The future of the Egyptian revolution
Egypt may today look like a tragic example of why mass protest is doomed, but the turmoil of the five years since Tahrir Square has unleashed a will for change and a resistance to power among ordinary citizens that could yet transform the country, and maybe the world
The video is shot from a balcony, and its style is familiar. A shaky, handheld camera, tracking the action back and forth. Figures below, mustering on some unspecified stretch of tarmac and urging one another forward. The chants of the crowd, and eventually their screams. “El‑sha’ab, yureed, isqat el‑musheer!” they bellow, again and again. “El‑sha’ab, yureed, isqat el‑musheer!” The rhythm of the words is like a mounting drumbeat, steeling the children – and they are children, some almost in their early teens but most no more than nine or 10 years old – for the battle ahead. Their chant translates as “The people want the downfall of the field marshal”. Because this is Egypt in early 2012, a year on from the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak, the field marshal must beGeneral Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of a junta under whose watch more than 100 revolutionary demonstrators have been killed and thousands more have been dragged before military tribunals. Calling for his downfall is a dangerous thing to do.
Still, the children chant. And now they have gathered strength in numbers, and are staring defiantly at something, or someone, that stands unseen beyond the left-hand edge of the screen. There are more and more children in the shot, clapping and chanting and feeding off each other’s energy, and suddenly, imperceptibly, without a signal from any leader, the air distorts a little, something intangible cracks. You can feel this shift in the blurry pixels, you can feel it surging through the children, you can feel something ineffable is building … and then the march begins, and they are advancing towards that invisible adversary, arms in the air and chests puffed forward, and the jittery camera is following their progress, and that off-screen enemy is silent, watching and waiting.
And then there is a noise. And now there is choking and spluttering and shouts and confusion and everyone begins to turn and run back the way they came. Everyone, that is, but the smattering of children who have dropped to the floor in a heap of clothes and flesh, everyone but the children now lying completely still amid the madness. And yet, despite all this terror, the fleeing survivors quickly rally themselves and gather once more. The injured and lifeless are retrieved, that melodic drumbeat thuds again in the children’s mouths, and within moments the crowd has returned to its starting position, readying themselves for another reckless push into the unknown. “El‑sha’ab, yureed, isqat el‑musheer!” they roar. “El‑sha’ab, yureed, isqat el‑musheer!” This is Zawyet Dahshur school, 20 miles south of Cairo city centre, and what you’re watching is playtime.
Egypt’s revolution has been misunderstood, and a great deal of that misunderstanding had been deliberate. An upheaval that began on 25 January 2011, and will continue for years to come, has been framed deceptively by elites both within Egypt’s borders and beyond. Their aim has been to sanitise the revolution and divest it of its radical potential. Over the past half-decade the Arab world’s most populous nation has been engulfed by extraordinary turmoil, the result of millions of ordinary people choosing to reject the status quo and trying instead to build better alternatives. Their struggle – against political and economic exclusion, and against the state violence that is required by both for enforcement – is not separate from struggles that are playing out elsewhere, including in Britain, America and right across the global north. In fact, they are deeply enmeshed. At the heart of Egypt’s unrest are forms of governance that structure all our lives, and modes of resistance that could yet transform them.
In the last five years, headlines about Egypt have been laden with insta-emotion: awe at an uprising against one of the Middle East’s longest reigning and best-armed dictators, joy at its success, confusion in its aftermath, sadness that the young protesters were seemingly defeated in the end, that elections were overturned, and that autocrats rose once again. At times, far from being a political inspiration, events in Egypt have felt like a textbook example of why mass protest is doomed to failure; a study in how “business as usual” always wins out in the end. This narrative is profoundly misleading. The revolution, and counterrevolution, has never been just about Mubarak, or his successors, or elections. It is not merely a civil war between Islamists and secularists, nor a fight between oriental backwardness and western liberal modernity, nor an “event” that can be fixed and constrained in place or time. In reality, the revolution is about marginalised citizens muscling their way on to the political stage and practising collective sovereignty over domains that were previously closed to them. The national presidency is one such domain, but there are many others: factories, fields and urban streets, the mineral resources that lie under the desert and beneath the seabed, the houses people live in, the food they eat and the water they drink.
