For 18 days, the world was riveted to the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. An Egyptian scholar shares her first-hand account of those tense but jubilant days and explores the role of Egypt’s middle class in toppling the Mubarak administration.


  • Nelly Hanna Professor and Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Civilization at the American University in Cairo; author of “In Praise of Books: A Cultural History of Cairo’s Middle Class, Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century” (Syracuse University Press)


  • 13:06:48

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the maestro is in the house, Christoph Eschenbach joins us to talk about his new post as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. But first, for 18 days, the world was riveted to the protest in Egypt's Tahrir Square.

  • 13:07:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThousands of people massed in what Egyptian's call Liberation Square, demanding to be treated as citizens, not as subjects. On February 12th, their central demand was met when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after 30 years of autocratic rule. Among the people in Tahrir Square was a scholar from the American University in Cairo.

  • 13:07:38

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHer work on the history of the middle class in Egypt took on new relevance in last month's popular uprising as young professionals and working class residents came together to demand change. Her first-hand experience of the uprising, combined with her research on the history of Egypt's working class give us new insight into the people who shared frustration topple a government.

  • 13:08:03

    MR. KOJO NNAMDINelly Hanna joins us in studio. She is professor and chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Civilization at the American University in Cairo, and author of the book, "In Praise of Books: A Cultural History of Cairo's Middle Class, Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century." Nelly Hanna, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:20

    MS. NELLY HANNAWell, thank you for inviting me. This is a big pleasure for me.

  • 13:08:24

    NNAMDIWe think often of revolutions as being led by the poorest in society, people with nothing left to lose but their chain, so to speak. But that was not who was in Tahrir Square necessarily. What role did Egypt's middle class play in bringing down the Mubarak administration?

  • 13:08:40

    HANNAWell, you know, you're very right. I mean, we do usually think that revolutions are sort of brought up by people in the streets who are hungry, what we call the proletariat. They have nothing to lose. In Cairo, it was quite different. They were middle class. They were educated. There were people who had jobs. They were young. It was really, in a sense, instigated by the youth, although we don't want to say it's a youth revolution.

  • 13:09:09

    HANNAIt's everybody's revolution. And I think this is one of the unusual features of this revolution. It's young, educated people who are graduated from engineering, doctors, computer experts. So it was very, very strange. That was not what we expected when we thought of the future of Egypt.

  • 13:09:33

    NNAMDIAnd one remembers that the young man who burned himself to death in Tunisia was also a university graduate in computer science. And as you point out, in Tahrir Square, we watched and saw a mass of humanity there from a variety of social strata. What is it that motivated the middle class to participate in this in such large numbers?

  • 13:09:57

    HANNAThere were many reasons. Number one, the middle class in the past decades has been greatly reduced in number. They have been impoverished. People who had normal lives, not very rich, not very poor, somewhat secure, found themselves, cannot make ends meet.

  • 13:10:18

    NNAMDII've read that over the last 15 years the Mubarak government tried to shift from a controlled economy to a private-driven one, but that that increased the financial and educational gap between the rich and the very poor and shrunk the middle class. How so?

  • 13:10:35

    HANNAWell, I think what they have been doing in the past 10 or 15 years was to create a government of businessmen. Businessmen were making the policies. Businessmen were making the laws. And unfortunately, many of them were not really very, very honest. Some of them were and some of them tried to do really honest business. But so many of them enriched themselves unbelievably by creating new laws and by putting their hands on government land, by finding ways of -- I mean they've become not millionaires. I mean, now, we're a country of billionaires and billionaires that were created in 10 years. So it was not really good for Egypt. It was good for very few people.

  • 13:11:31

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, you can call us if you have questions or comments about the revolution in Egypt. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Or you can go to our website, raise a question or make a comment there. That's You can send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to

  • 13:11:51

    NNAMDIYou have studied the development of the working class in Egypt and you have a new book coming out that looks at the role of Egyptian artisans in the 17th century. That book is called, "Artisan Entrepreneurs in Cairo and Early Modern Capitalism 1600 to 1800," published by Syracuse University Press. How does their situation, the situation of the artisan entrepreneurs mirror or in some way reflect that of the protestors in Egypt today?

