Ray Bush and Habib Ayeb, eds. Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt (London: Zed Books, 2012).
Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt is an insightful volume addressing the various forms of inequality that plague Egyptian society, with particular focus on the poor and working classes. With few exceptions, the chapters have a strong structuralist undertone; many use a political economy approach to describe class conflict. The volume’s title notwithstanding, most chapters treat the concepts of marginality and exclusion as afterthoughts, and only a few grapple with marginality as a theory.
Readers interested in thinking through the titular concepts should pay particular attention to Asef Bayat’s historicizing chapter as well as chapters by Reem Saad and Ray Bush. In some ways, Bayat’s essay is a better introduction that the formal one, which is overly concerned with making the volume relevant to the 2011 revolution. Bayat shows how the concept of marginality developed over time, starting in the nineteenth century and surveying the literature on poverty from the 1950s onward. As he aptly points out, “in all of these deployments, the notion of ‘marginality’ — whether as a social group, class, region, nation or a group of nations and regions — refers primarily to a state of poverty, deprivation and subordination.” “Do they have to be so?” he asks, a question taken up by Saad, who explores whether some positions of marginality can be read as frontiers or spaces of possibility. Her ethnographically rich, boundary-testing chapter compares the social marginality of elite Egyptian intellectuals and artists with edgy tastes to the ways in which being part of a low-status tribe enable an orphaned child to start her own business.
Bush’s discussion is important for explaining why, in a country with such a deeply entrenched development industry, poverty remains a key problem. He highlights the roles of this industry and macroeconomic policy in the reproduction of systemic poverty.
Despite many strong individual chapters, the collection suffers from a lack of cohesion. For example, the volume addresses the spatiality of inequality in three distinct ways — rural vs. urban (Habib Ayeb), exurban vs. urban (Dalia Wahdan) and targeted poverty reduction programs in individual villages (Saker El Nour). Together these three chapters supply a thread of cohesion. Yet the collection is organized into case studies in part to highlight “how people labeled as being marginal have tried to oppose or struggle against the policies that have created their marginality.” And only in a few instances do the case studies showcase a struggle. Ayeb covers the dispossession of Egyptian and Tunisian farmers by neoliberal policies favoring agribusiness. Wahdan looks at the transportation networks that limit the mobility of residents in Sixth of October City, making them spatially marginal. El Nour uses a case study of geographical targeting of poverty to demonstrate how such extensive policies reproduce rather than alleviate poverty. Rather than struggle, the case studies underscore how particular policies perpetuate hierarchy and inequality. Two chapters — Kamal Fahmi’s on street children and Heba Hagrass’ on the disabled — take on types of marginality and exclusion not principally defined by class. Fahmi reveals the coping strategies of street children in the face of social marginality. Hagrass highlights the vulnerability of Egypt’s disabled population amidst a discriminatory cultural environment and a meager set of government services. A notable gap in the volume is gender.
Bush and Habib largely set up the book in terms of what led to the uprising of 2011. While understandable, this goal detracts from the theorization of marginality and exclusion. Rabab el-Mahdi’s chapter astutely addresses class conflict in the revolution, but the strength of the volume is not in explaining why Husni Mubarak fell but rather in showing the numerous faces of Egypt’s endemic inequality.