From International Socialism (1st series), No.5, Summer 1961, p.30.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Nasser’s New Egypt
Stevens & Sons, 30s.
Nasser. The Rise to Power
Of the two books under review Wheelock’s is by far the better; indeed, it is perhaps better than any other book on Egypt published since the military revolution. One of its main merits is its well balanced treatment of the different aspects of the new regime; the first three chapters deal with internal politics, then follow four chapters on Egypt’s economic and social problems and development between 1952 and 1958; and then three chapters on foreign policy, with a small summary to conclude the book. This does not mean that the different aspects are treated as watertight compartments: on the contrary, the author shows, for instance, the growing preoccupation of Abdul Nasser with furthering Egypt’s grandeur on the international projects.
In this field, the land reform has been the greatest success of the regime – although its overall impact is limited, since it benefited only about 10% of Egypt’s rural population, a fact, by the way, which is not mentioned in the book. A detailed economic analysis leads the author to the conclusion that there has been substantial progress in the industrial sector, mainly in petroleum and communications, but ‘with all the fanfare attendant to Egypt’s drive toward industrialization, it is surprising how little actually has been invested in new industries’ (p.158) – the main problem being that of markets. Calculated at the optimum, the net per capita increase in national income for 1958 would be no more than $1, but there are indications that this optimum has not been attained.
Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the new regime has not succeeded, for the time being, in creating a new class on which to base its rule, after it had done away with the power of the old landowning bourgeoisie. Again and again the author stresses that there is no alternative to the existing military government. During very short periods it seemed as if Abdul Nasser would try to rely on the workers à la Peron, especially when he brought them out into the streets of Cairo in March 1954 against Neguib. But while making some concessions to them, mainly in the field of social insurance and, to a smaller extent, housing, he suppressed any attempt of the workers to organise independent trade unions: the two leaders of the Kafr el-Dawar strike were executed early in September 1952, most of the labour candidates were not allowed to be elected to the National Assembly in 1957, leaders of the Labour Federation were deposed one after the other, strikes were forbidden, any other labour initiative was discouraged (see pp.127-129), and the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, formed in Damascus in March 1956 was turned into a tool of Egyptian foreign policy. What Wheelock does not tell us is how all these events influenced the class consciousness of the Egyptian worker, which was growing tremendously in the early 1950’s.
Wheelock quotes the saying ‘Nasserism is not an ideology, but an attitude of mind’. However, analysing it one finds it to be quite a typical ideology of the lower middle class. Abdul Nasser’s objective is, according to his ‘philosophy’, to establish a ‘socialist, democratic, and co-operative’ society, which would be neither ‘opportunist individualism’, nor state capitalism. The state would be a ‘trustee’ over the people, protecting the small capitalists, the small savers and the consumer (p.69). But one of Nasser’s problems is that in Egypt, more than anywhere else, this lower middle class is extremely weak.
It seems to this reviewer that this problem, Egypt’s class structure, is one of the few on which Wheelock’s otherwise very good book is not very revealing. Moreover, one finds in it some misconceptions: Egypt’s society and economic structure prior to the military coup certainly was not ‘feudal’ (pp.75, 82, 109), and the revolutionary elements in Arab society are anything but ‘liberal’ (p.250). Also, the reader should be warned that Wheelock’s ‘socialists’ are no others than the small Egyptian fascist group. It is a pity that so many names have been mutilated by the author, and that in between his interesting interviews with Egypt’s leaders and other serious sources he frequently quotes such publications as the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review.
Joesten’s book is a journalistic story which tells nothing new, – except, perhaps, the ‘discovery’ of the author that Nasser was born in Alexandria and not in a village of Upper Egypt.
Last updated on 17 February 2010