To the Editor:
In “The Social Roots of Nasser’s Egypt” (November) Mr. A. V. Sherman attempts to show that the present Egyptian leaders are interested in personal power rather than in the welfare of their country, and that “their only claim to eminence is their nationalism and their anti-Westernism.” Unfortunately many of his statements lack the support of evidence.
Thus he asserts that the junta is supported by a new and greatly inflated bureaucracy, the expansion of which it has made no attempt to control; but he fails to give figures or to mention the source of his information. In fact a Civil Service Commission, functioning with the assistance of UN advisers, has been set up to provide precisely such controls.
Describing the economic problems facing the junta in 1952, Mr. Sherman states that “Egypt’s main problem in this area was not inequitable distribution of land”—a surprising assertion, since two thousand Egyptians between them owned 20 per cent of the cultivated land, while two million others owned 13 per cent of it, supporting their families by the produce of one acre or less. According to Mr. Sherman, the real problems were undercapitalized agriculture and rural over-population.
The first was no real problem: many of the old estates were highly capitalized and efficiently farmed, and continued thus under collective ownership. What little could be done to increase production per acre by means of perennial irrigation, better seed, and more fertilizers was largely effected. The second problem was admittedly serious, but it too was tackled by the Egyptian government. One method was to bring new land under cultivation—in Tahrir province, where by 1956, 5,000 acres were already being cultivated and 5,000 more being reclaimed, and in Buhaira, where the Egyptian-American Rural Improvement Service has reclaimed 25,000 acres. Expropriated landowners have been compensated in bonds which they could use, and in some cases were encouraged to use, to purchase uncultivated land for reclamation.
Another method was to encourage industry: Mr. Sherman is premature in dismissing the government’s industrial projects as “futile and expensive,” since some are only now nearing completion and others will not be ready for some years.
Does Mr. Sherman really believe that Colonel Nasser’s arguments against imperialism are inspired by Moscow? They have been voiced by every Egyptian nationalist from 1882 onwards, including the fathers and grandfathers of that middle-class intelligentsia which, according to Mr. Sherman, Nasser is now seeking to impress. The only recent concept to emerge in Egyptian politics—neutralism—is hardly likely to have emanated from Moscow.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Mr. Sherman writes:
The main source on economic and statistical matters is the official or “approved” press, in particular the Economic Bulletins of the National Bank of Egypt (quarterly), and the Economic and Political Review. For the numbers of civil servants, see also Morroe Berger’s Bureaucracy and Society in Modern Egypt. I cited examples of new government functions which employ large numbers of personnel, many of whom were not formerly civil servants; they include the vastly extended broadcasting services to the Arab world outside Egypt, to Africa and Asia; the National Planning Commission, the National Guidance Ministry, the several hundred officers seconded to non-military “commissar” posts (at the same time as the total strength of the army and its budget increased). As the NBE Bulletin (No. 1, 1957) notes, the “increasing importance of the public sector of the economy is shown by the increase in the budget to 280 million Egyptian pounds in 1956-57, from 238 million pounds in 1955-56.” Since expenditure on development projects was some £E 8 million less in the 1956-57 budget, while salaries account for some 45-50 per cent of the rest of the budget (see Berger) the inference is obvious.
The fact that landownership in Egypt is “inequitable” does not necessarily make it the main problem from the economic or social point of view. The average holding in 1950 was very small (2.2 acres) and the size of the average farm was already too low—6.1 acres. Since then it has declined to 5.0 acres. The proposed land reform at its early maximum could never have affected more than 10 per cent of all holdings; in fact it has bogged down at 5-6 per cent. But now too, the Egyptian press has admitted that the Liberation Province scheme has proved a costly failure. Those people whose interest in and sympathy for Egypt dates back only to its acquisition of a dictator might do well to study its previous experience: the crop area rose from 7.7 million acres in 1912 to 8.5 million in 1938 and 9.2 million in 1948. The 1950-75 plan aimed at more than 2 million acres more in reclamation and conversion, so that Nasser’s schemes, even were they to succeed in full, would testify more to his talent for making a lot of noise than to his ability to outdo the old regime.
As for industry, it is legitimate to describe as “futile and expensive” projects which lock up large amounts of capital for schemes which have no hope of being profitable at world prices, but serve propaganda and psychological aims instead of economic ones. It is the nature of long-term economic project planning that it can be assessed in its major outlines before it is executed; that in fact is the meaning of long-term planning.
I did not say that Nasser’s arguments against imperialism were “inspired” by Moscow. On the contrary, I stressed that Nasser and his generation have always been strongly anti-Western, and that their new range of arguments against the West (including America, which Mrs. Roper should agree has never oppressed the Egyptians) are meant to “explain” their anti-Westernism to their more sophisticated citizens and to non-Moslems abroad. If Mrs. Roper had studied samples of the kind of anti-British or anti-American material prepared in Arabic for local consumption, she might find it easier to see what I am writing about.
The Leninist thesis presenting imperialism as a necessary result of monopoly capitalism, and the Zhdanov thesis of the West’s inevitably aggressive designs against the “world of socialism,” are, however, new importations. As to whether neutralism “is hardly likely to have emanated from Moscow,” an answer is supplied in El Gumhuriya, Nasser’s own paper, October 8, 1957:
Will Sputnik convince the U.S. that it must stop threatening the peace of the world? We correctly assessed the difference between Russian friendship and Dullesite impudence even before Sputnik made its appearance. Russia is a peace-loving country which hates war and defends the peoples that are exploited by the monopolistic and imperialist gangs.