Books: Tale of the revolution

In a searing account of Egypt’s last half-decade of turmoil, journalist Jack Shenker brings the voice of modern Egyptians to the reader’s ears.

Protesters run away from tear gas in Tahrir Square in Cairo in June 2011 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protesters run away from tear gas in Tahrir Square in Cairo in June 2011
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 2003 a street vendor named Zeinab was taken to a local police station in Helwan not far from Cairo. There she recalled: “They stripped me naked... [the policeman] threatened he would send me down to the prisoners to rape me.”
The ordeal lasted days. Her brother was beaten and her sister sexually assaulted.
The crime? She didn’t want to stop selling vegetables outside a railway station. That was one slice of life in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Eight years later it boiled over.
In The Egyptians, Jack Shenker, formerly the Egypt correspondent for The Guardian, brings us many Zeinabs, stories of people harassed, beaten, jailed and crushed by the Egyptian government prior to the revolution and the Arab Spring. He wants us to see the “eyes of the people who are fighting to dismantle the constellation of power which enables such supremacy [in the hands of the government] in the first place.”
This is not an unbiased, clinical account.
Shenker’s text is peppered with his condemnation of the “neocolonial expropriation,” “class oppression” and the evils of neoliberalism.
The main message throughout the book is that ordinary Egyptians have suffered exclusion from any role in political life. This existed during the period of colonial rule, and the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s land reforms were only a momentary respite. Nasser traded revolutionary concepts of land reform for people accepting the paternalist nature of the state. Be quiet, and you’ll get a bit more of the pie.
In this tale, the feudal landowners of Egypt were only momentarily weakened in the 1960s, before returning 30 years later under Anwar Sadat and Mubarak to control villages and peasants again.
The author also blames Western governments and large organizations such as the IMF for giving glowing praise of the Egyptian regime before 2011. In 2009, while poor women like Zeinab were being stripped naked and police were using sexual threats as a weapon, US ambassador Margaret Scobey claimed Egyptian democracy was “going well.”
The real strength of Shenker’s account, whether or not you agree with the “neoliberalism is evil” narrative, is how he weaves Egyptian history into the account. He has a deep familiarity with Egyptian localities and an ability to walk the reader through the geography, from the Nile Delta, where most Egyptians live, to the deserts. He gives a picture of how the cities fade into the rural countryside, how Soviet-style apartment blocks predominate in places. He’s as competent discussing a poor worker as he is a dashing 1950s revolutionary and an $87 billion public project.
As the narrative weaves from the Mubarak era into the revolution that toppled him, it is sometimes unclear, when the author writes “state authority has waned,” if he means back in 2012 or today. Has the “communal agency of Egyptian citizens expanded” since 2012, or does he mean it expanded between 2011 and 2012? The author is not sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, who he claims was seen as betraying the revolution.
One of the main problems with this book is that its jumping from vignette to vignette means you have to wait until the end to get to the beginning. Only on page 392 does the text deal with the Salafist Al-Nour party, and right after, a discussion of internal developments in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Yet the Islamists and the Copts are important players in Egypt. The author is more interested in popular anger against Mubarak’s corruption or the trade union movement. Chronological narratives may be boring and tedious, but there is something to be said for not providing all the background information in the last third of the book.
The internal workings of the Brotherhood, the role of Islam and Islamism in daily life, and the nature of the military as an institution in Egypt should have been unraveled more. The army in Egypt, like in neighboring Israel, is not just an army. It is a state institution with conscripts, with power and influence.
What about issues such as sexual harassment and women’s rights? Is Egypt more socially conservative today toward women or less? What about the rise of Islamic State affiliates in Sinai? With all its minor shortcomings, this is an excellent, searing account of Egypt in the last decade and fills a gap in the history of this essential period. For anyone interested in where Egypt may be going, it is worth a read.