Reading a Little About Egypt (5 cents)

I picked up a short book, about 15 years old, by Galal Amin, who teaches economics at the American University of Cairo, titled “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?”, giving both a professional and personal assessment of how Egypt has changed since 1950.  Although the book does not directly presage the extraordinary events in Egypt that have taken place over the past few years, and plays it safe by (I think) not even mentioning Mubarak or the influence and power of the military, it does help set the stage for understanding the country.

Or does it?

The Egypt of 1950 is primarily a traditional, isolated, poor, rural society with a miniscule middle class, and an even smaller elite (says Nasser, the “half percent” – sound familiar?) comprised of old established families who are often absentee landowners.  The best jobs (and ones with most prestige) are government jobs.  No longer a British colony, Egypt is nevertheless surprisingly Europe oriented in its government and its educated class.  Then, in 1952, a revolution deposes King Farouk, and the Arab socialist, Gamal Abdel Nasser takes over.  Things begin to change, especially with the government taking on more importance, with taxes going up to support a growing welfare state, with education becoming more available.

Then, Nasser dies, and is replaced by Anwar Sadat.  Socialism recedes, and more market oriented economic policies replace it.  For the first time, private sector jobs and entrepreneurship compete with government employment.  The old families become less important, the middle class grows substantially, and it becomes more and more possible that children of the rural peasantry can get an education and change their social position.

Certain other things are also in play.  Traditionally, Egyptians didn’t travel out of the country for the most part.  But soon temporary jobs in the oil industry became available in the Gulf states, and general emigration became more and more common.  And then the economy sputtered, and population grew, and unemployment became much more pronounced.  It was in particular the young university graduates who couldn’t find employment or support families.  Frustrations grew,  and complaints about the West increased (even as, or perhaps because, western music, movies and habits became more pervasive) on the theory that the capitalist openings to the West especially for trade, had made Egypt more dependent on the West, weakened Egypt’s traditions and made society decadent, and ruined the economy, especially for the educated and the newly expanded middle class.  This, to Amin, was perhaps the biggest factor in the development of religious fundamentalism, a factor that did not affect either the elite or the peasantry nearly as strongly.

So, if I can paraphrase Amin, socialism led to somewhat of a diminishing of class differences, with greater social mobility and more people able to become educated and employable, followed by a switch to capitalism which allowed many of those newly educated to become entrepreneurial and move into the middle class.  But then the economy falters and cannot support a middle class of this size, leading to increasing frustration, anti-Western feelings and religious fundamentalism, while at the same time, the rich get richer, and the middle class and the poor fall further behind.

This is basically where this book ends.  Looking at the Egypt we see today, we see three parts to society — we see the large group that Amin describes as having turned to religious fundamentalism and traditionalism, we see the liberal, educated public and the economic elite, and we see the military which had supported the Mubarak dictatorship and which today holds the upper hand.

But, in fact, this is not the Egypt that Amin describes – the military is not discussed, nor is the Muslim Brotherhood, and these seem to be the two most powerful, and most antagonistic to each other, facets of society; the liberals have been marginalized.  And what about the 10% of the population that is Coptic Christian?  These don’t get mentioned in the book, nor do the Jews, who played a major role in the Egyptian economy before the founding of Israel in 1948 and even up until the Six Day War of 1967. So I am willing to give Amin credit for everything he does say (I don’t see a reason, or have the background, to disagree with him.).  But he certainly does not give the complete picture.  Whether this is because he did not find these other segments of society to be important, or whether it is the result of social or political reasons to avoid controversial subjects, I don’t know.  But it does detract from his book (which by the way won a prize at the Cairo International Book Fair of 1998).

Still, as I said at the beginning, the book does present a picture of much of Egypt in 1950 and show many of its transformations over the next 50 years.  But in order to understand the events of today, there are these other elements you must factor in.  I should also point out that Amin deals with a number of other facets of Egyptian society, including the role of women, the role of film and media, private and public transportation, domestic servants, and (for some reason, I assume personal) Egyptian wedding habits.  All worth looking at.

Finally, there is one other subject that I think Amin underplays — the effect of population growth.  While he does reference population growth and statistics now and then, he doesn’t concentrate on what happens in a country which, while geographically large, has a limited amount of space available for habitation – the Nile Valley and the coast — and where population grows exponentially.  In 1950, the population of Egypt was approximately 22,000,000.  Today, it is approaching 100,000,000.  Think of the pressures this brings, putting everything else aside.  Perhaps it is this that is the key to Egypt’s transformation, and not the various factors that Amin identifies.


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