Casual migrant labour is widespread in much of the third world. Poorly paid and often in the most terrible conditions, this ancient phenomenon is still ill understood. James Toth's work is doubly welcome as an account of the lives of the tarahil (migrant workers) and of modern Egyptian history.
In the 1960s, the tarahil comprised nearly a third of the rural labour force, with either casual employment or agricultural off-season work.
However, Toth's thesis is more than a simple account of migrant workers. He argues that under Nasser's 1960s state-dominated economy, the government undertook major infrastructure projects (most famously, the Aswan High Dam) that stripped rural Egypt of nearly a quarter of its workforce. Land reforms and close public regulation of cultivation all but removed any incentive to the farmers to expand output.
This labour shortage and state control led to a disastrous decline in output, cutting both food supplies and agricultural exports - the precondition for imports that were needed for the public infrastructure projects and for the military preparedness of the armed forces. The government also tried to organise the migrant workers to secure their labour supply and to incorporate them in the political order, with disastrous effects on private brokers and labour costs.
The 1967 defeat of Egyptian arms by Israel brought these matters to a major political and economic crisis. Thus the lowly migrant worker was instrumental in halting both the national economy and Nasser's heroic project of Arab socialism. The failure of Nasser's programme was marked by an end to the military conflict with Israel (after the 1973 war), a shift in external orientation from Moscow to Washington, and macro economic reform and liberalisation.
Implicit in the recruitment of migrant workers for national infrastructure projects was their accelerated movement to the cities. This rapid urbanisation continued in the 1970s and 1980s following the oil price boom as rural migrant workers filled the places vacated by urban workers emigrating to jobs in oil-producing countries.
Simultaneously, a major expansion in higher education while the government's resolve to increase graduate recruitment weakened, affected doctors and engineers in particular.
The failure of Nasser's secular project also opened the way for a return of militant Islamists. A decline in public services was offset by the creation of Islamist welfare services in the spreading slums, using unemployed professionals, which created a political alliance between the former tarahil and the Islamist professionals.
The migrant worker became a political force. State repression drove some of the Islamists into terrorism, resulting in the murder of President Sadat and German and Japanese tourists.
Fascinating and audacious, Toth's account is sensitive and persuasive. The full thesis is not entirely accomplished, but he raises some provocative insights on the role of a neglected group of workers. Another account underlies his argument, concerning the dramatic implications of rapid growth in the urban and student populations during the past four decades.
Nigel Harris is professor emeritus of economics, University College London.
Rural Labor Movements in Egypt and their Impact on the State, 1962-1992
Author - James Toth
ISBN - 0 8130 1650 9
Publisher - University of Florida Press
Price - £45.50
Pages - 265