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In Egypt, possession of land has always been a form of security, a symbol of prestige
and a source of power. The increasing population and the fact that only the narrow Nile
Valley and the Nile Delta are inhabitable makes the land become scarce and thus
wanted. The land administration system in Egypt developed under successive regimes,
from the ancient days with pharaohs reigning the country until the land reforms of
`modern Egypt'. Centralized rule followed decentralized rule and the other way round.
Current attempts to modernize the agricultural Land Information System seem to be very
successful. There is, however, still a long way to go until an up-to-date and well
maintained Land Information System is up and working.
1. Introduction
This paper gives an overview of the land tenure and cadastral issues of Egypt, from the
ancient times until the most recent developments. Egypt is a country in Northern Africa,
located at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean. In Egypt, land
ownership has played a remarkable role through the ages. Egypt's land administration
developed under successive regimes, influenced by a continuous change of centralized
and decentralized rule. Egypt has an area of about 1,001,449 square kilometers, which is
approximately 1/9 the size of the United States (Abdel-Fattah, 1993, p. 831). However,
the only cultivated and inhabited regions in Egypt are the narrow Nile river valley
(upper Egypt), the Nile delta in the North (lower Egypt) and the shore of the Suez Canal
in the East. The current population of Egypt is about 57 million, which makes these
inhabited regions some of the most densely populated areas in the world. The population
is expected to reach more than 85 million by the year 2010. All agricultural land is
entirely dependent upon the waters of the Nile and could not exist without the ingenious
system of irrigation, which is a product of a millennia of experience. Due to the
incredible increase of population, every year 50,000 acres of agricultural land is turned
into urban land and thus lost, which puts more and more pressure on the country (Abdel-
Fattah, 1993, p. 830). Due to this scarcity of land, possession of land in Egypt always
has been and always will be a form of security, a symbol of prestige and a source of
The first part of this paper describes the land situation in ancient Egypt, the invention of
the science of surveying and the times of pharaoh land ownership. The second part
describes all important changes and land reform that appeared in the `nearby' past. In the
third part, the most recent situation with respect to the cadastral system is described, as
well as current attempts for modernization of this system. The last part gives conclusions
and suggestions for further development.
2. Ancient Egypt
As is well known throughout the world, the science of surveying was invented in Egypt.
The earliest recorded accounts of property surveys are Egyptian. The civilization that
developed along the fertile banks of the Nile greatly depended on the fruits of this rich
land. The annual spring floods were a serious problem when the monuments set to
define the little parcels of cultivated land were washed away. The Egyptians used the
science of geometry to restore these lost monuments (Brown, 1994, p. 13). Some of the
boundary monuments set as early as 1300 B.C. still exist today, and recent distance
measurements between them agree accurately with the ancient records. The ancient
Egyptians respected land ownership and saw land as a measure of wealth. Today, there is
evidence of early tax registration. In 2000 B.C. clay tablets recorded land surveys
wherein areas were divided into rectangles and triangles (Brown, 1994, p. 14).
In the early dynasties of Egypt, the two kingdoms of Upper (south) and Lower (north)
Egypt merged into the unified kingdom of Egypt. King Menes declared himself to be the
god, owner of all the land, and thus began the principle of pharaonic divinity. While
traveling, the pharaoh kept on his person written deeds proving his ownership. Although
in principle all land belonged to the pharaoh, a kind of private ownership appeared from
granting land to the pharaoh's officials in return for service and to temples in exchange
for religious favors (Powelson, 1988, p. 16). Out of these grants, a complicated system
of local government developed early in the third millennium B.C.. Within these local
governments (called `nomes') boundaries in land were carefully marked and recorded,
and taxes were collected by the local government official (nomarch) (Powelson, 1988,
Ancient Egypt had a sophisticated legal system. Ownership of objects or of land would
be transferred by a `house document' drawn up on papyrus by sellers, signed by three
witnesses and stamped by an official seal which indicated the end of the document, so
that nothing could be added (Powelson, 1988, p.17). All lands were accounted for
centrally, being registered in the office of the pharaoh's prime minister. Wills were
recorded and new titles issued there. The registry of titles would form the basis of annual
taxes. Tax rolls were taken as evidence of ownership rights.
Egypt's Asian empire was lost when the Libyans intervened and eventually established a
Libyan dynasty; the breakdown of central power and the reconstitution of feudalism.
