Egypt in Books
by Jeffrey Azarva
Middle East Quarterly
Although its glory days may be past, Egypt remains an important player in regional politics. With almost eighty million people, it has by far the largest Arab population. While there may be twenty-two members of the Arab League, one in three Arabs is Egyptian. And although Islamists question the legitimacy of many Arab states formed in the wake of World War I, Egypt has a recognized legacy going back millennia. Because Egypt is one of only three Arab states to have full diplomatic relations with Israel, it retains an elevated position as a diplomatic intermediary. Despite its importance, though, recent literature on Egypt is scarce.
Since the 1952 Free Officers' coup which brought Gamal Abdel Nasser (r. 1952-70) to power, the Egyptian government has grown more opaque. Scholarly access is limited. Most scholars divide modern Egyptian history into three periods: post-French invasion modernization, 1798-1919; the liberal period, 1919-52; and the post-1952 order. Recent books about Egypt generally cover only three issues: history, politics, and Islamism. Major topics remain unaddressed: Few authors examine in depth Egypt's religious minorities or internal regional identities. Studies of the Egyptian army—from which have come Egypt's past three leaders—are sparse.
From Belle Époque to Revolution
Trevor Mostyn's Egypt's Belle Époque: Cairo and the Age of the Hedonists gives context to the rise of Egyptian liberalism. Originally published in 1989 and reissued last year in paperback, Mostyn provides a glimpse of nineteenth century Egypt, a romantic age when many European elites considered Cairo to be the Paris of Africa. The author, formerly the Financial Times' Cairo correspondent, recounts an era that Western scholars in recent years have neglected. Under Muhammad Ali (r. 1805-49), the father of the modern Egyptian nation-state, and his grandson Ismail (r. 1863-79), Egypt would welcome European influence, ending the country's image as a primitive backwater of the Ottoman Empire as architects and musicians flocked to Cairo and Alexandria. The Egyptian taste for high society would culminate in the lavish festivities surrounding the 1869 inauguration of the Suez Canal.
But while nineteenth century Egyptian decadence may contrast to the country's social conservatism today, there remain parallels between past and present. Egypt's belle époque saw the Egyptian government establish a world-class postal system and create an efficient transportation network although progress often came at the expense of the average Egyptian. Muhammad Ali and Ismail crushed dissent with brute force. Royal courts dispensed swift punishment, in many ways in parallel to the actions of the regime's security courts today. In another parallel to post-1952 Egypt, both Muhammad Ali and Ismail staked the regime's survival to the military.
Mostyn's narrative includes tales of profligate spending. The government, he writes, implemented development projects with "inadequate knowledge at inordinate costs." Nearly a century and a half later, critics levy similar charges against current Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's Toshka land reclamation project launched in 1997, which they say is both infeasible and expensive.
Mostyn's narrative contrasts with the dominant narrative in university classes. Here, New York University political scientist Timothy Mitchell's Colonising Egypt is a staple. Less incisive and littered with deconstructionist jargon and references to the late literary theorist and polemicist Edward Said, Mitchell's book rests on the theory that the roots of colonialism are as much "internal" as "external." Nineteenth century reforms and modernization, Mitchell asserts, were backdoor attempts to subjugate Egypt to British influence. Urban planning enabled subjugation.
Absent from his analysis,
though, is mention of the fiscal
irresponsibility which pushed Egypt into
debt and motivated British occupation. While
dependency theory and condemnation of
Western influence might be popular in
academe, theoretical jargon does not
substitute for fact-based narrative.
Another staple of university syllabi is Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman's Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954. Beinin, a former president of the Middle East Studies Association, and Lockman, its current president, utilize a Marxist approach and stress the importance of labor in shaping modern Egyptian history. While labor did coalesce during this period, their claim that labor guided Egypt's post-World War I nationalist struggle is exaggerated. Both the British and the liberal Wafd party kept labor under control.
Beinin and Lockman's argument that labor charted the path of post-1952 Egypt does not hold water. While Beinin and Lockman characterize the working class as "a factor to be reckoned with" in today's political landscape, the voice of labor remains quiescent. Wildcat protests may still occur, but labor's conspicuous absence from the reform movement is telling. Beinin and Lockman's narrative is an example of the danger of cherry-picking evidence and limiting context to justify a political theory.
The poor quality of such staples raises the value of some new contributions. Re-Envisioning Egypt: 1919-1952, edited by Arthur Goldschmidt, Amy J. Johnson, and Barak A. Salmoni, provides a more nuanced treatment of early twentieth century Egypt. Goldschmidt, Johnson, and Salmoni— respectively, a professor emeritus of Middle East history at Pennsylvania State University, an associate professor of history at Berry College, and a deputy director of the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning at the U.S. Marine Corps Training and Education Command—collect essays exploring Egypt's "parliamentary age." Recasting this period as one of "cultural vibrancy" and "societal dynamism," the volume's contributors shatter the conventional wisdom that the early twentieth century marked a period of Egyptian decline.
