A review of The Road to Tahrir Square: Egypt and the United States from the Rise of Nasser to the Fall of Mubarak
The Road to Tahrir Square: Egypt and the United States from the Rise of Nasser to the Fall of Mubarak
Lloyd C. Gardner
The New Press 2011
The Road to Tahrir Square offers a condensed account of the relations between the United States and Egypt, but little commentary on any connection such diplomacy might have to the rapid social and political changes that followed from the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The chapter on the Arab Spring is less than fifteen pages long, giving the author little opportunity to comment on it beyond what is already widely known.
That is not to condemn the utility and value of the book overall, however lacking it may be in new research and analysis on the topic of the Arab Spring. Lloyd Gardner’s writing on Egyptian-American politics and diplomacy is thoughtful, analytical, balanced and erudite. He clearly has command of the nuances of the topic and conveys them in a fluent manner that makes for easy reading even if his analysis is not necessarily groundbreaking.
The first five chapters of the book depict American and Egyptian relations from the mid nineteen-forties up until the twenty-first century in a way that is accessible to the academic and layperson alike. Gardner has a flair for telling what could be a dry political history as a narrative of unfolding egos, statements, historical moments and opportunities.
This is a useful introductory text that provides a basic impression of Egyptian-American relations and contextualizes them thoughtfully and fairly in relation to other Middle Eastern countries. The first two chapters address the changing dynamics of global power, with British and French spheres of influence shrinking and their military and economic power declining post World War II. At the time America sought to fill in this vacuum, to contain the Soviet Union and exert maximal power and influence on the global political stage.
With so much of writing on the Middle East subject to excessive displays of bias and an unwillingness to engage with and depict nuance, Gardner’s account stands out as a book of intellectual integrity. It synthesizes diverse perspectives, carefully anchoring them in fact and supporting and challenging them in ways that add to the reader’s ability to appreciate a deeper understanding of the complexity of the subject matter.
The bulk of the work’s sources are American, and so inevitably it tells this story from an American perspective. It is presumably unlikely that Egypt would provide access to internal government documents, upon which Gardner relies for much of his commentary on American foreign policy.
Gardner does try to present the Egyptian and Arab view generally as much as possible—and to his credit he shows no particular sympathy to one side or the other, maintaining an academic rigor in depicting power struggles and differences of opinions between the US and Egypt and their political and diplomatic leaders.
Chapter Five, “The $50 Billion Gamble: Thirty Years of Egyptian-American Co-Dependence” is particularly engaging and insightful, although it would have been instructive to learn whether the gamble really paid off. Was 50 billion dollars of American aid a reasonable sum to pay for a problematic and often unreliable relationship which pursued a false stability under the Mubarak regime, which finally imploded in the Arab Spring but left no positive legacy for the average Egyptian in the form of development and improvement in quality of life? How does this massive expenditure and utility of this relationship compare to other such costly decades- long American aid commitments?
Ultimately The Road to Tahrir Square serves as a good initial text for students seeking to explore this subject matter in greater depth and for the layperson interested in understanding Egyptian-American relations and contemporary Egyptian political history and foreign relations.