Under the Persians (525-332 B.C.), the largest parts of the land were held by the Persian
Crown and a hereditary priesthood. There were hardly any private landholders. In the
year 335 B.C., Alexander the Great took Egypt back from the Persians and left the land
in the hand of his generals. After that, by the end of the second century B.C., lands were
increasingly granted to native people. Plots became tinier, many abandoned the land and
under Cleopatra, Egypt had become a weakening fragmented corporate state. Egypt then
surrendered to Octavian in 30 B.C., and was absorbed into the Roman Empire.
3. The History of Modern Egypt
3.1 1805-1848: the reforms of the governor Muhammad Ali Pasha
Egypt was legally a province of the Ottoman Empire from its conquest in the early
sixteenth century until the start of the first World War (Cuno, 1992, p. 1). After the
French invasion and occupation of Egypt in 1798-1801, Muhammad Ali succeeded in
maneuvering himself to the governorship of Egypt in 1805. He is considered to be the
founder of modern Egypt. Muhammad Ali Pasha came to power at a time in which the
eastern Mediterranean provinces of the Ottoman Empire had felt the impact of European
economic expansion for several decades, and in which the European states had begun to
force their power into the region. This was the environment in which the Pasha pursued
his ambition of founding an independent dynasty and creating a new empire in the
eastern Mediterranean (Cuno, 1992, p. 2).
Muhammad Ali's project of independence and expansion was supported by internal land
reforms. Beginning in 1813, he abolished the tax farm system of rural administration
and established a direct and centralized system of assessment and collection of the land
tax. In the eighteenth century, before the rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha, legal and
administrative authority was decentralized, allowing custom and local interests great
influence in the disposition of land. Peasants regarded the land they farmed as their own
and tended to treat it as such (Cuno, 1992, p. 13). Individual security of tenure was
guaranteed to the holder of land because there was a continuous claim to the land, as
long as taxes were paid (Cuno, 1980, p. 246).
An important issue related to land tenure in the period of Muhammad Ali is the
relationship between formal law and actual practices. One of the most basic and
problematic legal issues related to land tenure was the definition of peasant-held land.
Ottoman law and Islamic law defined most cultivated land as state owned land. This
doctrine of state land ownership was the legal basis for Muhammad Ali's abolition of the
tax farm system, as well as for his imposition of state control over agriculture.
Describing the tax farmers and peasant landholders as `proprietors', he succeeded in
negating any legal claim by them to the (Cuno, 1992, p. 13). According to the principle
of Muslim law, Muhammad Ali reassigned much land from those `unable' to those who
were 'able' to cultivate it and pay taxes on it (Cuno, 1992, p. 19).
Muhammad Ali's administrative centralization was revolutionary in that it completely
altered the structure of political power in Egypt (Cuno, 1980, p. 259). He used a
cadastral survey (1813-1814) and the inspection of deeds to reassert central control of
the land and its product. The land holding system as it developed between this first
cadastral survey and the late 1830s was not uniform in regard to the principle of
ownership, but rather it reflected the priorities of the state: "to increase production, both
to fuel the economy and provide revenues, and to provide for and conciliate certain
elements indispensable to maintaining the state "(Cuno, 1980, p. 265).
Muhammad Ali Pasha realized that the achievement of his ambitions depended upon the
will of European powers. Led by Britain the powers chose , in the crisis of 1839-1841,
to maintain the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Muhammad Ali was forced to give up
his empire and to abandon the monopoly system, though by that time Egypt had
developed a thriving trade with Europe (Cuno, 1992, p. 2). Another result of the
centralization of authority under Muhammad Ali was the enforcement of a uniform law.
Resulting land laws were based upon Islamic and Ottoman law as well as traditional
Egyptian practices, and show few signs of Western influences (Cuno, 1992, p. 14). Over
the long term, however, the strong state under Muhammad Ali facilitated the
development toward private ownership (Cuno, 1980, p. 247), because he granted land to
his supporters.
