Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: Inside Egypt

Whilst this post is more or less off topic for an Egyptology blog, it is a slow news day and what's the point of owning your own blog if you can't occasionally bend the rules! In fact, the book has some interesting insights into the Cairo Museum and, seperately, antiquities smuggling. I'll write up some of this comments in the next few days.

"Inside Egypt" is a pleasure to read for the quality of the writing and the insights shared, but at the same time it is profoundly disturbing. This is a dark view and I'm sure that anyone living in Egypt will have an alternative view of the experience of day to day life, but it does give a vivid idea of some of the problems that the country needs to tackle.

I started visiting Egypt in the mid 1990s and have been visiting twice a year for work reasons, for several weeks at a time, since 2002. But I don't speak Arabic which means that I have no real contact with people and their lives in Egypt, or have the chance to hear their ideas about political and social issues. This book has helped me to find a bridge between the current state of affairs in Egypt and my own unfortunate ignorance.

"Inside Egypt" opens with the author's meeting with "The Yakoubian Building" author Al-Aswani in a cafe frequented by intellectuals and hangers-on in downtown Cairo. As well as snippets from the discussions between those at the cafe and quotes from the interview with Al-Aswani, Bradley observes the world around him and shares his observations about what he sees and hears, interpreting those observations with the reader. This is very typical of the book as a whole. Bradley, a journalist who speaks fluent Egyptian Arabic, draws on his own experiences, his meetings with people at all levels of society, and chance encounters, to provide the reader with an informed and articulate view of a country in crisis.

Before delving into some of the more troublesome issues in Egypt, Bradley tackles the historical context which has led to Egypt being in the situation it is in today.

Handling subjects like corruption, torture, religious dispute, religion in politics, poverty, the impacts of the absence of a middle class and the political future, Bradley never shies away from the unpleasant or the frankly horrifying. It is unsurprising that when his book was published in 2008 it was, at first, banned by the Egyptian government. For example chapter on torture is revealing. Although he deals with the subject of political prisoners and writers unwise enough to question the Egyptian leadership, the more shocking accounts are those that deal with the routine brutality of the police to ordinary Egyptians, even children. As Bradley describes it the systematic contempt and brutality displayed by many of the police makes them often more of a weapon of fear than of justice.

To me, the most fundamentally miserable chapter was "Lost Dignity". The analysis of Luxor, a place for which I have considerable affection, was abysmally distressing. The sin is that personal corruption, young men selling themselves for money and the corresponding dramatic changes in the local culture is happening in a place where tourists pay 1000s of dollars to stay, money that is simply not routed back into the local economy. Bradley doesn't say whether this pattern is echoed in other tourist centres. I sincerely hope not.

The book reveals the impacts of a political system that supports an elite but abandons the lower echelons of society. In Egypt, with a middle class more or less completely eroded (restricting many families to low standards of living or actual poverty) there are few avenues for self improvement without recourse to minor (or major) crime, corruption and the abandonment of self respect. The difference between the haves and have-nots is the difference between those willing to abandon traditional values and those who refuse to do so. The latter are the financial losers.

Bradley suggests that the current situation of stagnation in Egypt at political level, corruption at all levels, and apathy amongst most ordinary Egyptians is a situation reinforced by the annual $2 billion US funding. The US promotes stability in Egypt (the mind boggles) as opposed to political and economic reform. Bradley argues that the reasons for this have much to do with the US fear of the rising power of Islam.

The overall sense with which I was left is that even if political reform should arrive it will be many decades, even generations, before the deeply ingrained attitudes that are keeping Egypt firmly in the quagmire, at both political/organizational and local levels, are diluted and eventually dissolved. The problems seem to be so deeply embedded.

Bradley's tone is almost conversational. Although his perspective is personal and involved, it is also clearly argued. Bradley doesn't expect the reader to take everything on trust - he offers both hard facts and provides accounts from Egyptian residents to illustrate and support his points. The strength of Bradley's style is that the lack of hyperbole and high drama allow the reader to assess the details rather than being swept away on an emotional tide.

I would recommend that if you are unfamiliar with the much bigger picture of Egypt's socioeconomic, geographic and religious background you might do well to start with Ibrahim and Ibrahim's "Egypt: An Economic Geography" which is available on Amazon. It offers both information and commentary and takes in many other problems, including the after-effects of the Aswan Dam.

I would recommend "Inside Egypt" to anyone with an interest in modern Egypt. You will certainly find it disturbing but you will learn an awful lot about the past, present and the possible future of a very troubled country.

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