprietors in a rented plot cannot exceed one-third of the crop.

Can such a reform, if effectively applied, resolve the agrarian question in Egypt? Not at all. First, the recovery of all properties over 80 hectares will yield in toto only 290,000 hectares which can provide for 360,00 families at .8 hectares per family, 360,000 families represent 10% of the families with less than .8 hectares or with no land at all. It should be pointed out that if property had been limited to 20 hectares, which in view of land production in Egypt already represents a substantial piece of property, they would have been able to satisfy 720,000 families.

Then, the peasants need not only land but even more, they need capital to work the land. Where will they get this capital if they are saddled in addition with 30 annuity payments? The indivisibility of properties less than .8 hectares is illusory.

The limitations on land rent will not prevent the landed proprietors from dictating their conditions to the poor and illiterate fellahin since the “demand” for land is much greater than the “supply.” So long as the poor peasants are not organized and so long as there is no control by the working masses over the economy, the landowners will be able to find ways to circumvent the law by all kinds of “arrangements.”

Naguib’s so-called “agrarian reform” will not therefore be able to attenuate the agrarian question in Egypt, let alone resolve it. But Naguib is faced with a dilemma: on the one hand, social contradictions have been sharpened on the countryside and threaten to assume forms dangerous to the entire social system; on the other hand, he neither wishes to nor can he take measures which will vitally affect the big landed proprietors. That is why there is no solution of the dilemma for him. On the one side, he faces the fellahin’s indignation and is obliged to take measures which look like reform in an effort to prevent the development of independent actions by the poor peasants like those which have been occurring recently. On the other hand, there is the danger that any shake-up of the social edifice will bring about a collapse which will be difficult to stop.

That is why the Egyptian propertied classes, fearing violent social convulsions, besides not wanting to give up 29,000 hectares, are seeking in every way to limit Naguib’s agrarian reform.

The WAFD is sticking to its program calling for sale of government lands to poor peasants and is opposed to fixing a limit on landed property (Al Misri Aug. 1)

Dr. Houssein Ilaikal, leader of the liberal-constitutional party, expressly declared that limitation of property was a delicate question which is provoking class struggle (Al Ahram, Aug. 7).

Ali Maher declared that he was theoretically in favor of a limitation on landed property, but added: “But I do not want to expose Egypt to very strong economic shocks at the present time.” (Al Misri, Aug. 8)

Ash-Sharq al-Adna, the British radio station broadcasting in Arabic reported on Aug. 24 that the British government had counseled Ali Maher to avoid trouble by not rushing agrarian reform. It appears that the Iranian example has greatly upset the Egyptian rulers and their imperialist bosses.

Rawle Know, representative of the OFNS, news service in. Teheran, writes:

“The Shah’s gesture of distributing part of his lands (which the communists immediately called the poorest part) to selected poor peasants, which has received such generous publicity, has not done him much good. There is trouble on his rich pasture land in Levasan, on which peasants have trespassed, as well as on his property at Farhazad. Mossadegh’s new decree establishing controls over land rents favorable to the farmer is a complicated administrative affair; meanwhile it appears likely that the peasants are going to establish a kind of control themselves!”

V. The Working Class and the New Regime

But the social ferment in Egypt is not confined to the village. Even more dangerous for existing society are the events which have recently been taking place among the working class. Since the great 1950 strike wave,’the struggle of the Egyptian workers for a human living standard has gone on uninterruptedly.

Under pressure of the strike wave, the WAFD government had been obliged in 1950 to grant an increase of 50% in the cost of living bonus promulgated by a special law “for reasons of social security,” according to the declaration of Serag ed-Din, Minister of the Interior. But this concession sharpened the workers’ struggles. One strike after another was called to compel the employers actually to abide by this law. Indeed, the Egyptian employers did their level best to evade the law and are still trying to evade it today.

There has been strikes of thousands of workers in Shoubra al-Kheima, the textile suburbs of Cairo; a strike of 2,000 electrical workers at Alexandria; a strike of 2,500 longshoremen at Port Said; a strike of 7,000 longshoremen at Alexandria. Many other industries have also been temporarily paralyzed by strikes.

Gradually, other demands were added to those calling for the payment of the cost of living bonus, such as the checking of the books of the big corporations by the Minister of Labor; penalties against all firms not applying the law; prohibition of layoffs of workers, etc. In May, the workers of Shubra al-Kher formulated the following demands: Rehiring of laid-off workers and employees and full payment of the legal cost of living bonus to them; 40-hour work week without reduction in pay; unemployment compensation; prohibition of layoffs without valid reason; industrial and agricultural public works to absorb the unemployed; equal wages for equal work for men and women; no interference by the police in trade union organizations.

Since then, the situation has been further aggravated during 1952. A high proportion of textile workers were laid off as a result of the crisis in the textile industry. 24,000 workers, who quit work on British projects in the Suez Canal zone during the October 1951 troubles, are still out of work despite the promises of the Egyptian government. 6,000 workers employed by the Egyptian army were laid off because they demanded equal rights with workers employed by the public services. A month-long strike, tying up the Delta railroad, occurred over the refusal of the employers to pay the cost of living bonus. 20,000 transportation workers threatened to stop work on July 27 because the company tried to cut wages by mass layoffs (the strike was postponed because of the coup d’etat). The above are some of the strikes which have occurred during recent weeks..

But the most important event was the conflict in the textile city of Kafr-ed-Dewar, near Alexandria, where 8,000 workers are employed in the spinning and weaving mills of the Misr Co. On Aug. 13, the workers quit work and put forth the following demands: removal of several of the company’s influential directors; free electiions for officials of the union, whose headquarters should be outside the factory property; adjustment of the cost of living bonus to that paid government employees; wage increases; no layoffs.