3.2 land reform of 1952
In 1952, Egypt underwent a thorough land reform which, with further distributions in
later years, has been widely considered one of the world's most successful (Powelson
and Stock, 1990, p. 107). The landowning system until 1952 is traceable to Muhammad
Ali Pasha. In later years of his power, he distributed land and monopolies to his
supporters. Except for some sales to outsiders, these supporters and their descendants
remained the principal landowners in Egypt right up to the reform of 1952 (Powelson
and Stock, 1990, p. 107). Inheritances divided the land, however, and considerable
fragmentation occurred, especially in the first half of the twentieth century.
Until 1952, the distribution of land ownership in Egypt was also extremely unequal;
94.2 % of the total land owners held 35.5% of the land while only 5.8% of the owners
held the remaining 64.5%. At the extreme top, 0.4% of the owners held 34.3% of the
land. There were also a significant number of farmers that held no land at all (Gadalla,
1962, p. 13). The terms under which the land was leased were dictated by the
landowners. Most of the leases were not written, but were oral agreements (Gadalla,
1962, p. 15). Political instability, failure of previous reform attempts and influence of
foreign ideas eventually lead to the land reform of 1952.
The organized governmental actions covered by the Egyptian Agrarian Reform Law of
1952 can be summarized under five provisions (Gadalla, 1962, p. 5):
* limitation on ownership of agricultural land and expropriation of certain land for
distribution among small farmers;
* establishment of agricultural co-operative organizations for the farmers who acquired
the requisitioned land;
* limitations on dividing agricultural land;
* regulation of the landlord-tenant relationship;
* provisions in regard to the rights of agricultural laborers.
The land reform of 1952 limited the maximum amount of land that a land owner could
own to 200 feddans (one feddan is approximately one acre) and distributed the land in
plots of two to five feddans to peasants. The power of large land owners, gained through
the Muhammad regime, was immediately decreased. Modifications of the law in 1958
and 1961 reduced the maximum to 100 feddans (Ayrout, 1963, p. xiv).
4. The Current Situation: Problems and Solutions
4.1 modernizing Egypt's agricultural Land Information System
Egypt has approximately 7.5 million feddans (acres) of agricultural land that have to be
included in the agricultural cadastre. However, since the government mandated the
Egyptian Survey Authority (ESA) the creation of a modern land registration system in
1923, ESA has only been able to register 53 % of those lands (Hanigan and Ibrahim,
1994, p. 422). Egyptian law assigns responsibility for registration of title to the Real
Estate Department of the Ministry of Justice. Responsibility for describing and
measuring the extent of the land, collecting information on its ownership and
documenting these data is assigned to the ESA (Hanigan and Ibrahim, 1994, p. 423).
ESA not only serves as a data collection agent for the Ministry of Justice, which
performs land registration, but for the Ministry of Finance, which performs land
taxation, as well.
ESA can be seen as the national surveying and mapping agency of Egypt and is
responsible for Egypt's national cadaster. ESA has been tasked by the Egyptian
government to produce and maintain base maps upon which the national land inventory
can be depicted and to conduct the detailed cadastral surveys required to accurately map
land ownership and administrative and political boundaries (El Kady and Hanigan,
1993, p. 15). Egyptian law also requires that ESA prepares survey books of each village
for submission with the cadastral maps to the Real Estate and Tax Departments.
Although administered at the governorate level, the land registration system is based on
the village. This makes the village the basic unit of work for cadastral surveying and
mapping crews.
Increasing urbanization, growing encroachment on government land and the need to
reclaim desert land have made completion of the agriculture cadaster a national priority
(Hanigan and Ibrahim, 1994, p. 422), but the rapid growth of the Egyptian population
and the concomitant migration of large numbers of people makes it almost impossible
for ESA to develop and maintain the national cadaster using its tried and true manual
techniques (El Kady and Hanigan, 1993, p. 15). Inadequate funding, continued use of
inappropriate technology and the lack of technical staff to use appropriate technology
even if there was enough money are the main reasons for ESA's inability to complete the
agricultural cadaster.
ESA has therefore developed a plan to register 3.1 million additional feddans by the end
of 2005. Fundamental to the accomplishment of this National Agricultural Cadaster Plan
(NACP) is the use of modern techniques like GPS, total stations with magnetic data
recorders, digital mapping and GIS technology for automating the collection,
compilation, storage and presentation of cadastral information. To accomplish this
NACP, ESA requested and received a grant from the United States Agency for
International Development (USAID) for modernizing its surveying and map production
systems. The grant is in the form of a Host Country Contract with Geonex International
(EL Kady and Hanigan, 1993, p. 15).
