North Africa, West Asia

Book review: The Egyptians

Jack Shenker's The Egyptians: A Radical Story is a must read for anyone who wants to understand how and why Egypt's revolution happened – and why it continues.

Mariam Ali
27 January 2016

Flickr/Gigi Ibrahim. Some rights reserved.On Monday, if you were in Tahrir Square and didn’t know any better, you might have been forgiven for thinking that 25 January in Egypt marked nothing more than ‘police day’, as it did before 2011. People handed roses to security forces who filled the Square, long scrubbed of graffiti. You might have been forgiven for thinking the revolution had never happened.

Except for Sanaa Seif, recently released from Sisi’s prisons, a lone reminder walking through Tahrir in the rain, "the January revolution continues" written on the back of her jacket. As heart breaking as it was to see that this is all that seems to be left of the millions packed into the Square demanding justice and freedom, it was a small but clear visual reminder that there are cracks in the edifice of counter-revolution.

If you have no other reason than this to read Jack Shenker’s truly astonishing book, The Egyptians: A Radical Story, it would be enough: to be reminded of the myriad ways in which the revolution continues, despite the regime’s increasingly desperate attempts to tell us that it failed, or never happened, or was their idea all along. To be reminded that there is yet hope and that much of the states’ continued repression is a manifestation of “the absurdity of power on the brink of collapse.”

But there are many more reasons to read the book. It is painstakingly researched, moving, engaging and engaged, the most articulate and comprehensive account of the revolution I have read to date. More importantly, as indicated by the title, it is about the Egyptian people, their daily struggles against injustices great and small. This is revolution as the organic culmination of these ongoing struggles, a breakthrough in the Egyptian people’s unfolding attempt to redefine the state, their relationship to it and to each other; “not a time-bound occurrence, nor a shuffle of rules and faces up top, but rather a state of mind.”

Shenker, a journalist and writer based in London and Cairo, weaves together a compelling narrative from the historical and contemporary events, trends, phenomena that went into creating this mind set. He describes the effects on individuals and communities of consecutive top-down economic and social reforms, cosmetically different but predicated on maintaining elite control over resources and patronage networks – and all enforced with state violence.

The Egyptians: A Radical Story

From Mohammed Ali to Mubarak, Sadat to Sisi, those with a monopoly on violence (and those in their favour or whose favour they court) have wielded it brutally to achieve their goals; torture, paid thugs, political prison, and disappearances have pockmarked the political landscape and scarred the bodies and minds of citizens across Egypt. As Shenker shows us, these patterns of repression are not aberrations, as they are often framed when acknowledged, but have been part and parcel of Egypt’s ‘modernising’ projects, closely linked to global dynamics. 

Time and again they are met with resistance and resilience, in Kamshish, Sarandu, Mahalla, Qursaya, and Cairo, in the fields and factories and on fishing boats, on Queen boat and in the Egyptian Museum. In countless mini-Tahrirs against countless mini-Mubaraks, women, workers, farmers, Christians, the Bedouin, teenagers, professionals, artists have worked and fought together to demand and take their rights rather than plead for favours, to wrest back control over their bodies, resources, beliefs and ways of life from a paternalistic state, to keep taking one step forward for every two steps back.

Shenker reminds us ­– repeatedly and patiently because he knows he is up against a barrage of ‘expert’ mainstream media analysis – that the real fault lines in Egypt are not religious. Instead, they cut across religion, age, sex, and background, “horizontal rather than vertical lines” between the power network and the people, between those who would maintain the old ways and those fighting for the new. 

His excavation of the shared experience and memory of modern Egypt is broad and deep. As I read I found myself not only reliving but also learning in great detail about things I had experienced, or read about, or protested about, or heard about from my parents, that had filtered into my own political awakening in Egypt, led to my own reasons for being in Tahrir. As well as being moved to tears several times, I had several “a-ha!” moments where events that had resonated with me at the time but left no conscious impression of fitting into a bigger picture became a coherent account of how and why the tipping point was reached. 

There is no pretence at being ‘objective’ here, though the research is thorough, and the facts facts. There is an honest and refreshing romanticism, a genuine caring for how it turns out, a hoping for something better that anyone who was in Tahrir over the course of those 18 days (and later) will recognise, and which made it that much more enjoyable to read.

More than anything else I’ve read on Egypt’s revolution (I will recommend it to all who have asked me since moving to London to ‘explain’ the revolution and why it has ‘failed’), it tells the story right. It makes it clear why, even if it had not been for Khaled Said’s brutal murder, there would have been another breaking point, another immediate ‘lead up’ to Tahrir.

Many media outlets, in their coverage of the anniversary of the revolution, have framed their pieces by asking, “was it worth it?” This book doesn’t just answer that question – it shows why it is so wrong to ask it in the first place. The question assumes revolution as a rational choice, a weighing of pros and cons, rather than a necessary result of often life-and-death struggles. There could have been no other way and it is not over yet, not just in Egypt but all over the world.

The Egyptians: A Radical Story by Jack Shenker, is published by Allen Lane on 28 January 2016.

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