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

Bruce Rutherford (BR) and Jeannie Sowers (JS): The starting point for this project was our awareness that a thorough knowledge of Egypt is essential for understanding the Middle East. There are many fine scholarly works on Egypt written for an academic audience. There are also several books written in a more journalistic style for a popular audience. Our book tries to bridge these two genres. It is informed by the most current scholarship on the country and engages theoretical debates on state building, nationalism, authoritarianism, democratization, economic development, civil-military relations, and religion’s role in politics. At the same time, it is written in a style accessible to a broad audience of non-specialists. We use Oxford’s question-and-answer format to offer readers a thorough introduction to Egyptian politics, history, culture, political economy, and environment if they read the entire volume. Readers will also have the option to skip directly to the questions and answers that interest them most.

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

BR and JS: The first chapter analyses the 2011 uprising and the struggle to sustain revolutionary demands and mobilization under military rule, Morsi’s brief tenure, and the deepening of authoritarianism under al-Sisi. We then go back in time in the second chapter to discuss the principal features and impacts of Ottoman rule, British occupation, and Egyptian nationalism. The third chapter explores the principal transformations of the Egyptian polity and economy under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak.

We devote the fourth chapter to understanding the challenges of economic development and human welfare, including the status of women, demographic growth (linked inextricably to access to healthcare, education, rights, and employment for women), forms of inequality, the distribution of poverty, urbanization, access to essential public services, and the high rates of youth unemployment and marginalization. In the fifth chapter, we extend our focus on human welfare to include problems of pollution, natural resources, and environmental degradation, including the mounting problems associated with man-made climate change. We also analyze the role of energy and fossil fuels in Egypt’s political economy more broadly. In the sixth chapter, we turn to issues of religious identity, institutions, and mobilization, discussing the role of the Coptic community, state-sanctioned Islamic institutions, the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood, the rise of Salafi movements, and the recent increase in militant groups in the Sinai Peninsula.

The penultimate chapter situates Egypt in the broader regional and international context, discussing relations with the Gulf Arab countries, Iran, Israel, the European Union, and the United States. We examine explicitly the impact of the US-Egypt “strategic relationship” on prospects for democracy. The last chapter returns to domestic affairs to discuss heightened repression under Al-Sisi and the prospects for another mass uprising, why the military and other key actors in Egypt are not likely to move towards a more inclusive polity, and how the US and Arab Gulf countries support deepening authoritarianism. We are pessimistic that this exclusionary political order will adequately meet the challenges of poverty and unemployment.

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

BR and JS: This book, as a synthetic overview of modern Egypt for the general public, is a new kind of endeavor for us. We divided the initial drafting of the chapters to roughly reflect our areas of interest and prior work.

BR: My previous book studied politics and political economy under Sadat and Mubarak (Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World, Princeton, 2008). My recent work has focused on the distinctive form of authoritarianism that has emerged under al-Sisi (“Egypt’s New Authoritarianism under al-Sisi,” Middle East Journal, Spring 2018). Modern Egypt utilizes concepts and cases drawn from this research. The book also gave me an opportunity to learn about aspects of Egypt that I had not explored previously, such as the country’s foreign policy and the impact of geography on culture, politics, and the economy.

JS: In drafting portions of Modern Egypt, I tried to highlight the unequal spatial, regional, and class distributions of political power, economic opportunities, public services, and environmental conditions in Egypt. I became interested in the political geography of inequality and marginalization while conducting fieldwork for Environmental Politics in Egypt: Activists, Experts, and the State (Routledge Series on Middle Eastern Politics, 2013), which includes several chapters on environmental politics in the ‘peripheries’ of the country. I have extended some of this work to consider forms of environmental mobilization across the Middle East (for instance, see my chapter in Environmental Politics in the Middle East, Harry Verhoeven, ed., Oxford University Press/Hurst 2018). I was also able to draw upon my long-standing research interest in the impacts of man-made climate change and prospects for adaptation.

