Reconstructing Egypt: Ahmed Hussein and the History of Egyptian Development

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Reconstructing Egypt: Ahmed Hussein and the History of Egyptian Development, by Amy J. Johnson. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004. xxiii + 235 pages. Notes to 279. Gloss, to 281. Bibl. to 295. Index to 304. $22.50 paper.

For more than 150 years, visitors to Egypt have been fond of remarking how life along the Nile has been unchanged for centuries, if not millennia. Seemingly timeless images of verdant fields filled with men in native dress guiding oxen to draw water and plow land have convinced travelers that rural Egypt remains constant as change swirls through the cities and towns of the developing world.

Amy Johnson's new book serves to remind us just how dramatically rural life in Egypt has changed over the last three quarters of a century, and the central role Egyptians themselves have played in provoking that change. She does so by tracing the life of Ahmed Hussein, a German-trained agricultural economist who devoted the first part of his professional life to improving the lot of Egypt's rural poor, and the second as a diplomat for the post-Revolutionary regime in Egypt.

Hussein's story is a fascinating one. Born into the inner circle of Cairo's elite society (his father was a wealthy landowner, a leading politician and frequent minister, and his mother was a cousin of one of the leading poets of the age), he was a student at the newly founded Fouad I University (later to become Cairo University) during Egypt's 1919 revolution, then traveled to post-war Germany for his Ph.D. in agricultural economics. Returning to Egypt in 1927, he held concurrent posts in the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and Fouad I University, and was one of the most active members of the Egyptian Association for Social Studies.

Hussein's academic specialty was agricultural cooperatives, but his true passion appears to have been introducing the ideas of social work to those working with Egypt's rural poor. Believing that science and knowledge could alleviate tremendous human suffering, Hussein was a pioneer of the idea that education and health care, along with comprehensive training in hygiene, vocational skills, and basic agronomy, could alleviate the grinding poverty of the Egyptian countryside.

Just how grinding that poverty was is instructive. Fewer than 30% of male peasants were literate, and fewer than 10% of women. Bilharzia, an energy-sapping parasite, afflicted some 90% of villagers in target communities, and some 50% had hookworm and malaria. Sewage lay in open pools in village streets, nutrition was poor, and diarrheal diseases, especially among children, were rampant.

Hussein tirelessly argued for the necessity of solving these problems, and doing so in an integrated way. To that end, Hussein sought ways to build trust between the trained urban technocrats he sent out to the countryside and the peasants whose lives they were trying to improve. At the same time, he strived to build notions of self-help and personal responsibility among the peasantry. …