Expressing dissatisfaction with the way Egypt is studied—and pointing specifically to P.J. Vatikiotis' notion of a country united in its conservative, rural, suffering ways——Sonbol attempts a new synthesis of the country over the past 250 or so years. She keys her effort to certain constant concepts and tensions. The mamluks of her title were the descendants of military slaves who ruled in the country in the eighteenth century; by new mamluks, she refers to their latter-day imitators, who run the country for their own benefit. The author sees a dichotomy between the khassa (establishment) and the ‘amma (masses) running through the centuries, widening at times and narrowing at others. The former strives to impose its culture on the society as a way of promoting its economic interests; the latter holds on to its heritage and tries to get a piece of the pie.
Sonbol drives home her ideas with an abundance of specifics that will probably convince even skeptics. The twin highlights of the book are the imbuing of life into the usually supine eighteenth-century and the skewering of the Egyptian establishment during the British period. Turning to the present, Sonbol makes a convincing case for an "end to duality" between the establishment and the masses. Taking theater as a symbol, she contrasts the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, when the government subsidized the translation and production of highbrow works for the elite while the masses flocked to light comedies; today, the latter has vanquished the former and everyone enjoys the light and easily accessible stuff. The same applies to economics (Sonbol correctly sees socialism as a form of keeping the masses down) and the spread of Islamism to women (which she presents as a means for women to gain sexual equality). As the economic role of culture is reduced, money on its own is emerging as the defining characteristic for social standing. As usual, this makes for a cruder but more open society.