In the field of Middle East studies, Eiji Nagasawa’s book “Modern Egypt through Japanese Eyes: A Study on Intellectual and Socio-economic Aspects of Egyptian Nationalism,” stands as an important document that analyses several aspects of the contemporary intellectual elements of Egyptian modern thought.
Nagasawa has been a professor at the Department of West Asian Studies at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Asia since 1998. His research topics vary from labour rights and movements, to nationalism and history, to family relations and power structures, to modern thought and Arab-Japanese relations.
He worked at the Institute of Developing Economies (IDE) for 19 years following his graduation from the Faculty of Economics at the University of Tokyo in 1976. He has done fieldwork in Cairo from 1981 to 1983, and became the director of the Japan Society for Promotion of Science (JSPS) Research Center in Cairo from April 1998 to March 1999.
His book is a combination of essays and articles which were translated from Japanese, carrying different topics and scopes. For example, the book starts with an article on the status of migrant workers, while another focuses on internal debates and disputes in the intellectual thought of communists in Egypt. Meanwhile the latest chapters tackled a study on irrigation systems in the early 1990s, an examination of the intellectual history of modern Egypt, as well as an overview of the works of Japanese researchers.
In his interview with Daily News Egypt, Nagasawa, an Arabist, stated that Japanese Arabism and its academic fields have worked to distinct itself from Western Orientalism. However, he said that some of the earlier Japanese scholarship might have relied on Western methods of doing research.
Nagasawa, who has been involved with the academic scene in Cairo since the 1980s, discussed the current status of academics that come to the Arab world to conduct research. He said that the freedom of academic research and access has been worse after 2013, compared to the years before the Arab Spring. He cited the case of the Italian student Guilio Regeni, who was found dead on 3 February 2016.
Nagasawa also commented on the economic performance of the current Egyptian government, which is mixing between state socialism when it comes to subsidies and the intervention of the army to solve welfare problems, and neoliberal tendencies which include foreign loans.
He told Daily News Egypt that the character of the Egyptian economy is very complicated, as after the Infitah policy in the 1970s a large portion of the public sector came under the supervision of the army, which played an important role in the economic public sector. On the other hand, he added, the government is following some instructions of international institutions and the World Bank.
It is interesting to see the government’s performance in balancing these two characters, Nagasawa added, pointing at the need to reform the public sector, which includes millions of bureaucrats. He added that the regime should focus its attention on balancing the triangular relation that includes labour, management, and the government. He pointed out this triangle is very important for the development of national economy.
Moving to his interest in the history of the Egyptian leftist movement, professor Nagasawa mentioned that with the exceptions of a few examples, Marxists in the Arab world failed to capture the minds of the common people. He added that they lost to the Islamists; however, leftists in different countries, including Egypt, are able to offer intellectual alternatives. They might not be able to take over the government, but they have an influence in the political arena, the professor said.
Nagasawa’s book focused on analysing the intellectual product of several Egyptian contemporary thinkers, such as Ahmad Sadiq Sa‘d and Gamal Hamdan. Nagasawa is currently translating the autobiography of sociologist and thinker Sayyid ‘Uways.
He expects the relationship between intellectuals and the masses to change, and that the gap can be shortened, resulting in some sort of new political culture after the revolutions of the Arab spring. According to Nagasawa, understanding the political and social thought of ‘Uways should give contemporary scholars new ideas in different fields, such as the fight against fundamentalism.
‘Uways, Nagasawa explained, is a typical Egyptian intellectual who is moderate and open-minded to different elements in society.
Moving to the topic of political Islam, Nagasawa said that the current Islamist movement should reconsider its methods of attaining power, while criticising their former strategies of trying to take over power from above. They still have the possibility only if they reconsider their movement as a social movement, Nagasawa explained.
He said that they can achieve social change from below through charity and education, nevertheless their action to take over power was a mistake. He explained that Islamists after the Arab Spring were captured by the utopian structure of an Islamic state.
During his latest visit to Cairo, professor Nagasawa gave on Wednesday 22 March a lecture at the American University in Cairo, which discussed different approaches and aspects of the concept of pacifism in the both the Japanese and Middle Eastern contexts. The lecture was attended by the Japanese ambassador to Egypt, Takehiro Kagawa, as well as the former minister of foreign affairs and dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (GAPP) at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Nabil Fahmy.
Nagasawa’s lecture was an attempt to investigate the origins of pacifism in the Arab discourse while focusing on the post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks in 1945. He also touched upon the debate of whether in areas of deadly conflicts such as Iraq and Syria the idea and practice of pacifism can emerge and develop, especially after most of the uprisings started as peaceful protests. The lecture also discussed contemporary reactions and criticism of Mahatma Gandhi.