Hunger for the Desert

Food, Agri-Capitalism and the Environment in Egypt

Roundtable convened and hosted by CEDEJ (Cairo, Egypt) 

18 April 2023, 3-5pm Cairo time

Invited speakers


  • Marion Dixon, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Point Park University
  • Yomna El Sharony, PhD Student in Sociology, Cornell University
  • Jeannie Sowers, Professor of Political Sciences and International Affairs, University of New Hampshire


The present and future of agriculture in Egypt is fought out in the country’s deserts. Agricultural projects and infrastructures are increasingly targeting the arid lands that lie beyond the fertile Nile Valley and Delta (Barnes 2014, Malterre-Barthes 2018, Sims 2018, Sowers 2011), some along the elusive threshold where (traditional) arable fields meet the desert, and some far out inside the desert, along the coastal shorelines or in the country’s oases.

Our roundtable brings different research frameworks and fields into conversation on the issue of Egypt’s contemporary food territories in the desert. We will be discussing the changing landscape of food production and its wider impact — ecologically, politically, economically, and socially. The roundtable will be positioned from the point of view of the desert (not from the fertile “old” lands): what do current land reclamation projects reveal about Egypt’s desert politics? To what extent do desert investments reconfigure society’s relation to the environment?

This roundtable is organized by Vanessa Lehmann (PhD student, Goldsmiths, University of London) & Delphine Acloque (PhD, associate researcher, CEDEJ Cairo).

The Egyptian Corporate Agri-food System and Global Food Economy”

Marion Dixon

Corporations have had a growing role in agriculture and food around the world. The growth of a corporate agri-food system in Egypt and the global food economy, of which the national system is a part, has contributed to various public health problems and the greater vulnerability of Egyptian population groups to world food prices. How should the complex interconnections between national and even local agri-food changes and global forces and structures be studied? Why in particular has the development of new lands been important to these agri-food changes? How is this importance substantiated?

Creating Unavailability: Shaping Water Access in The Egyptian Desert Frontiers”

Yomna El Sharony

‘Invading the desert’ has been a recurrent policy objective of consecutive Egyptian regimes as the solution for fast-tracking Egypt’s economic development. This view limits Egypt’s economic constraints within a Malthusian ‘demographic-ecological narrative’: a fertile, yet narrow Nile valley and densely populated delta which are surrounded by a vast unutilized desert (Mitchell 1995; 2002). I study West Nubaria reclamation project; an area that witnessed multiple waves of agricultural expansions mirroring the agrarian shifts in the country. My research shows how the allocation of such ‘new lands’ has been highly controversial where successive shifts in land reclamation policies of different presidential regimes have molded the scheme into one of the most heterogenous ‘rural space’ in the country (Springborg, 1979; Meyer, 1998; Desmulier, 2014). With different actors holding different sizes of land in the scheme, ranging from national ‘sovereign’ entities, large agribusinesses, and foreign investors to different groups of smallholder farmers (e.g. graduates, dispossessed ex-tenant peasants, ‘Arabs’, etc.), I argue that disparities in water access is not only shaped by land tenure and class conflicts (El Nour, 2019) but is also associated with a skewed distribution of power manifested through critical performative encounters that mirror the political dynamics within the country.

The ‘New Valley’ Project, Again and Forever?”

Jeannie Sowers

The New Valley land reclamation project, extensively touted by the Mubarak regime, was recently revived with similar stated goals: increasing food production, reducing reliance on imported food, using excess water in the Toshka lakes, creating an infrastructural network linking Egypt’s western oases to the Toshka depression, and attracting residents to the western desert.  Drawing on fieldwork, I outline the political, economic, and environmental constraints that accompanied these and similar mega-projects during the Mubarak period, and then discuss the continuities and changes evident in the current revival of this project.