Last week Egypt and the Arab world lost a great thinker, economist and intellectual with the passing of Galal Amin who for almost five decades was a professor of economics at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
However, the significance of Amin’s contributions goes well beyond his outstanding career as a professor of economics.
He wore several hats, including as an encyclopaedic thinker and intellectual, an economist who was also well informed in sociology, a scholar of history and a theoretician with a clear vision of patterns of international relations and the nature of the international order.
The intellectual and academic contributions of Galal Amin reflected the multi-faceted nature of his thought. While he was a very able teacher, throughout his life he believed that economics had to reach outside the classroom.
Economic advances, he thought, as well as progress in the economic indicators of a country, do not mean much if they are not reflected in tangible benefits for ordinary people and if they do not serve the interests of the broad mass of the population.
He particularly criticised the multiplication in the economics profession of quantitative indicators that failed to indicate qualitative criteria.
The latter were more important to Amin as they are more deeply felt in the daily lives of the people and relate to the daily problems and challenges they face as well as the aspirations they have for their future and those of their children and grandchildren.
Another aspect of Amin’s thinking that distinguished him from other economists of his generation was his reservation regarding attempts by some mainstream economists to rely on over-sophisticated language and terminology.
He considered that such attempts were a way of justifying the monopoly on truth claimed by the economics profession and of keeping ordinary people away from an understanding of how the economy functions.
If they had this awareness, Amin thought, they would be better able to determine the future course of economic action to serve their own shared interests.
Amin consistently maintained a genuine and deep concern for the most vulnerable and weakest segments of society and undertook a great deal of work to explore ways of favouring the interests of such segments through alternative courses of action for the economy at large.
It was for this reason that many observers tried to summarise the role played by Amin as being that of an economist who had attempted to establish an alternative version of economics that would incorporate many of the components of the other social sciences, particularly sociology, political science and history.
However, in his capacity as an outstanding economist within the terms of the existing profession, Amin’s pioneering role in carrying out studies relating to the economic and social repercussions of remittances sent back by Egyptians working abroad, particularly those in the oil-rich Arab countries, must be acknowledged. One such study was that Amin jointly published with Elizabeth Awni in the 1980s
Beyond the boundaries of professional economics, I recall how Amin in the early 1980s was very interested in the architecture of the city of Sanaa in Yemen.
This stemmed from his general interest in culture and his belief that the non-Western world had contributed a vast amount to human civilisation.
His keenness extended to carrying out a study of this architecture and the values it embodied. He ended up by becoming an expert in traditional Arab and Islamic architecture and gave several outstanding lectures and presentations on it.
When I last visited Amin in his home in Maadi outside Cairo only a few months before he passed away, he expressed his concern at the destruction of the traditional architecture of Sanaa, as well as that of other Yemeni cities, as a result of the military conflict in Yemen.
I also recall having the opportunity four years ago to hear an outstanding lecture by Amin on the role of the middle class in the Arab world, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
The lecture was additional proof of what was already widely known and well established, namely the comprehensive analytical capabilities and vision of Amin and his ability to combine the economic, social, political, cultural and historical dimensions of a given subject matter into a homogeneous whole.
I cannot but express how privileged I feel myself to have been in having been a student of the late professor Galal Amin. I have benefited vastly over the last four decades from his knowledge, his far-sighted perspectives, and his solid insights.
I was also fortunate enough to have maintained my contact with this great thinker until the end of his life, meaning that I was able to learn from his wisdom, experience and expertise far beyond my student years.
This is something that I shall always treasure.
* The writer is a commentator.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The uniqueness of Galal Amin