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What to Read on Egyptian Politics

Egyptian politics are frequently portrayed as either perpetually in crisis or essentially unchanging. Similarly, the country itself is seen as a chaotic place full of angry masses on the verge of revolt or an iron-fisted and stable dictatorship. In actuality, Egypt's political dynamics elude easy stereotypes: a powerful authoritarian state coexists with feisty social groups and various organized interests. Understanding how state and society interact is crucial for placing current events in their proper context, and these readings offer a useful starting point for gaining such an understanding. Together they explain how Egypt's presidents built one of the strongest authoritarian states in the contemporary world; describe the main interest groups sparring with the state, including the Muslim Brothers; and show how the country's ordinary citizens cope with economic privation and political exclusion.

The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes. By John Waterbury. Princeton University Press, 1983.  
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Now more than 25 years old, this book is still the finest study of Egypt's state elites and their survival strategies. John Waterbury describes how Egypt's first two presidents built a powerful state despite domestic and international constraints. Both Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat restructured society and the economy to shore up their rule -- Nasser by subordinating private capital to state managers, and Sadat by promoting a private sector with cronyistic ties to state agents. Both presidents deftly engineered the domestic political arena to prevent workers, peasants, and the urban middle class from independently mobilizing, leaving a legacy of authoritarianism that continues to dominate the country's politics. Although Waterbury's debate with dependency theorists and Marxists feels dated, his analysis of the stratagems of Egypt's rulers is as fresh and relevant as ever.

Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order. By Robert Springborg. Westview Press, 1989.
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Robert Springborg picks up where Waterbury leaves off, describing how Egypt's third, and still sitting, president has managed to survive politically despite rising domestic and international pressures. Concentrating on the first few years of Hosni Mubarak's tenure, Springborg portrays the president as a consummate balancer, one who plays domestic opposition groups against one another in the familiar divide-and-rule style. The book flags two of the most significant trends in Egyptian politics: the methodical downgrading of the military's political role and the rise of counter-elites within the secular and Islamist opposition.

The Society of the Muslim Brothers. By Richard P. Mitchell. Oxford University Press, 1993.
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First published in 1969, this is the original and still unrivaled study of Egypt's largest opposition organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been the inspiration for many other Islamist groups worldwide. Richard Mitchell takes up the period of 1928-54, narrating a gripping story of how the charismatic schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna founded a mass movement calling for "a government inspired by religion, not a religious government." Organizing his investigation in three parts -- one exploring the group's history, another its organization, and the third its ideology -- Mitchell is at once fair and skeptical in his treatment of the group, eschewing the intense polemics that have come to characterize most discussions of the Brotherhood. His valuable concluding chapter presages the Brotherhood's metamorphosis into a crucial political actor.

"The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament." By Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher. Middle East Report 240 (Fall 2006): pp. 32-39.
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A nice companion piece to Mitchell's book, this brief and lively overview fast-forwards half a century to the contemporary Muslim Brothers' active involvement in parliamentary politics. Through interviews with and observation of the group's 88 representatives in parliament, Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher show why the Brothers are widely considered to be Egypt's only real political party. Whether leading street protests in support of reformist judges or playing by parliamentary rules, deputies from the Brotherhood injected new life into a subservient legislature -- but not for long. Shehata and Stacher hint in their report at an imminent government backlash, and they were proved right: in March 2007, the Mubarak government amended the constitution to ban political parties based on religion and dilute judicial supervision of elections.

Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics, and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo
. By Diane Singerman. Princeton University Press, 1996.
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Studies of Egyptian politics typically center on elites and counter-elites, but how do ordinary Egyptians pursue their interests? This engrossing book looks at the informal networks built by average citizens as "avenues of participation" in a public realm that routinely excludes them. Diane Singerman neither romanticizes ordinary people nor misconstrues their behavior as "resistance" to the state. To research the book, she lived with a lower-class family in a crowded neighborhood of Cairo and observed how her hosts and their neighbors established savings associations to fund marriages, heatedly argued over social norms and conventions, and dealt with semi-official institutions such as private voluntary organizations. Singerman does not dwell on what "the street" thinks of its leaders; her interest lies in how it fends for itself when its leaders are nowhere to be found.

The Yacoubian Building. By Alaa Al Aswany. Harper Perennial, 2006.
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Almost as soon as it was published in Cairo in 2002, The Yacoubian Building became a bestseller. It was swiftly translated into English and adapted into a blockbuster film with an all-star Egyptian cast. A racy melodrama filled with characters loosely based on real-life public figures, the novel uses the trope of a once-glorious but now-faded building as a stand-in for modern Egypt. The residents live side by side but are worlds apart: filthy-rich crony capitalists rub elbows with dirt-poor conscripts, corrupt powerbrokers share floor space with downtrodden workers, and Egypt's brutal police force watches warily over them all. The author's acid critique of contemporary sociopolitical inequalities and romantic nostalgia for pre-1952 Egypt struck a chord with many and angered others.

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