Egypt, The Moment of Change.
Edited by Rabab al-Mahdi and Philip Marfleet
London: Zed Books, 2009, 186 pp., ISBN 9781848130210.
Egypt plays an undeniably crucial role in Middle Eastern politics and culture. Its strategic importance and inextricably close relationship to the United States warrant scrutiny not only of the current political and economic situation but also of possibilities for revolutionary change. The eight contributors to Egypt: The Moment of Change provide a clear and concise depiction of how events and decisions from the era of Nasser through the present day have led to the untenable situation ordinary Egyptians face. Geared towards the lay reader while retaining academic rigor, this collection of essays documents the horrific consequences of US involvement in Egypt, particularly how neoliberal economic policies were applied in the context of a blatantly authoritarian regime. This volume focuses not on "the economy or political system as such" but rather highlights the ways in which Egyptian "social movements" coalesce within a limited and repressive political framework. The contributors themselves range from well established professors such as Joel Beinin and Ray Bush to Ahmed El-Sayed El-Naggar, an economic analyst and Aida Seif El-Dawla, a professor of Psychiatry and founder of the El-Nadim Center for Psychological Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. All of the contributors, however, are defined as "activists engaged with the phenomena they discuss" or strongly linked to their subject matter "through extensive personal observation and ties with the people they write about." (p.13)
Despite an avowed unity of purpose, the eight chapters which comprise this work range widely in terms of their level of detail, readability, and the degree of importance they ascribe to different social movements. The first chapter "State and Society" by Philip Marfleet provides a strong, historical overview of the Egyptian state apparatus from the free officers to the present day. Marfleet focuses on the repressive tactics of Egyptian nominal or rather "low intensity democracy" as well as the possible avenues of rebellion open to the Egyptian people. In contrast, the second chapter "Economic policy: from state control to decay and corruption" by Ahmad El-Sayed El-Naggar seems too detailed in its account of the economic shifts in the past several decades of Egypt's history. El-Naggar discusses how Nasser's state capitalism gave way to Sadat's Intifah and Mubarak's "free-market principles without concern for social welfare."(p.36) El-Naggar then highlights problems of unemployment, corruption, inflation, and general economic malaise. While this subject matter is clearly instrumental to the book's argument that change is both necessary and inevitable, its varied statistics could prove overwhelming to the lay reader. The third chapter, "The land and the people" by Ray Bush continues the discussion of Egypt's economic situation by examining the consequences of government policy towards land and land ownership since Nasser's reforms. As Bush demonstrates, Nasser's incompletely implemented policies of land ownership that were designed to benefit the fellahin or peasant class at the expense of the elite class of landholders, which had amassed their estates in the colonial era. Nasser's land reform eventually gave way to Mubarak's neoliberal economic tactics, which often target landholding peasant farmers, leading to increased food prices, a stagnant economy, and a "guarantee of continued communal struggles." (p.67)
Joel Beinin's chapter, "Workers' struggles under 'socialism' and neoliberalism," Rabab El-Mahdi's "The democracy movement: cycles of protest" and Sameh Naguib's "Islamism(s) old and new" describe three types of social movements, their protests against Mubarak's regime, and their potential to eventually bring about that regime's dissolution. Beinin focuses on the strikes undertaken by tens of thousands of Egyptian workers, particularly blue-collar employees, during the past decade. Beinin notes that although these workers often win fiscal concessions, political gains, such as democratic reforms or requests for a representative government are few in number, receiving little support or success. Similarly, Naguib discusses the power of the Muslim brotherhood to unite disparate classes of society, including but not limited to the "lumpen intelligentsia." Since the 1970s, according to Naguib, Islam has become a catchall solution for the myriad problems everyday Egyptians face. Despite documented populist appeal of the Muslim brotherhood, and its ability to mobilize the Egyptian population, Naguib concludes pessimistically that the movement itself will not survive "conditions of extreme repression" or "political and social crises." (p.119) Beinin and Naguib's analyses contrast radically to Rabab El-Mahdi's optimistic chapter on Kifaya, the democracy movement in Egypt. El-Mahdi even attributes the workers' struggles (which Beinin links to financial constraints) to Kifaya 's influence. (p.101) El-Mahdi highlights the few successes of the Kifaya movement; however, her emphasis on the power of this democratic movement to possibly affect fundamental change in Egypt's government may be a nod towards the sympathies of an American audience.
The final two chapters are the most compelling of the work. Aida Seif El-Dawla depicts the "culture of abuse" (p. 121) perpetrated by Egypt's police and security services. The state of emergency which has existed in Egypt since 1981 provides the legal justification for this abuse, trying civilians in military courts without possibility of appeal, harassment and mutilation of women, and the systematic torture of political dissidents, the powerless and the poor. Moreover, Mubarak's willingness to comply with the American policy of extraordinary rendition perpetuates and intensifies the torture of Egyptians as well as prisoners in US custody. Anne Alexander's chapter similarly focuses on the fraught relationship between Mubarak's regime, the United States, the Palestinians, the Arab states, and the Egyptian people. The billions of dollars poured into Egypt by the United States have contributed to economic, not political liberalization. As a client state, Egypt has proved an unwieldy ally, particularly as its people protest Egypt's ties to Israel and the US.
As this volume clearly illustrates, the conditions in Egypt do seem untenable: no freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, accountability to the law. Yet, this work raises more questions about the possibility for change than it answers. Egypt's "moment of change," so clearly desired by the contributors to this informative book, will remain out of reach until truly radical shifts occur not only in Egypt but in the world at large.
Hilary Falb, UC Berkeley
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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