New books on Egypt: Alaa Al Aswany and David Sims

Imbaba, an informal neighborhood of Cairo that was agricultural land a few decades ago, seen from the skies.

The National has just run my joint review of two interesting new Egypt books. One is Alaa Al Aswany's On the State of Egypt -- a collection of his newspaper columns from the year and a half or so preceding the revolution, which is a good introduction to both the tenor and substance of many of the big cultural/political debates preceding (and in some cases laying the groundwork for) the uprising.

One of the things about the Egyptian revolution is the way it gave so many -- famous and unknown -- their chance to shine. I open the piece with what I believe was Al Aswany's moment: a now-historic TV debate in March, in which the novelist wiped the floor with then prime minister Ahmad Shafiq (Shafiq resigned the next day). 

The other book I discuss is David Sims' original, measured and hugely informative reference on Cairo, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control. The book delves into how and why the capital's staggering informal neighborhoods have come into being; into the patronage and speculative networks that explain the city's heedless expansion into the desert; and into the way governance (of traffic systems, municipal authorities) just barely functions in a "minimalist" city in which officials have little independence, authority or accountability. 

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