During the previous few decades many of these arenas had been sealed off and commodified for private gain, via a neoliberal orthodoxy that contends that all goods are best managed by the market. Despite many setbacks, Egyptian revolutionaries have fundamentally disrupted the relationship between Egypt’s citizenry and the state, connecting the dots of political and economic injustice and demanding meaningful democratic agency over the things that affect their lives. They have done so at a time when rampant inequality has compelled many others around the world to do the same.
The key players in this drama are not political leaders such as Mubarak, Tantawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s short‑lived president Mohamed Morsi or the army general who overthrew him, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – members of the elites and counter-elites jockeying for supremacy amid the chaos – but rather the ordinary Egyptians fighting for autonomy and attempting to dismantle the constellation of power that enables such supremacy in the first place. They look very different from the demonstrators who appeared on TV during the original anti-Mubarak uprising, women and men who for the most part live a long way from Tahrir Square. They are the farmers revolting against the privatisation of their land; the DJs creating illicit new music in backstreet garages; the ceramics plant employees kidnapping their boss and seizing control of their workplace; the Bedouins storming a government nuclear site to reclaim stolen territory; the schoolchildren who spend their lunch breaks playing games of revolution in Zawyet Dahshur. Their stories rarely make it into the international media. But within them lies the revolution’s threat, and its living, giddying possibilities.
Their struggle – against political and economic exclusion – is not separate from struggles playing out across the globe
Our taxi was purple. Amid an ocean of identical black and white cabs crawling along the roads around Helwan metro station, this one stood out like an evolutionary accident. The driver, a young man in a brown hoodie with a Cleopatra cigarette drooping from his lips, stared languorously at us through the window as we explained our request. “Zawyet Dahshur is across the bridge and there’s a lot of traffic,” he shrugged, jerking his thumb towards the road and tracing an arc with his right hand. He lapsed back into a contemplative silence, as if the weight of all the traffic was bearing down upon his soul – a common existential crisis in Egypt – before eventually breaking into a smile. “Traffic everywhere,” he grunted, “still, we’ll give it a try.” My colleague Ghamrawi and I climbed in gratefully. “Why did you paint the taxi purple?” asked Ghamrawi, as we began threading our way through alleys towards the Nile. The driver threw a contemptuous look back in his direction. “It’s the revolution,” came the reply. “Why not?”
Zawyet Dahshur lies on the edge of the Sahara just south of the Memphis ruins – all that remains of one of Pharaonic Egypt’s most important capitals – and across the Nile from Helwan. In the late 19th century this region’s sulphurous springs and luxury bathing houses were a magnet for Cairo’s well-heeled gentry. By the 1960s though, under the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the modern capital’s spa retreat had become a smokestack suburb; Helwan was transformed into a hive of industrial activity, and the chimneys of its iron and steel mills have belched black smoke into the sky ever since. Nasser saw Helwan as the engine of a new, postcolonial nation in command of its own destiny; from within the foundries and the furnaces, Egypt’s long history of imperial conquest and feudal oppression would be overcome at last.
The Nasserite state succeeded in delivering material security to much of its population, but it was based on a strictly paternal model of authority: the highest ranks of the military would rule in the interests of everybody, and everybody would be grateful for their munificence. As had been the case under colonialism, there was no room for popular participation or dissent. Over the following decades, as Nasser passed away and others succeeded him, that fundamental exclusion of most Egyptians from the political arena remained in place. One could plead for concessions, as a child might petition a father, but never intrude upon the state’s private fiefdoms, never exist as an equal.
When Mubarak took office in the early 1980s, the Egyptian state remained as undemocratic as ever; by now, though, its operation was less concerned with delivering material security to its population and more with carving up social assets for the financial benefit of its custodians. In 1991, the Mubarak regime signed Egypt up to a structural adjustment programme administered by international financial institutions tasked with entrenching the free market mantra – “stabilise, privatise, liberalise” – wherever they wielded influence. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Egypt’s government sold off hundreds of public institutions, usually at below-market prices, to private investment consortiums that were often partnered with cabinet ministers or close Mubarak allies; social safety nets were scaled back, workers’ rights curtailed, and ordinary living standards reduced.
