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Middle Eastern studies

  • Chaoqun LianEmail author
Book Review
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1 The Political Economy of Reforms in Egypt: Issues and Policymaking Since 1952, by Khalid Ikram, The American University in Cairo Press, 2018, 424 pages, $49.95 (Hardcover)

Why did Egypt, a heavyweight in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, fail to fulfill its developmental potential over the past 6 decades, or even so much as match its population and army size to its geo-strategic and cultural prominence? This is the question Khalid Ikram, a veteran scholar of Egypt’s economic development, skillfully frames and strives to answer in this book. He identifies chronic symptoms of Egypt’s economic sluggishness—notably, a high rate of unemployment and poverty, low productivity growth, insufficient domestic investment, high public expenditure, and overreliance on external aids—and situates them in the political history of Egypt, from Nasser and Sadat, to Mubarak, Morsi and al-Sisi. He attributes the malperformance of Egypt’s economy to the short-termist survival strategy these successive regimes adopted to gain public support. This strategy depended on maintaining a swelling public sector and a popular expectation of subsidization, which necessitated a constant expansion of public expenditure and an unremitting search for foreign aid.

This is one of the several thought-provoking insights Ikram offers in the book. He does not present these insights as sweeping answers to the question he asks, but instead frames them in a complex, but comprehensive web of analysis. He integrates a structural approach with a historical one, devoting three chapters to a dialog between dimensions and trends of Egypt’s economic performance using specific and theoretical constructs of the political economy of reform, and another four chapters to a historical contextualization of this dialog by examining the economic maneuvers of Egypt’s consecutive regimes and their social and political effectiveness and repercussions. An impressive case of this combinative analysis can be seen in the way Ikram demonstrates that the Egyptian practice defied the often-claimed causal link between economic crises and reform, as political factors carried more weight in introducing new policies.

The book ends with a chapter envisioning the future of Egypt’s political economy. Ikram balances the “Washington Consensus” and the “East Asia Approach” as a model for Egypt’s economic policy planning, while pointing to the incongruity of both in the context of Egypt’s socio-political realities. He instead proposes a more pragmatic “binding constraints” approach: “go for the reforms that alleviate the most binding constraints, and hence produce the biggest bang for the reform buck”. However, he eschews clarifying specific constraints. He casts reasonable doubt on the ambitious GDP growth target in Egypt’s Vision 2030, but is confident in the “resilience” of Egypt’s economy as a historical truism of this long surviving civilization.

2 Labor Politics in North Africa: After the Uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, by Ian M. Hartshorn, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 240 pages, $105.00 (Hardcover)

Initial comments on the Arab Spring almost unanimously adopted an enthusiastic, futurist tone, dubbing it “the youth revolution” and “the cyber revolution” while belittling traditional forces of politics such as the trade union. This enthusiasm faded away when the “revolutionary” youth—the social media generation—failed to represent themselves as an organized force in the political transition of Tunisia and Egypt. Traditional forces still and always matter, and they deserve renewed academic scrutiny. Ian M. Hartshorn’s comparative study of trade unions in Tunisia and Egypt is an outstanding example of this line of scholarship.

Hartshorn identifies an experience the two countries shared and another they did not. The shared experience is what he calls “corporatist collapse”, referring to the official unions’ loss of their political function as both the coercive and cohesive intermediary between the regime and the workers. Hartshorn argues that this was mainly due to the neoliberal reforms beginning in Tunisia and Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s, which drove the regimes to favor capital-intensive industries, privatization and a shrinking public sector, and diverted attention away from the pro-labor position of the unions. The political power of the unions was eroded, leading disillusioned workers to seek alternative, unofficial union organizations to channel their concerns and demands. This activism outside the established union structure weakened the support base of the ruling regimes, paving the way for their overthrow in the Arab Spring.

What differed between the two countries was the different outcomes the trade unions produced in the political transition following the regime change. Whereas Tunisia’s rank-and-file unionists succeeded in transferring the old union into a unified, independent force of national politics and solidarity, the Egypt’s unions were caught in intensifying infighting and entanglements with interested parties. Hartshorn ascribes the difference to three factors: internal linkages, external linkages, and incorporation. Whereas the Egyptian unions were manipulated by the Islamist and military regimes, the Tunisian union established itself as the nationalist counterweight to the emerging Islamist movement. Whereas global labor forces encouraged the development of dissent and alternative union organizations in Egypt, it prioritized cohesion among trade union activists within the extant system in Tunisia. Whereas the Tunisian union could activate its history of militancy in both the independent and revolutionary struggles to boost its popularity, the Egyptian unions lacked such a historical narrative.

This book is a must-read for those who are puzzled by the rise and fall of labor unions in contemporary Tunisian and Egyptian politics.

3 Digital Middle East: State and Society in the Information Age, edited by Mohamed Zayani, Oxford University Press, 2018, 335 pages, $29.95 (Paperback)

Edited by one of the leading scholars of digitally mediated transformations of Middle Eastern society and politics, this volume offers a multifaceted assessment of the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) across the region. This work responds to the heightened debate following the Arab Spring between cyber utopians and cyber dystopians on the transformative potential of ICTs in the Middle East. Without siding with either camp, the volume produces a thoughtful analysis of digital enthusiasm (or anxiety) and examines the complicated digital realities in the region, scrutinizing both ICTs’ global universalism and their local specificities, as well as their adoption as tools of both rule and resistance. Remarkably, many of the volume’s contributors pay close attention to the mundane spread of ICTs in daily life, producing a form of digital habitus that affects different segments of Middle Eastern societies, poor and affluent alike.

Themes of the contributions include the changing nature of socialization among Arab youth, imaginary spaces of Middle Eastern video games, mediated experiences in political turmoil, women’s digital activism, digital rights activism in the Arab world after the Arab Spring, cyber politics in Iran, and online protection of intellectual property in local contexts and e-government in the GCC countries. The volume provides a wide variety of cases, methodologies, and perspectives, and leaves open possible theoretical abstractions of the phenomena of digital mediation in the Middle East.

Copyright information

© The Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS), Peking University 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Arabic, School of Foreign LanguagesPeking UniversityBeijingPeople’s Republic of China

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