[28 September 2020 marks fifty years since the death of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. His “July Revolution” of 1952 reshaped the politics, economy, and cultural life of modern Egypt and profoundly influenced those of the Arab world, as well as the fortunes of European empire and the course of the Afro-Asian and nonaligned movements of the twentieth century. Abdel Nasser' slegacies continue to be invoked and contested in contemporary Arab politics, while several Nasserist parties have endeavored to repurpose his political tradition. On this significant anniversary, Jadaliyya's Egypt page publishes three articles in succession to critically engage with these legacies. Its editors invite fellow scholars and students of the Nasser era to send in further contributions that do the same.]
Just off Tahrir Square, Muhammad Mahmoud street became famous after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, for, among other things, its vibrant political murals and graffiti which depicted the events of the revolution and its aftermath. My favorite of these, entitled “Pyramids of Crisis,” was painted in February of 2012 and depicts men and women carrying tanks of cooking gas. Off to the left side of the mural, is a woman in a black niqab carrying a gas canister with the word "change" in red letters. Shortages of butagaz, along with repeated shortages in other staple goods, were (and continue to be) one of the many contributing factors to the political and social unrest in the country.
[Graffiti Art by Hana El-Degham.]
The muralist, Egyptian artist Hana al-Degham, said she was inspired to create the painting after reading a newspaper article about how, on the day of the November parliamentary elections following the revolution, women lined up around the block to fill empty cooking gas cannisters while nearby no one stood in line to vote. In the mural, a lack of consumer goods (shortages) translates into a deficit in citizenship (voting). The mural is both a product of the twenty-first-century struggles faced by everyday Egyptians and the persistence of the “social contract” between Egyptian citizens and the state forged half a century earlier during the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The nexus between state responsibilities, the rights of citizens, and access to consumer goods is, I would argue, one of the Nasser regime’s most enduring legacies.
In the decade following the July 1952 Revolution, the Nasser regime adopted a unified program of national development and, eventually, state socialist modernization. Its centerpiece was an extensive import substitution program aimed at ramping up Egyptian industrial production and ensuring economic self-sufficiency. The motto of Egyptian economic planning “from the needle to the rocket,” however, represented more than just a comment on the range of goods Egyptian factories hoped to produce. It signaled the regime’s commitment to what scholars of Peronist Argentina have termed “the democratization of well-being”: the state provision of a constellation of services and benefits—from health care, housing and education to access to new forms of consumer culture—which both defined “a better way of life” and promised to make that life accessible to a greater segment of the population. In regime rhetoric as well as its ideology, the democratization of well-being encompassed a complete vision of life under Nasserist rule which united production, consumption, the aspirations, and desires of citizens with the responsibilities of the state.
Much of this vision centered on the home, that overdetermined site of national reproduction which had been, since the end of the nineteenth century, a focus of cultural anxieties, modernist aspirations, and intervention by reformist groups and the state alike. It is not surprising that the domestic sphere would remain a privileged site for the articulation of political and ideological projects during the Nasser period. But the normative discourses, policies, and practices meant to define and enact a specifically Arab Socialist brand of domesticity made the state the ultimate guarantor of prosperity and became a key element of the regime’s legitimacy in a way that was new.
Domestic goods began to take on new political meanings. Egyptian-made Ideal refrigerators were proudly featured at the 1966 Cairo Industrial Exhibition alongside tractors, farming equipment, and plastic dishes as examples of the successes of socialist economic planning and industrial self-sufficiency. Advertisements for the petroleum cooperative pictured canisters of cooking gas next to a young man and woman lying lazily on the beach in sunglasses notifying consumers that they could have propane delivered to their beach house or chalet. [See figure 1.]
Articles in the woman’s magazine Hawwa’ declared that the state’s manufacture of modern household appliances and other domestic goods was a gift to Egypt’s woman and a means by which they could more easily fulfill their domestic duties in order to take up wider duties to the nation and the revolution outside the home.
