Book Review: The Egyptians
A Radical History of Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution
by Jack Shenker
The New Press, 2017
“What defines a revolution,” writes journalist Jack Shenker in his biting and brilliant debut The Egyptians: A Radical History of Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution, “ – where it can be located on a calendar and a map, what it includes, who speaks for it, the things it seeks to change – is never a neutral question.” There’s no neutrality anywhere to be found in Shenker’s book, which takes as its subject the sprawling, remarkable revolution that erupted all across Egypt at the beginning of 2011, a revolution described by the mighty Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni (in his own magisterial new book on the subject, Chronicles of the Egyptian Revolution and Its Aftermath: 2011-2016) as “nothing short of extraordinary: a spontaneous, popular, and peaceful revolution springing out of civil society, without a charismatic leader and without centralized direction.”
In 2011 huge swaths of the Egyptian public took to the streets to protest the corrupt and repressive regime of President Mubarak, and less than three weeks later, he’d been driven from office. The Muslim Brotherhood won the resulting 2012 election, and the following year its government was ousted in a military coup led by General el-Sisi, who is now Egypt’s President. The clamping-down of el-Sisi’s military rule has done little to quell the popular hunger for change that was symbolized by the enormous crowds filling Tahir Square in those early days. As Bassiouni roundly declares, “If not for the violence initiated by the police on January 28, the 2011 Revolution would have been one of the most significant, peaceful revolutions in the modern history of a people’s desire for change.”
Jack Shenker marched with those early protesters in Cairo in January 2011, feeling, as he writes, “that weird distortion of the air as a line of armed amn el-markazi (‘central security forces’) fanned across the road with their shields up, blocking the path ahead.” Shenker, a long-time Egypt correspondent for the London Guardian, fills his passionate book with interviews conducted with ordinary Egyptians of all walks of life, catching their bewildered anger and their stubborn hope that their brief taste of empowerment wasn’t an anomaly. Shenker is unfailingly entertaining and often merciless in these portraits, several of which are little masterpieces of tightly controlled sarcasm, as in the case of Dr. Zahi Hawass, the “self-professed defender of the sanctity of Egyptian antiquities from the ill-educated Egyptian masses, and an intimate friend of the Mubarak family,” who, we’re told,
hawked the treasures of Tutankhamen’s tomb around the world in a multimillion-dollar tour, armed with his (trademarked) explorer hat, his lucrative contracts with American television networks, and, since 2010, his own clothing line. ‘Zahi Hawass is a novel fashion line not just for the traveling man, but the man who values self-discovery, historicism and adventure,’ reads the brand’s promotional copy. ‘Rich khakis, deep blues and soft, weathered leathers give off a look that hearkens back to Egypt’s golden age of discovery in the early twentieth century … Combined with an elegantly themed in-store shop at Harrods, Zahi Hawass clothing will promote a look that is both trendy and casual, conservative and cool.’
Shenker is a superbly practiced witness, watching every development in the country with a sharp eye and often reflecting with cinematic color on the long stream of memories that filled his time in Egypt. His book is far more impressionistic than Bassiouni’s, often bringing the reader right into the moment:
In an eerily quiet Cairo that morning, I remember walking through the haze of the April khamseen – the annual hot, dry wind that whips in from the desert and curdles the air with dust – past truck after truck of security forces parked in the road leading from my apartment to Tahir Square. It was the first large-scale open deployment of authoritarian violence I had seen with my own eyes since arriving in the country, and it was chilling.
Both Shenker and Bassiouni characterize Egypt’s revolution as “unfinished,” although even a glance at the country’s long history gives a fairly dire predictive index of what that “finish” will look like – if indeed we aren’t looking at it already. Either way, the heroism and the brutality on display have the best chroniclers the rest of the world could ask for.