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Discontent flaring in rural Egypt

A lack of democracy under Mubarak leaves few outlets for peaceful resolution of disputes.

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Before dawn on March 4, police trucks rumbled into this hamlet and rousted seven men from their beds. They were jailed for allegedly stealing crops and illegally occupying the land of Salah Nawar.

A few hours later, Mr. Nawar, a hereditary landlord, arrived with dozens of supporters, some armed, from southern Egypt. What happened next depends on whom you believe.

Nawar says he was simply trying to evict deadbeat tenants, who then attacked him. The farmers say the 25 acres aren't his, and that they rallied around families Nawar's men had attacked.

What is undisputable is that by 9 a.m., vehicles owned by Nawar were in flames, and a relative of his lay dead. By 10 a.m., more than 50 villagers had been arrested.

Focus on political change in Egypt - like most of the Middle East - has been aimed at the capital, with protests and calls for President Hosni Mubarak to step down.

But the Sarando episode and other land conflicts mushrooming in the fertile Nile Delta show that change at the top will be irrelevant to real freedom if it is not joined by the institutional development that protects rights and provides clear, peaceful means to settle grievances.

In the decades since Egypt's independence, the grievances of the working poor have occasionally flared but rarely coalesced into a broader movement, making it easier for the government to isolate democracy activists in the capital.

But if these groups begin to back the movement for change, President Mubarak's regime could face trouble.

Disputes mount

Such small, seemingly isolated incidents like the one in Sarando - an impoverished town of rickety homes nestled in the delta's flat farmlands and crisscrossed by dirt irrigation canals - are becoming increasingly common on Egypt's farms. At least 24 million of the country's 70 million people still make their living working plots that are usually smaller than five acres.

Two weeks ago, two landowners were killed and 40 peasants arrested in a land dispute 50 miles away from Sarando, just outside the town of Damanhur.

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