And yet, there was always underlying anxiety that the consuming desires of Egypt’s citizenry would outpace the ability of the state to provide it. In a speech in March of 1961, Nasser acknowledged that as standards of living increased, consumer demand would also increase: “The man who didn’t wear wool now wears wool….He who didn’t have a refrigerator gets a refrigerator. He who didn’t use an air conditioner, uses an air conditioner. He who lives in a one-room house wants to live in a home with three rooms….” Nor were these concerns idle. The state-run consumer cooperative system, responsible for the dissemination of goods, was regularly plagued with food shortages, state control was challenged by a thriving black market, the country’s urban housing crisis was a consistent topic of discussion in Egypt’s newspapers, and the household appliances which public sector factories began producing in the late 1950s were too costly for most Egyptians to afford. Strikingly, Nasser’s speech did not end with an exhortation for Egyptians to aspire to less, but to work harder so all citizens could afford to have modern consumer goods. Egyptians were urged (explicitly or implicitly)–in speeches, advertisements, films, magazines, and social policy–to desire and consume in particular ways, even when those desires outpaced the ability of the regime to fulfill them. This tension between the creation of desire and its realization lies at the heart of the politics of consumption in Nasser’s Egypt.
Centering consumption within the political, social, and cultural history of Nasserist rule means reassessing the Nasser period as an important one in the creation of mass consumer culture, a largely unexplored link between interwar histories of consumption and the period of infitah in the 1970s. It also means examining the gender politics of Nasserist rule in other registers than the “state feminist” policies which scholars (myself included) have used as the primary framework for understanding how the regime interacted with women. The linkage between socialist domesticity and consumption positioned women at the center of the Nasserist project to democratize well-being—as its symbols, beneficiaries, and agents.
Women—housewives in particular—were responsible, in a multitude of ways, for making Arab socialism comfortable and (when it came to making the most out of the food available in any given week at the gama'iyya) palatable. The production and advertising of household appliances and advice aimed at helping women navigate food purchasing and preparation in the cooperative system provide two examples.
During the first years following the 1952 revolution, most household appliances—refrigerators, propane stoves, and washing machines were imported. In the period following World War Two, such goods became more available and somewhat more affordable, at least for elites and the upper-middle class. By the mid-1950s, however, a few local companies had started producing them. Most prominent of these was Delta Industrial Company which began manufacturing refrigerators and metal kitchen units in 1954. In 1958, Delta Industrial was nationalized and became a public sector company producing refrigerators, metal kitchen sets, gas stoves, and washing machines under the brand name “Ideal” (Pronounced Ideeal in Arabic) as part of the Nasser regime’s import substitution policies. At about the same time, some military factories were turned over to production for the civilian market, focusing on appliances and light domestic manufacturing: hot water heaters, stoves, sewing machines, and metal dishes.
Consistent with state feminism, policy briefs, regime propaganda, and popular culture asserted the linkages between the availability of modern appliances and the mobilization of women into the workforce. However, that’s not how these appliances were advertised. Aimed primarily at women, household appliances and metal kitchens were advertised for the aesthetic and other pleasures they would bring. Ideal kitchens, equipped with refrigerators and butagaz stoves, were not just efficient, they were “streamlined” featuring “rounded corners,” “plastic countertops in coordinating colors” and “beautiful chrome fixtures.” Drawer handles and hinges were specially designed to remain invisible and thus not to interrupt the kitchen’s smooth, harmonious lines. Ads also stressed the tactile and auditory pleasures of using the Ideal kitchen. Drawer runners were made of nylon which would allow them to glide and open and close smoothly without clamor or friction. Rubber cushions also prevented sounds when cabinets and doors were closed. In such ads, Ideal kitchens appeared as a feast for the senses and promised to make preparing food “a true pleasure.” The function of such descriptions was to portray kitchens as spaces of enjoyment, not labor. Consistent with this, the women featured in ads were rarely portrayed interacting with appliances.
The marketing of kitchens and home appliances as “comfort goods” as opposed to working goods both reflected the local political project of democratizing well-being and mirrored trends in the gendering of the 1950s and 1960s consumer culture in places as far afield as Western Europe, South America, and the Soviet Union. It was also consistent with a reconfiguration in the gendered value of domestic labor. As domestic appliances reduced the amount of physical housework, housewives were expected to spend more time on the “caring” aspects of housework—making the home beautiful, spending more time with husbands and children, cooking more varied and complicated meals. Historians of domestic technology have often pointed out that the dissemination of household appliances marked the ascription of new value to such affective components of housework and a subsequent reallocation of women’s domestic work.
It bears mentioning that access to household appliances was necessarily uneven, differing not only between economic classes but also locations: between a divergent array of urban quarters and urban and rural areas and circumscribed by the presence of necessary infrastructure, like sewerage and an electrical grid. Even after the government set up a generous installment plan for public sector employees in 1962, the vast majority of Egyptians were not able to purchase them. And while social science and policy studies of the era indicate that gas stoves and refrigerators were becoming a more common fixture in urban middle-class homes, it is the case the true proliferation of such goods came later in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find an urban household that did not have an electric fridge or butagaz stove. But looking only at numbers conceals the ways in which consumer desires for appliances and the expectation that a proper home would include them were formed, at least in part, during the Nasser period and by the insistence that realizing such desires for Egyptian citizens was at the heart of the state’s legitimacy.
