Egypt’s 25 January revolution in 2011 was a moment in which history flipped upside down. It was a period of momentous events that are far from over. The counter-revolution of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who seized power in May 2013, appears to have put the lid back on the street movements, strikes and protests that were unleashed by the Arab Spring.
Yet the resistance rumbles on. Flash protests over police killings, strikes over unpaid wages and other acts of resistance continue to plague Sisi and his henchmen. How do we measure these protests? How secure is Sisi’s state? What chance is there of a resurgence of revolutionary energy? These questions remain as yet unanswered, but many clues lie in the pages of The Egyptians, A Radical History.
Shenker, a Guardian newspaper journalist based in Cairo, was drawn to the Arab world to cover Israel’s war on Gaza. But his notebooks began to be filled with the small, and often desperate, struggles that erupted around him. Central to Shenker’s story are the people who would make the 2011 revolution: the stubborn acts of defiance over land seizures; the small and seemingly marginal cultural protests; the rising waves of strikes that began in 2006.
All were underpinned by a growing popular disgust at the behaviour of the police and security forces. Fundamentally, Shenker traces the merging of an anti-capitalism born out of dictator Hosni Mubarak’s neoliberal offensive, with a movement of solidarity with the Palestinians that began to challenge the regime’s controls of the streets.
His fortune is that he was in Cairo in the period before the Tahrir uprising, and witnessed the dramatic events that followed the overthrow of Mubarak. The Egyptians weaves the history of a tradition of rebellion that stretches back to the first revolt against British rule at the end of the 19th century; the overthrow of the King in 1952; the rise of Nasserism; and the country’s subsequent degeneration into the Sadat and Mubarak dictatorships.
The narrative soars over the macro stuff — such as Shenker’s succinct description of the neoliberal reforms and the machinations of Mubarak’s cabal — with touching details of how ordinary, and seemingly powerless people brought the dictatorship to its knees. And it is in this detail that the texture of revolt comes through best. In one passage Shenker interviews a worker from Kafr el-Dawwar, where Urabi’s anti-colonial fighters drove off British troops moving through the Nile Delta in 1882. Kafr el-Dawwar would subsequently grow into a huge textile complex that would become the cornerstone of workers’ resistance during the 1952 revolution, and again with a wave of occupations and strikes leading up to the 25 January revolution.
But it is the description of the street battles around Tahrir where this book is at its most powerful. Shenker’s eyewitness description of the Day of Rage, when millions of people drove the police off the streets, is full of incidents and snapshots of how revolutions transform people. The writing is at times breathless in describing the chaos, and at times terror, of the revolutionary days. It is powerful and inspiring stuff.
Understanding the history of the revolution sheds light on the fragility of Sisi’s counter-revolution today. Knowing that the revolution has been pushed back, but not defeated, is what makes this book more than just an eyewitness account.
The Egyptians’ biggest strength is the intertwining of economic and political struggles that snake through the book. It offers a guide to how we can measure the balance of revolutionary forces today. This is because he roots you in the history of the revolt, as well as placing these events as part of a global struggle against neoliberalism and imperialism.
Jack Shenker’s The Egyptians belongs in the bookshelf next to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World. This is revolutionary journalism at its finest.