Our taxi passed by one of the many resources affected: the mammoth Helwan Cement Company, founded in 1929 by royal decree and located on the edge of Helwan’s town centre. In 2001 it was part-purchased by a Swiss management and consultancy venture that was later taken over by the region’s largest private equity firm, before being bought out by the French subsidiary of an Italian multinational. The new owners took advantage of Egypt’s reformed labour laws, pushed through under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which enabled bosses to place workers on temporary contracts with few benefits or protections. In 2007 nearly 100 workers who had been continuously employed on temporary contracts for more than five years were sacked without notice; their request to speak to the company’s directors was denied, and the factory gates were locked against them. That year Helwan Cement’s parent company, headquartered 1,600 miles away in Bergamo in Italy, made a net profit of €613m. Developments at Helwan Cement were part of a neoliberal makeover that delivered annual GDP growth rates to Egypt of up to 7%; meanwhile 95% of public sector workers fell into poverty, one in four Egyptians found themselves out of work, and almost a third of young children were affected by malnutrition.
In many ways, an aggressive embrace of market fundamentalism dovetailed neatly with the core philosophy of the Egyptian state. Both were predicated on the notion of governance being left to authorities that existed beyond the realm of popular oversight – elders and technocrats for whom democracy did not apply, but who should be trusted to rule in the interests of the people. Just as importantly, Egypt’s patriarchs required a far-reaching security apparatus to protect their reserved bastions of control from being trespassed by outsiders; the government spent more on its ministry of interior, the main element of its policing system, than on health and education combined. As economic reforms fuelled disentitlement and poverty among the Egyptian population, that security apparatus became vital in facilitating the opening up of new terrains upon which the wealthy could speculate and profit, and in repressing opposition from below. As strikes and pro-democracy protests roiled Egypt throughout the 2000s, many Egyptians – from labour rights activists to rural communities fighting the sell-off of their water pipelines and city-dwellers whose homes stood in the way of high-end property development – became the targets of state intimidation and torture.
A state that Nasser once claimed would offer an escape from feudal violence and imperialism had, by Mubarak’s era, become a transmission line for privileged appropriation and brutality. Abroad, western power-brokers queued up to applaud the transformation. In the runup to revolution, the IMF hailed Egypt’s economic policies as “prudent”, “impressive” and “bold”, and the World Bank labelled the country its “top Middle East reformer” three years in a row. Multilateral development banks opted to invest in funds run by some of Egypt’s most prominent kleptocrats; as a consequence, European taxpayers became unknowing business partners not only of the Egyptian government, but of the Mubarak family itself.
The US, which made Egypt a key partner in its “war on terror” and used the country as a central base in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme, transferred more annual aid to the Mubarak regime than to any other nation bar Israel. “I really consider President and Mrs Mubarak to be friends of my family,” said the then secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2009. A few months later Barack Obama described Mubarak as “a leader and a counsellor and a friend to the United States”, and the American ambassador in Cairo, Margaret Scobey, declared that Egyptian democracy was “going well”. The following year, a young man named Khaled Said was beaten to death by police officers outside an internet cafe, and Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic party awarded itself 96% of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections.
When the revolution erupted, the state upon which these “impressive” conditions depended was plunged into an unprecedented crisis. With its various mechanisms of exclusion now peppered with breaches, Egyptians were briefly able to scurry over the state’s defences and looked poised to infiltrate some of its innermost sanctums. Police stations were burned to the ground, public space reclaimed and resources once placed beyond the reach of citizens were suddenly contested. So too were ideological debates that had supposedly long been settled; that catchphrase of our age, “there is no alternative”, was confronted by myriad tiny, irrepressible political grenades that detonated deep inside countless imaginations. One major outcome – not universal, by any means, but widespread and devastating nonetheless – was a psychological shift that upended traditional notions of what legitimate power consisted of. Formal authority was no longer sanctified; the prospect of elite admonishment or discipline no longer commanded so much fear. This was a hurricane that blew through the family dining room, the college lecture hall and the school playground as forcibly as it did the corridors of government. It was the patriarchal model of authority itself, not just those perched atop its summit, that stood in danger of being blown away.
Ultimately, the state as it is currently constituted – from its economic apparatus to its military authoritarianism – could not and will not withstand such a metamorphosis. And so, over the past half-decade, those that profit most from the existing system have done everything in their power to restore it. Starting with the ousting of Mubarak, they have sacrificed successive prime ministers and presidents, invited conservative rivals to enter the establishment and help reseal its walls, disingenuously adopted the language of revolution in an effort to sap the strength of protesters, and unleashed waves of terror to subdue Egypt’s population back into quietude.