  • 13:12:22

    HANNAWell, you know, I finished this book a little while ago. It's in the press and it will be out, you know, within a month or so. When I wrote it, the revolution had not yet started. We didn't know that a revolution was going to come that soon. We hoped it would come in our lifetime, but it was a vague hope. And when the revolution started, I thought to myself, well, what I said in that book may be even more true what I thought it was when I wrote it.

  • 13:12:49

    HANNAUsually when we think of artisans in 1600 or 1700, we think of a traditional artisan who has a little shop, who does not have much initiative, who's not very innovative, who does things the way his ancestors are doing. And so, we think of him as somebody who's never going to go very far. Well, in that book, I tried to prove the contrary.

  • 13:13:16

    HANNAI tried to prove that conditions were such -- world trade conditions were such at that period that they opened the way for some artisans to be extremely innovative, to move from this traditional economy to a much more market-oriented, capitalist-oriented economy. And they did wonders for a while. And so, you know, in a sense, when we was standing in Tahrir, I once told to myself, my goodness, what I see in front of me is a reflection in a different way of what I've just written. But at the time, I didn't know it would ring so true.

  • 13:13:55

    NNAMDIBecause like Egypt's middle class today, those artisans in that era were apparently supposed to be passive and stationary in their role in the economy and in society.

  • 13:14:07

    HANNARight. They were supposed to be. But as -- my material, my sources in the 17th century showed me that they were not. That they could cope with new conditions, that they found ways to stay traditional artisans, but find -- to develop their working relations in such a way that they could expand output, they could answer increased demand. These were traditional artisans who could answer new world global conditions, some of them anyway.

  • 13:14:39

    NNAMDIAnd like the middle class in Egypt today, as I pointed out earlier, you said they were supposed to be passive, stationary in their role in the economy. So beyond the departure of Hosni Mubarak, what do the Egyptian people today, in your view, want their government to look like?

  • 13:14:57

    HANNAThis is a big and difficult question. I think the revolution has done a very great job in the first stage. We are now moving into a second stage. In the first stage, everything was very clear, you wanted the government to go, you wanted the police force to, if not go, to at least change radically. You wanted the party to disappear because the party had played a very bad role, National Democratic Party. So when that was sort of taken care of, to an extent, the next question was, what do we want now?

  • 13:15:31

    HANNAAnd that's much more difficult to answer. In a general way, you can say, yes, we want democracy. We want absence of corruption and fraud, which has been extreme these past years. But what shape the government will take is very difficult. I think we are in a period in which there are a lot of conflicts, that is, fairly large number of people who really want all these change, there is a small number of people still powerful who will try to restrain these changes. So how far will they get, we have yet to see. We have to continue to fight.

  • 13:16:12

    NNAMDIHere is, on the phone, Toni in Kensington, Md. Toni, you're on the air. Go ahead please.

  • 13:16:17

    TONIThank you. It was blood curdling to hear your guest give that profile prior to a revolution, talk about privatization, strengthening of the middle class, businesses in charge in making decisions, the things that he mentioned sounds eerily like a profile of what's happening in this country, especially the strengthening of the middle class.

  • 13:16:43

    NNAMDICare to comment on that, Nelly Hanna?

  • 13:16:47

    HANNAYeah, maybe. But I think it must have been worst in Egypt, because nevertheless you have a long tradition of democracy. You know how to ask for your rights. We do not have this tradition. And, you know, asking for your rights has to develop. We want to develop that a little bit more than what it has been. I think they have done a wonderful job so far. But we still have a long way to go.

  • 13:17:14

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Toni. We're going to take a short break. We're talking with Nelly Hanna. She's a professor and chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Civilization at the American University in Cairo. She's also the author of the book, "In Praise of Books: A Cultural History of Cairo's Middle Class." You can still call us, 800-433-8850. If you have already called, stay on the line. We'll get to your call. If you'd like to go to our website and ask a question there, it's I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:19:39

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Nelly Hanna, professor and chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Civilization at the American University in Cairo and author of the book, "In Praise of Books: A Cultural History of Cairo's Middle Class." Her forthcoming book is called, "Artisan Entrepreneurs in Cairo and Early Modern Capitalism." Can you take us back in time? How did both the French and British presence in Egypt during the 19th and early 20th centuries affect Egyptian culture and affect the economic divide that remains in Egypt today?

