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Weekend Reading: "Egypt on the Brink"

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 11, 2011 09:53 AM

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Speaking personally, following the momentous events in Egypt has only served to highlight how little I know about the country and its recent history. A good primer: Tarek Osman's Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Amazon link here - the Kindle edition is only $4.99!). Osman, an Egyptian banker and columnist, writes very accessibly about Egypt since 1954, and about its transformation from an optimistic, cosmopolitan society to a pessimistic, closed one. It's not a chronological history; instead, Osman offers thematically organized chapters on the large trends in Egyptian society ("The Islamists," "The Mubarak Years," "Young Egyptians").

At the mid-point of the century, Osman writes, "Cairo and Alexandria . . . dazzled foreigners, seduced visitors, educated the region's elite, bred art and culture, hosted thousands of immigrants from Greece, Italy and Armenia as well as tens of thousand of Jews, and shaped a highly liberal, open society taking its inspiration from Paris and Rome." But, in the decades that followed, "society did not progress":

On many fronts, it actually regressed. Politically, despite the introduction of a mutli-party system in the 1970s and the undertaking, since then, of a number of parliamentary elections, democracy, the rule of law, and the respect of the rights of the citizen have been diluted over the past six decades. The country's political system has descended to frightening levels of coercion, oppression and cruelty. Economically, despite significant improvements in the country's infrastructure (especially in utilities and telecommunications), and despite an average GDP growth rate of circa 6 per cent throughout the 2000s, Egypt comes in the lower 40 per cent of all developing countries in the UN's 2007 Human Poverty Index. This is a reflection of the difficulty of Egyptians' daily lives, from the crumbling education system and decrepit health care, to humiliating transportation. There are more factories, bridges and highways, higher mobile telecoms penetration and increasing access to the Internet, but the economic development of the country, relative to the countries that used to be considered its international peers, has deteriorated significantly. In 2007, 32 per cent of the population were completely illiterate (42 per cent of women), 40 per cent of the population were at or below the international poverty line and GDP per capita (at purchase power parity) was less than half that of Turkey and 45 per cent of South Africa's. And, crucially, there is not only a sense of confusion, resentment and rejection among the Egyptians - especially the younger ones, but increasingly an overarching feeling of an irreparable damage, a national defeat. The story of what happened to Egypt and the Egyptians, how and why, is interesting - albeit sad.

The book is short, readable, clear, and passionately written. A good introduction to Egypt's story.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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