Reflecting on the legacy of Egyptian intellectual Galal Amin

Aziza Sami , Thursday 4 Oct 2018

Aziza Sami explores the lasting influence of Egyptian writer and academic Galal Amin (1935-2018)

Galal Amin
Egyptian writer and economist Galal Amin (Photo: Yasser Al-Ghoul)

Galal Amin exerted a singular presence in Egypt’s intellectual life as a keen observer and chronicler of social change, no less than as an economist and university professor.

His literary talent gave expression to an astute insight which led him to author eight books and countless articles, all offering a profound understanding of Egypt’s social and economic development in the past 50 years.

In 2000 Amin published his book Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?

This was followed by a sequel in 2004 entitled Whatever Else Happened to the Egyptians?

Both works have been translated into English.

Amin’s writing transcended the strict discipline of economics, adopting a sociological approach in its analysis of the multi-layered dimensions which induce social change.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the topics which he broached, Amin’s approach was humanist, and his writing style entertaining, penned in a characteristically personal tone with humour, intelligence and scathing wit.

Born in Cairo in 1935, Amin was the youngest of eight children of the historian and author Ahmed Amin, a seminal figure in Egypt’s era of liberal reform which extended during the first half of the 20th century.

Amin graduated from the London School of Economics and was first influenced by Pan Arab Baathist and subsequently Marxist thought.

He ultimately shifted away from the economic determinism of Marxist theory, and became increasingly concerned with what he called “the cultural component” of society as a manifestation of development.

Despite his training as an economist, he harboured a scepticism towards what he called “the subjectivity of economics” as a social discipline.

In an interview with this writer conducted for a profile of Amin, published in Al-Ahram Weekly in 1997, he said that he taught “conventional economics at the American University in Cairo [only] because I have to”.

An outspoken critic of Western hegemony over the less advanced countries, he rejected resorting to criteria such as “the human development index” as a measure by which to judge society’s well-being.

“Have you ever heard of anything more absurd than saying that a society that owns more television sets or washing machines is better than one which does not?”

It was typical of him to take a critical distance from the very discipline in which he had been trained and which he continued to teach, asserting that economics as a paradigm of thinking “evades” the fundamental social questions instead of answering them.

He preferred to teach the history of economic thought “because it shows the relativity of truth, and how metaphysics affects social thinking”.

Amin saw globalisation pushing human society even further towards a totalitarian world, one in which the individual and his freedom are becoming increasingly subjugated to a market system “which sells things to people that they do not really need”.

He upheld George Orwell and Noam Chomsky as, in his own words, “two of my idols, both of whom had very poor opinions of the world, and neither of whom had any illusion over the ease of change.”

Amin’s independent and rebellious streak manifested itself in his autobiography entitled What Life Taught Me, published in 2007, and which spared not even his closest of kin from the butt of his detached and ironical candour.

Amin did not identify himself with political parties or orientations, and his affiliations remained restricted to the purely intellectual sphere.

He harboured a disdain for elitism in all its forms, extending his empathy to the mundane and the pedestrian: the countless “ordinary” human beings with whom he often commuted by metro from Maadi where he lived, to the AUC campus where he taught as a professor of economics.

lt was people who really interested him, the critical mass which constitutes a society, or “the multitudinous crowds” as he described them in Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?

In the mid-1970s with the advent of the economic “open-door” policy adopted by late president Anwar Al-Sadat, Amin wrote an article acknowledging the then-rising popular singer Ahmed Adawiya.

Brushing aside the view that the singer’s widespread popularity signalled a decline in the cultural tastes of the Egyptians, Amin wrote of Adawiya’s ingenuous and often startling lyrics as the creative expression of new and socially mobile groups emerging as a part of Egypt’s changing social structure.

If the phenomenon could not be appreciated as such, then at least it should not be dismissed.

Whenever Amin could take time off from reading and writing he would, as a hobby, strum his violin to the tune of the old Arabic music masters, Mohamed Osman and Zakaria Ahmed.

He was moved by their classical strains, just as in equal proportion he felt an empathy for the “multitudinous crowds” enjoying Adawiya’s songs which blare from the micro-buses and street cafés of Cairo.

Amin was loved by the countless students who vied to attend his lectures at the university.

Standing in the middle of the classroom, his halo of grey hair endowed him with a rumpled teddy-bear look.

He would provoke chuckles when, with a twinkle in his eye, he gently quizzed his students on if they felt their study of economics would benefit them, and whether they truly believed that its pursuit would make them “happier human beings”.

Galal Amin is survived by his wife Janice, his daughter Dania and his two sons Tamer and Ahmed, and their children.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Master of insight

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