The various authors depict a society more egalitarian than earlier accepted in the academic literature. Though conflicts among the British imperial authorities, Egyptian monarchy, and nationalist Wafd party and its political adversaries sometimes paralyzed policymaking, debates did not prevent far-reaching reform.
In her essay on the public education system, for example, Misako Ikeda, an associate professor of history at Koryo International College in Japan, shows that the post-1919 era witnessed not only the advent of tuition-free education but also the standardization of primary school curriculum. What is striking about these reforms is that they arose not by dictat but from parliamentary debate attuned to public interest, a process all but extinct in Egypt today. Ikeda adds that such reforms provided Nasser with a template upon which to build when, for example, he made university opportunities more equitable. The theme of continuity between Egypt's liberal and Nasserist periods contrasts from previous historiography, which paints the 1952 Free Officers' movement as a revolutionary break.
Fred Lawson, a professor of government at Mills College, expands upon this motif in his essay on post-World War I foreign policy. He counters the idea that Egyptian policy was introverted prior to Nasser's pan-Arab movement. While many historians write that the Egyptian government at the time eschewed regional engagement, Lawson argues that Egyptian officials established the parameters for Nasser's later external activism. Though Lawson acknowledges that Egyptian policy was inconsistent, he draws upon archival material to show the interest of Egyptian politicians in intra-Arab affairs; in one case, Egyptian officials even meddled in the Syrian monarchy's internal politics. The most prominent case of Egyptian intervention was in Palestine during the 1930s and 1940s. While scholars such as then-Princeton University professor and current U.S. National Security Council senior director Michael Doran say Egypt's involvement stemmed more from anti-British sentiment than incipient pan-Arabism, Lawson, Ikeda, and other contributors suggest that Egypt's vibrant inter-war period dictated much of its later trajectory.
Nasser and his Successors
Following the 1952 Free Officers' coup that brought Egypt's colonial experience to an end, Egyptian rule has been characterized by a series of three authoritarian rulers. While Gamal Abdel Nasser ingratiated himself to the lower and middle classes, he tolerated little opposition. Those who crossed him faced arbitrary detention, torture, or execution. His vice-president and successor, Anwar Sadat (r. 1970-81) was as heavy-handed with those who challenged his foreign policy and top-down reform initiatives. Disaffection has continued under Sadat's successor and Egypt's current ruler, Hosni Mubarak.
While Mubarak quelled social unrest in the 1980s and crushed an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, his emphasis upon stability over development has contributed to stagnation. Today, the Egyptian state is marked by high unemployment and endemic corruption. A 2000 World Bank report estimated that more than thirteen million Egyptians live under the poverty line.
Politics are moribund.
Parliament rubber-stamps presidential
decrees, and the electoral system is rife
with fraud. Egyptian law constrains civil
society, and few outlets for legal dissent
exist. The Egyptian security forces harass
any who raise their voices.
In February 2005, after a few years of sustained Bush administration pressure, Mubarak amended the constitution to enable contested presidential elections. However, after independent candidates sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood gained 88 out of 454 seats, followed the next month by the Hamas victory in Palestinian elections, U.S. officials reconsidered their policy. Absent pressure, Mubarak reneged on reform. He postponed municipal elections scheduled for April 2006 and arrested his former election opponent, Ayman Nour. Security forces again cracked down on even peaceful dissent.
The tenacity with which Mubarak seeks to monopolize power is apparent in the literature. By suffocating Egypt's liberal opposition and raising the specter of Islamism, Mubarak portrays his regime as the only bulwark against Islamist extremism.
The best introduction to Egypt and its growing Islamist trend is Carrie Rosefsky Wickham's Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt. Wickham, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, goes beyond superficial, post-9-11 discussions of Islamic fundamentalism to explain why political Islam resonates with such force in Egyptian society. While many in the West identify this current with those such as Mohamed Atta or Ayman al-Zawahiri—Egyptian nationals who played prominent 9-11 roles—Rosefsky says most Egyptian Islamists are reform-minded and opposed to violence. Still, she acknowledges that "Egypt's moderate Islamic groups have yet to reconcile their call for Islamic law with a full commitment to democracy and political pluralism."
Wickham's book is no potboiler. Fluent in Arabic, her research is extensive. She taps Egypt's quasi-independent professional associations and provides balance by interviewing taxi drivers, unemployed college graduates, and Islamist activists, including those from Cairo's sha'bi, common, lower-class neighborhoods. These conversations reveal the popular resentment felt by those who believe the Nasserist social contract remains unfulfilled.
Tracing the post-1952 ebb and flow of Egypt's Islamist movement, Wickham refutes the idea that state repression and grievance-based alienation alone feed Islamist activism. As the low voter turnout in the 2005 presidential elections illustrated—only 23 percent of the electorate participated —most Egyptians remain apathetic toward the political process, even when Muslim Brotherhood candidates run. Instead, she credits the Muslim Brotherhood's proactive outreach with galvanizing opposition. This da'wa (call [to God]) network consists of Islamist commercial institutions, voluntary associations, and private mosques that remain beyond government control. This semiautonomous infrastructure not only provides Islamists with space to mobilize, but it also puts liberal opposition at an organizational disadvantage.
