Home Academic journal Book review | Routledge’s Handbook on Contemporary Egypt

Book review | Routledge’s Handbook on Contemporary Egypt


Edited by Robert Springborg, Amr Adly, Anthony Gorman, Tamir Moustafa, Aisha Saad, Naomi Sakr, Sarah Smierciak

This volume of 465 pages is ddivided into six main sections, each with a foreword written by a sub-editor. Each section has four or five chapters all written by other separate authors for a total of twenty-nine. Editor-in-Chief Dr Robert Springborg is a respected American scholar from the Middle East who has published or co-authored numerous books on Egypt and the region. For this volume he has assembled a team of thirty-six other authors, all of whom have excellent credentials, mainly because they are university professors specializing in the Middle East. Only seven of them are not Arabs, which is a good sign that Arab academics are taking over.

The reader who will take the time to browse the 465 pages of this volume (few will) will leave with the impression that the authors all know their respective subjects extremely well. As someone who has lived in Egypt and followed developments there for decades, I have learned many new facts from this book.

It is surprising, however, given that only seven of the thirty-six authors are non-Arab, that almost none of them cite sources in the Arabic language. Presumably, the book was written for non-Arabic speakers, but the inclusion of books and articles in Arabic would have broadened the audience and enriched the sources.

Springborg says this manual is intended “to serve the dual purpose of introducing readers to the recent history of the country and contemporary political economy, and to serve as a manual for relevant courses” (Preface). In fact, it does both. Readers new to Egypt might read all of the outposts of the five main sections as an introduction to some basic facts about the country, and then delve into some of the chapters that are of particular interest to them. It would be a brief introduction to Egypt. Or the volume could serve as a textbook for a teacher who assigns students outposts and selective chapters that support the themes of the course. In addition, it would be helpful for a student tasked with writing an essay on a specific Egyptian topic to use the chapter on that topic as the basis for their research. Each chapter is so dense with information on its individual subject, that it could have been an article published in an academic journal.

The style of the chapters follows that of most academic writing today. That is, the authors base their statements and arguments almost entirely on previously published material, so that almost every paragraph includes at least one quote, usually several more. Authors of course use quotes to validate their statements and allow readers to verify them and seek more information. But with only two minor exceptions, none of the authors present original research, depending entirely on what has already been published. The only originality of the writing comes from the combination of facts already established.

In a book where thirty-six authors write separately about a country, there is a risk that they will be repetitive, for the number of “major incidents” which have taken place in contemporary Egypt is limited, and different authors must refer to the same ones. The editor and the authors have thankfully managed to minimize this risk, so that when they mention a major event – like the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952, the fall of Mubarak in 2011 or the growth of the military regime under al Sisi – they don’t seem to rehash a story we already know, but rather place the familiar event in a new context.

As the editor notes in his preface to this volume, Egypt has special characteristics that are worth studying and examining as a very important state internationally and in the Middle East. It occupies a key location at the intersection of Asia and Africa, and its Suez Canal is a vital international waterway. It has the largest population in the region, now over one hundred million people, many of whom work overseas. Since World War II, he has played a leading political role in the region and beyond, not only under Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdal Nasser, but also under his successors Sadat, Mubarak and al Sisi. He was courted by the United States, the Soviet Union and most of the Arab states who requested his political support.

However, it is the internal issues of governance, the state’s relations with its citizens, and the nation’s struggles for economic development and other national concerns that are at the center of this book, as they are as important as the issues. external problems for us to understand. As the various authors explain by examining different internal issues, Egypt has experienced many changes and course changes in its internal development. But the authors also point out that there is a dominant trend toward authoritarian rule that keeps repeating itself, whether the British, the King or a former military officer are in the driver’s seat. There have been occasional times when the leader’s hand weakens as the people rise up, but the status quo generally prevails.

The first section of the book is “Occupation, Independence and Revolution”. The introductory chapter of this section reviews more than two centuries of Egyptian history from Muhammad Ali Pasha to Mubarak, and chapter two deals with infrastructure, urbanization and education. The next three chapters focus on foreign policy, domestic policy and the Egyptian vision of the state and society. The theme that runs through this section, and makes it a major theme throughout the book, is the authoritarian nature of Egyptian politics and the dictatorship of each regime. The authors blame some of the blame on the British and the monarchs, but also on Nasser and other post-revolutionary presidents. With authoritarianism, the characteristic of military influence in politics is a constant theme throughout the book.

The second section of the book, on “Politics,” explains in more detail how Egyptian rulers generally prevented coups and hostile revolutions by creating competing power bases and other means, and how regimes have used government and even religious institutions to expand power. The authors explain how the power of the regime grew over the years as individual rights were restricted in various ways.

The third section of the book, on “The Economy”, reviews the decline of traditional agriculture, the difficulty Egypt has in attracting foreign direct investment, the problem of cronyism-capitalism, the importance of workers’ remittances, especially from the Gulf, and public and private encroachments on land.

The fourth section of the book, on “Law and Human Rights”, deals with Mubarak’s tenure and the 2013 military takeover of Sisi, the key role of lawyers in politics, the different types of Egyptian courts and regime efforts against terrorism. One chapter (19) refers to “Sisi’s military dictatorship which brutally crushed all political actors”.

The fifth section of the book, on “Natural and Built Environments” discusses Egypt’s iconic historic buildings and cultural heritage, as well as urban development and “new cities” that have failed to attract the urban poor. because they lack employment opportunities. It also discusses the Aswan Dam and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. He is critical of plans that focus on physical development rather than quality of life.

The sixth and final section of the book is “Media and Popular Culture”. One author claims that the state has put in place a “global network of restrictions that suffocate media and cultural expression under the Sisi government” (p.397). The chapter on “cultural policing” (chapter 24) speaks of “militarized thinking” and says that it dates back to the 1952 revolution.

In short, this volume presents a wealth of accurate information on a variety of topics related to Egypt. It is best suited for library acquisition, which would make it available as a reference for students and others interested in Egypt.

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