An act within a revolution: Egypt
Jack Shenker’s book wears its heart on its cover. From the top right hand corner, Nefertiti’s eyes above her gas mask fix you with a stern, sorrowful look, the nom de plume – or de guerre – of her creator, the street artist Zeft, on the spray-can pointed at her temple.
Possibly the most famous example of Egyptian revolutionary graffiti, here she’s been given a collar of blood, echoed in the bottom left hand corner by the red-dripping Egyptian flag – itself a graffito that appeared in November 2011 after the army and police killed dozens of people in downtown Cairo.
Since the regime in Egypt is stonily set against the merest suggestion – however playful – that walls should be seen as anything other than brutish enforcers of division, simply deploying graffiti puts you in the revolutionary (revolutiophile?) camp.
And this is where Shenker deservedly belongs.
By January 2011 he had lived downtown for three years, made friends, nosed out good stories and told them with style – so when the long-awaited revolution suddenly boiled over on his doorstep he was poised to be as bouleversé by it as any Cairene.
Describing his notebooks of the time, he writes:
“Two of the spiral-bound ones are twisted, their spines dislocated from the pages … The handwriting is hurried, messy – words have been snatched hastily to the paper amid drumbeats and shouts and gas and flight, and they’ve brought bits of that universe with them: grubby stains, smears of rock dust, strange ink … sentences appear in different colours and some of them are splotched by teardrops. Many pages are torn, and a few are missing.”
Can the description of a notebook wring your heart? Yes, if you see yourself and those whom you love, those thousands whom you learned – in the streets – to love, in them.
Bruised and dislocated, stained and splotched, some missing forever, but the ones who remain holding on – at least – to the narrative.
it had always been war, and it hadn’t started with the revolution; 25 January 2011 was just when everyone who had opposed Hosni Mubarak’s regime or who had wished they’d dared to oppose it came together and, for a long, miraculous moment, acted as one.
The Egyptians: A Radical Story is fully cognisant of both: the long struggle that fed that revolutionary moment – and the miraculous nature of the moment.
The revolution, as historian Khaled Fahmy has pointed out, is part of a sequence of turbulence that ebbs and flows but has never been entirely stilled since the mid-19th century.
Seen like this, it becomes possible to freely examine what it was like and why. We are able to give it its due as – in Shenker’s excellent phrase – a “leaderful” rather than leaderless revolution, and accept that it was “make-do” because “Make-do is all you have when you try to make and do something entirely new against the forces of old.”
It needs to be celebrated as a “revolution on the form of revolution” that, like 1848, exploded the old ways “though struggling, so far, to articulate the new”. And most importantly, we need to recognise it as a climactic and transformatory point in an ongoing revolution that is not Egypt’s alone.
The Egyptians positions the 18 days both within their national historical context, and within their political context in the world.
The central argument of this meticulous, carefully researched and passionately argued book is that the battle in Egypt, as in almost every other place in the world, is between a dominant global neo-liberal capitalist system and the people whose lives and livelihoods it is destroying.
It finds Egypt situated at the acute end of a global continuum of citizens struggling against the combined might of state and capital to find a formula for real, participatory democracy.
the revolutionary wave in Egypt has been beaten back for now by a powerful counter-revolution.
In November 2013, as General Sisi was moving towards the presidency, the well-known Egyptian open-source software designer, blogger and dissident, Alaa Abd el Fattah wrote:
“The trajectory of the revolution and the trajectory of the counter-revolution run together and influence each other. The counter-revolution is not just a defensive position taken by the enemies of the revolution; it is reactionary forces in their own right trying to profit from conditions of fluidity to shape the world to their liking – just as we are doing …”
The Egyptians pins down these forces and their backers with care and in chilling detail.
For all its revolutionist fervour, this is a work of painstaking research and investigation. Just one of the tens of examples cited of the international backers swinging into action is the formation of the Deauville partnership with Arab countries in transition under the auspices of the G8 summit in May 2011 “to keep multinational capital fused with whatever political models emerged from the countries’ massive anti-government uprisings”.
Everyone who is for the revolution in Egypt agrees that what it did achieve was to turn ordinary people into participants in political life rather than its passive subjects – or victims;
that it was about “marginalised citizens muscling their way on to the political stage and practising collective sovereignty over domains that were previously closed to them”.
But for more than six decades the state had actively barred people from political life – and in July 2013, weary, scared and disappointed in the Muslim Brotherhood they had elected into office, huge numbers of Egyptians chose to return to what they knew; they put their trust in what was presented as the one remaining pillar of the state: the military.
So we are back in what Shenker calls “Mubarak country”, but with everything heightened a couple of notches – the glitz of the economic conferences, the grandeur of the promised projects, the severity of the proposed austerity measures, the scale of begging and borrowing, the war in Sinai.
And heightened also is the state’s distrust of the people and the level and spread of state violence against them.
But similarly heightened is the people’s sense of themselves as agents of their own fate. Shenker quotes a young activist, Nour, who, while admitting to exhaustion and the need for rest and recuperation, insists that “a significant proportion of the Egyptian population no longer think about themselves and about politics in the same way, and are no longer prepared to put up with the old crap.”
Shenker lists some of “the debates lived out by Egyptian revolutionaries – over what sort of governance structures their lives, whether or not they should aim to seize state power, how best human beings can find the space in which to imagine and implement alternative forms of sovereignty and the courage to stand up to the brutality that will confront them along the way”. These are, as he says, “debates that are playing out everywhere”.
The Egyptians is not just about the revolution, it is an act within it; making its case, documenting its achievements and tragedies, pushing forward its narrative.
It celebrates the collective and enacts it in its co-operation with texts and witnesses.
It exemplifies the social solidarity that recognises the global nature of our problems and the new and radical solutions they require.
• Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed is published by Bloomsbury. To order The Egyptians for £12.79 (RRP £15.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.