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A tale of two glass houses: On Egypt’s Craftsmen by Omar Taher and Glass House by Brian Alexander

Two books were published early this year: Egyptian journalist Omar Taher’s Sanai’ayat Masr (Egypt’s Craftsmen), and US journalist Brian Alexander’s Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town. I got Taher’s book during a visit to Cairo in January, and then a radio interview with Alexander back in the US reminded me of a particular chapter in it.

I borrowed Alexander’s book from the public library. It tells the story of Lancaster, a town in Ohio once considered a model US town following World War II but now an example of the misery that has gripped many states in the American midwest. Opiate addiction is widespread among the town’s mostly white population, and their economic conditions have deteriorated over the years. They have been left out of the national consciousness, which is mainly centered on bigger cities on the coasts, but during last year’s elections, the majority of the county voted for Donald Trump. Through interviewing a large number of Lancaster’s residents of a wide age range, and tracking the history of its famous glass factory, Alexander recounts the tragic transformation wreaked upon the city over several decades.

Despite Taher’s disclaimer that he is only describing “scenes from the lives of some of those who built modern Egypt,” it is difficult to read his book and escape a sense of general tragedy that has impacted the progress of Egypt as well. The book features several industry men, among them Mohamed Sayed Yaseen, who established the first modern glass factory in 1933 with support from banker Talaat Harb. He was very successful; his glass products competed with foreign imports, replaced them, and were eventually counted among Egypt’s exports.

While Alexander dedicates more than 300 pages to discussing the effect of the glass factory on the living conditions of Lancaster’s residents, the chapter in which Taher discusses Yaseen’s glass does not exceed a few pages, most of them focused on the journey of “the king of unbreakable glass.”

Despite being of different genres, both books single out factories whose trajectories prompt wider questions. The entire community in Lancaster was built around Anchor Hocking’s glassware company, which was the biggest and most popular in the US, employing no fewer than 5,000 workers and employees who lived in a balanced, socially cohesive society, where the company’s vice president and management team frequented the same bars as its manual workers, and they all played pool together. The wives of the executive class immersed themselves in civic work, running health awareness campaigns, improving schools and traffic, repairing pavements, and so on.

Taher concludes his section on Yaseen’s glass factory’s prosperous phase with one sentence, “then the revolution happened” — in reference to 1952 — suggesting that the dramatic end to his success was the nationalization of the factory and turning it into the still extant Al-Nasr Company for Manufacturing Glass and Crystals. Alexander, however, finds that the crack that fractured his hometown first appeared in 1987 with the acquisition of Anchor Hocking by Newell Corp.

The Lancaster factory’s new owners decided to let the entire executive management team go and relocated the headquarters to Columbus, Ohio’s capital. The workers were not directly affected by this decision financially, but they lost the sense of family that characterized both the factory and the city. Because the new managers lived in Columbus, Lancaster lost the civic and tax contributions that had been led by an important segment of its population, and Lancaster never returned to its former situation.

Egypt’s Craftsmen tells us that nationalization was not easy for Mohamed Bey Yaseen: He became ill and died in 1971. While we don’t exactly know how nationalization affected the lives of those who worked in the factory, what we can do, as Taher does, is arrive at our present knowledge as consumers of products from public sector companies. We can notice the absence of Yaseen’s glassware from our households and the deterioration of similar companies due to economic inefficiency or administrative corruption incurring large losses.

But it seems, from the US experience, that economic efficiency and profits did not prevent the city’s degeneration and the declining living standards of its inhabitants. Various private equities took turns owning Anchor Hocking, each concerned with achieving high profits in the short term. Work continued, perhaps more efficiently, and profits peaked, but only investors and managers benefited — not employees, residents or even the product.

Alexander maintains that the “paternal capitalism” his city was built on was replaced by corporate finance, hence the book’s subtitle: “The 1% Economy and the Shattering of an All-American Town.” As capitalism advanced, workers’ wages dropped from US$21 an hour in the 1980s to $12 an hour today, and their numbers sunk from 5,000 to under 1,000. As frustration spread and society fragmented, drug addiction reached a worrying rate and deaths by overdose increased, leaving many kids in the care of grandparents and orphanages.

How can we judge the Egyptian example of Yaseen’s glass factory or similar enterprises from a similar societal perspective, at its effect on its employees and community, rather than as a singular structure or product and the value of its exports or profit rates?

Egypt’s “king of glass” wasn’t only concerned with profits. He had a larger vision and was keen to build an institution. Taher recalls how Yaseen shifted his business from contracting to industry, how he found inspiration in the gas lamp and an interest in transferring European technology to Egypt, bringing in skilled labor from abroad until Egypt’s workers caught up. The book also recounts how he built sports fields and a swimming pool on the factory’s premises in Shubra al-Kheima, and that the space housed a theater where workers formed a theater group and performed. Another source indicated that the factory also housed a crafts school, but I am not sure whether it was built during Yaseen’s tenure or later on. Its doors are shut now, as was the factory itself for several years when it was being prepped for privatization. The state reopened it a year and a half ago after securing LE250 million for its reopening, according to an interview with the company’s general manager.

Thousands of workers, including those who opposed the decision to sell the factory, as part of the privatization policies ushered in during Hosni Mubarak’s rule, were let go. They were replaced with only 400 young workers, who make up the current workforce. The factory is running at a 50 percent loss, which begs a series of questions in relation to the real reasons behind the state’s insistence on owning and managing it, and on supplying it with public funds from Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt) fund.

We don’t need an ideological defense of either the advantages of capitalism or the perks of socialism and state-ownership. Apparently, it has been proven that societies will break under any economic system that serves the interests of one class over the public interest, whether it’s the businessmen or the Army Officers of 1952 or the top public-sector employees. Alexander’s book shows that what we need is an investigation into the history of Yaseen’s factory and Al-Nasr Company for Manufacturing Glass across their different administrations, in order to evaluate the policies that failed and those that succeeded in Egypt. What were the policies that led to the pile up of losses, discontented workers and degraded production quality? What was the vision behind relinquishing the factory to the private sector?

Reports dating back to 2006 claim that the land on which the factory was built was sold for a trifling sum, and that machines were given free of charge to the new owner, without any guarantees that the factory would not be transformed into a hotel, or into Yaseen’s restaurant.

We want to know the stories of the employees of Yaseen’s factory and the subsequent Al-Nasr company, and how the fate of the factory affected their lives and their families. Tell us about today’s craftspeople. Tell us about Yaseen, the young craftsman. As for Yaseen Bey, it suffices that in Egyptians’ minds his name will forever be tied to fine glass, for a simple reason that has nothing to do with what has happened to his factory, but because of a line from Al-Mesaharaty, the poem by Fouad Haddad famously sung by Sayed Mekawy: “I break my fast with you and listen to your prayers, Amen, Amen, I drink only water, and only out of a Yaseen glass.”

Originally published in Arabic, this article was translated by Heba El-Sherif.

Hadil Ghoneim