Masr wal masreyeen fi asr Mubarak
(Egypt and the Egyptians during the Mubarak Era), by Galal Amin, Cairo: Dar Merit, 2009.
Galal Amin, economics professor at the American University in Cairo and vocal critic of former president Hosni Mubarak, appeared at the Cairo Book Fair on 28 January to discuss his new book Egypt and the Egyptians during the Mubarak Era, a collection of essays on the economic, social, political and cultural crises caused by Mubarak and his regime.
Amin recalled that when he wrote the book in 2008 he was keen to publish it before the death of Mubarak, who was suffering from bouts of ill health at the time. In response, his publisher had the book printed in one month and released in January 2009. Following Egypt's revolution in 2011, a new introduction was included and Amin added his key insights on the historic events that brought down the former president.
Journalist Saad Hagrass introduced the book, highlighting what Amin saw as the five things that differentiated the 2011 revolution from all the others in Egypt's history:
1. In 2011 the masses took part, unlike previous uprisings that were ignited by smaller groups, such as organised workers or students.
2. The middle classes led and took part in the protests in high numbers.
3. The mixing of economic and political demands, rather than just political demands as had happened in previous revolutions.
4. The limited role of parties and traditional leaders, and the emergence of new young leaders, or in many cases protests occurred without a formal leadership.
5. The role of technology in gathering people from diverse backgrounds, organising actions and communicating more rapidly and with a far greater number of people than in the past.
Amin said the revolution had not died because the old regime still survived and bore the heavy burden of corruption, weak institutions, a weak state, and a decimated education system. These factors, together with poor management of the transition period, have led to growing anger at the lack of progress since Mubarak's demise.
The revolution's main achievement, according to Amin, was to reinvigorate people's involvement in politics and public affairs, which can be observed in the way political parties are barely able to keep up with the demands of the people, and ordinary people have lost their fear of expressing themselves to those in power.
Amin said little has changed since Mubarak's fall and there are few signs that change is on its way:
"We need time, of course, to reverse the damage to education, health and all the other sectors, one year isn't the concern as long as there's hope."
The book analyses various sectors of society that decayed under Mubarak, including education, society, poverty, television and the state, which he describes as 'soft'.
Poverty in Egypt changed its form under Mubarak, claimed Amin. Before 1952, the poor lived in terrible conditions, many without shoes, but at least had a sense of contentment because they believed nothing could be done and everything was decided by fate. Now the poor are better dressed but suffer a deep sense of humiliation and see that their ambitions for a better life are not being met, despite better education. Thanks to television, everyone understands their deficiency and feels more excluded.
President Sadat's opening of the Egyptian economy to foreign competition in the 1970s and rising unemployment resulted in growing resentment among the Egyptian people. Under Sadat, millions of Egyptian went to the Gulf in search of work, but since 1985 migration fell as cheaper Asian workers took the place of Egyptians in the Gulf and there became fewer outlets for Egyptians to escape unemployment at home.
The discussion then turned to the question 'what is to be done?' and Amin responded that "the solutions are obvious, no need for councils or meetings or research. If the intention is there, the change will come quickly."
People want change but are offered only partial solutions, such as a change of prime minister or a new cabinet, said Amin.
Amin remembered a conference on education in 1987 attended by a wide range of experts, including Helmy Mourad, education minister following the defeat to Israel in the 1967 war who resigned soon afterwards due to Nasser's refusal to accept any opposition.
Mourad said there were already many reports on education lying in drawers at the education ministry but nobody ever read them or put them into practice. Amin compares this with an event hosted by the ruling military council in May 2011 at a fancy hotel and attended by experts who could barely talk amid journalists and TV cameras.
Amin highlighted the case of Ali Mubarak Pasha, minister of culture and education during the early 1900s, to show a revolution isn’t essential for progress to be made. The pasha wrote a novel about the renaissance he hoped to see in Egypt, commissioning experts in a variety of fields and including the information in his novel.
Egypt should return to pre-1950 school books during the era of culture minister Taha Hussein, said Amin.
He looked at events inside Egypt from a global perspective and said the growing importance of Asian economies, and a resulting decline of the US economy, should benefit Egypt and allow it more freedom to change in a positive way.
The economic role of the army (up to forty per cent of the Egyptian economy is thought to be controlled by the military through various business interests) is bound to shrink due to changing conditions locally and globally.
"Happy are the people whose rulers have good intentions," Amin concluded amid warm applause when he left the hall after a highly entertaining and thought provoking two hours.