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

BR and JS: We hope that the book will appeal to several audiences: students in undergraduate courses in comparative politics and Middle Eastern politics; lay readers with an interest in Egypt, the Middle East, and the Islamic world; policymakers and advisers seeking an informed and accessible resource book on Egypt; and scholars seeking a concise and theoretically informed account of the emergence and development of modern Egypt.

We are particularly eager to make the book useful for undergraduate courses in comparative politics and Middle Eastern politics. Toward this end, we include a discussion of suggested readings at the end of each chapter—in essence, an annotated bibliography. We hope that these readings will provide a good starting point for students who want to prepare research papers on the topics addressed in the chapter. In addition, we have asked Oxford to keep the price of the book affordable for undergraduates.

J: What other projects are you working on now?  

JS: My interest in the politics of public services and ecosystem sustainability led me to work on places where civilian infrastructure and the environment have been harmed through war and occupation. For the past two years, I’ve worked with a colleague at Duke University, Erika Weinthal, on the targeting of civilian infrastructure in protracted conflicts and the changing roles of humanitarian actors in these contexts. With funding from the Gerda Henckel Stiftung in Germany, we built a database tracking the targeting of water, energy, sanitation, and agricultural systems in the Middle East and conducted preliminary fieldwork, which we will continue in the coming year. Our 2017 Security Dialogue article compared the targeting of civilian infrastructure in Libya, Yemen, and Syria in the post 2011-wars; our recent piece in International Affairs (February 2019) analyzes the targeting of civilian infrastructure and livelihoods in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from 2007 to 2017. We are currently working on a book project documenting patterns of targeting infrastructure across a variety of conflict zones, and exploring how humanitarian actors, civil society groups, armed groups, and international organizations shape the political economies of reconstruction. We also consider how legal doctrines concerned with human rights, humanitarian intervention, and the environment have evolved in light of escalating violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), which prohibits the deliberate targeting of objects essential to civilian life.

BR: My current book project examines the question of why the large public demonstrations of the Arab spring produced such widely varying outcomes—from a more open and democratic regime (Tunisia), to a deeper and more brutal authoritarianism (Egypt), to state weakening and civil war (Libya, Syria), to regime continuity with little change (Saudi Arabia, Morocco). It proposes a theoretical framework that explains the different types of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, when these regimes are likely to change, and the likely trajectory of change in each case. It tests and refines this framework through close study of the Egyptian case. It then applies this refined framework to Tunisia, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. It concludes by presenting likely trajectories for future political change in the Arab world in light of the findings of this study. It also offers suggestions to international actors regarding policies that may facilitate the emergence of more accountable and rule-based regimes.

Excerpt from the Book:

From chapter eight: What are the prospects for inclusive economic development?

As we have seen throughout this book, achieving economic growth is not the same as achieving inclusive development. The Egyptian economy faces serious structural challenges, a regional environment plagued by war and uncertainty, and an increasingly competitive global marketplace. How can Egyptian firms generate jobs that are stable, reward educational attainment, and provide adequate salaries? Can Egypt diversify into non-hydrocarbon exports and attract foreign investment in more labor-intensive sectors? Will tourism and investment recover given extensive corruption and continuing internal and regional violence? How can small farmers be supported when the state favors large agribusiness? How can the banking system and credit markets serve not only large private and state-owned firms but also small- and medium- sized enterprises essential to innovation and employment? Can backward and forward linkages between large and small firms be fostered to increase employment, reduce dependence on imports, and help small firms to grow? How can Egypt’s increasingly educated women join the labor force in greater numbers?

