Farming in Egypt was confined to less than 3 percent of the total land area, because the country falls within arid and hyperarid zones. About 90 percent of the agricultural area was concentrated in the Delta, and the rest fell within a narrow ribbon along the Nile between Aswan and Cairo (Upper Egypt) and a strip along the Mediterranean. The arable land was estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as being about 6.02 million feddans (1 feddan = 1.038 acres = .42 hectare) in 1987. This was the equivalent of about 0.12 feddan per capita, one of the lowest in the world, and less than Bangladesh's 0.19. The warm weather, plentiful water, and exceptionally fertile soil, however, enabled Egyptian farmers to practice double and multiple cropping, which effectively doubled the arable area. Nevertheless, the relative scarcity of arable land, coupled with, among other things, high population growth, made Egypt depend on external sources for about half of its food supply in the late 1980s.
In spite of Egypt's dependence on foreign food supplies and agriculture's generally poor performance over the 1980s, agriculture remained the key sector of the Egyptian economy and its future development. In 1988 it contributed more than 20 percent of GDP and about 9 percent of exports and employed more than 4 million workers, or about one-third of total employment. Its significance would be even more pronounced if account were taken of the industries from which it purchased, such as fertilizers and machinery, and those to which it sold, such as food processing and textiles.
Agricultural development responded to the ecology, state policy, technology, and shifts in the international political economy. In the early nineteenth century under Muhammad Ali, Egypt introduced long-staple cotton, which in 1990 remained a prized commodity on the world market, and initiated the long-term process of upgrading the irrigation system. The ecological conditions of the Nile Valley proved eminently suitable for cotton cultivation. Helped by a world cotton shortage arising from the American Civil War in the 1860s, Egyptian agriculture expanded rapidly. By the early 1900s, the situation had changed: additions to new arable land were slow and increasingly costly as the quality of land to be added became poorer, expansion of irrigation was not coupled with expanded drainage, and the intensive cultivation of cotton exhausted the soil and reduced its fertility. During the first half of the twentieth century, agricultural growth may have averaged less than 1 percent a year.
In addition to agriculture's declining growth rate, a social crisis ensued in the countryside, manifested in great inequalities and sporadic peasant rebellions. Reforming the conditions of agriculture fell after 1952 to the Free Officers. The new regime sought to carry out the task through extensive intervention in the sector to the point where the state was described as the silent partner; examination of state policy vis-à-vis agriculture is, therefore, a prerequisite for understanding the evolution of the sector. The state implemented land-reform programs, extended and altered the irrigation system, reclaimed new land, and regulated input and output prices as well as land use. Carrying out agricultural controls was entrusted to the rural cooperatives. The controls continued and were modified under Sadat and were gradually being relaxed under Mubarak. The results of state intervention were often mixed, both economically and socially.
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