Some of these demands are not new, but the outbreak of the strike was closely connected to the abdication, of the King with whom two of the corporation owners were closely associated. Hafez Afifi was head of the King’s cabinet, and Elias Andraus was manager of the King’s investments. (A package of foreign stocks valued at a million pounds, which had been purchased by Farouk, was later to be discovered in a safe in the factory office at Kafr ed-Dewar).

Immediately 6,000 workers of the National Spinning Mills at Moharram Bey, another Alexandria suburb, went out in solidarity with the Kafr ed-Dewar workers. They had previously demanded payment of the cost of living bonus, the rehiring of laid-off workers, and the removal of trade union leaders designated by the employer. But the strike of the exasperated Kafr ed-Dewar workers was soon led into dangerous paths: the outbreak of several fires gave the army its pretext to intervene. There resulted a bloody battle between the workers and the army in which several lost their lives and many were wounded. The provocation also permitted the army to drown in blood the solidarity strike of the Moharram Bey workers.

Telegrams of solidarity poured in from all corners of Egypt condemning the provocations and demanding the right of the workers to form free and independent unions. But many workers still retain illusions that Naguib will take their interests to heart and will permit the formation of free trade unions – just as they nursed similar illusions in the past about the WAFD. However, Naguib demonstrated in the very first month of his dictatorship that if the growing pressure of the class struggle is obliging him to make promises and even occasionally to call his a “workers’ and peasants’ government,” he is distinguishing his government from those preceding it by the fact that he takes more drastic measures and acts more rapidly and energetically.

He has increased taxes on large incomes, but at the same time one of the first actions of his government was to increase indirect taxes (all ad valorem taxes and the tobacco tax). To give the appearance of “social progress,” all the beggars at Cairo were removed from the capital and locked up in concentration camps. The only law up to now concerned with the workers deals neither with freedom of association nor increase in wages – but the constitution of compulsory arbitration commissions and the creation of a new bureau for the struggle against communism immediately replacing the political police dissolved at the time of the coup d’etat.

It is doubtful, however, that Naguib will be able to honor the promissory note he has given imperialism in return for military and economic assistance: namely, the repression of “communism,” i.e. the growing force of the Egyptian working class. As this is being written, the transport workers of Cairo and the provinces arer threatening to call the strike they had postponed at the time of the coup d’etat. Since Naguib has not altered the foundations of the Egyptian social structure and has no intention of so doing, there is no other way that he can avert strikes than by the use of military force. And the Egyptian workers have shown in the past that they know how to defy the forces of the army.

VI. Where Is Egypt Going?

Thus the principal reason for the relatively easy success of Naguib’s coup d’etat rests in the fact that the growing social and economic difficulties of Egypt, as well as the blind alley the conflict with imperialism was in, had led the ruling classes, desirdus of maintaining their domination, to support a military dictatorship which promised to overcome the social contradictions and reach an agreement with imperialism.

But the calculation .of Naguib and his bosses underestimates the adversary. The roots of the anti-imperialist struggle of the Egyptian masses roes too deep and is tied too closely to the structure of the Egyptian economv, which is largely dominated by foreign capital, to be halted overnight. The agrarian question in Egypt is too vast in scope to lend itself to a “solution” by Naguib’s type of reform. The class struggle of the workers has taken too violent forms, and has given rise to much too clearly formulated demands, to be appeased bv the few meager concessions Naguib has granted the proletariat.

The 1950 law on the cost of living bonus, granted under workers’ pressure and considered a stroke of appeasement by the government, gave rise to one of the most important strike waves Egypt has ever known in years. The Egyptian propertied classed rightly feel that a “liberal” agrarian reform will only lead, as the example of Iran has shown, to more powerful and militant actions on the part of the poor peasants.

It can therefore be predicted that Naguib’s regime will not be the “stable regime” upon which American imperialism bases so many hopes; on the contrary it will be convulsed by violent social shocks. By expelling Farouk and by starting the agrarian reform, Naguib has violated what was sacrosanct in Egyptian society. He has involuntarily released an avalanche which can only be stopped with the greatest difficulty.

This situation requires a very clear program of action on the part of the vanguard of the Egyptian workers’ movement that will enable it to lead the struggles which will soon break out in Egypt and lead them in a revolutionary direction. The principal task today is to participate actively in the reorganization of the workers’ unions so as to establish unified demands and common aims for the militant workers’ struggles. The Egyptian workers continue to suffer today from a dispersion of their struggles, which have often, however, assumed the highest levels of working class struggle, including the occupation of the factories. Only a unified trade union organization under a revolutionary leadership can provide these struggles with a common program and a common leadership. What can be attained with such unity has been demonstrated in the solidarity action of the National Spinning Mill workers during the Kafr-ed-Dewar strike.

The spontaneous actions of the poor peasants which have recently occurred have profound significance for the revolutionary workers’ movement. It should make conscious efforts to organize, activize and educate the enormous mass of peasants who up to now have been atomized.

The laid-off workers returning to the villages, which they had left to go to the cities for work, represent a natural liaison between the proletariat and the poor peasants. Besides there are millions of landless agricultural wage workers, employed on the capitalist farms, who are often within short distances of the big industrial enterprises (the cane sugar farms of the General Sugar Company, for example).

The demands of the agrarian revolution should be counterposed to Naguib’s fictitious agrarian reform: expropriation of all landed property over 20 hectares; collective cultivation of the capitalist farms by the landless peasants assisted by cheap long-term state credits; free distribution of expropriated lands to farmers owning less than 1.2 hectares.

Late August 1952

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