Soul Searching

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | May 2004 | pp. 106–108

In his sequel to Whatever Happened to the Egyptians, self-described “enemy of modernization” Galal Amin grapples with why Egypt is what it is.

Galal Amin

PHOTO BY ABDALLA F. HASSAN

Neama, the bright young protagonist of Tayeb Salih’s novel Urs al-Zein (The Wedding of Zein) joined the kuttab (village school), determined to learn reading, writing and basic arithmetic. 

 

“Then she decided that was enough and above that would be tartasha—useless stuff,” says Galal Amin with a chuckle. “Very much of what we teach in economics is what Neama would have called tartasha. If you delete it, no one would lose anything at all.”

 

A professor of economics at the American University in Cairo, Amin is also a social critic and author of the celebrated Madha Hadatha li-l-Misriyeen? (Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?), an instant bestseller when it first appeared in Arabic in 1998 that eventually went through three print runs. 

 

The English edition, Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the present, which appeared on shelves in 2000 from AUC Press, sold with similar briskness.

 

Whatever Happened tackled the most debated subject of the 1980s and 1990s: how Egyptians have changed—and why the country is heading in ‘the wrong direction.’ Freely admitting to being an enemy of modernism, Amin frets over a cultural siege and derides materialism, consumerism and the wholesale adoption of everything Western. 

 

A self-described cultural nationalist, Amin argues that social mobility may be the single most important factor behind many of the changes Egypt has witnessed over the past 50 years. 

 

“I am not satisfied with several factors—I have to reduce them all to one,” he says, explaining his analytical method. “People say that the trouble with Egyptians is one, two, three, four, five. If there are four or five factors that cause the mess Egyptians are in, how did they come together at the same time? Is it sheer coincidence? It is likely that one is the most important and leads to the existence of the others.”

 

Dar al-Hilal brought out Amin’s sequel, Asr al-Gamaheer al-Ghafeera (The Age of Mass Society), in Arabic last year. Late last month, AUC Press brought out the English translation as Whatever Else Happened to the Egyptians? From the revolution to the age of globalization (LE 70, released 27 April). With his trademark mix of academic analysis and antidotal observations, Amin points to the emergence of what he terms a “mass society” as the primary culprit. Again, he catalogues the fundamental changes that characterize modern Egyptian life and delves into the reasons behind this transformation. 

 

In this century, Amin contends, more people have risen above their need for basic subsistence to enjoying the fruits of technology. Fifty years ago, he was among the privileged few to travel by air at a time when most Egyptians never left the cities or towns of their birth. 

 

“Now I am one of the masses, indistinguishable from the pack, no longer privy to a pleasure or sensation not shared by countless others,” he writes in Whatever Else.

 

Following his graduation with honors from Cairo University, Amin was sent on a government grant to England in 1958 to attend the London School of Economics. Under Nasser, the government granted a large number of scholarships abroad, both East and West, predetermining each recipient’s course of study. Amin says he was fortunate—not so much because he attended a good school, but because of the city in which it was located. He spent six and a half years in London, where he completed a master’s degree and a PhD, returning to Cairo in 1964 to teach economics at Ain Shams University, as the government had duly decided many years earlier. 

 

In 1971, Amin spent a year in Lebanon working on a book, The Modernization of Poverty. “I had a terrible experience in Beirut. Everything went wrong,” he remembers. Although it was after Nasser’s death, Egypt was still very much under a Nasserist regime and the economy was under heavy state regulation. Lebanon was the opposite extreme. 

 

“The government in Lebanon is, traditionally, practically non-existent,” Amin says. “Money is the only criterion. That is what angered me in Beirut. Money is the measure of everything.” A mere decade later, Amin began witnessing the same thing in Egypt, which he thinks began following the “Lebanese model.”

 

Egyptians have developed a preoccupation with social status—brandished in the form of pricey accessories like cell phones, imported cars, private school education for their children, seaside chalets and extravagant wedding celebrations. 

 

“We love to be envied,” says Amin. “I doubt we have a fantastic car just to enjoy it. We really like to show off.” The Arabic language has been sacrificed by this aspiration for status. The proper use of Arabic diction is no longer as prized as it once was, he laments, and peppering English words into a conversation is even considered a sign of urban sophistication. 

 

At an AUC lecture hall, Amin discusses Machiavelli’s The Prince, which he describes as “a book of intellectual honesty about political dishonesty.”

 

“I like Nasser very much, but in many ways he was a Machiavellian,” he says at the lecture. He later explains, “You could not have done what Nasser did economically without dictatorship. It is very difficult to imagine that a free parliamentary regime could have produced so much.”

