Jeffersonian Democracy and the Land of Egypt
Thomas Jefferson’s vision of American democracy was a land of small farmers, both economically and politically independent. Whereas manufacturing led to subservient employees bound to wages given to them by a growing class of industrial aristocrats, small farmers were “the chosen people of God”, devoting their lives to cultivating virtue and communing with nature in self-sufficient, productive work. For Jefferson, the survival of the Republic depended on the maintenance of this class of vigorous free men, while the dependency and venality of city life would prove a cancer to its democratic spirit.
A strain of this philosophy clearly informs the political tensions between the rural/urban divide in the United States to this day. The equal division of land among the people has long been seen by thinkers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Frederick Jackson Turner as the source of American democracy.
As a result, after World War 2, the philosophy of democratic land reform was modified and exported to other countries as part of a bipartisan effort to develop their economies and promote democracy, particularly in the defeated fascist countries of Japan and Germany. Land reform in these nations was meant to disempower the agricultural elites seen as responsible for the rise of fascism. In Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were also aimed at eliminating social unrest in the countryside that might flare into a communist revolution.
The astounding success of these reforms led to a policy wave, particularly in the Middle East. The most successful of these reforms was implemented by Gamal Abdel Nasser (جمال عبد الناصر) in Egypt. Following the example of both Capitalist and Communist party land reforms, Nasser put a cap on estate size, seized lands belonging to the monarchy, redistributed land from absentee landlords to the peasants, established mandatory co-operatives to replace the brutal ‘izba (عزبة) system, locked rents to seven times the land tax, and generally invested in tenant rights and social services for farmers.
Much like the other examples of land redistribution, Nasser’s reform was an act of social control at least as much as it was a move towards social justice. In 1952, Nasser and the “Free Officers” Movement had just overthrown a heavily flawed parliamentary monarchy and were moving towards establishing a single-party populist authoritarian regime. Nasser hoped to weaken his competitors in the landed gentry and establish a loyal base of support in the countryside. This gave room for Nasser to outmaneuver his rivals and suppress labor movements in the cities, leaving religious organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood as the only real opposition to military rule.
The results of Nasser’s reforms were mixed. The modest amount of land acquired from the very wealthiest was mostly bought up by middle-sized landowners and wealthy peasants. Meanwhile, the estates of small peasants declined as Islamic inheritance laws split holdings up among heirs. Cooperatives could be helpful, but were often dominated by wealthy peasants or even the dreaded overseers of the ‘izba. Unpredictable state interventionism led to uncertainty and chilled market dynamism.
With the 70s came the rise of neoliberalism, and with it, a new theory of democratization came into vogue. With the failure of communist parties across the world to build anything but authoritarian regimes, many came to believe that political freedom must be built on the foundations of market freedom. This viewpoint was reaffirmed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 in the midst of market liberalization. Optimists like Francis Fukuyama celebrated the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism”.
With the death of Nasser in 1970, Egypt’s new leader, Anwar Sadat (أنور السادات), began steering Egypt in a more neoliberal direction, opening up Egypt to foreign investment. Market liberalization intensified under Hosni Mubarak (حسني مبارك), who signed on to an economic reform and structural adjustment program with the IMF (International Monetary Fund). This involved a vast reduction in the size of government, selling off state-owned enterprises, expanding the private sector, deregulating industry, and slashing social programs.
Most important for our story is the passing of Law 96 in 1992, which led to an overthrow of Nasser’s land reforms. This was devastating for poor farmers, who experienced a depression in living standards, tripling of rents, mass evictions, unemployment, and political marginalization. The trend in rural poverty declining over time flipped to a doubling in the poverty rate over five years in rural Upper Egypt. This was accompanied by restrictions in government participation and general political de-liberalization, keeping Mubarak in power for thirty years before finally being overthrown in the 2011 revolution.
Eleven years later, under president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (عبد الفتاح السیسی), who returned Egypt to military rule after a brief year-long stint under an associate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt is still intensifying toward what I can only call a neoliberal hellscape. It continues to privatize the few state companies left in order to make up for its budget deficits, and rapidly cut food subsidies in order to qualify for desperately needed IMF loans. This is not leading to greater democracy, but rather more state oppression and the crushing of labor resistance. Just recently, the government has resorted to forced seizure of wheat, threatening farmers with prison time if they don’t comply.
What can we take away from this? Well, for one, market “liberalization” does not guarantee political freedom, so don’t expect China to morph into a thriving multi-party democracy anytime soon. While I would personally point to Taiwan and South Korea as success stories, especially when compared to Russia, there doesn’t appear to be a one-size-fits-all recipe for democratization. It’s a complex issue that depends on the unique circumstances of each society and precisely what policies are pursued and how they’re implemented.
I still think there’s something to be said for Jefferson’s dream for economic equality and independence. Even ignoring political freedom, the ability of people to decide for themselves what they do with their time, where they live, and how they relate to others is a more visceral form of freedom than going to the ballot box. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Egypt has arguably some of the worst economic inequality in the world, while the world’s happiest countries like Finland and Denmark also happen to have some of the highest levels of equality and democracy.
Unfortunately, the dynamics within Egypt discourage both democracy and equality, as Sisi stabilizes his own power with the help of economic elites at home and abroad. The Egyptian state has been careful to crack down on any real threat to its structural power, abolishing all independent labor unions in 2018. Nasser’s authoritarian regime, and not his social justice reforms, have been his lasting legacy.
Egypt’s fate is not set in stone. For lasting change, the people need to develop systems of economic power for themselves and establish long-term institutions that maintain civilian control over the military. It’s not enough to pass token reforms; actual power needs to be redistributed. This is just as relevant for the legacy of slavery and reconstruction in the United States as it is for Egyptian peasants. The Black Panther Party even used similar tactics to the Muslim Brotherhood by supporting their militant program by providing social programs for local communities, filling holes in the government support system.
40 acres and a mule anyone?