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Contradictions in the capitalist development of Egypt: a review essay.

Two these underpin the most widely held conception of capitalist development in the Afro-Asian third world. First, Afro-Asian societies varied greatly on the eve of the European conquest, but none had embarded on a transformative process which by itself would have culminated in capitalism. Either these societies were still in a primitive stage of development or else they were caught in the impasses of the notorious "Asiatic mode of production." Second, the very dynamism of the capital accumulation process which followed on Europe's introduction of capitalist relations in the third world progressively effaced the specificities (i.e., particular origins and conditions) of the local scene.

To these theses I have counterposed the following: (1) The productive forces were as developed in certain Afro-Asian societies as in Europe on the eve of the latter's capitalist transformation, and the social struggles taking place in those countries could have eventually resulted in the emergence of capitalism. The earlier advent of capitalism in Europe is attributable to the fact that its precapitalist social organization (the feudal form) was less fully developed and hence potentially less resistant to change than the mature tributary modes of production in the advanced Afro-Asian societies. Europe's headstart, though not precluding the emergence of capitalism elsewhere, did distort the direction of capitalist government outside Europe. (2) As a result of this complex historical process, two qualitatively different forms of capitalism came into existence: the capitalism of the center and that of the periphery. Over time these two forms became entrenched, with the capitalism of the center establishing a decisive dominance over the capitalsim of the periphery. As a result the bourgeoisies of the periphery proved unequal to the task of establishing themselves as independent ruling classes and instead were obliged to accept the role of compradors to the bourgeoisies of the center. And in addition the contradictions generated by the global capital accumulation process turned out to be more explosive in the periphery than in the center of the system.

In this historical perspective one can discern the unfolding of a double process of unequal development: just as the transition to capitalism began in the less developed precapitalist societies, so the supersession of capitalism (transition to socialism or a new postcapitalist class society) begins in the less advanced capitalist countries.

Two recent works of a high scientific quality confirm, at least in the case of Egypt, the validity of the second of these conceptions.

Peter Gran, in his study Islamic Roots of Capitalism, Egypt 1760-1849 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979), take issue with the prevailing wisdom on several points: (1) the status of Egyptian society in the eighteenth century, (2) the reasons behind Napoleon's occupation of Egypt, (3) the nature and evolution of the system during the regime of Mohammed Ali and Khedive Ismail, and (4) the ways in which Egypt's cultural forms expressed the socioeconomic conflicts of this epoch.

In contemporary, historiorgraphy (even in Egypt) the Mameluk regime is regarded as the end product of several centuries of social decay; on the eve of the French occupation, this "feudal despotism" is said to have been in a state of decomposition. Ali Bey El Kebir's attempt, in the second half of the eighteenth century, to turn Egypt into a modern Arab state independent of the Ottomans--prefiguring, in this respect, Mohammed Ali's undertaking in the first half of the nineteenth century--is incomprehensible within this framework. Ali Bey's personality is thus invoked as an explanation. He is cast in the image of an "enlightened despot," an Egyptian Peter the Great. In the same way, Egypt's modernization under Pasha Mohammed Ali is explained singularly by reference to his will. But whereas the Bonapartist model may indeed have inspired Mohammed Ali, there is no such "external" factor to explain Ali Beys initiative.

In fact, as Gran show, eighteenth-century Egypt was in full bloom, thriving, on the threshold of capitalist development. The Mameluks, hitherto the basic military units of a tributary system, gradually crystallized into a political aristocracy. In effect, Egypt had becoe a mercantilist society more ore less on the European model. A symbiotic relationship evolved between large-scale commerce, manufacture, and the Mameluks. The protagonists in the principal class struggles were now the nascent big bourgeoisie (Mameluk aristocracy and large mercantile fortunes) and the large plebian mass of the middle bourgeoisie (notables, artisans, rich peasants). The expansion of the internal and external market in the Delta region reinforced private ownership of land, and at the same time accentuated differentiation between the peasant ("kulak" type) bourgeoisie and the poor peasants and wage earners, accelerating the disintegration of the guilds, and facilitating the transition from artisan-type production to manufacture. The decomposition of the age-old moral and religious ideological universe and the emergence of a new culture were rooted in these violent social trasformations. The larger question, always implicit in the transition to capitalism, was which class would underpin the now consolidated and modernized central power. In effect, the Mameluk aristocracy attempted to substitute for the plebeian Egyptian bourgeoisie an alliance with foreign mercantilist interests, in particular the merchants of the large minority communities (i.e., the Christians and Jews of the Ottoman Empire, who acted as intermediaries and proteges of that same France which had supplanted the Italian cities). In the struggle between these two unequally matched mercantilisms (French and Egyptian), fundamental issues were at stake: whether Egypt would undergo autonomous national capitalist development or peripheralization.