While Wickham examines the relative success of Islamist movements under Egypt's authoritarian system, Maye Kassem, an assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, analyzes the success of the system itself in Egyptian Politics: The Dynamics of Authoritarian Rule. Kassem uses the 1952 revolution as a point of departure to show the institutionalization of authoritarian rule over the past half century. While Kassem spends the first half of the book regurgitating a litany of Egypt's repressive laws and practices well-documented elsewhere, she intersperses her review with anecdotes from a state prosecutor's attempt to cook trial evidence against Islamists to a plainclothes policeman's use of pepper spray on opposition voters.
Her treatment of trade unions and organized labor complements Wickham's emphasis on professional syndicates. Kassem details how the regime has either co-opted unions or neutralized them through legislation and coercion. She singles out the General Foundation of Egyptian Trade Unions, an umbrella organization established by Nasser in 1957 to curb the proliferation of local unions, as one means of control. The ruling National Democratic Party often appoints the foundation's senior officials. By the 1980s, Kassem writes, "The deterioration of relations between workers and trade unions reached a level whereby it was no longer uncommon for workers to challenge their own union representatives." The situation has improved little since.
Kassem devotes one chapter to Egypt's Islamist movement with emphasis on violent offshoots that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Al-Jama'a al-Islamiya (The Islamic Group) and Al-Jihad. Here, though, she accepts conventional grievance-based explanations. She argues, for example, that the security apparatus's humiliation of Egyptian males instigated violence in the 1980s and 1990s. Still, Egyptian participation in such operations does not explain recruitment mechanisms. How do some Egyptians come to be trained in such terror while others might just grouse or applaud it?
Here, she mostly parrots the analysis of Gilles Kepel's Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and the Pharaoh. Kepel, the chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, studied Egyptian Islamism while living in Cairo toward the last years of Anwar Sadat's presidency. He traced the evolution of radical Islam in Egypt from Sayyid Qutb's writings condemning Nasserism as un-Islamic through violent splinters such as Takfir wal-Hijra (Excommunication and Exodus), Jama'at al-Islamiya, and Al-Jihad. Kepel depicts these groups, with the exception of Al-Jihad, as benign social activists and argues that they sought to Islamize the Sadat regime, not overthrow it, and asserts that until the time of Sadat's assassination, Islamists disavowed violence.
Al-Jihad, though, did embrace violence and, on October 6, 1981, assassinated Sadat. When discussing recruitment, Kepel is at his most interesting. Socioeconomic explanations underpin his analysis but do not dominate it. He writes that the most susceptible Islamists were drawn from marginalized 20-25 year-olds on the outskirts of big cities. The "vendetta complex," which permeates these towns in middle and upper Egypt known for their illicit arms trade, suggests some young men were predisposed to violence; Islamism gave them an excuse. Still, it is unfortunate that, more than two decades after Kepel penned his study, little remains known about the inner-workings and precise recruitment mechanisms of these Islamist groups.
The Missing Piece
Few authors examine the Egyptian military, perhaps the most powerful and opaque institution in Egypt today. Nasser and the Missile Age in the Middle East by Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Owen L. Sirrs, therefore, makes a welcome contribution. In this published version of his doctoral dissertation from the Joint Military Intelligence College, Sirrs documents Cairo's 50-year investment in a ballistic missile program. While light on Arabic and Hebrew-language sources, Sirrs makes ample use of declassified U.S. intelligence.
Like other grandiose projects, Nasser's indigenous rocket program—which evolved from a desire to attain military parity with Israel—yielded few returns. While Saad el-Shazly, chief architect of Egypt's 1973 surprise attack on Israel, was appalled with mismanagement and the program's "wasted millions," Nasser's successors have continued to procure ballistic missile capabilities. First the Soviet Union, and then Iraq, North Korea, and Argentina contributed to Cairo's program. Pyongyang's cooperation may still continue to the present. Although Washington has expressed concern about Mubarak's missile programs, neither the White House nor State Department uses its leverage—Egypt is the second largest recipient of annual U.S. military aid—to stop Cairo.
Sirrs asks the right question—namely, why would Mubarak jeopardize stability and a valuable alliance for a handful of missiles—but the problem goes deeper: Since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, Egypt has received nearly $60 billion in economic and military aid from the United States in current U.S. dollars. This support has allowed Egypt to retool its armed forces with Western weaponry in what amounts to a bid for regional hegemony. Still, aid to Egypt continues unabated. U.S. diplomats fear that easing Egypt off the gravy train might endanger intelligence-sharing and Suez Canal access.
Recent scholarship on modern Egypt, even after the shock of 9-11, is underwhelming. Egypt, one of the United States's most strategic allies and a country from which many regional actors still take their cue, receives scant attention. Perhaps authors take Egypt's stability for granted. With Mubarak aging and his succession uncertain, this could be a devastating misjudgment.
Jeffrey Azarva is a research
assistant at the American Enterprise