  • 13:20:14

    HANNAThis is really difficult question. How did it affect culture? Well, it affected culture at various levels. I mean, you can see that I'm English speaking. I've learned English since my youth. There are many, many people in Egypt who, like myself, have taken the English language as a first or a second language in the same way as in Algeria and in Morocco and in Tunis. People speak French, which is a -- so at the level of language, yes, that has affected our culture.

  • 13:20:48

    HANNAAt the level of systems of education, our country has been effected by the -- by the British and by the system of colonialism. I'm not saying it's good and I'm not saying it's bad. There have been good things and there have been bad things. But perhaps the bad thing is that the European culture came with attempt at the subordination of our cultures. So, yeah.

  • 13:21:17

    NNAMDIBoth -- that's the cultural aspect of it. How about the economic aspect of it? How did that create, in a way, the economic divide that we see being perpetuated and maybe expanded under the Mubarak regime?

  • 13:21:30

    HANNAWell, you know, there -- this, sort of, concept that colonialist came with the attempt to subordinate the economies of the colonized and to reshape these colonies in such a way so that they fit the needs of the colonizer, to fit the needs of Europe. Therefore in Egypt one very dramatic change was to -- I mean, there was a very diverse agriculture. Can you imagine, today, with the problems we face, can you imagine -- you know, we depend on American wheats.

  • 13:22:11

    HANNAWe depend on wheat imported. Did you know that in the beginning of the 19th century, we exported wheat all over the Mediterranean? So to go back to colonization, what it did in the course of 1800 to 1900 was to transform the agriculture in such a way that we plant cotton, which is what is needed for the machines in Manchester. So from a diverse agriculture to a mono agriculture. That's really good for industry, but the industry doesn't belong to us. It's not very good for diversity and for your own needs. And I think that has happened in many other countries.

  • 13:22:54

    NNAMDIIn the country in which I was born, which used to be British Guiana, which is now Guyana.

  • 13:22:59


  • 13:22:59

    NNAMDIThe economy was shaped by the colonizer to meet the interests of the colonial territory...

  • 13:23:03


  • 13:23:04

    NNAMDI...rather than...

  • 13:23:04


  • 13:23:05

    NNAMDI...interests of that population. Back to the present, we'll go to Isar (sp?) in Baltimore, Md. Isar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:23:13

    ISARYes, my question is more for the psychological effect of the Mubarak regime and his predecessors before him that preached an Arabism and Nationalism when this conflicted with Islam. And I love our University, which one of my Uncles graduated from, before Abdel Nasser closed it down was preaching that no -- all seven billion or whatever on -- all humans on earth are brothers and sisters, sons of Adam and Eve. We are not supposed to have loyalty to this economic province called Egypt.

  • 13:23:48

    ISAROur loyalty is to God and to justice. And Abdel Nasser didn't like that and closed down this University. Ever since, we've had this nationalism shove down all the Arabians throats, God, Country and State or something in Jordan. So basically this nationalism that was imported into the Arabian world and the Muslim world, how long will it take to be extinguished? How long is the effect of it going to last and when we can go back to the true teachings of Islam which says, no known to loyalty to nationalism?

  • 13:24:21

    NNAMDII don't know if there's going to be any going back, but just so that our audience will know who you're talking about, Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat preceded Hosni Mubarak as Presidents of Egypt. Here now is Nelly Hanna.

  • 13:24:33

    HANNAI have to just add one little thing. The Azhar is not closed. The Azhar is still the most important religious institution in Egypt and certainly it has its effects many neighboring countries. You know, it still receives students from all over the Islamic world. So the Azhar is still there and going strong. In fact, it was expanded in the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser in order to include other than religious signs.

  • 13:25:03

    HANNASo it does teach engineering and medicine and so on. Pan-Arabism is not really invented in -- by these rulers. It came as part of a historical process. You know, at the fold of the Ottoman Empire, the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire had been there for a very long time but, you know, by the beginning of the 20th century, it was clear it was not going to last.

  • 13:25:34

    HANNAAnd that's the first time people started asking themselves, I mean, in the Arab world, so where do we go on from now? What's going to happen to us? You know, we were part of the Empire and the Empire is on its way out, what do we do? So this was a general questioning. Many answers were found. Some people said we need to go back to a Pan-Islamic state. Some others said, we need to go to a nation state system. And others said, we need to go to an Pan-Arab -- something closer to Pan-Arab system.

