Jack Shenker, The Egyptians: A Radical Story (London: Penguin, 2016).
Jack Shenker’s book is the definitive account of the 2011 Egyptian uprising to date. Many scholars and journalists have taken as their point of departure the notion that the uprising was a one-off democratizing experiment that failed. With his on-the-ground reporting, Shenker offers a compelling alternative view of a historical process—a revolution—that is still unfolding. The Egyptians weaves the voices of ordinary people into an analysis of social movements and crumbling governance as vampire-like capitalism sinks its fangs into the largest Arab society.
Shenker, the former Guardian correspondent in Cairo, was a resident of the city from 2008-2012 and has been a regular visitor since. He has traveled across the country, listening to people discuss their daily problems and watching them resist “a life of repression” in the state’s iron grip.
It seems absurd that Shenker’s book should stand out for taking ordinary Egyptians seriously, given the shelves of volumes on the uprising, but it does. There is nothing here about donkeys or camels or pyramids or bad traffic. Instead, the reader is taken into the neighborhoods and lives of the omnipresent but politically invisible majority living in the ‘ashwa’iyyat (informal settlements) sandwiched between central Cairo and the upper-class enclaves that divert water into the desert for the playgrounds of Egypt’s 1 percent. That elite acts as if ordinary citizens are pawns to be ignored, but Shenker shows the power people have to coopt and deflect the dictates from on high (or from outside during colonial times).
Academic researchers have produced solid work on Egyptian elections, labor mobilization, the Kifaya movement, Muslim-Coptic relations, women’s rights, neoliberal economic reforms and elite political machinations, among other topics. All tell important parts of the story. The brilliance of Shenker’s book, however, is to blend all these parts into one.
Shenker’s narrative moves seamlessly from disputes over working conditions in a ceramic factory near Suez to struggles over farmland in Burg al-Burullus. It traces the lineages of political change before 2011, the gains made after the initial 18 days when the state found itself on the ropes, and the counter-revolution led by the military. Along the way readers are treated to histories that have been suppressed or not fully explored—the thread tying the ‘Urabi revolt of 1882 to the revolutionary tradition of Qamshish and land confiscations in Sarandu. Time and again, Shenker shows, there is strength in numbers.
There is no more illustrative anecdote in the book than the tale of the army assault on Qursaya island in the Nile just north of Cairo in 2007. The military sought to clear the island for development but the inhabitants fended off eviction. Before the soldiers arrive, the head of the local council, former ruling-party parliamentarian and ceramic tile magnate Muhammad Abu al-‘Aynayn, tells the residents that they should do as they are told because they weak. Resident Muhammad Abla retorts, “Who told you we are weak? We are strong. We are going to win and you are going to lose…. You should take heed.”
Although Egypt’s prospects look dim at present, Shenker is right that the process of which 2011 was a part is not over. The populace continues to resist and sabotage a state apparatus bent on achieving submission.
A final strength of the book is to situate Egyptian events in the transnational neoliberal moment. Egypt is not a backwater or exceptional but exemplary and even a bellwether. As Shenker argues, “Outside of Egypt, too, including in many august procedural democracies, citizens living in states structured by neoliberal doctrine are wondering how strong the connection is between regular elections and real popular political agency; the Egyptian revolution has helped to force this vital question open.” The world over, the depreciating purchasing power of the middle class, police brutality and state surveillance are additional realities that leave many wondering if “stability” is just a code word for repression. As Egypt goes, so might the world. Stay tuned.