Book review: analysing the roots of Egypt’s uprising and what it means for the future
Jack Shenker, who was on the ground during the momentous events in Tahrir Square, looks back to earlier nationalist movements to explain the end of the Mubarak era and the prospects for the country
The Egyptians: A Radical Story
by Jack Shenker
Egypt used to be seen as a dull newspaper posting, with journalists complaining, over the empties at the Greek Club in Alexandria or a coffee at Simonds in Cairo, that nothing ever happened. Then, five years ago, crowds began to appear in the street, demanding some of the things taken for granted elsewhere: an opportunity to change the government, a right to representation, the accountability of the police, an impartial judiciary.
January 25, 2011, is usually held to be the start of the public protests that climaxed, on February 11, with the departure of Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak and their sons from the presidential palace.
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The limitations of much of the press coverage led, inevitably, to a dangerous oversimplification in which Mubarak was bad and the Tahrir Square crowds were good (except for those men raping women in the square), with Barack Obama speaking for many when he said: “Egyptians have inspired us … they have changed the world.”
But Egypt itself went from inspiring to horrifying, as the revolution was overcome by a counter-revolution, while the perception of the struggle morphed from people versus tyrant to violent Islamist martyrs versus the forces of order. The real story is more confused and more complicated, and, as Shenker presents it in this detailed, meticulous and fascinating book, more hopeful.
Shenker has traced the fault lines much farther back in history, to the uprising of Colonel Ahmed Urabi in 1881, when the British invaded to keep the Egyptian viceroy in place, and to the fiasco of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, after which Nasser insisted that citizens should allow the state to know best.
A historical long view is just one of the things that makes this book stand out. Shenker mixes details of the events that landed presidents Mubarak and his Islamist successor Morsi in prison with a first-hand view of the country since the return of the strongman era – with Abdel Fatah al-Sisi , Morsi’s defence minister, now president. Sisi has stated that if the sort of crowds that gathered to demand Morsi’s departure came out against him, he would step down. But, as Shenker shows, Sisi has since done much to ensure those crowds will not gather by changing laws, stifling dissent and even planning a new, easier-to-police capital city.
This, along with the continuing violence, lies behind the media simplification that “poor Egypt” is doomed. While Shenker accepts that Sisi’s regime is more repressive “than almost anything that has passed before”, he also shows that one of the great achievements of the struggle that led to the 25 January revolution is the insistence of many Egyptians that they have rights. So while there will be many dark days ahead, this detailed, passionate book shows that “to the frustration of those who seek to neutralise it, that struggle cannot be contained”.