Nathan J. Brown, Shimaa Hatab, and Amr Adly, Lumbering State, Restless Society: Egypt in the Modern Era (Columbia University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Nathan J. Brown, Shimaa Hatab, and Amr Adly (NB, SH & AA): We wanted to do two things: first, to contribute with a critical conceptual and theoretical book to the debate on modern Egypt, especially in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, but without reducing Egyptian politics simply to a story of disappointed revolution. Second, we wanted to contribute to the emergence of truly transnational scholarly activity—and in particular to contribute to narrowing the gap between the English- and Arabic-speaking intelligentsia working on Egypt by integrating two Egyptian, Egypt-based young scholars into the team.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

NB, SH & AA: The book provides an analytical comprehensive overview of modern Egypt’s politics, society, and economy. It primarily focuses on post-independence years. However, it does not shy away from going back to earlier modern times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The book is divided into three linked parts that focus primarily on politics, society, and economy, respectively. In each part we stress longer-standing and complex processes of transformation that shaped the state-society and -economy landscapes in contemporary Egypt. Our main argument is that Egypt has not developed in a linear way nor is it the product of a single vision or project—each of these spheres is characterized by deep contention. While we do discern a general trajectory—the emergence and the partial retreat of an extensive and intrusive state apparatus—the path is not always coherent either. Even at its most extensive, the state (and certainly no individual ruler) was by not a single actor driving the process of socio-economic transformation from above in an uncontested manner. Conversely, various social actors—as well as those within the state itself—had agency, and their responses to state interventions as well as their initiatives shaped much of the reality.

We pursue this story in dialogue with a wide variety of literatures from political science, political sociology, and political economy. We did not confine our engagement to area studies. In fact, it was an explicit aim of ours to undermine any claim of uniqueness or exceptionalism to the Egyptian modernization trajectory by positioning Egypt in relation to the world. This resulted in a conscious and consistent comparison of Egypt with a variety of cases in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. The goal was not a systematic set of comparisons but an understanding of how processes in Egypt can be illuminated—and can illuminate—processes elsewhere. This brought us at times to be critical of the mainstream literature on Egypt that has drawn heavily on theories rooted in the liberal tradition—particularly but not exclusively in the economic realm.

But we do not view each of these realms as separate. One challenge in writing the book was to present our analysis in a clearly structured manner while acknowledging the interrelationships among politics, economy, and society. We also had to encounter the challenge of analyzing events since 2011 without giving our account a teleological focus (as if Egypt was always heading toward revolution or counterrevolution)—so we included a chapter in which we link the events of the past decade with our previous analysis.

Our potential conceptual contribution suggests new modalities to think Egypt’s multi-dimensional transformation away from another teleological model in which the arc of history bends slowly toward the happy twins of democratization and free market making. In all three parts, we propose a more nuanced and historicized approach to understanding Egypt, not as a unique case but as a variant among many in the global South.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NB, SH & AA: Given that this book is a joint venture among three authors, it constituted both a continuity as well as a rupture with our earlier individual contributions. Each of us capitalized on our individual specialization and past experience on the one hand, while being willing to reconsider some past judgments we made on the other. We have tried to bring in fresh air to the debate on Egypt even if this meant taking a critical stance against some of our earlier works. For example, the economy section is critical of the predominant school stressing crony capitalism as the single most defining feature of Egypt’s economic transformation. Alternatively, it adopts and adapts the economic anthropology concept of “habitus” from Pierre Bourdieu’s work as an approach to the various societal forces that shaped Egypt’s economic order in the past three decades.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

NB, SH & AA: This is a book about Egypt. We hope it would interest students of Egypt and the Middle East and North Africa. Its arguments are cast in terms that should be accessible to undergraduates while still proving fresh analysis useful for graduate students. But we hope also to appeal to readers outside of a classroom setting—critical scholars and informed readers interested in reading an analytically and comprehensive book about the Arab world’s most populous country. We also hope that our book would have an impact on academia by inviting the rethinking of some of the main conceptual and theoretical assumptions about Egypt, the Middle East, and the global South more broadly.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NB, SH & AA: This was a joint work. It was the fruit of almost five long years of continuous effort of the three of us. We are hoping to build on this venture—and remain true to the transnational and bridging nature of the project—by writing a series of articles in Arabic that would convey the essence of the argument and findings to Arab readers and link it with the English-speaking intellectual space. We are also working on an abridged Arabic translation of the book.

J: What was the biggest surprise you encountered?

NB, SH & AA: How easy it was to write the book. Well, that is an exaggeration. Writing is never easy. But we have different areas of expertise, different styles of writing, and were trained in different ways. And Egypt is a complicated place with—as we show—much contentious terrain. We each took primary responsibility for a specific area, but we tried to write in a single voice, discussing the framework and major arguments. We succeeded, at least to our own satisfaction. We hope our readers agree.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter One, pp. 9-12) 


Egyptians have often disagreed and struggled over how their country should be governed. Egypt can be confusing— and much analysis misses the mark— because there are many who claim to speak for the country. Analysts are often inclined to listen to a single source. We seek to remedy that by understanding Egypt as a complex state and society.

