Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt in revolution

A new book stands out among the many that have appeared in English on Egypt’s years of revolution, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

Journalist Jack Shenker was UK newspaper The Guardian’s correspondent in Egypt from 2008 until 2015, and if his new book The Egyptians, a Radical Story is anything to go by he certainly did not allow the grass to grow beneath his feet while he was based in Cairo.

“I first came to Egypt at the beginning of 2008, after making a long journey overland from London,” he writes. “I finally reached Cairo in the middle of a winter’s night, dropped off at a suburban bus station with no one to call upon, nowhere to stay, and no Arabic to help me find my way around.”

“I was determined to make a life in Egypt that avoided the comfortable rhythms of expat existence. I was going to report instead on what was really ‘out there’,” offering readers “an unmediated window” onto life in Egypt and the region. While Shenker’s faith in the existence of such windows was to decline, his book being “as personal, dishevelled and incomplete as any that has come before it,” he went on to stay for the next seven years, soon getting swept up in the events leading up to Egypt’s 25 January Revolution.

There is little sign of comfort, or expatriate rhythms, in Shenker’s book, which is marked by an infectious energy and thirst for experience of every kind. He cannot have known when he arrived in Cairo in 2008 that Egypt would soon be experiencing perhaps the most important upheaval it had experienced in 60 years since the July 1952 Revolution. However, ready or not the Revolution came, and Shenker was there to record it for his readers.

The result is a portrait of contemporary Egypt as well as a record of events in the revolutionary years from 2008 to 2015. The book is divided into three main parts, more or less corresponding to before, during, and after the 25 January Revolution, and though Shenker uses the standard journalistic technique of making the people he meets and the places he visits illustrate processes of wider social and economic change, he has allied this to unusually broad research and reading.

Details of the free-market economic policies of the final years of the former Mubarak regime are brought up against lived realities on the ground, experienced by Shenker on his forays out of Cairo and into impoverished areas of the countryside. His conclusion that Mubarak-era economic policies “served to tether Mubarak’s closed political circle to foreign investors and a privileged domestic support base” is illustrated by statistics telling of increasing inequalities, rising unemployment, and failing public services and by the experiences of those whose lives had been shaped by decisions taken in World Bank or IMF offices or by international ratings agencies and foreign investors.

The book provides a damning scorecard of late Mubarakism, exposing the sometimes dodgy property deals, privatisations, and general air of sauve qui peut that hung over the country in the regime’s dying months or years. However, resistance was growing, and in his second part Shenker reveals how protests against the regime’s economic policies came together with demands for political reform before coalescing in the crowds that filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other public spaces across the country to demand revolutionary change.

“In the final decade of Mubarak’s reign, acts of communal resistance… became a major current of unrest which, alongside labour protests, began to shake the foundations of his rule,” Shenker writes. Strikes inflamed workplaces up and down the country, and other protests, often at first local grievances, began to assume “a political character and undermined the authority of the regime.” The emergence of movements such as Kifaya (Enough), which channeled demands for change outside the moribund established political parties, also “normalised the sight of opposition protest on Egypt’s streets, visibly challenging the regime’s grip over public spaces,” Shenker says.

It was against this background that first the death of Khaled Said, a young man from Alexandria, in police custody in June 2010 and then of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia the following January set off the mass protests among particularly young people that led to the Tunisian, Egyptian and other Arab Spring Revolutions. “With speculation mounting that Mubarak was preparing to bequeath the presidency to his son Gamal, the NDP [the former ruling National Democratic Party] engineered itself 97 per cent of the vote in the first round of the parliamentary elections” in late November 2010, Shenker writes.

“As Egypt teetered, the message from the patriarch was clear: I may be old, but I will set the terms of my own departure and there will be no vacuum for you to fill. The fences we have built around this state will remain intact, he seemed to say: no compromise, no opposition, no surrender. I thought of the words of Zahra, Khaled Said’s sister. ‘Change will not come from this government’s version of democracy, it will come in the shape of a tidal wave from below.’”

When that wave finally came at the end of January 2011 Shenker was at a labour demonstration in Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra in the Delta. A few hours later he was in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in time for Egypt’s 18 days of revolution and to find himself at the receiving end of the violence meted out by what by then had become a severely rattled regime. Picked up by the police along with many others, Shenker found himself inside a green police truck on the edge of the Square, his head banged against the metal frame as he was forced in. Taken to a security building in Obour outside Cairo and struggling to breathe, he then found himself dumped in the desert miles from home, with no money and no way of knowing what was happening back in Tahrir.

