Egypt: An Economic Geography

Fouad N. Ibrahim + Barbara Ibrahim

I.B. Tauris 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
A geographical perspective is key to understanding the economy of Egypt, which is starkly divided between the Nile and the desert and dependent on a few vulnerable resources.

A broad-ranging overview, Egypt: An Economic Geography opens with an overview of Egypt as a "transition economy", combining advanced technologies, well-educated workers, and energy resources with underdeveloped sectors, unemployment, inequality and corruption, and resource constraints. As background there's a brief account of the varied strands of Egyptian identity and the status of women and Coptic, Nubian and Bedouin minorities, and a potted history of modern Egypt.

A survey of Egypt's geology and mineral resources, and its climate, soils, and the threat of desertification, is followed by a closer look at different regions: the Western and Eastern Deserts, the Sinai and Suez, and the Nile Valley and Delta. The deserts are far from featureless, with oases and groundwater resources which have inspired large-scale but largely unsuccessful artesian irrigation projects.

The Nile remains central to Egyptian water resources. Here the Sadd el-Ali, the Aswan High Dam, has limited the effects of droughts and floods, but has also created or exacerbated many problems: loss of old agricultural land to salinization, erosion, or reduced silt deposition; increased evaporative water losses; and security (a collapse of the dam in an earthquake could kill tens of millions of people).

Governance of the Egyptian economy has shifted several times, from state-control under Nasser, through Sadat's Open Door policy, to increasing liberalisation under Mubarak. Egypt still has serious over-employment in the state sector, however, and has problems in education and migration and as a "rentier" state, dependent on the Suez canal, remittances from overseas workers, and oil revenues.

Agricultural labourers or fellaheen still account for around a quarter of the Egyptian workforce. Inequality in land tenure decreased with the socialist reforms of Nasser, but has since returned almost to historical levels. And crops and crop distributions have changed: rice, fruit and vegetables have increased in importance as bersim, maize, and especially cotton have declined. Much work has been put into land reclamation projects, with limited success.

Egyptian industry ranges from small scale agrarian and craft production, using local raw materials, to newer capital- and technology-intensive operations. Problems come from haphazard investment, often poor state guidance, and resource constraints.

Tourism is a major part of Egypt's economy, and is increasingly diverse: the old cultural tourism centred on Luxor is now less significant than "sport tourism" centred on the Red Sea, while tourists from other Arab countries and domestic tourism are also important. Terrorist attacks and regional political instability can drastically curtail tourism.

Finally, turning to urban centres, the Ibrahims survey the growth and sprawl of Cairo and Alexandria, and cover Beni Suef as an example of one of the much smaller regional capitals.

Topics without a strong geographical element — notably macroeconomics and political economy — are omitted, while transport is dealt with only in passing. Otherwise the reach is broad and inclusive. The Ibrahims take some policy stances: they are critical of much government planning, though they give praise where they feel it is merited, for example with Cairo's transport system.

The presentation of Egypt: An Economic Geography is lively, belying the potentially dry material. Maps are used to good effect, while thirty small halftones are not directly tied to the text but illustrate aspects of Egyptian life and landscape. The result should be appealing for anyone involved with modern Egypt, from students of development economics to tourists, who is looking for a perspective that emphasizes spatial structure as well as history.

December 2007

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%T Egypt: An Economic Geography
%A Ibrahim, Fouad N.
%A Ibrahim, Barbara
%I I.B. Tauris
%D 2003
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 1860645488
%P 285pp