This hurricane blew through the lecture hall and the playground as forcibly as it did the corridors of government
Many of these measures have been successful, at least in the short term; the ancien régime has at times managed to secure a great deal of popular, albeit fragile, support. Today, the political gains that accompanied the first wave of revolution have largely been reversed. And yet this fundamental divide, between those who cling on to one conception of power and those who have rejected it, persists. You will find Muslims of every political persuasion on both sides of this divide, just as you will Christians. There are young and older; poor and rich ; those who use social media and those who don’t; there are artists on both sides of the divide, and newspaper columnists, trade union leaders, soldiers, intellectuals, people from the north, from the south and everywhere in between.
There are other important faultlines at work too – along sectarian, geographical and class lines, to name a few – but although they help illuminate the daily twists and turns of post-Mubarak Egypt, they are not the underlying fissure that is animating this era. Egypt is currently experiencing a prolonged moment of flux, one in which a democratic citizenry is haphazardly emerging within a despotic state that rejects the possibility of any such democracy existing.
The closest historical parallel is not Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup in 1952, which left most Egyptians still estranged from the state’s institutions and decision-making, but rather the stream of revolutions that swept across Europe in the late 1840s in which certain segments of society attempted for the first time to enter politics – hitherto the sole preserve of armies, monarchies, noblemen and the church. Those uprisings appeared at first to have failed, as the old order clung on to formal rule. But the maelstrom they engendered continued for many decades and ultimately transformed the nature of the modern state as we know it. The Egyptian revolution has likewise thrust long-neglected segments of the population – not just the bourgeois, as in 1848, but a far broader group of citizens, including many of those most maltreated under market fundamentalism and military autocracy – headlong into the political arena. Like many others across the world right now, they are exploding the old ways while struggling, so far, to articulate the new.None of this is taking place in a vacuum. Just as the tactics and imagery of Egypt’s revolution have been reproduced abroad, so too has the counter-revolution been globalised. Under Sisi’s rule, a familiar triumvirate of army generals, international capital and western political support has once again coalesced to shield the existing state from further storms. New investment and bankruptcy legislation has been passed, including special provisions enabling foreign investors to circumvent Egyptian courts and abandon privatised projects without penalty, alongside fresh tax cuts and fiscal exemptions for major corporations. Meanwhile new laws covering protest, terrorism and the armed forces have effectively rendered all demonstrations illegal, granted the state the right to classify any citizen it dislikes as a militant, and placed all public property under military control. Today thousands of political prisoners languish in jail, mass death sentences have become a judicial norm, and Egypt is a more dangerous place for journalists than almost anywhere else on Earth.
“I think it is fundamental that the [Sisi] government succeeds, that we give it support in bringing in this new era for the people of Egypt,” Tony Blair has stated. “Right now I think it’s important the whole of the international community gets behind the leadership here and helps.”
In 2015, Blair was the VIP guest at a government-sponsored economic development conference in Sharm el‑Sheikh which brought Sisi together with the managing directors of the IMF and the World Bank, US secretary of state John Kerry, British foreign secretary Philip Hammond, and 18 current monarchs, presidents and other heads of state. High-level delegations from China, Russia, France, Germany and Spain were in attendance, along with representatives from the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the African Development Bank; senior bosses from Coca-Cola, Unilever, Siemens, Allianz and oil giants BP, BG and Total all held keynote sessions. “Your war is our war, and your stability is our stability,” Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, told Egypt’s patriarchs from the stage, to thunderous applause. “The issue is not about Egypt or the region only, but also about Italy and the rest of the world.”
But what is that war, and in whose interests is “stability” being claimed? For people like Renzi, Blair and David Cameron – who recently invited Sisi to Londonand posed for photos with him on the Downing Street red carpet – it is no doubt comforting to believe that Egypt’s tumult is over, and that business can now be safely resumed. We are living through a period of global volatility, the roots of which can be traced back not only to 2011, when the Arab revolutions started, or even to the financial meltdown of 2008, but further still, to the late 1970s and early 1980s when the present iteration of highly financialised capitalism began to take hold. The relentless expansion of markets over recent decades has generated a growing disconnect between citizens and states, be they military autocracies or august procedural democracies; for better or for worse, from the rise of maverick politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to institutional chaos in southern Europe and the dissolution of national borders in the Middle East, existing political models are buckling under the strain. There is no guarantee that what emerges from this period will be more democratic than what has preceded it. But undoubtedly, those who are most invested in the old ways are facing a battle for their survival, and Egypt sits firmly on that battle’s frontline.
