The Egyptians: A Radical Story by Jack Shenker, book review: How Mubarak gave way to the money men

The Egyptian revolution fell prey to the free market, argues a passionate study

George Arney
Thursday 04 February 2016 15:36
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False dawn: crowds celebrate in Tahrir Square, Cairo, after Hosni Mubarak steps down
False dawn: crowds celebrate in Tahrir Square, Cairo, after Hosni Mubarak steps down

Five years on from the revolution that overthrew Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, the hopes inspired by the Arab Spring seem – as elsewhere – to have been dashed. Egypt is now under the thumb of another military strongman, albeit one who currently commands popular support. Yet President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's regime is as repressive and authoritarian as ever. The gap between rich and poor has continued to widen. Economic and social grievances remain unaddressed. Protesters are gunned down, journalists jailed, and minorities harassed.

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive" wrote Wordsworth about the French Revolution. That sentiment was widely shared by the energised and often joyful protesters in Tahrir Square during the 18 days that brought Mubarak down. In the confused, counter-revolutionary aftermath, such words would scarcely seem appropriate. Yet in his inspirational account of what led up to and followed Tahrir Square, Jack Shenker argues that the revolution continues, albeit in a fragmentary way, and that it will almost certainly coalesce again at some stage into a new nationwide uprising.

Shenker identifies three major strands of unrest under Mubarak that came together to forge the revolution: industrial action, acts of communal resistance, and middle-class pro-democracy activism. He illustrates the radical nature of each of these, visiting factories where workers have seized control, privatised land where peasants have faced down the security forces, and backstreets where DJs are creating illicit new music. Each act of rebellion – and there were hundreds of them in the years preceding the revolution-– permanently empowered those involved. From their torpor under a succession of autocrats, millions of Egyptians found their political voices and asserted autonomy over their own lives, creating a profound gulf between rulers and ruled which Shenker clearly sees as irreversible.

The generals, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and the often brutal security services aren't the only villains of this piece. Neo-liberal economic policies are held responsible for much of the injustice fuelling the anger of ordinary Egyptians. Free marketeers will not like this book. Shenker argues that neo-liberalism is a political project that always involves a mass transfer of resources from the poor to the rich. That is what happened in Egypt after it signed up to its first structural adjustment package in 1991, and is continuing today under Sisi. Yet so wrong-headed are the cheerleaders for neo-liberalism that the president of the World Bank interpreted the Arab Spring as a call for more economic liberalisation rather than the opposite.

Shenker makes no bones about being partisan. "This book takes sides", he proclaims, and on occasion we see him marching alongside the demonstrators and even helping to pass rocks to them for use as missiles. Despite this, and his admission that his writing is "refracted through my own hopes and dreams of what the revolution could yet achieve", his analysis is acutely clear-sighted, given the chaos of recent events. The book therefore mixes a hawk's eye view of the forces of global capitalism as applied to Egypt with a vivid worm's eye view of what it is like to be caught up in a revolution – on one occasion, even detailing a terrifying abduction he himself suffered at the hands of the security services.

This is a passionate book, but not an unbalanced one. Some wishful thinking may be at work – he perhaps underestimates the problematical failure of his patchwork of revolutionary activists to offer a coherent alternative beyond interminable protests. But it tells stories that need to be told, and which have been widely ignored.

Perhaps that was laziness or ignorance on the part of parachute journalists. Or perhaps there is a fundamental misunderstanding in the West about what the revolution really represented, because of the liberal-capitalist paradigm in which we ourselves are all imprisoned.

Allen Lane, £15.99. Order at £13.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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