The French invasion should be understood within the context of this struggle. Here again, bourgeois historiography proves deficient: in that view Bonaparte's Egyptian campaign had a strictly military objective (severing the route to India), however hopeless this objective may have been (since England, in any case, dominated the seas). Gran reinds us that after the precipitous drop in grain production in 1763, the French sought to reconstitute their empire: the famine on the eve of the french Revolution confirmed that France's backward agricultural sector acted as a brake on its overall capitalist development. Marseilles imported from Egypt grains vital to the Midi region. The conflict, then, was over who would control this growing trade, French or Egyptian mercantilism. Moreover, after its Egyptian setback, France pursued the same objective with the conquest of Algeria, beginning in 1830.

In Egypt, the Bonapartist regime based itself on the plebeian bourgeoisie in order to liquidate the Mameluk state. But once Egyptian commerce fell under its tutelage through the intermediary of the Eastern Christians, the regime alienated this bourgeoisie and thus set the stage for its own destruction.

Mohammed Ali made the same choice. Rather than seeking the support of the plebeian bourgeoisie, he leaned on the great foreign traders and Oriental Christians, and sought to modernize his administration and army with the help of foreign technicians. The economic positions of the plebeian bourgeoisie were liquidated in due course: in the countryside, the regime forced a return to the tributary mode of production, dominating production and marketing via its commercial monopoly. In the cities state manufacturers were substituted for the private enterprise of the bourgeoisie.

Why this choice of priorities? In large part, no doubt, because Mohammed Ali grasped the great disparity between Egypt and Europe, and the enormous drain on resources that modernizing the army--an evident necessity if Egypt hoped to preserve its autonomy--would entail. To cover this expense he had to impose a massive tribute on the peasantry and appropriate the maximum possible industrial and commercial profits, which meant he could not share them out with the rural and urban plebeian bourgeoisie. But he then fell captive to the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, the only class on which he could rely; he thus deferred to it exclusive control of the countryside. In 1837 a land distribution in favor of members of the aristocracy was undertaken, a process completed by Khedive Ismail. In the end, the comprador agrarian bourgeoisie established itself in the countryside, and Egypt was transformed into a giant cotton-exporting enterprise. In effect, with this decision, Mohammed Ali condemned himself to external dependence. According to gran, the combination of this factor and foreign aggression foreclosed any possibility of bourgeois national development: Egypt was now doomed to peripheralization.

Gran pays close attention to the cultural conflicts in which these acute class struggles manifested themselves. With a good deal of finesse, and taking as his point of departure a detailed study of the important turn-of-the-century thinker, Hassan El Attar, Gran counterposes Ahl Al Hadith and Ahl Al Kalam. But unlike so many Western historians, he does not portray the schism between the two as an absurd religious quarrel. On the contrary, in an analysis worthy of comparison with Weber's discussion of the Protestant-Catholic dispute, Gran shows that the emphasis put on the Hadiths--that is to say, the (alleged) words and deeds of the PRophet--favored the inventive spirit which in turn facilitated the adaptation of religion to the exigencies of the times. In opening, once again, the "door of effort" (bab al ijtihad), Islam was, in effect, being reinterpreted n the spirit of Calvin (to assist, with Weber, on the uniqueness of Protestantism, simply reveals one's Eurocentric bias). Among the popular masses, who were the prime victims of the social transformations then under way, this critique combined with a kind of messianic mysticism in the tradition of Sufism. The analogy with the religious ideological currents prevalent in England during the mercantilist epoch (Anglicans, Calvinists, and radical Levellers) is inescapable. By contrast, elites rooted in the state bureaucracy--e.g., Mohammed Ali--embraced the Kalam philosophy with its formal and closed scholastic logic. To be sure, this philosophy did produce noteworthy results (e.g., the modenization of the Arab language), but little by little it evolved into a form of pragmatism: a comprehensive philosophy was rejected in favor of the percelization of the sciences. This transformation paralled Egypt's peripheralization and reflects the acquiescence of the comprador bourgeoisie to its subaltern status. Pragmatic "modernism," seasoned with a touch of orthodox (i.e., conventional and conservative) Islam, became the credo of this now acculturated bourgeoisie.