  • 13:26:10

    HANNASo there were many answers and in the course of the 19th century, there has been a kind of vacillation between these. At the time of Gamal Abdel Nassar, yes, it was pretty convenient to talk about Pan-Arabism because many Arab countries were in the course of resisting or in the final stages of being colonized.

  • 13:26:32

    NNAMDIBut in the time we are in now, when the...

  • 13:26:34


  • 13:26:35

    NNAMDI...nation state as a phenomenon is the predominant phenomenon in the world, what is the likelihood that Egypt or any other Arab country is likely to deviate from the nation state as a form of political, economic and social organization?

  • 13:26:54

    HANNAI don't know what the alternatives would be. We are not really close to a caliphate right now. Nor do I envisage as a big corporation is ruling us as being much better. So, I think, for the time being, the nation state go -- you know, with its problems, does not leave us with many other alternatives. I cannot...

  • 13:27:16

    NNAMDIThank you Isar for your call. We move onto Ebol (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Ebol, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:27:23

    EBOLThank you for taking my call. I have more, like, a comment than a question. I would like to find out that the events going on in the Middle East was treated by (unintelligible) Cairo. When Obama was speaking to Egyptian in Cairo, it was not only Egyptians who were listening, it was the whole world listening and they were inspired. And the American Foreign Policy was wrong in some point and Obama wanted to correct it and say, I'm going to reach out to people.

  • 13:27:52

    EBOLAnd people answer in the Middle East. But it seems like that the Libya and all those countries, the neighboring countries, are left out. For those people also, bringing them here and back and saying that we trying to reach out. That's the only way that American...

  • 13:28:10

    NNAMDINelly Hanna, to what extent do you think President Obama speech in Egypt had an influence on events we see unfolding in Cairo and in other parts of the Arab world?

  • 13:28:22

    HANNAI think what happened on the 25th of January had really deep roots or in the dissatisfaction and you can see almost the despair amongst certain classes in Egypt. As a matter of fact, when I think back of 25th of January, I was there. I was attending. And it was -- you know, I have been attending different protests and demonstrations for many years once in a while. These things have been building up. I don't think Obama -- it was really Obama's speech that these things have been building up.

  • 13:28:59

    HANNAThe technique of protests was building up. When we had protests in Tahrir Square for other occasions, the police would come in and be extremely brutal and they try to undress people in the middle of the square to humiliate them and have, you know, women run away because they didn't want that to happen to them. And over the years, over time, the protesters started to find other techniques. In other words, don't stand there, disperse.

  • 13:29:33

    HANNASo when you want to protest, you protest in different quarters of the city. And do you know what, it worked because on the 25th of January, the protests were dispersed in about five or six parts of Cairo. And the big difference on the 25th of January was that they were able to break through the police lines and meet in Tahrir.

  • 13:29:57

    NNAMDIEbol, thank you very much for your call. The book is called, "In Praise of Books: A Cultural History of Cairo's Middle Class." And since you have written about the history of the middle class and since the middle class, along with other Egyptians, found their voices as a part of this revolution, what do you see as the role of the middle class going forward in Egypt as it develops in a way in which we are not exactly sure how?

  • 13:30:23

    HANNAWell, I think, now they have to try putting pressures on the administration. For example, tomorrow there is a referendum on the constitution. A lot of people are against this referendum, are so against the minor changes brought to the constitution. They're so minor, they're like a little whitewash. So I think this is what they have to do, I think, they have to keep on putting pressure. There's a big question as to how many more protests should they do because problems with, you know, the consequences on the economy.

  • 13:31:00

    NNAMDIOf course.

  • 13:31:01

    HANNABut, you know, we've had demonstrations on Friday, which is a holiday. So we can continue to settle on Tahrir Square every Friday. The government doesn't like it so maybe that's what you should do because it puts pressure. This is what the middle class should be doing.

  • 13:31:26

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Nelly Hanna is a professor and chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Civilization at the American University in Cairo. Author of the book, "In Praise of Books: A Cultural History of Cairo's Middle Class." Her next book, which will be published shortly -- when is it coming out, your next book?

  • 13:31:44

    HANNAEnd of April.

  • 13:31:46

    NNAMDIIt's called, "Artisan Entrepreneurs in Cairo and Early Modern Capitalism." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will be talking with a new music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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