 

If the 1967 War had not occurred and Egypt had remained on the course set by Nasser, it would now be a developed country, better off than Greece and perhaps on a par with Spain, despite the public sector’s inefficiencies, Amin claims. 

 

“Just imagine if the Arabs states had integrated economically 40 years ago,” he adds. Sadat’s infitah (Open Door Policy) brought with it the crudeness of a nouveau riche who climbed the social ladder too quickly. Downplaying accusations that his work provides a justification for elitism and class stratification, Amin asserts that he’s all for social mobility—provided it’s not too rapid or the result of “unproductive activity.” 

 

In The Arab East and the West, Amin argues that foreign pressure and intervention has been detrimental to the state of the Arab World. He regards corruption, which is inexorably linked to external pressure, as the decisive factor influencing economic performance, not the nature of the economic system. 

 

“The more foreign intervention, the more corrupt people become,” he says. “For one, the temptation is high. When the situation deteriorates politically and economically—as a result of foreign intervention—the morale of the people drops, the resistance to corruption weakens, so more people become corruptible.”

 

In Whatever Else, Amin reiterates that the state is always at the service of the economically privileged class. Income is to be transferred from the poor to the rich through newly imposed sales taxes; state-owned land is sold to the wealthy at bargain prices; and bank loans are made to borrowers with personal connections to those in power. It is, as he describes, “a country of two nations.”

 

In a chapter titled “A Train Journey,” he examines how the prevailing injustice against “third-class” citizens was brought to a horrifying reality with the Upper Egypt train inferno of February 2002, which killed more than 300 in third-class carriages on their way home to mark the Eid. 

 

“The great majority of families returned to their towns and villages having lost hope of finding their loved ones, dead or alive,” he writes, “As far as I can see, the only thing that enables them to carry on with life, in spite of everything, is that nothing in their previous experience would have led them to expect any better treatment.”

 

Whether it’s Cairo’s population density or the chronically ill Egyptian pound, the solutions to Egypt’s woes are not difficult to hit upon; but while being technically possible, they’re are politically impossible to implement, he claims. 

 

In that respect, he’s a plain believer in the conspiracy theory. 
 

“Big powers intervene to make life difficult for us,” he says, “not because they hate us, but because this is what is in their interests. This is what they call ‘conspiracy theory.’ All history supports this theory. Common sense supports it immensely. Big powers have to hide it because it is so vicious and so immoral. They have to say the opposite of the truth.”

 

Coupled with his conspiracy theory is Amin’s aversion to technology and modernity. He doesn’t own a mobile phone or use e-mail, prefers taking the Metro to driving, and rarely, he admits, watches television. 

 

“Yes, I’m an enemy of modernity, if I can accept such a grand title,” says Amin, who dedicates The Modernization of Poverty to his children with the hope that their future would be more prosperous but less modern. 

 

“After some initial ‘mistake’—mistake in inverted commas because it’s a very big mistake—all sorts of things follow,” he explains. “Once a certain kind of machine is invented, or certain technological advance is made, almost everything follows. Technology has its own imperative, its own laws.” The repercussions of the technology juggernaut are unstoppable. 

 

Yet Amin does own a telephone. “I’m a slave,” he says. “I’m resisting certain things. Of course I have succumbed to many others. In modern life, one is weak.” Inevitably, the technological imperative keeps grinding forward.

 

But why is technology so terrible? 
 

Amin pauses pensively, searching for just the right answer. “If you have a positive view of human beings, not a cynical one, if you think there is any real value to a human being, it certainly isn’t this [technology]. There is the soul, there is emotion, there is sympathy,” he says. “Man is losing his soul. It is not only rhetoric. We can express it in very concrete terms. Modern man is losing his soul.”

 

And how does one lose his soul? 
 

Another pause as he ponders a reply. “When you come back from work and throw yourself in an armchair in front of television, watching one program or soap opera after another until you sleep, what have you been doing during that period? You are practically nonexistent, except physically. You have delivered your soul somewhere else.”

 

Amin isn’t convinced by the argument that technology also makes life easier. Efficiency, he maintains, is overrated: The price of Machiavelli’s efficiency, to name one example, is abject cruelty. 

 

“I have never swallowed this reasoning because in the process I have described, the nature of [human] contact has changed. So yes, you can phone someone over long distances, for example, which you could not do before, but it is no longer the same relationship. If you want to go further, we are not even the same people anymore.”

 

TV news is even worse than being mindlessly absorbed in the acted-out misfortunes of soap opera characters, Amin goes on to argue. 

 

“They drag you into being concerned about things that you are by nature not concerned with: whether the balance of payment has improved or not, whether it’s Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry who will win the elections. What is this to you? They have wasted your time, brainwashed you and preoccupied you with trivial things. Isn’t that losing your soul?”