Background for War in the Land of Egypt

Although this novel was written in the 1970s, it can help us understand how inequality and corruption work in Egypt, the kind of inequality and corruption that led to the frustration of the people with their government and the uprisings in 2011 that we now call the Arab Spring

Important background to this novel is the history of land ownership in Egypt, the reforms of Nassar, and the undoing of those reforms by Sadat.  Below find important passages from Wikipedia that will help you understand the context of the novel:

Prior to the 1952 coup [led by Nassar] that installed Naguib as President, less than six percent of Egypt's population owned more than 65% of the land in Egypt, and less than 0.5% of Egyptians owned more than one-third of all fertile land.[1] These major owners had almost autocratic control over the land they owned and charged high rents which averaged 75% of the income generated by the rented land. These high rents coupled with the high interest rates charged by banks plunged many small farmers and peasants into debt. Furthermore, peasants who worked as laborers on farms also suffered, receiving average wages of only eight to fifteen piastres a day. The combination of these circumstances led historian Anouar Abdel Malek to call the pre-reform Egyptian peasantry "an exploited mass surrounded by hunger, disease and death".[2] Another historian, Robert Stephens has compared the state of Egyptian peasants before land reform to that of French peasants before the French Revolution.[3]

On September 11, 1952, Law Number 178 began the process of land reform in Egypt. The law had numerous provisions that attempted to remedy the Egyptian land problems:

  • Land owners were prohibited to possess more than 200 feddans of land. However, fathers with more than 2 children were allowed to own 300 feddans.
  • A limit on the rental rate for land was set at seven times the land tax value of the plot of land.
  • All land leases were given a minimum duration of three years.
  • The government established cooperatives for farmers holding less than five feddans. The members of these cooperatives worked together to obtain supplies such as fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds as well as cooperating to transport their products to market.
  • A minimum wage for agricultural workers was set at 18 piastres per day

Additionally, the law provided for the redistribution of any land that owners held over the limits it established:

  • Each affected owner would receive compensation for his excess land in government bonds worth a total of ten times the rental value of the land. These bonds would pay three percent interest and mature in thirty years.

Initially, land reform essentially abolished the political influence of major land owners. However, land reform only resulted in the redistribution of about 15% of Egypt's land under cultivation, and by the early 1980s, the effects of land reform in Egypt drew to a halt as the population of Egypt moved away from agriculture. The Egyptian land reform laws were greatly curtailed under Anwar Sadat and eventually abolished.


In 1992, President Sadat (who established close ties with the United States) reversed the land reforms established by Nassar.  Of course this delighted wealthy rural land owners, and devastated the peasants and small farmers.  From Middle East Research:

The law certainly has the potential to inflict great hardship on the thousands of tenants who for decades enjoyed a modicum of security. One elderly tenant expressed his plight this way:

If I’m lucky enough to get out before the five-year interval, I might get...6,000 or 12,000 pounds, but that would be spent in less than two years. Now there’s talk of daily laborers getting ten pounds per day. But at my age who has the strength to work as a hand one day here, one day there? Where do I go, to the desert to reclaim lands? I’d die the next day. I’ve lived here all my life, I have nothing else.... When I’m gone, what will my wife do? [10]


So this is the moment when the novel begins.  The Umda, a rich landlord, is getting his land back from the poor peasants.


Created by: allen.webb@wmich.edu
Revised: 9/14