The NACP is a detailed and comprehensive plan. It plans the systematic surveying,
mapping and registration of all as yet unregistered lands within 13 governorates by the
end of the year 2005. The NACP does not address the conversion of existing cadastral
maps and ownership records. The plan intentionally does not consider the task of
maintaining the agricultural cadaster, mostly due to the current unavailability of skilled
staff. The plan makes provision for the equipment purchased for each governorate
project office to remain in the office once all agricultural land within the governorate has
been registered and anticipates that this set of equipment will be more than adequate to
the maintenance task.
4.2 informal housing in urban areas
Besides the shortcomings of the agricultural Land Information System, several problems
exist in the urban areas in Egypt. As mentioned before, the incredible increase of
population causes 50,000 acres of agricultural land to be turned into urban land every
year. Especially in the major cities, like Cairo, Ismailia, Port Said and Alexandria, the
population growth forms a big problem. Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is one of the largest
cities in the world, with a population approaching 15 million. The original infrastructure
of the city, however, was built to accommodate a city of two or three million people
(Abdel-Fattah, 1993, p. 831). Two processes have contributed to the rapid growth of
Cairo in the last 30 years: one can be described as legal, because it is planned and
controlled by the state, the other is illegal, called spontaneous urbanization. The latter is
more important considering the production of housing (El Kadi, 1988, p. 23). The
illegality of this spontaneous urbanization however, does not refer to any weakening
property rights. The housing is not built on squatted land, the land has been legally
purchased. It is its change of use, from agricultural to urban, which is illegal (El Kadi,
1988, p. 24).
The city of Alexandria has a total population of 4 million, with a population growth rate
of 2.8% a year. In Alexandria, as well as in Cairo, a significant amount of people are
living on rooftops, with no hope of secure tenure at all. On the outskirts of the city,
squatter areas and semi-formal residential areas have appeared. Squatting takes place on
publicly owned land sites, usually without any basic services. Most squatting sites are
situated in the polluted areas and there is little to no chance that the government will
change the legal status of the land, providing the squatters with more secure land tenure
(Soliman, 1996, p. 188). Semi formal residential areas are developed on land for which
the owner has legal tenure with a formal occupation permit but are not developed
through established and state regulated procedures and do not utilize the recognized
institutions of housing and housing finance (Soliman, 1996, p. 183). The housing is
usually constructed on agricultural areas which were illegally sub-divided into small
plots by the private developers. Semi-formal housing units have, contrary to squatting
areas, a good chance of being incorporated by the government as officially recognized
residential areas (Soliman, 1996, p. 194).
5. Conclusions and Recommendations
In this last section, recommendations concerning the problems in Egypt's current
situation will be addressed. To start with the Egyptian Survey Authority, one can
conclude that ESA has chosen a right direction in asking for financial and technical
support and will most likely successfully finish their National Agricultural Cadaster
Plan. It does seem a little bit ironic however, that Egypt, the country where surveying
and land registration were invented, needs outside technical assistance to improve the
existing land registration system. After finishing the modernized agricultural cadaster,
there will be a day that the ESA has to work things out itself, without any additional
help. The NACP intentionally does not consider the task of maintaining the agricultural
cadaster and does not address the conversion of existing cadastral maps and ownership
records, mostly due to the current unavailability of skilled staff. However, the
knowledge to maintain the system and to convert old registers must be in-house at one
point. Maintenance will be very important to have the system keep its value in the
future. The argument that the set of equipment that will remain in the governorate
project office once all land has been registered is more than adequate to the maintenance
task, contains only one part of the maintenance issue. Educational programs to use this
equipment and to manage the system in the future will be necessary as well.
Concerning the urbanization of agricultural lands, one can say that the step taken by the
government to legalize informal housing settlements is one in the right direction.
Naturally, the problem is much more structural. The explosive growth of the population
will lead to many more problems. The nature of the Muslim religion in Egypt, however,
suggests that slowing population growth will be very difficult. An indirect way to
remove pressure is to place more land in Egypt's deserts under cultivation. Several
proposals to lay out new agricultural lands dependent on irrigation, using modern GIS
and Remote Sensing techniques, are being considered (see a/o. Abdel-Fattah, 1993 and
Abdel Rahman, Younes and Onsi, 1995).