Rushdi Said, Science and Politics in Egypt: A Life’s Journey (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2004).
In this thoughtful memoir, originally published in Arabic, geologist Rushdi Said connects the trajectory of his own experiences as a nationalist technocrat to the broader sweep of twentieth-century Egyptian history. Said’s highly personal, critical perspective is regrettably uncommon in English works on this historical period. Because access to post-1952 Egyptian government archives is so strictly limited, memoirs like his are of great value to historians of Egypt for the insight they provide into the inner workings of the state.
Born in Cairo in 1920 to Coptic Christian parents, Said studied geology at Cairo (then Fuad I) University. He then moved to the United States to earn his doctorate at Harvard University. Following his graduation, Said returned to Egypt to teach and became a well-respected member of the international scientific community, authoring the groundbreaking work, The Geology of Egypt. Said first served the government in 1961-1962 as a member of a convention charged with drafting a document to express the philosophy of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime and serve as the foundation for a political party. In 1964, Nasser appointed Said to the Egyptian parliament after the poor showing of Copts in legislative elections. Four years later, Said was appointed chairman of the broad of directors of the Egyptian General Mining Organization, in which position he served until he resigned in 1977. In 1981, Said left for the US after Anwar al-Sadat ordered his arrest, along with some 1,500 prominent political and intellectual figures. Said believes his arrest was prompted by his unfulfilled agreement to join a statement protesting Sadat’s role in fueling animosity between Muslims and Copts.
Said’s narrative exudes both a boundless faith in the potential of the post-revolutionary Egyptian state and a profound disappointment in the actual policies the government chose to adopt, particularly following the death of Nasser in 1970. Said argues that projects like the Aswan Dam and efforts to build an industrial sector “converted Egypt into a modern nation” and helped diversify Egypt’s economy. In contrast, the book is sharply critical of the state’s failure to mediate the role of political Islam in Egyptian politics. Said also argues that “Copts are distanced from sensitive political positions and are excluded from sitting on policymaking committees and from occupying positions of trust.” As an illustration, he describes difficulties that he faced in the Egyptian university setting.
Said provides great detail about his own endeavors and struggles, but devotes less attention to the broader implications of the development of science and technology in Egypt. He is predominantly concerned to chronicle his efforts to reform the bureaucratic and organizational structure of the Egyptian General Mining Organization and streamline production and labor in ventures such as the Red Sea phosphate mines. He does not trace the social impact of the organization’s projects or the often fraught relationship between technological ventures and local communities in the post-colonial world. During the 1970s, as Sadat shifted the Egyptian economy away from industry toward tourism and service industries, the Egyptian scientific community suffered from diminished state funding. In addition to the corruption that bedeviled Sadat’s Open Door policy, this shift helped to cement Said’s opposition to state policies.
Although Science and Politics in Egypt is fundamentally a work of autobiography, Said associates his own experiences with broader historical trends. Developments such as the emergence of the Wafd Party, the 1952 revolution and the rise of the “religious right” in Egypt “left an impact on me, determined my attitudes in public life and stimulated my interest in public affairs.” However, because his work represents the perspective of the Western-educated political and economic elite, Said’s description of the lifestyle of the great majority of Egyptians reflects that elite’s understanding of Egyptian history. At one point, he asserts that many Egyptians continue to live as they did in medieval times; at another he argues that isolation from the “mainstream of civilization,” namely Europe, resulted in Egypt falling behind. Both of these characterizations reflect European colonial attitudes and fly in the face of works like those of Kenneth Cuno, Judith Tucker and Nathan Brown, which demonstrate the dynamic nature of economic and social practices, even in rural areas.
Still, Science and Politics in Egypt represents a rare and valuable insider’s perspective on Egyptian political history. Said’s integrity and his bravery in opposing a regime that did not gladly tolerate dissent shines through in his retelling of the story of his own life and that of post-revolutionary Egypt.