Throughout Mubarak’s rule, according to Egyptian farmers, the government failed to provide irrigation and electricity systems that are vital to the production of water-intensive crops, particularly in a desert country with a meteoric population growth rate.
A farmer who owns several thousand acres of land northeast of Cairo says his family managed to connect to an electrical grid just two years ago after relying for decades on costly generators. Even then, the Ministry of Agriculture did little more than issue the necessary permits. “We did pretty much everything ourselves, including the financing,” said the grower, who asked that he not be identified by name for fear he might need more permits. “There was no government plan.”
Deregulation, a hallmark of the economic reforms promoted by Mubarak, also had a negative impact on Egypt’s wheat belt. As free-trade deals in the 1990s unlocked new markets to Egyptian commerce, growers abandoned low-margin crops in favor of higher-value products such as fruit and cut flowers. At the same time, they succumbed to the call of rising property prices by selling grain fields to developers, often in defiance of zoning laws.
“There has been a lot of illegal building of homes on some of the country’s most fertile land,” said Wael Ziada, head of research at investment bank EFG-Hermes. “You can hardly blame [the growers] given the lack of incentives to remain on the land.”
The U.S. role
It was the U.S. government, in tandem with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, that strongly encouraged Cairo to liberalize its economy and expand its share of regional trade. Washington feathers the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty it brokered in 1979 with generous allocations to Egypt of civilian aid, most of which is administered under the U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington’s humanitarian assistance policy arm.
Even as USAID has plowed well over a billion dollars into rural Egypt, mostly in the form of training courses and water-management programs, many farmers complain that the decline of Egyptian agriculture is as much an American failure as it is a local one.
In particular, they chafe at how the United States is one of the country’s largest suppliers of grain — bolstered by loan guarantees and other subsidies from Washington — even as the output of Egyptian farms diminishes.
“If the U.S. is the mother of democracy, it should go to the people and help them feed themselves,” said Barghash, of the agriculture association. “Yet still we import most of our wheat from America.”
E-mailed requests to USAID for comment were not returned.
Researcher Deena Adel contributed to this report.