These numerous economic challenges are compounded by political difficulties. Many of the structural changes needed to make Egypt’s economy more competitive and efficient impose substantial costs on regime allies and on the general population. A good example is the government’s efforts to reduce spending on energy subsidies. In 2013, these subsidies accounted for approximately 22 percent of all government expenditures, more than health and education spending combined. While the better-off segments of Egyptian society consume more energy, and therefore use more fuel than poorer households, paying for energy consumes a larger share of household income for the poor than for the wealthy. As a consequence, cuts in energy subsidies disproportionately affect poorer households.  In 2014 and 2015, the al-Sisi government cut subsidies sharply, which led to large price increases for fossil fuels and electricity. To compensate for the negative impacts on vulnerable households, the government increased social spending on education and healthcare and promised better targeting of cash transfer programs to those in need. However, Egypt’s social safety net for poor Egyptians is woefully inadequate. Social safety programs met only 10 percent of the consumption needs of the poorest fifth of Egypt’s families in 2013. So far, there is little evidence that the new programs for supporting the poor are more effective. Without a stronger social safety net, austerity measures are likely to deepen poverty and raise the likelihood of political instability.

As the government continues to raise prices on basic goods such as fuel and electricity, it will need to direct even more funds into social programs and further improve their effectiveness. These funds could be acquired by scaling back the enormous infrastructure projects discussed in Chapter 1, which often consume vast resources while providing very limited economic benefits. Spending on the military and internal security forces could also be reduced in order to free up funds for social service programs. By one estimate, a 7 percent cut in Egypt’s military spending could yield enough funds to halve the number of people classified as poor.

Implementation of many economic reforms—such as establishing a more robust system of taxation, holding the state-owned sector more accountable to market mechanisms, and opening privileged market sectors to more competition— requires political will. Since Egypt opted for a market-based economy in the early 1970s, the country’s rulers have failed to strengthen many of the institutions that could support this market orientation. For example, Egypt’s enormous bureaucracy would be more of an asset if recruitment to the civil service was more meritocratic and the state paid decent wages to public servants. Similarly, Egypt has a long tradition of a vocal and influential judiciary. Rather than seeking to constrain the judiciary by manipulating the appointment and promotion of judges, the regime and the economy would benefit from strengthening judicial independence and the rule of law.

The economy would also benefit from expanding access to property and credit for small- and medium-sized enterprises. Development economists have long recommended formalizing legal title to informal (“squatter”) land and housing. This step would enable the owner of the property to use it as collateral to secure a bank loan, which, in turn, could support the establishment or expansion of a small business. Similarly, small businesses would be aided by much more extensive microcredit programs that give them access to small loans that would enable them to grow.

Civil society organizations and a free media are also important contributors to inclusive economic growth.  They are essential for the free exchange of ideas and information that spur economic innovation and growth. However, the Egyptian government continues to tightly monitor and often harass independent unions and other civil society groups. It has also sharply constrained the media through new legislation that expands government monitoring of media outlets and criminalizes reporting that is critical of the government. Sustainable and inclusive economic growth will require a long- term commitment to supporting these and other institutions necessary for a market economy to function.

Lastly, for the government to promote inclusive social development, women’s empowerment should be given a more central role in development planning and practice. As we saw in Chapter 4, female education, employment, and other opportunities outside the home improve health outcomes for families, lower fertility rates, and foster economic growth. Women’s highly visible participation in the 2011 uprising fostered new discussion and mobilization around women’s rights, particularly regarding sexual harassment in public spaces. When women who had suffered harassment and rape started telling their stories on popular TV talk shows and filing court cases, they broke a significant taboo against openly discussing these topics. However, as in many countries including the United States, women’s rights and their bodies remain contested politically and socially. Sectarian violence in Egypt has often been triggered by rumors of women’s conversions, while Islamist organizations have frequently opposed government legislation to strengthen women’s legal rights. To improve the status of women, an array of different actors in Egypt needs to more systematically address gender-based violence, increase access to healthcare and contraception, and tackle obstacles to women’s employment.

Bruce K. Rutherford and Jeannie L. Sowers, Modern Egypt: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2018).