Review: Tarek Osman’s Egypt on the Brink

downloadTarek Osman’s readable book describes the development of Egypt from the 1952 revolution to Mubarak. The book consists of seven chapters and does not relate Egypt’s story in a chronological order, but rather discusses the socio-economic changes by a number of snapshots from today’s Egypt. In the introduction, Osman takes his readers back to the glamorous years of the 1950s, when Cairo was mentioned along with cities like London, Paris, Rome and Vienna. A lot has changed over the past half century. Cairo lost its glamour and has become a crowded third-world city. “Cairo’s descent mirrors a regression of the Egyptian society.”

Egypt’s political regression started when Nasser abolished all political parties, after a period of relative political freedom, known as the ‘liberal experiment’. But many Egyptians saw another Nasser. To them, “Nasser symbolizes […] an unfulfilled dream of a saviour who died while preaching.” Since Alexander the Great, Egypt had been ruled by foreigners: from Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arab muslims to the British. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the first ‘Egyptian Pharaoh’, changed Egyptian society forever.

Osman describes Nasser as Egypt’s twentieth-century hero. “Nasser represented the will and aspirations of the vast majority of the Egyptian people.” While Osman speaks well of Nasser’s intentions, he argues that because all his policies were personified in him, Nasser’s project ceased to exist when he died. Nasser failed to transform his dreams into institutions. His revolution never turned into a state, he left behind “an ill-defined aspiration.”

Nasser and Sadat both had an Egyptian project. Nasser’s project was Egyptian nationalism and pan-Arabism, while Sadat liberalised the economy. Sadat positioned himself as a peacemaker and a pious muslim in an effort to contain the Islamists. His policy of liberalisation opened the economy to foreign investment but only a small elite reaped the benefits. The appeasement of Islamists turned out to be lethal when he was shot to death on the national celebration of the Ramadan war (better known as the Yom Kippur war). His vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, took over. According to Tarek Osman, Hosni Mubarak did not have a project. Mubarak wanted to retain the status quo. He cracked down on the Islamist extremists that killed his predecessor and his security services developed a steady relationship with Israel.

During his 30 years in office, Mubarak and the Egyptian people grew apart. The corrupt elite enriched themselves while Egypt’s lower classes grew larger and became poorer. Mubarak’s foreign policy also alienated many Egyptians from his regime. Egypt’s dependence on United States’ dollars and its soft stance on Israel enraged many normal Egyptians.

Osman explains clearly the “potential triggers for chaos in Egyptian society.” A weak economy, huge youth unemployment and repression have resulted in a revolution. However, Osman ascribes an important role to Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s youngest son. Gamal Mubarak was one of the most powerful persons within the ruling party, but he also represented the hated business elite. The people’s resentment against Gamal Mubarak and his policies is enormous.

Egypt’s influence and power has been declining for half a century. Maybe this is the reason why Osman writes about the ‘liberal age’ and even the period of Nasser, when Egypt was the most powerful and important Arab country, with some nostalgia. In the first chapter, Osman describes the Egyptian society of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s as “a vibrant political, economic and social scene, culture and the arts flourished.” In chapter three, called The Islamists, the author discusses the lack of liberal and creative Islamic thinking in the 1970s and 1980s. Liberal thinkers like Taha Hussein shaped the Islamic movement during the liberal years, but are now positioned as opponents and enemies by the Islamic movement. It’s the kind of nostalgia that we can also see in Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, in which Egypt’s changing society is depicted through the changing life in an apartment building in downtown Cairo.

“Potentially there are real triggers for chaos in Egyptian society today, as I have demonstrated throughout this book. Yet political disorder and the fall of the state remain very unlikely scenarios.” Tarek Osman does not think the fall of the state is a likely scenario, as this quote shows, although Mubarak’s regime ended. Because Osman describes the changes that triggered the recent revolution, Egypt on the Brink provides a perfect picture of an Egyptian society in evolution. In Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, some of the main characters experience a very tragic end. Egypt’s story can be different.