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People and Society, Social Structure

modern industries, cash wages, Iran-Iraq War, urban workers, Iraqis

For most of Egypt’s history its society was agrarian. Large landowners growing primarily cotton and sugar constituted Egypt's dominant social class from the 1830s until 1952, when the government enacted a land reform. Before the land reform, about 2,000 large landowners, including the king, owned about 20 percent of all agricultural land, while more than 2 million lesser owners owned about 13 percent. Millions of peasants owned no land at all. The land reform limited the amount of agricultural land that individuals and families could own; limits were lowered further in 1961 and 1969. These measures broke the social and political power of the large landowning class.

About 260,000 hectares (about 650,000 acres) of agricultural land were redistributed as a result of the land reform. However, not enough land was redistributed to allow all peasant families that wished to do so to support themselves by farming. Consequently, large numbers of peasants migrated from rural villages to Cairo and other cities. Many found jobs in the cities, particularly in industries and services, which were growing rapidly as a result of the government’s major industrialization programs of the 1950s and 1960s. During this period the government nationalized and expanded existing banking, textile, and other industries and established many new, large-scale, modern industries. These developments expanded the ranks of the urban wageworkers. However, many former peasants remained underemployed or marginally employed in jobs that were not steady or did not pay cash wages.

Beginning in 1973, large numbers of peasants, as well as urban workers and professionals, migrated to Saudi Arabia, Libya, and other oil-exporting countries to work for wages as much as six times higher than they could earn in Egypt. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), many peasants migrated to Iraq and took farm jobs, replacing Iraqis who had left to fight in the war.

Both trends—migration from the countryside to the cities and working abroad—continued in the 1990s. By the mid-1990s only 40 percent of the labor force was engaged in the traditional occupations of farming, herding, and fishing. An estimated 2.5 million Egyptians worked abroad at any given time.

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