Many times when Egypt is discussed, an analyst will refer to the country by the name of the leader. It is as if Egypt speaks with one voice and is a product of one will. “Al-Sisi’s Egypt” is authoritarian, “Sadat’s Egypt” made peace with Israel, and so on. It is not surprising that such shorthand is used. Egypt’s presidents are powerful figures, and they certainly claim to speak and act for all of Egyptian society. If one does a bit of historical digging— say, by looking back at Egyptian newspapers from the 1960s or 1970s— one would get the impression from the public record that the president’s word was uncontested and final. But we wish to present a far broader sample of Egyptian political voices.

And we run into another problem as well: basic terminology is often controversial. Those who argue about the best political direction for the country disagree about which terms should be used and what they mean. Words are connected to politics.

When scholars use words like “authoritarian” or “revolution,” they often disagree on what they mean, but they generally justify their choices by the clarity offered by their favored definition. A clear definition of “revolution,” for instance, should serve the purpose of telling us what a revolution is and what it is not, so that we can explain why or when such events happen. But when the arguments are not just among scholars but among contending political forces, the choice of terms is connected not just to analytical clarity but to political values (of course, such values are a part of many scholarly writings as well).

So many of the terms we need to use are loaded, and some are especially loaded in the case of political debates among Egyptians. In Egypt today, the term “revolution” is generally applied by those who want to emphasize the strongly popular nature of a radical change. Was the 1919 revolt against the British a revolution? What about the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy? In Egypt, to refer to the events of 1919 as an “uprising” rather than “revolution” can be taken as a dismissal of the nationalist struggle against British imperialism; to refer to 1952 as a “coup” is to cast doubt on its claim to legitimacy. Likewise, if one refers to the events of 2013 as a “coup” rather than a “revolution” against the Muslim Brotherhood, which had won the previous year’s presidential elections, it is taken as a sharp declaration of one’s political inclinations. What is at issue is not simply a dictionary definition, but one’s political positions vis-à-vis these events.

In this book, we will write as scholars and try to follow definitions that are precise— but we will note the political power and emotional meaning of certain words among those who study Egypt, and the even deeper disagreements in political discussions among rival camps in Egypt.

And we will try to avoid the tendency to view Egyptian politics as something that is projected from a single strong leader. In this we are not denying the centrality of the presidency to Egyptian political life. But neither are we starting exclusively there. Instead, our analysis incorporates Egyptian society by looking at politics from a variety of vantage points, not simply from the top down. Our leading characters, then, are not merely presidents but also bureaucrats, officers, judges, feminists, trade unionists, activists, investors, and farmers. We will ask not merely what the leader thinks and does but also how Egyptian state institutions have been built and now operate; how Egyptian society is organized and how social actors behave; and how the economy functions and economic policy is made.

As we address these questions, we will be alert to some larger themes, ones far broader than the Egyptian political experience. We will be mindful of the fact that Egyptian politics has almost always been authoritarian, that its leaders are not fully accountable to any kind of democratic mechanism. In that way, the Egyptian political system resembles that of most other societies in world history, where authoritarianism (broadly defined) has been the rule and democracy the exception. But authoritarian systems, while they lack fully democratic checks on their rulers, still show great variety, and they evolve considerably over time.

Egypt, for instance, has some very strong institutions— the military, various internal security and intelligence services, the judiciary, and even the official Islamic religious establishment. Egyptians have shown varying signs of social activism and powerful groups have tried to affect official policy. Egypt also has had a series of elections— ones in which the opposition can often run (but generally is not allowed to win). It shares some of these features with certain systems but not others. We will compare Egypt to other authoritarian systems to see what is distinctive about Egypt and what it tells us about the varieties of authoritarianism.

Similarly, Egyptian society has been organized in ways that have been heavily regulated by the state. At its height in the 1960s, state regulation became sufficiently rigorous and intense that it can be called “state corporatism” (a term we explore in more depth in chapter 4), a system in which almost all forms of organization, ranging from agricultural cooperatives to student unions, were controlled by the state or the sole political party at the time. But Egypt has also seen state controls that operate far more loosely, and even a recent mass uprising that brought the political order to its knees and left an indelible imprint on the society. We will compare the way that state and society interact in Egypt, keeping an eye on similar systems elsewhere.

And the Egyptian economy has also gone through phases of socialism and attempted liberalization. Yet even when Egypt’s rulers have used the language of economic liberalization, the state’s role has remained quite strong, formally as well as informally. Still, non-state structures, informal mechanisms of coordination, and networks of families, friends, and kin shaped much of Egypt’s variegated private sector. We will trace the role of important economic actors, both state and non-state. Some, like businessmen, will be familiar to anyone trying to understand economic policy making. But others, such as the military, will be a bit more unusual.