Within Egypt, at the time of writing, it is the counter-revolution that is in the ascendancy – turbo-charged by vast foreign loans, a toxic brand of chauvinistic nationalism, and an endless stream of promises that under this regime, this time round, revolutionary aspirations will finally be fulfilled. Those promises are certain to be broken. Over the past five years momentum has oscillated back and forth between a minority intent on ruling as if nothing has changed and large swaths of a citizenry for whom something critical has altered. It is impossible to predict when the pendulum will swing again or what exactly will set it in motion. But swing it will. You do not need a long memory to remember that this brand of “stability” has been venerated before, nor to remember that on 25 January 2011, it culminated in revolution.
To prevent that outcome, Egyptians themselves must be airbrushed from the picture. At the Sharm el-Sheikh economic conference, in between the coffee machines and the corporate display stands, delegates were treated to projections of the country’s great antiquities. More recent historical artefacts – such as the obelisk inscribed with the names of more than 1,000 fallen revolutionaries that was once built and erected in Tahrir Square, or the giant concrete blocks deployed by the army to isolate protesters that were rapidly transformed by graffiti artists into towering canvases of resistance – were nowhere to be seen. Egypt’s leaders were offering their guests an old Egypt, where things used to happen under the stewardship of the pharaohs, and a new Egypt, where things were going to happen under the stewardship of global business titans and domestic elites; contemporary citizens remained invisible. But it is one thing to bleach revolution out of a conference centre for three days. It is another to bleach it from the minds of those who live beyond the conference centre walls.
For people like Renzi, Blair and Cameron it is no doubt comforting to believe that Egypt’s tumult is over
I recognised the school straight away from the video: tidy red-brick blocks with wraparound external walkways, a bare set of goalposts on the ground below. It was late, but a few lights were on. Past the open gate, some children were playing football in the playground – the same playground in which they had re-enacted revolutionary clashes against the security forces during their lunch break. It was only by the merest chance that a visiting medic had been up on a balcony that day and recorded a fuzzy minute of the action on his mobile phone. The film later went viral on YouTube. “Egypt’s next president will come from this generation,” wrote the medic in his online caption for the video. Hundreds of people commented below the line. “What a tribute to the Egyptian people,” said one viewer. Another wrote: “This means there will be a lifetime of revolution.”
A man emerged from a door on the edge of the playground and walked across to ask what we were doing there. He was a young maths teacher, and after we explained that we wanted to see the school where the video had been shot, he invited us to the staffroom for tea. “You have no idea how obsessively the children throw themselves into it,” he confided. “That video became a bit famous but it was just one minute of footage – they’ve been playing like that since the revolution started, during every break time and again when classes finish at the end of the day. Sometimes they do it 20 times in a row, pretending to attack the police, miming being shot and gassed, then picking themselves up again to carry on fighting.” I said that it was brave of them to chant so openly against the army, and the teacher shook his head and laughed.
Outside, the football game had come to an end. As we emerged from the staff room the children flocked around us, clambering over each other’s shoulders in an effort to be in one of Ghamrawi’s photos. “We hated him!” shouted one, when I asked why they had been trying to bring down the headmaster – who has, sure enough, now departed from the school. “He wouldn’t let us have a football tournament, even though he had promised us one the year before.” Several heads nodded vigorously in agreement. “We saw the revolution on the television and we learned that if you want to change something in your life, this is what you do,” interjected one small boy.
Today many of Egypt’s revolutionaries are locked behind bars, but this conceptualisation of revolution – not just the toppling of a figurehead but a far deeper reimagining of power and sovereignty – is proving far harder for the state to vanquish. Contained within it is courage, and hope, that belongs to us all. The kids reeled off a list of ways in which their lives had changed since the revolution began: the school bullies, who the other children referred to as the playground shurta (police), had been chased away; in classes students refused to be yelled at any more by teachers, and regularly walked out if they felt disrespected. I asked one of the quieter children for his thoughts, and he pondered silently for a moment, shyly biting his finger. “The Egyptian people are lions,” he concluded at last. “We always shouted, but now we roar.”
• This is an edited excerpt from The Egyptians: A Radical Story by Jack Shenker, published by Allen Lane on 28 January. To order a copy for £12.79 (RRP£15.99), go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.