Friday, July 04, 2008

“Inside Egypt” John R. Bradley.

“Inside Egypt” by John R. Bradley.

It’s too long since I’ve done a book review so I think I should mention John Bradley’s “Inside Egypt: the land of the Pharaohs on the brink of revolution”. I saw it sitting on a colleagues desk and asked if I could read, “yes” was the reply, “but do it quickly”. Well it has taken me two days so that says a lot for the readability of the book. I’ve not been to Egypt and this book unfortunately isn’t likely to make anyone go, unless of course you are a weird social scientist who is interested in political disasters. So, I’m more interested in going now than before.

Bradley paints a very bleak picture of a country failing. The regime has no ideology and stands for nothing except its own continuance, hence the Egyptian state is utterly corrupts and having no other way to rally the nation to its cause, uses violence to repress society instead. Bradley suspects this is unsustainable as, unlike say China, the regime is not bringing people out of poverty whilst denying them freedom. Actually it is doing the opposite, pushing the middle class into penury whilst ignoring the poverty stricken working and underclass.

He notes that Egyptian civil society is utterly beaten down, producing virtually no culture, despite the country’s immensely rich multi-ethnic and –religious heritage. Not even the corrupt super-rich are using their money to make anything beautiful or interesting: “In all but ethnically cleansed and culturally purged post-Nasser Egypt… even money has gone stale, producing for the rich only barren imitations of life elsewhere, and financing only the thugs’ indulgence in beating any individual expression to a pulp.” (p.55)

He argues that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is the greatest beneficiary of this oppression, as Mubarak has crushed all secular opposition. His view of the MB is that its rise is indicative of the malaise in modern Egypt, where demonstrations of public piety cover private spitefulness and corruption of the spirit. Bradley believes that they would just be a minor force if real democracy was allowed – noting although they took 20% of the vote in 2005 parliamentary elections, only 25% of the electorate could be bothered to vote in the heavily rigged elections and mostly consisted of committed supporters of the Brothers and then the state employees forced or obliged to vote for Mubarak’s NDP. Hence that 20% probably greatly overestimates their support in the country. He believes that the MB is true to its word that it is a peaceful organisation, yet at the same time is a clerically-fascist, sucking all the joy and celebration out of Egyptian heritage, and spreading sectarianism amongst different groups in the countries.

He argues that American policy of support to Egypt, the second biggest recipient of US aid after Israel, in return for its “cold peace” with the Jewish state is part of the problem. American support for democratic reform was both half-arsed and half-baked, and was abandoned immediately once it became apparent elsewhere in the Middle East that Islamists groups would win free elections in the current geopolitical climate. He quotes Hisham Kassem, a human right activist who was awarded a Democracy Award from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy in 2007. Kassem got to meet President Bush as a result, and Bush’s bemusement at being told how the current situation is building the MB’s support is telling: “we give your country $2 billion a year in order to keep it stable and prevent it from turning into a theocracy” Bush replied looking dismayed.

The book is very readable and cracks along at a fair pace, but isn’t perfect. The chapter on the Bedouin of the Sinai is basically a discussion of the Crisis Group report on the area. Crisis Group reports are generally excellent, but the other chapters show Bradley’s original reporting and feel for the country much more. His chapter on “Lost Dignity” is basically about old European women and European gay men coming to Luxor to find young Egyptian “studs” to shag. It’s really depressing but perhaps verges on the salacious. Bradley makes a decent case that it is representative of wider issues in the country, but in comparison to his horrific chapter on the endemic torture and violence in what passes for Egypt’s criminal justice system it seems like something of a smaller issue that just attracts disproportionate media attention as it involves sex and westerners.

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