This is my review of The Egyptians: A Radical Story by Jack Shenker.
Journalist Jack Shenker embedded himself in the society of ordinary Egyptians before the Arab Spring burst into life, the better to understand the pressures for change. Quoting George Orwell’s exhortation, “Beware my partisanship” in “Homage to Catalonia”, Jack Shenker readily admits that his own book “takes sides”.
The essence of his argument is that global capitalist free market policies, have led to a “neoliberal restructuring” of Egypt which has resulted in a “mass transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the rich and impoverished vast swathes of its citizenry". This has involved western governments, aid organisations, development banks and businessmen in dubious alliances, playing “a key role in both financing and legitimizing Middle Eastern despots including Egypt”. The replacement of Mubarak by Morsi was a cosmetic change which did not alter the fundamental system in that there is clear evidence of repression increasing under the latter. This helps to explain what was inadequately reported in the western press as the somewhat perverse rejection of a “democratically elected” new leader without waiting for him to be voted out. Although it may appear to supporters of greater justice and equality for Egypt that the situation is deteriorating once again under Sisi, Shenker argues that in an admittedly unstable “one step forward, two steps back” situation, Tony Blair’s argument that the revolution has “come full circle”, is “dead”, “failed”, and “officially over”, is too simplistic: local “revolutions” in villages and factories began decades before the famous occupation of Tahrir Square, and are still continuing in a drive for change which will take years. The revolution consists of much more than Tahrir Square which, although clearly a “media-friendly window on Egypt’s turmoil”, was most significant as an example of the creative community action which drives long-term change.
Some will be at odds with Jack Shenker’s rejection of free market capitalism, and find his belief in “Occupy”-style social change a little naïve. They may join with the western leaders who pragmatically prefer the authoritarian control of men like Mubarak or Sisi to the revolutionary chaos of say, Libya which has allowed ISIS to flourish. However, it is evident that the Egyptian developments triggered by western investment including the World Bank, IMF, USAID and European Investment Bank, and often involving the privatisation of state assets, have not “trickled down” to the poor. As described in the Epilogue, the 2015 “Egypt the Future” Conference at the International Congress Centre in Sharm el-Sheikh is cringe-making: Martin Sorrell’s “country branding” seems a world away from the daily reality of bare subsistence, lack of basic amenities, forcible evictions and arbitrary imprisonment for wearing a T-shirt with a subversive motif.
Despite the fascinating subject matter, the prose is often indigestible and repetitive, crying out for a sharp edit. To take at random a couple of interesting points that are explained much better in other sentences: “The Egyptians are a people who abrogate their voice to the stagecraft of procedural democracy”….. “Security forces have exploited tropes of passive femininity to target both men and women attempting to emasculate the former through sexual assaults and reimpose state-centric masculinities in the process.”
Although at times hard-going, this book has made me think. I find myself reflecting on how “neo-liberal” policies have led to zero hours contracts in the UK, and the desecration of the London skyline with tower blocks for absentee foreign investors, yet this of course pales into significance in comparison with the suffering and repression of millions of Egyptians. Examples include the brutal reversal of Nasser's land reforms, the eviction of peasants from their plots and urban dwellers from the unofficial "shanty towns" they have been obliged to construct for themselves, the cynical mass sale of undervalued state assets to the benefit of wealthy Egyptians and foreign investors, projects to divert Nile water to foreign exporting agribusinesses at the expense of farmers seeking to feed themselves and the local community, arbitrary arrest and brutal beatings to discourage dissent, even payment of thugs to rape female protestors, and so on.