Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the PresentGalal Amin
The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo – New York, 2001
By Rany Ibrahim
In this book review, I will examine Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the Present by Galal Amin (American University Press, 2001). This book is based on several essays that have a unique mixture of Amin’s academic research along with his personal experiences. Elements discussed include those that changed the Egyptian society from the 1950’s until the 1990’s (in social, economic, and cultural areas). The Author, Galal Amin, is considered a modern historian along with his academic responsibilities as an economics professor at the American University in Cairo. His books and articles focus on the history of economic thought, micro economics, economic development, and economics of the Middle East. Political development, westernisation, government regulations, and migration were some of the elements that Amin used to observe the changes in the Egyptian society. He examined, in every chapter, a different side of the Egyptian life and walked us through the important milestones that impacted and changed the Egyptian society. Some events that he focuses on include: the 1952 Revolution, President Gamal Abd Al-Nasser “Arab Socialists/Marxists” era, 1956, 1967, 1973 Wars, President Anwer El-Sadat era “Infitah /open door policy,” and ending up referring to the current President Mubarak era.
Galal Amin highlighted the current problems affecting the Egyptian economy such as; budget imbalance and deficit, large external debt, high rate of unemployment, increase the gap between rich and poor. He believes that poverty and corruption can all be traced to the massive changes that happened to the social mobility and expansion of the middle class in Egyptian society, which began with the 1952 revolution. These significant changes took the average Egyptian village from a unit of production to a consumption location. Furthermore, it increased the migration of rural villages’ populations into more crowded and overpopulated urban cities. Amin claims that people lost their sense of loyalty and that their belonging to their homeland has been weakened by losing faith in their way of life, all occurring over decades of shifting, reorientation in national strategies and leaderships from side to side (Nasser’s era to Sadat’s era, extreme right to extreme left, anti-West to pro-West, Marxist to Liberalist). He also claims that Egypt is still going through what he calls a “Social Crisis;” a result of this economic liberalization which accelerated the social mobility rate. He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, 1835 which states “the noble has gone down the social ladder, and the commoner has gone up; the one descends as the other rises.”
The Egyptian July 1952 military revolution aimed to liberate Egypt and other Arab movements from colonization, by providing them with more political and economic independence. Amin denies any success within these two fields. Furthermore, he considers the conversion to Socialism (the Arab Socialism followed the Marxist concept) was a major step towards Westernization. It was a step that Nasser took towards Arab Nationalism; a middle step which he hoped would help a United Arab State to stand out against Western aggression and exploitation using the bargaining power of oil wealth. Although it did not work as Nasser had hoped due to several internal and external elements, such as the 1967 defeat (the Six-Day War). However, the same concept did show some prospects during the 1973 war and oil crisis, when Arabs joint action to control oil supplies to the West. The Nasser socialist changes in the Egyptian society, which increased the volume of the lower middle class, did not manage to control the frustration of unfulfilled ambitions as Amin described. Amin also refers to Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a pioneer study of “Militant Religious Movements in Egypt”, as well as to Albert Hourani’s conclusion in his book A History of Arab Peoples, about the development of the “Muslim Brothers’” movement in the late 30’s. He quotes:
“Spreading in the urban population among those in an intermediate position: craftsmen, small tradesmen, teachers, and professional men who stood outside the charmed circle of the dominant elite”
The social mobility frustration was one of the notable reasons of fanaticism that drove new recruits to religious militant groups that affected the Egyptian society throughout the following decades, such as “Al-Takfier Wa-l-Higra” group or the “Islamic Jihad” group, which were responsible a decade later for the assassination of President Anwar Al Sadat in 1982. It provided them with an escape from the reality of failing to create wealth, an escape from poverty. Another element that should be considered is the fact that many Egyptians spent years living in oil-rich Arab states, mainly Saudi Arabian religious society, where religion was so strict and integrated into the daily activities. In fact, a recent Gallup pool about the top religious countries around the world shows that the Egyptian society is the most religious with a 100 percent positive answer.
