In May the group of 17 states known as the Paris Club decided to forgive (in stages) half of Egypt’s $20.2 billion government-to-government debt. Earlier, the US had agreed to write off $7.1 billion of Egypt’s military debt, and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar canceled $6 billion of Egyptian debts owed to them. Washington and its oil-rich Arab allies have thus entered their bid in the post-Gulf war auction for Egypt’s soul.
Maintaining a pro-American regime in Egypt is critical to George Bush’s plan for the post-Gulf war order, just as Egypt was a central site of contention as the US began its career as the dominant power in the Middle East during the cold war — a topic addressed in Peter L. Hahn’s The United States, Great Britain and Egypt, 1945-1956: Strategy and Diplomacy in the Early Cold War (North Carolina, 1991). But anyone interested in the history of US-Egyptian relations might just as well avoid this old-fashioned, narrowly conceptualized and ethnocentric diplomatic history whose significance is mainly that it is symptomatic of much that is wrong with how many Americans view the Middle East.
Hahn treats Egypt as though it were simply a dependent variable to be managed by Washington policymakers. Egypt’s nationalist movement has validity only to the extent that it can be accommodated to the requirements of US policy. Hahn’s analytical framework has no serious place for Egyptian perceptions, especially if they violate the requirements of regional order as defined by Washington. Analytical disinterest in Egypt is accompanied by sloppy scholarship about things Egyptian. The seven-page survey of Anglo-Egyptian relations from 1798 to 1945 contains several elementary errors. On long-standing controversies such as possible CIA foreknowledge of the coup d’etat of July 23, 1952, Hahn says little that is new despite having gone through a vast quantity of archival materials. He very carefully states that claims that the CIA was informed of plans for the coup “cannot be substantiated by declassified United States records.” His failure to mention that not all the relevant records have been declassified constitutes inadequate scholarship at best and complicity in concealing evidence at worst. This is a superficial and tedious text, composed in the academic analogue to Bush-speak — an idiom with no vocabulary for the perceptions and aspirations of those whose lot is to be subjected by US military might and media management.
Those who would ordinarily regard Hahn’s work as suitable background reading on contemporary Egypt might well derive more pleasure and insight from Kamal Abdel-Malek’s A Study of the Vernacular Poetry of Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm (Brill, 1990). Nigm’s corpus of colloquial poems constitute a lively political and social commentary on Egypt since the defeat of 1967, as seen from the vantage point of the poor and the disenfranchised. Nigm presents himself as the articulator of the voice of the Egypt that did not benefit from the open door economic policy, the abandonment of pan-Arabism and the alliance with the US. These poems, sung by Nigm’s former collaborator Sheikh Imam, became popular among left opposition forces throughout Egypt and abroad, often circulating clandestinely on cassette tapes. Abdel-Malek’s translations of the poems, comprising about a third of the text and presented alongside the Arabic originals, are lively and accessible, and open a window on an aspect of Egypt not often seen by foreigners.
Like much of the Egyptian left, which has been Nigm’s primary audience, Abdel-Malek has an idealized conception of “the creativity of the ageless masses’ embodied in colloquial poetry in general and Nigm’s work in particular. In a significant moment of candor, Nigm himself admitted that he has not become the poet of all Egyptians because only the middle class can afford the tape recorders necessary to hear his work. Nonetheless, the authorial voice of his poetry is that of the tribune for awlad al-balad (sons of the country). Abdel-Malek accepts Nigm’s claims uncritically, asserting that Nigm is an “authentic spokesman of the masses” and “a genuine mouthpiece of popular discontent” and that his poems are “an example of genuine cultural expression.” By focusing on Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm’s poetry, Abdel-Malek has legitimately drawn attention to the significance of an oppositional popular culture in Egypt. But the character of this oppositional sentiment is more complex than the unadorned claim to authenticity implies. Is there a way to affirm the existence of an Egypt beyond the strictures of elite politics and culture that has resisted the US-Israeli program for the Middle East without reifying and idealizing “the masses” and their authentic impulses?
Marilyn Booth has made a very substantial effort in this direction in Bayram al-Tunisi’s Egypt: Social Criticism and Narrative Strategies (Ithaca, 1990) — an authoritative study of the acknowledged master of Egyptian colloquial poetry. Bayram al-Tunisi and his work are strongly identified with the populist currents in the nationalist uprising of 1919. Late that year he was exiled because of his writings supporting the nationalist cause and criticizing the royal family.
Nonetheless, Booth avoids arguing that Bayram — the son of Tunisian immigrants who lived nearly 20 years in exile, mostly in France, and did not become an Egyptian citizen until 1954, seven years before his death — is unproblematically an authentic representative of the Egyptian popular classes. While acknowledging the oppositional character of his poetry and its location at the center of Egypt’s popular cultural tradition, she carefully presents the contradictory aspects of his political and artistic identity through a sympathetic and sensitive reading of his texts that avoids a simplistic resolution. Her translations of Bayram’s poems occupy about a quarter of the book. They display an extraordinary command of Arabic and an aesthetic sensibility that captures the humor and the tragedy of Bayram’s poetry.