noticed, Putin turned the Duma (parliament) into a rubber stamp. Many of the other freedoms of the 1990s were drastically cut back. Even the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the brutal poisoning of the human-rights activist Alexander Litvinenko in London, and the assassination in Qatar of the former president of Chechyna, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, were not wake-up calls for most people. Now ‘former’ intelligence officers can be found everywhere: in the prime minister’s office, among t he deputy p r ime minister s , i n t he Pres i dentia l Administration, the ar med forces, the Ministr y of Internal Affairs, the major branches of industry, the railways, banks and the Academy of Sciences. The production of strategic metals – such as nickel, palladium and polonium – is also in the hands of the FSB. Relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the FSB are even closer than they were prior to 1991, now that official state atheism has been discarded. Of course, as the authors seem to imply, the FSB is lacking in creative ideas about how to create a better future for the Russian people. The stress is placed on maintaining the status quo, on stability rather than
JOHN R BRADLEY
EGYPT ON THE BRINK: FROM NASSER TO MUBARAK
By Tarek Osman (Yale University Press 282pp £14.99)
AUTHORITARIAN REGIMES IN the Middle East may be dull, but at least they’re predictable. Take the recent announcement by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s official spokesman that the ailing dictator will stand again for election in 2012. By that time he will be 84 years old and will have already been in power for more than three decades. One popular theory has it that, during what will presumably be his final term, Mubarak will finally name his neo-liberal banker son, Gamal, as vice president, a position purposefully left vacant until now. Thus the son will inherit the throne of the father, albeit on the back of fraudulent elections.
In Egypt on the Brink, Tarek Osman charts the major political, social, economic and religious developments in his home country from 1952, when Gamal Abdul Nasser overthrew the monarchy, to the tediously repressive decades of Mubarak’s rule. Essentially this is a wise, liberal Egyptian’s lament for the interminable decline of his once great nation, from indisputable leader of the Arab world to a country that is now routinely dismissed, even by Egyptians themselves, as increasingly irrelevant.
sustainability, as though the supplies of gas and oil will never run dry. One of the main myths revolves around the dogmatic and unimaginative Yuri Andropov, still seen by some today as a sort of role model, despite the fact that he placed the world on the verge of a nuclear holocaust in the autumn of 1983. Another unimaginative person is Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB from 1999 until 2008. In 2000 he fatuously referred to FSB officers as ‘our new “nobility”’. But most members of the old Russian nobility were by nature and tradition humane, well-educated, fluent in foreign languages and genuinely cultured. Compared with them, the new ‘noblemen’ are a bunch of uncivilised commoners.
Some readers of this volume may query a few of the sources used by the authors. It should be realised that most of the archives of the KGB and FSB remain completely closed and will not be declassified for many years to come. With very few exceptions, only Russians living in Russia really know and understand the truth about the past and present of their country, because they have experienced it in their own skin. To order this book at £15.19, see LR bookshop on page 10
The book opens with what has become the standard nar rative of Egypt’s rise and fall, in which prewar, cosmopolitan Cairo and Alexandr i a – with their political pluralism, intellectual vibrancy and relig ious tolerance – are played off against the hopelessness of the impoverished, repressive present. In stark contrast to much of the rest of the developed world, Osman writes, Egyptian society over the past half century has not only not progressed, but on many fronts actually regressed. No one who lives in Egypt would argue with the validity of that assertion. However, Osman readily acknowledges that, for all the glamour and relative freedom it offered, the reform movement of the early twentieth century crucially failed to improve the lot of Egypt’s silent majority, the poor.
Nasser: went left
The resulting popular frustration paved the way for Nasser’s bloodless coup. Osman’s diplomatic eagerness to present both sides of every story is nowhere more evident than in his discussion of Nasser. As the first native Egyptian ever to rule his own country, Nasser truly revolutionised, for good or ill, every aspect of society, and changed the course of the country forever. The secular Nasser, Osman states, was probably the most popular Arab leader since the Prophet, and his glory years, culminating in the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, are lovingly recreated. Still, even Osman – who touchingly
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2010 / Jan 2011
12 FOREIGN PARTS
has a soft spot for the pan-Arab ideology consigned (as he acknowledges) by everyone else to the proverbial trashcan of history – cannot but shine a stark light on Nasser’s disastrous long-term legacy.
