Jack Shenker is a very brave man. Having relocated to Cairo in 2008 to work there as a journalist, by January of 2011 he found himself well positioned to cover the popular uprisings that, for a time, were the focus of the world’s attention. Equipped with good sources among Egypt’s young revolutionaries and a sense of daring that seems to have bordered on recklessness, Shenker filed a series of compelling, front-line dispatches for The Guardian. These included a harrowing account of being arrested and beaten by plainclothes agents of state security, tossed into the back of a small truck with dozens of other men, and driven out to the outskirts of town where, mercifully, the group was merely stranded.
Shenker has now written a book about Egypt’s upheaval, a revolution he considers to be ongoing despite the return of the military to power in 2013. To get to his account of the crisis itself, the reader is meant first to submit to 210 pages of a survey of how a once-promising nation came to be such an awful place. The list of responsible parties is long, and—in addition to obvious culprits like the Mubaraks and the ruling National Democratic Party—includes Hillary Clinton, the Mont Pelerin Society, the African Development Bank, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the IMF, the CIA, USAID, the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, neoconservatives, neoliberals, and Tony Blair. Especially Tony Blair. He comes up ten times, which seems to say less about any preoccupation the former prime minister may have with Egypt, and more about Shenker’s preoccupation with him.
Egypt is indeed a troubled place, but instead of a doctor carefully diagnosing the actual illness before him and recommending treatment, Shenker comes off as a pharmaceutical salesman determined to have his drug prescribed regardless of the complexity of the patient’s condition. This is a shame. Shenker is a talented writer with the kind of on-scene experience that could have led to a truly humane book—a rich, early-draft history that ought to have failed to fit neatly into any easy ideological category.
Instead, this book contains nicely observed (if somewhat romanticized) vignettes about the struggles of trade unionists, rural opponents of land privatization, and student activists, smothered by pages and pages of prefab analysis. All those with power are corrupted; all the powerless are noble. Of course, in today’s Egypt, which really is a kleptocracy, and where most of the population is frozen out of politics and wealth and deeply vulnerable to the depredations of the security forces, Shenker isn’t vastly off the mark. When he notes that Mubarak’s Egypt was a place of “economic injustice, political exclusion, and psychological resistance,” the only fair response is check, check, check. But Shenker’s Manichean sorting of his subjects according to their access to capital is a limiting view of human nature, and makes for better politics than journalism.
Conspicuous by its low profile is the role of Islamism. One notes this early, when Anwar Sadat is described as having been “shot dead by his own soldiers,” which is true of course, in the way that saying “Abraham Lincoln was shot dead by an actor” is true. But John Wilkes Booth had an agenda, and so did the members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who assassinated Sadat—and it wasn’t land reform. Islamism, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, figures into Shenker’s account of recent history, but he seems reluctant to make it too central of a factor, in part because he feels that Western liberals use political Islam as a distraction from the true sources of Egypt’s problems.
He doesn’t care much for the Brotherhood, which is fair enough, but his reason is, in part, because the organization’s leadership is “staunchly committed to neoliberalism.” The members of the Brotherhood, on the other hand, get a pretty wide pass, because unlike their leaders they “shared the revolution’s aim of building a different kind of state,” and their “political and economic priorities were far more radical than [those of] the organization’s senior officials.” Religious populism is a kind of mirage: its leaders cynically push theological propaganda while in fact shilling for the interests of global capital; its rank-and-file are merely confused leftists.
Only left-wing populism is real. So what, in Egypt, does it stand for? This is, in a sense, the very subject of Shenker’s book, and so it is striking that it is here where language quite literally fails him. Capable of vivid precision when describing, say, the field hospitals set up during the darkest days of Tahrir Square’s occupation, when called to define the ultimate aims of the revolutionaries Shenker reliably falls back on such verbal cellulite as “creat[ing] new forms of sovereignty” and “reimagin[ing]…how power functions” and “opening up…a space in which that reimagination can take place.” George Orwell, whom Shenker cites by way of apologizing for his own obvious partisanship, and who remains perhaps the strongest advocate of the relationship between clear thinking, clear writing, and good politics on record, could have diagnosed Shenker’s problem a mile away.