Robert Springborg's Family, Power and Politics in Egypt (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982) serves as a useful complement to Gran's work. While history never really repeats itself, in the case of Egypt the apperance of repetition is nevertheless striking: doesn't the transition from Nasser to Sadat recall the equally ineluctable passage from Mohammed Ali to the English occupation in the nineteenth century? Like Mohammed Ali, Nasser endeavored to reorganize the rural world; he liquidated the large-scale latifundia holdings and established a system of cooperatives which exacted a tribute from agriculture (more precisely, from the peasantry) in order to accelerate industrialization. Like Mohammed Ali, Nasser opened the door to a massive importation of technology, took little account of his people's resources, and relied heavily on technicians. Like Mohammed Ali, he needed a modern and costly army to safeguard his country's autonomy. Like Mohammed Ali, he fell victim to imperalist aggression: 1967 was a repeat performance of 1840. And the aftermat of both aggressions was more or less the same: the compradorization of Khedival Egypt and the re-compradorization of Sadat's Egypt.

Springborg goes to the heart of the debates and struggles in Egypt's political class between 1950 and 1980. The choice of Sayed Marei as the subject of his monography is especially fortunate. In 1952, Marei, having convinced Nasser of his "Technocratic" skills, was summoned to head Egypt's land reform. This rural notable and industrial entrepreneur (with close ties to foreign capital) until then was regarded not as a nationalist but rather as a "modernist" in the sense that he sought to modernize and thus make more profitable the agricultural enterprise he managed; vis-a-vis his subordinates he was more the despot than the "liberal."

In his new position, Marei endeavored to prevent the autonomous organization of the peasantry. He built a vast bureaucratic empire which, we now know, facilitated the growth of a new kulak class. Marei's "reforms" brought him into conflict with Magdi Hassanein, who presided over a second agrarian empire. Hassanein was wrongly considered more to the "left" because he sought to control the peasantry through bureaucratic police methods rather than the networks of notables and rich peasants which was Marei's preferred means. When the Nasserite line turned more radical around 1965, Marei came under attack for his "feudalist" ways, but the adept politicians (with the help of Sadat) quickly foiled the plot against him, knowing full well that the balance would eventually shift to the right--which is precisely what happened after the 1967 defeat. Marei, once having played Sadat against the Nasserite left (eliminated with Ali sabry in 1971), took charge of the only legal party, the Arab Socialist Union (ASU). Among the "organized tendencies" within the ASU, he played the "democrat" (thus managing to win the support even of the Marxist left) and then, as Speaker of the Assembly, jettisoned what remained of Nasserite nationalism, "opened" the country to foreign capital (the "infitah"), signed the Camp David Accord, and presided over the funeral of the ASU which, once the new comprador system was introduced, lost its raison d'etre. In the meantime, between 1972 and 1974, he managed to head the World Conference of the FAO and the World Council on Food, thus passing himself off as a "man of the third world."

Springborg's book cannot easily be summarized, for its interest lies precisely in the detail he provides on how the Egyptian political machine really operates, how the struggle inside the political class exclude the intervention of the masses, how the methods of the Nasserite left were in these respects no different from those of the right, how even the Marxist left accepted this framework which ineluctably led to the defeat of the bourgeois national initiative and to re-compradorization.

What we can learn from this recent experience, as well as from events of the preceding century, is the extreme vulnerability of any attempt at autonomous bourgeois construction in the periphery of the capitalist system. In effect, there are not two classes, or even fractions of the same class (one nationalist, the other pro-imperialist), with distinct social bases at play in these societies. If that were the case, compradorization would imply the overthrow of the former by the latter. Instead, it is one and the same class--the bourgeoisie--which, because of its historic weakness, finds itself torn between its nationalist predilection and the tendency to inscribe itself within a framework that entails its subordination. When circumstances prove auspicious, it aspires to ben autonomous national bourgeoisie, a functioning member of the world system. But circumstances cannot forever remain favorable. And when things go awry, the same bourgeoisie which was "national" renounces its project and accepts compradorization. The circumstances in question, however, are largely determined by the evolution of the global system. The phase of capitalist expansion between 1945 and 1970 could still accommodate "nationalist" deviations; in the present crisis phase, the general offensive of the dominant capital takes as its target the liquidation of these initiatives. The crisis, furthermore, exacerbates those contradictions which express themselves in the external debt, the deficit in the balance of payments, etc. Transnational capital exploits the opportunities opened up by these aggravated contradictions to re-compradorize the third world (in particular, through the international monetary system). Illusions about national development are thus dashed, and with them the "noncapitalist" strategies of development and the left's support for such experiments.

To be sure, the movement from nationalist development to compradorizations implies political changes. And here there is plenty of room for CIA plots, external aggression, and the like. But a change in political personnel does not necessarily signify a change in the class basis of the regime. Just as the bourgeoisie is still in power in the West, regardless of whether a left or right grouping heads the government, so the bourgeoisies of the third world may be represented by nationalist or comprador political personnel, depending on whether or not circumstances favor the nationalist alternative. The most skillful politicians--like Marei--manage to survive the most varied circumstances.
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Author:Amin, Samir
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Sep 1, 1984
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