While a tiny elite made hay, there was an ‘assault on the rural poor’ and the whole process of ‘structural adjustment’ could ‘only ever be implemented’ with the help of ‘state violence’. Egypt found itself ‘stuck in the present tense’, forbidden from imagining a different or better future. An entire generation was informed that, ‘Rule was for the patriarch, and politics, change and defiance were not for the likes of them.’ Shenker confesses that, as a journalist on the ground, ‘I often found it hard to articulate the size and shape of Mubarakism, the depth of its toxicity.’
On such a bleak interpretation, the revolutionary events of 2011 presumably didn’t come as too much of a surprise. Indeed, Shenker spends some time tracing the growth of protest and disaffection during the later years of Mubarak’s rule. There were strikes and labour protests and many acts of communal resistance aimed at addressing local grievances. Direct confrontation with the security forces also became a regular feature and people gained ‘unvarnished field experience of the brutality of police rule.’ This produced both radicalism and ‘practical lessons on how to fight back.’
“ Shenker's book relates big ideas to dozens of intimate stories about Egypt and its people. His passion, energy and journalistic acumen are remarkable ”
Shenker was there when the dam burst in January 2011 (‘my notebooks are as raw as my memories’) so he has a personal interest in ensuring that we interpret those chaotic days, and the puzzling aftermath, accurately. He believes that, thus far, we have got things badly wrong.
He is blunt: ‘Egypt’s revolution has been misunderstood, and a great deal of that misunderstanding has been deliberate.’ When contemplating the events of 2011 and what the future might hold we constantly encounter talk of neat and tidy binaries: Islam or secularism, or the ‘fight between oriental backwardness and Western liberal modernity’, or a ‘choice between military authoritarianism and religious extremism.’ Perhaps, writes Shenker, this is just an attempt, on the part of elites both inside and beyond the country, to ‘sanitize the revolution and divest it of its radical potential’, or ‘to prevent us from thinking too seriously about the way things could be.’
Shenker has no wish underestimate the challenges ahead.What frustrates him is the creation of a narrative of disappointment in which we see a ‘textbook example of why mass resistance is doomed to failure.’ Whatever happened after 2011, he invites us to focus on ‘millions of ordinary people choosing to reject the political and economic status quo and trying instead to build better alternatives.’ The potential of all that has not simply evaporated. There are still ‘giddying possibilities’ and, crucially, they reside among the farmers and workers who imagine fresh economic scenarios and the DJs who make ‘illicit music in backstreet garages.’ Egypt remains in a ‘prolonged moment of flux’ and the battle is between the old and the new. It makes no sense to divide the citizenry into neatly defined camps because there are ‘Egyptian men and women of every age, religious persuasion and social background on both sides of the divide.’
Those in the ‘new spaces’ and ‘radical imaginative pockets’ face a struggle. The forces of counterrevolution were strong and, among many, far from unpopular. A culture of exclusion soon returned and ‘those who betoken difference of any kind have been targeted relentlessly.’ For all that, there are also the ‘citizens who are no longer willing to surrender questions of social justice to the “experts”’ and who are ‘refusing to allow the state to make decisions for them on virtually every issue of importance.’ This is an impressive legacy of revolution. We are, Shenker concludes, ‘looking out over a hurricane that will cause Egypt to shudder for a very long time. Shenker’s book relates big ideas to dozens of intimate stories about Egypt and its people. It is too soon to tell whether his assessments are correct but his passion, energy and journalistic acumen are remarkable.
This review was published in the March 2016 edition of Geographical Magazine