14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
The long journey
A Border Passage: From Cairo to America -- A Woman's Journey, Leila Ahmed, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. pp307
Tales of the desert fox
The Armies of Rommel, George Forty, London: Arms and Armour, 1999. pp254
A peace with no winners
Ya Salam (Peace!), Nagwa Barakat, Beirut: Dar Al-Adab, 1999. pp190
Rural migrant workers in Egypt
Rural Labor Movements in Egypt, 1961-1992, James Toth, Cairo: AUC Press, 1999. pp246
Secret and moral histories
Al-Qame' fil-Khitab Al-Rowa'i Al-Arabi (Repression in the Discourse of the Arabic Novel), Abdel-Rahman Abu Ouf. Cairo: Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, 1999. pp263
New guide for the virtual traveller
The Splendours of Archaeology, ed. Fabio Bourbon, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp352
When the sea changed its colour
Youghiyar Alouanah Al-Bahr ( The sea changes its colours), Nazik Al-Malaika, Cairo: Afaq Al-Kitaba (Writing Horizons) series of the Cultural Palaces Organisation, 1999. pp211
Next week, the Supreme Council for Culture will hold an international symposium to mark the passing of a century since the publication of Qasim Amin's The Liberation of Women. Here, Al-Ahram Weekly remembers Mai Ziyada, one of the most remarkable advocates of women's liberation in the Arab world
The mirror of Mai
Bahithat Al-Badia and Aisha Al-Taymouriya, Al-Anissa Mai (Mai Ziyada), edited and introduced by Safynaz Kazem, Cairo: Al-Hilal, 1999. pp372
Introducing Miss Mai
By Safynaz Kazem
At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani
Magazines and Periodicals:
* Alif : Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 19, Cairo: The American University in Cairo, 1999
* Dafatir Thaqafiya (Cultural Notebooks), No. 22, Ramallah: The Palestinian Ministry of Culture, August 1999
* Nizwa , No. 19, Oman: Oman Institution for Journalism, News, Publication and Advertising, Summer 1999
* Fusul (Seasons), quarterly issued by the General Egyptian Book Organisation
* Al-Romouz Al-Tashkiliya fil Sehr Al-Sha'bi (Plastic Symbols in Popular Magic), Soliman Mahmoud Hassan, Cairo: General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp.231
* Islam in the Balkans , H. T. Norris, trans. Abdel-Wahab Aloub, ed. Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, Cairo: Supreme Council for Culture, 1999. pp299
* Leonardo, Edmundo Solmi, trans. Taha Fawzi, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp223
* St Mark and the Foundation of the Alexandrian Church, Samir Fawzi Girgis, trans. Nassim Megali, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp159.
To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index.
Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996
Rural migrant workers in EgyptRural Labor Movements in Egypt, 1961-1992, James Toth, Cairo: AUC Press, 1999. pp246
In his book Rural Labor Movements in Egypt, 1961-1992, James Toth, a professor of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo, poses a highly significant question. Is Egypt's recent development and moves fully to integrate the country into the global economy the result of initiatives by state officials, or does it owe more to the labour and various political initiatives of the working class? Toth's answer to this question incorporates his findings as an anthropologist working among the migrant workers of Egypt's rural areas, and his conclusions would appear to place the responsibility for Egypt's failure to join the group of the Newly Industrialised Countries (NIC) as much on the activities of its working class as on those of its state officials or technocrats.
Toth spent two years studying rural migrant workers (called tarahil) in the villages of Egypt, a story that he blends with the country's modern economic history. By following the workers from the fields to urban construction sites and factories, he shows how their lives have changed in parallel with the economic imperatives of the state. He notices that modern manufacturing and agriculture equipment have come into use in rural areas only since 1985, while all sectors of the economy have remained labor intensive, and states that since 1961 tarahil migrant farm workers have represented the largest segment of the national labour force.
As far as this sector of the workforce is concerned, Toth argues that economic problems in Egypt's recent history may be put down to a lack of strong official labour management in it. The 1961 agricultural crisis, for example, was the result of large numbers of labourers leaving their villages for urban areas and thus provoking a rural labour shortage. When state budgets were reduced following the Sixth of October War in 1973, many village labourers suffered reduced employment, and the country's developing economic difficulties and labour discontent eventually led to the 1977 food riots. Throughout these crises, according to Toth, activities at the grassroots level by tarahil labour can be linked to larger failures in the food and manufacturing sectors as well as to failures in export markets.
Toth gives examples of this failure properly to manage the labour force. In the 1960s the government stressed the need to establish a union for the neglected three million agricultural and migrant workers and, in 1962 elections were held for the leadership of the General Union of Migrant Workers. However few village labourers were elected, and Toth quotes a journalist of the time as writing that 'the majority of representatives had probably never worked a day in their lives'. The Ministry of Labour in Cairo left the labourers to depend on non-migrant bureaucrats, should they wish to voice their concerns, only one inspector was appointed to each rural district and many workers were never registered in the union at all. Toth notes that tarahil workers were oddly grouped with sponge divers, fishermen, cottonseed cleaners and animal breeders in an assortment that did not take into account their individual situations.
Against this background of official failure, Toth states that it was an informal patron-client relationship, and not the union's more formal powers, that succeeded in giving the labourers some short-term benefits. Paternalistic fixing was in general more successful than was official union support in exacting labour benefits. Using passive methods such as feigned ignorance and false compliance individual workers were able to coerce management into better labour deals.
In general, Toth argues, traditional paternalistic bonds have proven more successful than have bureaucratic and legal manoeuvering in managing this sector of the labour force. These traditions of personal dealing he sees as characteristic of Islamic societies, and argues that they are most effective in the particular milieu of Egypt's peasant culture. As a result of this, when Islamist groups entered formal elections in the 1980s and '90s they led the vote among both rural labourers and ex-rural workers, since their rhetoric about social welfare and their traditionally religious and personal way of dealing with the labour constituencies attracted support in a way that the state bureaucracy and the established parties could not. Rural labour was exhorted to challenge the government's fiscal corruption, which had eliminated social services, and once elected, the people rapidly supported the policies of this new kind of technocrats. Toth goes on to write that in the rural milieu, traditional codes and culture cause people to be morally and socially dependent on Islam, with the peasantry remaining largely isolated from political ideas that attempt to change the structure and workings of society. This may explain why union organisation among them has been felt to be externally imposed and impersonal, while more personal methods of negotiations, which are rooted in the local culture, by contrast have managed to mobilise the labour force.
Toth is effective at bringing his knowledge of anthropology to bear on conventional economic and sociological explanation. However, differences between Western cultures and economics and the traditional ones should also be noticed: while many argue that socialist central planning has proven to be destructive to Egypt's economy, it is also argued that, traditionally, the people are not politically active or economically concerned. They tend to work for subsistence alone. But Toth has succeeded in showing how the workers have had, at least indirectly, major impacts on Egyptian government policies for national development. "Most state officials operated with a model of a social pyramid that lacked a proletarian base," he says, "and therefore were unable to comprehend how those at the bottom could spoil and sabotage their well-made plans for national growth and autonomy." He has managed to revitalise interest in the activities of the working-class outside of official plans for their manipulation in the interests of national economic growth, especially in his emphasis on the unofficial, migrant labour force. For too long now, he writes, scholarly analysis has been unconcerned with labour struggles at this level of analysis and, in accounting for the failures of Egypt's economy in the period under review, it was high time that they were factored back in, rather than being seen as purely alienated or irrelevant.
Reviewed by Nadia Abou El-Magd