But “we knew we were free,” Shenker writes, as he watched the police cars speed away across the desert. “And we knew that something colossal had started.”

POST-REVOLUTION: The third part of Shenker’s book describes what happened next, with Mubarak’s rule giving way first to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), running Egypt after Mubarak stepped down, and then, following elections in 2012, the one-year rule of Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first post-Revolution president.

The picture was fragmented, Shenker writes, but at first a wave of post-revolutionary euphoria swept the country. New spaces emerged, “radical, imaginative pockets of Egypt in which life and politics play out in a completely different way from anything that has been done before: factories effectively run by their own workers, villages that have declared their independence, alternative security collectives dedicated to resisting sexual violence.” There was “a struggle between the old ways and the new,” in which nothing less than the future direction of the country was at stake.

Shenker is particularly good at describing this atmosphere, with the third section of his book giving detailed accounts of the cultural experiments, social hopes, and radically revised gender politics of the immediate post-revolutionary years. Oppositional writers “had been narrating tales of individualism as a way of undermining the old iconography of family and nation before the Revolution, using characters who appeared powerless and disenchanted to subvert the state’s discourse of collective acquiescence to authoritarian rule,” he says. Now, however, as new forms of collectivity took shape, writers and artists began to experiment with new forms of expression in order to express such ideas to new audiences.

“Under authoritarian rule,” Shenker comments, “public space is saturated so extensively with the presence of the state that the possibility of alternative forces emerging appears to be non-existent.” Under the new conditions of post-authoritarian Egypt, graffiti art began to invade public space, pushing aside or subverting the iconography of the pre-revolutionary state. Existing literary forms proved incapable of capturing the new atmosphere, so writers were forced to find new ones, Shenker says, such as collage “to explore the ambivalence and fragmentation of the time” and narrative forms that switch between the first, second and third persons to capture the shifting subjectivities of the revolutionary crowds. Social media was set to work to reach out to new audiences as it had done during the 18 heady days of the Revolution. Underground mahraganat music began to be heard from Upper Egypt to the Delta.

Meaning “festivals” in Arabic, this form of music, produced on computers in living rooms up and down the country and thus escaping from the need for financial subsidies or special musical training, is a “chaotic roar of pure energy,” Shenker comments, “the sound of Egypt’s underdogs jostling for attention…the gleeful reclamation of sonic space by citizen outsiders.” Like the graffiti art that came to represent the visual aspect of the Revolution, through its use of electronic sampling and US-style hip-hop techniques this form of music draws on a mass of heterogeneous sources, with “pretty much anyone with a laptop… chucking anything they want on the pile, from snatches of classical Egyptian ballads to jingles from breakfast cereal commercials.”  

Shenker sees this music as the authentic voice of the Revolution, owing to its democratic mixing of cultural materials, its commitment to free expression, its rejection of censorship and its contempt for the hierarchies and restrictions of inherited forms. Like the other products associated with the Revolution, it was the cultural counterpart of an attempt to remake the state and reconfigure the nation, rejecting the “male, heterosexual and patriotic familial model” in favour of new and less patriarchal conceptions. It was part of a rejection of “state-centric masculinities,” attuned to feminist struggles and the search for alternative gender roles.

In this part of the book even sympathetic readers might feel that Shenker is in danger of getting carried away by his cultural rhetoric, being more interested in identifying the revolutionary potential of graffiti artists than focusing on the realities of economic and political power. However, while he does contribute many intoxicating, oneiric pages on this theme, his conclusions are more sober. The one-year rule of ousted former president Mohammed Morsi should be understood as an attempt to restore the economic policies of the former Mubarak regime and to reinstate its centralised and authoritarian management of state and society, he feels.

In the epilogue to his book Shenker recounts a visit to the Egypt Economic Development Conference held in Sharm El-Sheikh in March 2015. He has some sharp words for former UK prime minister Tony Blair and advertising executive Martin Sorrell, “high-level country branding specialists” brought in to provide keynote speeches for Conference participants. “The job of country branders is to select certain national values and narratives – commercialized heritage, low-wage and placid workforces, strong governments with a friendly attitude to neoliberal reforms – that are intelligible and attractive to global capital,” Shenker says.

Alternative “expressions of national identity that conflict with the PR hymn-sheet are sidelined or suppressed” at such events, he adds. Among other things, his book may be an attempt to remind readers of them.

Jack Shenker, The Egyptians, a Radical Story, Allen Lane: London, 2016, pp528.

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