The Nasser Marxists regime (which also called Nasserist era of Arab Socialism) recognized only two classes; exploiting class and exploited class. This was how they justified their extreme measures of change during the 1950’s and 1960’s by land reforms laws, nationalisation of large economic institutions, and massive national irrigation projects such as “Aswan High Dam” project. What Gamal Abdel Nasser said about Egypt at the time of revolution is that it was a half percent society, meaning that the upper class that controlled Egypt’s political and economic life, is still valid today, after all that time, with a large percentage of population still living below the poverty line. Amin refers to the 1986 data from a public census that shows over 53 percent of the total population at that time (about 30 million of the 56 million people) are falling under the poverty line. (Notably, the most recent population estimate is 87.1 million according to 2008 census). Egypt currently ranks 112 out of 177 countries, with 43.9 percent living below $2 a day according to 2007/2008 UNDP Human Development Report: human and income poverty.
Sadat’s weak commitment to welfare state with his “Infitah” or open door polices allowed more foreign investment and involvement in the Egyptian economy, such as in the tourism and trade sectors. Also, Egypt’s dependency on the Western aid, mainly on the United States of America, increased significantly during Sadat and later on Mubarak eras. The 1973-1974 increase of the oil prices due to the “Yom Kippur War” drove the Egyptian Gross Domestic Product to an unprecedented average high of 8.5 between 1973 and 1984, and the Income Per Capita has doubled during the same period. The Egyptian GDP was, as it is still the fact today, dependant on oil and gas revenues, labour remittances (mainly transfers of unskilled, semiskilled and skilled Egyptians working in oil-rich Arab States), the Suez Canal revenues, tourism services, and foreign aid (mostly USAID investments following 1978 Camp David Accords, and 1979 peace treaty with Israel).
There is a significant socio-economic problem, which was boiling under the surface since the 1952 revolution was revealed in 1977. During the events of January 18th and 19th 1977, the “Bread Riots,” protested Sadat’s economic liberalization polices and the removal of government subsidizes to the basic food necessities such as bread, which pressured Sadat to reverse his polices and keep the government’s control on the prices in an attempt to control the situation, before the government loses control on the masses. This specific incident was so dangerous that any following government was very careful with the social dimension of any economic decision that is related to Egyptian economic reform and liberalization.
The revolution undoubtedly, as Amin claims, followed the Western path, although not as extreme as Ataturk in Turkey did. Nasser’s, and I would argue, Sadat and Mubarak’s speeches were presented as the main, sometimes the only, measure of success or failure of the revolution or the regime. These speeches used Western measurements such as: GDP rate, per capita income, school enrolment, hospitals and infrastructure projects, reclaiming new land, new industries etc. Galal Amin argues that perhaps, the revolution approaches development with its dramatic unprecedented changes to the social mobility and Infitah of the Egyptian society during the past five decades, were the most important factors that explain the current problems of the Egyptian society from nepotism and corruption. The book was certainly, an interesting read. Although, I find Galal Amin approach, sometimes, ignores using more solid examples to support his arguments. While, I agree that the social mobility and Infitah are important factors. However, I do find that he ignores the role of democracy in this social transition. The lack of democracy within the same period of time, 1950’s to present time, with several authoritarian regimes in power, has in fact impacted the social trends of the Egyptian society and its limitation to a positive change, or what he calls it “Social Crisis.”
Amin, G., Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the Present (American University Press, 2000), p. 33
Crabtree S. and Pelham B., What Alabamians and Iranians Have in Common, 2009 http://www.gallup.com/poll/114211/Alabamians-Iranians-Common.aspx
Egypt State Information Service: 2008 Population Census http://www.sis.gov.eg/En/Land&people/Population/030900000000000001.htm
Hourani A., A History of the Arab Peoples, London: Faber and Faber, 1991, p. 340.
UNDP 2007/2008 Human Development Report: Human and income poverty http://hdrstats.undp.org/indicators/24.html
 Hourani A., A History of the Arab Peoples, London: Faber and Faber, 1991, p. 340.
 Crabtree S. and Pelham B., What Alabamians and Iranians Have in Common, 2009 http://www.gallup.com/poll/114211/Alabamians-Iranians-Common.aspx
 Amin, G., Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the Present (American University Press, 2000), p. 33
 Egypt State Information Service: 2008 Population Census http://www.sis.gov.eg/En/Land&people/Population/030900000000000001.htm