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Mostly based on Arabic language sources, Professor Shabka’s Then and Now Egypt's Story guides the reader way beyond ancient pharos and pyramids into the sources of contemporary Egypt’s cultural fault lines. He persuasively argues that over the last two millennia repeated foreign invasions distorted Egyptian society and culture leaving it particularly vulnerable to its more recent incursions. For example, 34 year old Nasser’s 1952 coup, while initially nationalistic and anticolonial, soon adapted the foreign ideology of pan Arabism which failed as a regional unifying force, but left many Egyptians with a residual Arab identity. Both this failure and left-over identity facilitated the contemporary incursions of wealthy but unsophisticated Bedouin-cultured Saudis and other Arabs for their own geopolitical and often personal purposes (for more on the personal, google “short term brides”). These contradictions can actually be seen on contemporary Cairo’s streets and in cafes as “conservative” hijab-covered women sport tight jeans and freely smoke Cappuccino-flavored shishas with male friends. Covering 5,000 years of history in one book will of course pass quickly over some topics. Others get a more detail narrative. My favorite is Professor Shabka’s thrilling and detailed account of the Sadat-led Egyptian army’s 1973 unexpected but successful storming of the Israeli fortified east bank of the Suez canal. In result Sadat could negotiate a peace treaty with Israel which Professor Shabka argues remains in Egypt’s strategic best interest. The book ends with coverage of more recent periods of military rule under Mubarak, a disastrous interlude of Muslim Brotherhood “democracy,” and then a return to the military-led authoritarianism of el-Sisi. Professor Shabka’s outlook for Egypt’s future is not optimistic. This perhaps points to a few weaknesses I see in his otherwise persuasive analysis. I would have liked a better accounting of how US “aid” policies have found their way into the military-run villas on the Mediterranean coast. Similarly, the distorting oil wealth of the Bedouin Arabs could not have been accumulated without US military support. But alas, no one book can do it all.
This book leaves you simultaneously dumfounded by the insights into the Bedouin culture's impact on the geo-politics of the Middle East and brokenhearted by the destruction of one of the world's oldest and most enigmatic cultures. Hussein Shabka's research and observations on Gamal Nasser was a masterclass in not only how Trump came to power and but also how he could easily hold on to power. Was not expecting that. Great read!