It becomes obvious that Nasser’s many short-term accomplishments are, in retrospect, far outweighed by his penchant for crushing all opponents and surrounding himself with sycophants. Moreover, he eradicated parliamentary democracy, slaughtered and therefore radicalised the Islamist opposition, outlawed the free press, and established a military dictatorship that would provide a role model not only for his successors but also for the likes of Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. At least Nasser was not personally corrupt. But it does tell us something important about the Arab world, even if Osman does not discuss the issue, that the only twentieth-century Arab leader who clearly enjoyed the overwhelming support and love of his people never considered standing for election.
The consequences for Egyptian society of Egypt’s 1967 defeat to Israel have been well documented: the emergence of Anwar al-Sadat, who instigated neo-liberal economic policies and, as a counter to the left, championed the Islamists; and a turning inward by an Egyptian populace whose hopes and dreams were betrayed by Nasser. Osman’s best chapters are on the resulting Islamicisation of Egyptian society and the consequent marginalisation of the once culturally embraced and economically crucial Christian minority (all of which he links to Egypt’s diminished role in the Arab world and the rise of Saudi-funded Wahhabi Islam).
Again the contrast is with pre-Nasser Egypt, when progressive Islamist thinking merged with the best of Western intellectual traditions to create a special kind of Egyptianness. By contrast the modernisation of the 1970s and 1980s, Osman writes, ‘unintentionally blended plain Wahhabi Islamism with Western, especially American, popular culture, coexisting in an artificial comfort zone that numbed minds and discouraged courageous examination and intellectual scrutiny’.
There is a famous Egyptian joke: at every fork in the road Nasser went left, al-Sadat went right, but Mubarak says, don’t move. The neo-liberal agenda carried forward under Mubarak’s inert rule, Osman asserts, has vastly increased the number of poor, while lining the pockets of f amilies with t ies to the militar y elite. Meanwhile, the country has lost political direction. The majority of the population, the young, who have never known any leader but Mubarak, inevitably will determine the country’s future. These voices close this well researched and closely argued book. True to style, Osman concludes that things could go either way: a popular upr ising or a kind of creative chaos out of which emerges an Egypt that might once again make its people proud, and be a worthy leader of the Arab world. To order this book at £11.99, see LR bookshop on page 10
LORE OF THE JUNGLE WHERE HORNBILLS FLY: A JOURNEY WITH
THE HEADHUNTERS OF BORNEO
By Erik Jensen (I B Tauris 282pp £20)
RITUALISED HEADHUNTING, THOUGH often reported by nineteenth-centur y explorer s , was l ess f requently authenticated. In Asia it seems to have been limited to the Nagas of north-east India and several forest peoples in the south-east Asian archipelago; it probably sold more books than it claimed lives. There was something about healthy young heads being removed as heirlooms and displayed about the house, like family photos on the mantelpiece, that both fascinated and appalled the reading public. Western morality piped up against the practice, rather in the manner of Flanders and Swann’s bolshie young cannibal who was adamant that ‘eating people is wrong’. Whether the victim was killed in battle or foully murdered mattered little. What rankled was treating the human cranium as a trophy, to be cured, shrunk, carved with arabesques and hung prominently. Along with other macabre customs – widow burning, human sacr ifice, infanticide and cannibalism itself – headhunting provided the perfect justification for those civilising interventions that might, perforce or perchance, be prolonged into colonial rule.
This is roughly what happened in that part of Borneo that formed the Brooke family’s raj of Sarawak. As an Iban warrior once explained to a Brooke functionary: ‘White men read books; we hunt heads.’ It was a cultural matter, part r ite of passage, part affir mation of identity. Any malice was almost incidental. Far from dishonouring their trophies, headhunters revered and treasured them. Custom enjoined the practice, and necessity dictated it: individually and collectively, the survival of the Iban was reckoned to depend on the assertion of their retaliatory prowess.
The Brookes thought otherwise. Their swashbuckling enterprise in Sarawak had been officially condoned on the understanding that they were eradicating piracy. Landlubbing predators deserved equally firm treatment – and they got it when fair-haired heads found their way into the hang ing baskets dangling from longhouse rafters. Suppressing headhunting replaced the suppression of piracy as the raison d’être of Brooke rule; armed officialdom probed ever further upr iver; and in the 1920s the Iban joined the third Brooke rajah for the ritual slaughter of a magnificent boar, thereby sealing a treaty that officially ended headhunting in Sarawak. ☛
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2010 / Jan 2011