During the period of Egyptian-Syrian unification in 1958-1961, the unity government issued Agrarian Reform Law No. 161 with the aim of setting a maximum limit on agricultural land ownership.
The ceiling set by the law for private agricultural land ownership was 80 hectares for irrigated and forested land and 300 hectares for rainfed land.
Under Law No. 161, the state may seize any land in excess of those maximum limits in return for a compensation payment. The state then becomes the owner of these surplus lands and grants the right of usufruct of the properties to small farmers. The share of land granted to each farmer may not exceed eight hectares of irrigated or forested land or 30-45 hectares of rainfed land, depending on the levels of rainfall the land receives.
A farmer who has been granted the right of usufruct to these excess farmlands must repay the cost of their parcel of land within 40 years. The price the farmer must pay is equal to the compensation the state paid the original owner of the seized parcel of land plus a 1.5 percent interest fee and 10 percent of the acquisition expenditures as determined by Law No. 161. The farmer may not dispose of the land before paying the full price. It is prohibited to seize the land in order to pay a debt unless that debt is to the state or the Agricultural Cooperative Bank. Essentially, for lands seized due to the ownership limits set by the Agrarian Reform Law, the state is the landowner, while farmers are entitled only to the right of usufruct.
The Agrarian Reform Institution, a legal entity connected to the Presidency albeit with financial and administrative independence, is responsible for implementing the provisions of Law No. 161. This body handles the expropriation, distribution, and management of the lands seized in line with the 1958 law.
However, Law No. 161 grants the Agrarian Reform Institution some powers outside the scope of the law’s stated objective. The institution has the right to retain some seized land to construct projects to the public benefit. It may also delay distribution of the lands or sell some of the seized lands for the public benefit at prices and under conditions it considers appropriate.
The institution forms committees to undertake the land seizures, conduct inventory, and distribute seized properties. A judicial committee may also be formed by decree of the Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform to consider disputes arising from the implementation of Law No. 161, especially those related to ownership, seizure, and distribution.
Law No. 161 includes penalties against those who object to or violate it, ranging from 10 days to three years imprisonment.
Several amendments to the law were issued throughout the 1960s: Law No. 3 of 1962, Decree No. 166 of 1968, and Decree No. 66 of 1969, all of which centre around the conditions for distributing state-owned agricultural lands to farmers.
These lands, granted to farmers with the right of usufruct, are subject to the Law on Transfer of Immovable Amiri Properties. This means that female and male inheritors are held in equal regard once a legal inheritance inventory document is compiled before the Civil Magistrate Court.
An amendment made by Law No. 61 of 2004 considered beneficiaries of Agrarian Reform farmlands to be the “full owners” of such lands, starting from the date the land was distributed to them. The land is registered in the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs under the beneficiary’s name. After their death, ownership is transferred to the heirs in accordance with the rules of legal inheritance stipulated by the Personal Status Law.
Under the 2004 amendment, neither the beneficiary nor the heirs may dispose of the land until five years have passed since the property was listed within the land registry under the primary beneficiary’s name and approved by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform.