Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics, and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo, by Diane Singerman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995. xx + 272 pages. Notes to p. 314. Bibl. to p. 330. Index to p. 335. $39.50.
Formal political systems across the globe are increasingly under attack for their inefficiencies, abuse of power, and general neglect of societal interests. Not coincidentally, nongovernmental organizations, community associations, religious groups, non-profit organizations and other elements of "civil society" have become more important in filling in for the failed state. In addition to these "formal" organizations and structures, societies rely heavily upon the informal linkages that bring households together as communities, often at odds with the formal political structures affecting their lives for good or ill. Thus, society functions--and does so quite effectively--informally even as it maintains and relies upon formal institutions.
As Hernando de Soto did for our understanding of the informal sector in Peru,(1) Diane Singerman has enlightened us about the "power of the Popular sector" (p. 3) in Egypt. Singerman's work cuts across a variety of disciplines--comparative political science, anthropology and sociology, women's studies, and economics--and all are handled deftly. Singerman challenges Western social scientists, in particular, her fellow political scientists, to reframe their thinking on political participation. She prompts them to look beyond the elites, the formal institutions of governance and of opposition to government, in order to see the political import of the private domain as much as the public realm.
With an impressive analysis of the "politics of marriage and savings" and the "politics of reproducing the family" (especially chapters 2 and 3), Singerman substantiates one of her central arguments: to ignore the popular class, the sha'b, "is to distort the dynamics of state-society relations in Egypt and to underestimate the political awareness of vast segments of the Egyptian sha'b" (p. 40). In discussing the "familial ethos" of the sha'b--i.e., the "common worldview of the rights and responsibilities of individuals within the household and the proper boundaries of family authority and power within the larger community" (p. 49)--Singerman shares numerous examples of what gets publicly discussed and contested throughout sha'bi society in Cairo: issues of children, education, marriage (when, to whom, at what cost, etc.), and work. She argues that as these issues get repeated by the thousands throughout society, they influence economic, political, and social trends throughout the nation. If government continues to impede the sha'b's efforts to satisfy their own basic individual, household, and community needs, government will face the political consequences.
Singerman extrapolates from her findings about the sha'b in Cairo to the nation overall. Given the relative homogeneity of Egyptian society, continuing migration to the capital (with the resulting "ruralization of Cairo"), and the demographic "weight" of Cairo, her argument that the socioeconomic and political concerns of Cairo's sha'b reflect national politics is reasonable and well documented.
Singerman provides insightful analyses on a host of complicated issues, none more so than her discussion of sexuality and gender relations. Ever the political scientist, she demonstrates the political significance of anthropological and sociological issues that others generally overlook: "
ommunities exert considerable individual and collective efforts to maintain communal norms of morality and to promote the common goal of reproducing the family . …