4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Prescient; 4.5 Stars,
This review is from: Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Paperback)
This very well written, concise, and insightful book is a short survey of recent Egyptian history aimed at providing the background for understanding the present difficult situation of Egypt. Written prior to the recent overthrow of the Mubarak government, it is notable for laying out many of the tensions of Egyptian society that led to the apparently successful revolution.
This book is organized chronologically. The first chapter briefly covers the 19th century reformist efforts of the Mohammed Ali dynasty and the modernizing, liberal constitutional monarchy that was its successor (under British colonial control). Osman presents this as something of a Golden Age of Egyptian elite society with a relatively dynamic economy, cosmopolitan culture, religious toleration, considerable innovation in Islamic theology and social thought, a high rate of artistic achievement, the development of important and relatively democratic political institutions, and a sense of "Egyptianism." Osman is careful to point out the defects of this period, notably the monopolization of wealth by a relatively small oligarchy and some notable political failures. The following and particularly good chapter is very nice overview of Nasser's dominance of Egypt, stressing the revolutionary nature of his regime, both in terms of developing a state dominated economy that did initially produce substantial growth and opened up opportunities for many Egyptians, and the "Arabization" of Egyptian politics in which Egypt was the center of the Arab world and Egyptians had a broader consciousness of themselves. The failure of Nasser's "project" with the enormous defeat in the Six Day/June war, economic stagnation, and political repression is described objectively and critically. The succeeding chapters are nice descriptions of Sadat's and Mubarak's regimes, with their efforts to retain control by increasing repression, the relative radicalization of Egyptian politics in an Islamic direction, the shift from being the center of the Arab world to a junior partner of the USA, and efforts to promote economic growth as a panacea via neo-liberal policies. Osman has 2 chapters on the predicament of Egyptian Christians and the problems faced by the enormous mass of young Egyptians.
Osman ultimately described a profoundly blocked society with a huge mass of young Egyptians lacking opportunity, failing governmental institutions, an eroding middle class, neo-liberal reforms with some positive effects but whose major effect has been the prosperity of a relatively small and well-connected elite, and a government resorting to repression to maintain its grip. This book gives the sense, now vindicated by recent events, that even a modest amount of additional stress would precipitate a revolution. From Osman's discussions, any successful successor governments will have to provide both economic and political opportunities for a large mass of Egyptians not served by the present system. He is quite clear that while there is an inchoate and widely distributed Islamism in Egypt, this is not the political Islam of conservative American caricature. Osman also suggests that any successful new regime will have to promote some broad ideal to legitimate itself and promote social cohesion, though what he thinks this can be is not clear.
Perhaps because of the brevity of the book, there are some significant omissions. The discussion of the elitist character of the "liberal" regime of the first half of the 20th century barely mentions the British colonial regime, which must have significantly retarded social and political change. Osman makes much of the demography of Egypt, its recent large population growth, and the huge mass of young Egyptians, but there is not discussion of why this occurred. Some North African nations, such as Tunisia and even Algeria, appear to have had significantly faster drops in birth rates. My impression is that the Egyptian military, assisted by generous American subsidies, plays a larger role in the Egyptian economy that Osman's comments imply.
A final, excellent feature is the excellent footnotes and bibliography.