Tractors are a rare sight in the Nile River delta, where tenant farmers still labor with hand and hoe, so the arrival of three loud machines in early March created a stir in an already volatile community.
Sarando peasants had been feuding bitterly with a landlord over rents and evictions. Were the tractors there to destroy crops? they recalled wondering. To plow fields on disputed land? Who were the brawny strangers who said the landlord had sent them? No one waited to find out. Within a few hours, fighting with fists and rifles had broken out, one visitor was dead, farmers had fled in fear of the law and police had placed Sarando under a six-day siege.
Whether city or country, farm or factory, dissatisfaction with President Hosni Mubarak is palpable as his quarter-century of rule nears its end, either by the weight of failed policies or by the logic of his age, 77.
In Cairo, political activists hold demonstrations aimed at driving him from power. Long-dormant labor movements have begun to protest layoffs and low salaries. Judges oppose government proposals to use them as election monitors in September's presidential vote, which they say is a fraud-in-waiting.
Intense poverty, arbitrary justice and botched government programs that draw widespread complaints in Egypt all contributed to the explosion in Sarando. When the violence broke out here, lawyers and activists hurried from Cairo to side with the farmers.
Whether Egypt is awakening or just turning over in its sleep is an open question. Mubarak's government is trying to manage change through free market reforms and by holding presidential elections that are open to a limited selection of rival candidates. Opposition groups, though loud, have been unable to mobilize large numbers of ordinary Egyptians onto the streets.
A third of Egypt's 70 million people live on the land, and they have largely remained on the political sidelines. Yet observers see in Sarando the potential for rural conflict in a time of change. "There is a lot of anger on the farm. There is no development, economic program or political power. It is a silent time bomb," said Karem Saber, director of the Land Center for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization.
The rights group has noted a general upswing in rural violence, some of it directed against landowners, some of it in feuds among farmers, Saber said.
The Sarando landlord, Salah Nawar, a white-haired patriarch of an extended family of landowners, regards the conflict as signaling a larger danger. "If the peasants get away with this, such things will spread all over. They will revolt and attack all the owners," he said in an interview in his apartment in Alexandria.
Sarando sits in the wide, green delta about 20 miles east of the provincial capital of Damanhour. On the surface, the fields present a picture of bucolic, eternal Egypt. In canals that carry precious water from the Nile, women wash pots and clothing, men bathe their donkeys and naked boys splash around in glee.
Bent grandfathers in turbans tend cows and goats. White birds with long plumes decorate the plots of rice and wheat. Date palms punctuate the horizon. Except for the occasional three- and four-story brick house and diesel-powered pump, a pharaoh would have no trouble recognizing the scene.
A closer look reveals dilapidated schools, illiterate children, under-equipped clinics and dissatisfaction over new agricultural policies. Starting in 1997, rents for tenant farmers were freed from government regulation, and they recently shot up from the equivalent of about $4 an acre annually to as high as $60, the Land Center estimates. That sum can be three months' earnings for a farmer in Egypt.
The deregulation was part of a drive to end state control of economic activity dating from the rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and '60s. The measure effectively reversed Nasser's land reform program, which had stripped landlords of control of their property but left them with title. Now, if peasants refuse to pay the market rates, the landlords can evict them. This has been the source of Sarando's conflict.
Nawar, the Sarando landowner, said a half-dozen peasants refused to pay their rent, which he said he had set at $20 an acre. He began making arrangements to turn the land over to others, and as early as January, resistance broke out. Police arrested several of the peasants for firearms possession and thuggery, he said.
"I could never imagine this could happen," Nawar said. "They called me a feudal lord. A pasha! I provide wheat to hungry families. Peasants used to be courteous and virtuous. Now they are worse than people in the city," he said.
On March 4, Nawar sent in the tractors along with several hired hands and relatives to plow for new planting. They arrived in the early morning. A phalanx of farmers met them. Some had rushed to Sarando from surrounding villages to help defend the hamlet. Shouts turned to punches and shots were fired. A group of men beat to death one of Nawar's relatives, Alaa Abdel Wahab Nawar. They burned the tractors and pushed a pair of cars into a canal.
One suspect, Mohammed Ragab, has been arrested and charged with murder. Six men remain fugitives. Others who allegedly turned violent were detained but have been released on bail.
Nawar lives in an upscale Alexandria neighborhood. He granted an interview in a living room adorned with embroidered screens and gilt mirrors. He said he owned only about 30 acres but that his extended family had hundreds more in the Sarando area. Until his retirement a few years ago, Nawar was director of a state-run textile company. One of his relatives is a candidate for parliament from the National Democratic Party, Mubarak's ruling group.
Nawar blames the peasant revolt on outsiders. "People come from Cairo and tell them they can have all the land. The peasants never acted like this before," he said.
Women in the hamlet tell a different tale. They said the land Nawar is claiming is not legally his. It was property that his family kept off the land registers when the lots were turned over to the peasants, they asserted, saying he cannot reclaim it now.
The men who resisted Nawar starting in January were harassed by police with false charges of weapons possession, the women said. The tumult that began March 4 "was hard, hard, hard," recalled Sabriya Abdulla, a widow who resisted turning over her acre to Nawar. "Police entered the village, even after the men had fled. They took away the women instead, even if we had little children to care for."
Abdulla told her story in her mud-and-wattle, dirt-floor house. She has five children; one of her daughters works as a maid in Alexandria and provides support money.
Abdulla said the detained women were kept in a house commandeered as a police headquarters. One woman, Nafisa Zakaria Al-Marakbi, died in a hospital the day she was released from the lockup. The villagers said she was abused while in custody. "The police took our wheat. They broke down doors. They insulted us and pulled off our veils," Abdulla said. The police siege lasted until March 10.
For now, Sarando is in limbo. The charges of violence and murder are outstanding. Men are still missing from the hamlet, and women are doing the heavy work of farming. Both Nawar and Abdulla used identical phrases to describe the situation: "Sarando will never be the same again."
A year ago, Sarando's tale would not likely have echoed beyond the delta fields. But a budding network of human rights groups has begun to make inroads into the countryside. When police came in numbers to Sarando, representatives from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the Egyptian Association Against Torture, the Nadim Center for human rights and other organizations traveled here to investigate the violence.
Mohammed Abdel Aziz, a young lawyer from Kifaya, a Cairo-based coalition of anti-Mubarak forces, is defending the peasants in court.
"This is a legal problem and also a battle against feudalism," said Abdel Aziz, whose lithe body in an oversized suit contrasts markedly with the stocky physiques of his deeply tanned clients in tattered shirts.
Abdel Aziz has been formally charged with inciting the peasants to violence, an allegation he laughs off. "This is the price of defending people in Egypt. It is normal," he said.