Cooking and Food Shopping
A second example is the advice around food shopping and preparation in Egypt’s largest women’s magazine Hawwa’. In 1964, Amina Sa’id, the editor in chief of the magazine, introduced a new section, entitled “Sitt al-Bayt” (The Housewife) which billed itself as a supplement to help Egyptian housewives gain the knowledge and skills to navigate the demands of consumption—particularly food consumption—necessitated by the establishment of an Arab socialist economy. The state control of food distribution, which reached its most formal expression in the state-run consumer cooperatives, entailed both control over prices and the availability of specific goods and foodstuffs. At the same time, the government’s import substitution program meant that cooperatives were often touted as showcases for Egyptian manufactured goods, including processed foodstuffs.
With sections on weekly menu planning, recipes, reports on what food was available on cooperative shelves and reader “tips,” the articles in Sitt al-Bayt advised Egyptian women on how to cook with leftovers, substitute ingredients based on what was cheap and available, and how to deal with new kinds of prepared and processed foods such as canned beef and frozen fish. Especially interesting given the ubiquitous messages about the superiority of Egyptian products were the articles advising women to buy imported meat as a solution to the high prices and regular shortages of locally sourced fresh meat. Imported meat was often touted as a better, more patriotic, socialist option than local fresh meat which one might buy on the black market for exorbitant prices.
Imported meat, especially if it were frozen, was a hard sell to Egyptian housewives, who naturally preferred the familiar (and superior) taste of local meat, writers admitted, but with proper treatment (including rinsing with vinegar and allowing to sit outside the refrigerator for a short period), imported meat could taste virtually indistinguishable from “balady” meat, a process of “domestication” that every Egyptian housewife should add to her repertoire.
At the same time, the section reported on the complaints of shortages and price gouging that characterized the state cooperative system and the difficulties women faced in provisioning a household and feeding a family in the context of state socialist planning. It frequently published letters from women reporting their experiences in food purchasing through the cooperative system. While the readers of Sitt al-bayt were exhorted to avoid the black market and to find substitutes for goods in short supply, the section also frequently criticized the failings of the cooperative system and called on the Minister of Supply to account for them, calling on Egyptian housewives to mobilize themselves and their expertise in household consumption as active agents of social and political transformation.
[Figure 1. Source: Hawwa’, 18 May 1963, n.p. Dar el Kutub (National Library), Cairo.]
Well-Being and Its Discontents
In 2011, the slogan “bread, freedom and human dignity” united Egyptians in opposition to decades of corruption and authoritarianism, resulting in the ouster of President Husni Mubarak and hope for a better future. Those hopes have been undermined by the reestablishment of military rule in 2013 and an unprecedented stifling of dissent and protest.
It is tempting to view this revolution as either the failure of the Nasserist project, in which promises of well-being and a better life were eroded over the four decades following his rule or the success of its darkest aspects—the entrenchment of the military, authoritarianism, and the persistence of the “deep state.”
The continued demands by Egyptians for a better life over the past half-century, however, suggest a different interpretation. Whether in demonstrations over the price of bread, popular sayings like “mi’aa mi’aa wala farakh al-gama’iyya” [note 1], or calls for the government to provide better quality affordable housing for young Egyptian couples hoping to marry signals, as Eman Morsi has suggested, the persistence, and in many ways, successes, of the ideological framework set by the Nasserist project [Note 2]. What did “well-being” and “dignified” life mean during the Nasser period? In what ways were those definitions dependent on normative assumptions about gender and the behavior of men and women? How have those definitions changed (or not) over the past half a century? How have they become sites of contestation between various political and social groups? These are questions that scholars have begun to answer but deserve continued exploration.
Note 1: The saying from the early 1990s translates as “one hundred percent or a chicken from the consumer cooperative,” referring to the purported lack of quality foodstuffs provided under the cooperative systems.
Note 2: Eman Morsi, “Let Them Eat Meat: The Literary Afterlives of Castro’s and Nasser’s Dietary Utopia,” The Routledge Handbook of the Global Sixties, edited by Chen Jian, (New York: Routledge, 2018), 564–574.