Egypt may today look like a tragic instance 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 advising each other forward. The chants of the crowd, and eventually their screamings. Elshaab, yureed, isqat elmusheer ! they bellow, again and again. Elshaab, yureed, isqat elmusheer ! The rhythm of the words is like a mounting drumbeat, steeling the children and they are children, some virtually 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 really is Egypt in early 2012, a year on from the toppling of former chairperson Hosni Mubarak, the field marshal must be General 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 met 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 shooting, clapping and chanting and feeding off each others energy, and suddenly, imperceptibly, without a signal from any leader, the air distorts a little, something intangible fissures. You can feel this shift in the blurry pixels, you can feel it surging through the children, you can feel something ineffable is constructing and then the marching begins, and they are advancing towards that invisible antagonist, limbs 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 choke and spluttering and hollers and embarrassment 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 altogether still amid the madness. And yet, despite all this terror, the fleeing survivors speedily rally themselves and gather once more. The injured and lifeless are retrieved, that melodic drumbeat thuds again in the childrens mouths, and within moments the crowd has returned to its starting position, readying themselves for another reckless push into the unknown. Elshaab, yureed, isqat elmusheer ! they roar. Elshaab, yureed, isqat elmusheer ! This is Zawyet Dahshur school, 20 miles south of Cairo city centre, and what youre watching is playtime.
Egypts 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 upper-class both within Egypts perimeters and beyond. Their aim has been to sanitise the revolution and divest it of its radical potential. Over the past half-decade the Arab worlds 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 construct better alternatives. Their struggle against political and economic exclusion, and against the nation violence that is required by both for enforcement is not segregated 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 Egypts 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 Countries of the middle east longest prevail and best-armed despots, joy at its success, confusion in its aftermath, sadness that the young protesters were seemingly defeated in the end, that elections were overruled, and that tyrants rose is 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 misinforming. 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 period. In reality, the revolution is about marginalised citizens muscling their style 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: mills, fields and urban streets, the mineral the level of resources lie under the desert and beneath the seabed, the houses people live in, the food they feed 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 interrupted the relationship between Egypts citizenry and the state, connecting the dots of political and economic injustice and demanding meaningful democratic bureau over the things that affect “peoples lives”. They have done so at a time when rampant inequality has obliged 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 Brotherhoods shortlived president Mohamed Morsi or the army general who deposed him, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi members of the elites and counter-elites jockeying for ascendancy amid the chaos but rather the ordinary Egyptians fighting for freedom and attempting to dismantle the constellation of power that enables such ascendancy in the first place. They seem very different from the demonstrators who appeared on TV during the course of its original anti-Mubarak uprising, women and men who for the most proportion live a long way from Tahrir Square. They are the farmers revolting against the privatisation of their land; the DJs making illicit new music in backstreet garages; the ceramics plant employees kidnapping their boss and confiscating control of their workplace; the Bedouins storming a government nuclear site to reclaim stolen province; the schoolchildren who expend their lunch breaks playing games of revolution in Zawyet Dahshur. Their tales rarely make it into the international media. But within them lies the revolutions menace, and its living, giddying possibilities.
Our taxi was purple. Amid an ocean of identical black and white taxis crawling along the roads around Helwan metro station, this one stood out like an evolutionary collision. The driver, a young man in a brown hoodie with a Cleopatra cigarette sag from his lips, stared languorously at us through the window as we explained our request. Zawyet Dahshur is across the bridge and theres 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 stillnes, 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, well 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 style through alleys towards the Nile. The driver hurled a contemptuous look back in his direction. Its 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 Egypts most important capitals and across the Nile from Helwan. In the late 19 th century this regions sulphurous springs and luxury bathing houses were a magnet for Cairos well-heeled gentry. By the 1960 s though, under the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the modern capitals 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 smoking into the sky ever since. Nasser saw Helwan as the engine of a new, postcolonial nation in command of its own fate; from within the foundries and the furnaces, Egypts long history of imperial conquering and feudal persecution 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 disagreement. 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 small children might petition a father, but never intrude upon the states private fiefdoms, never exist as an equal.
When Mubarak took office in the early 1980 s, the Egyptian country 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 guardians. In 1991, the Mubarak regime signed Egypt up to a structural adjustment programme is being managed by international financial institutions tasked with entrenching the free market mantra stabilise, privatise, liberalise wherever they wielded influence. Throughout the 1990 s and 2000 s, Egypts government sold off hundreds of public organizations, 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 Helwans town centre. In 2001 it was part-purchased by a Swiss management and consultancy venture that was later taken over by the regions largest private equity firm, before being bought out by the French subsidiary of an Italian multinational. The new owners took advantage of Egypts reformed labour laws, pushed through under pressure from the International Monetary Fund( IMF) and World Bank, which enabled boss to place workers on temporary contracts with few benefits or protections. In 2007 virtually 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 companys directors was denied, and the factory gates were locked against them. That year Helwan Cements parent company, headquartered 1,600 miles back in Bergamo in Italy, made a net profit of 613 m. Growths 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 down poverty, one in four Egyptians detected themselves out of run, and almost a third of young children were affected by malnutrition.
In many ways, an aggressive embrace of marketplace fundamentalism dovetailed neatly with the core doctrine of the Egyptian state. Both were determined in accordance with the notion of governance being left to authorities that existed beyond the realm of popular oversight elders and technocrats for whom republic did not apply, but who should be trusted to rule in the interests of the people. Just as importantly, Egypts patriarchs necessitated a far-reaching security apparatus to protect their reserved bastions of control from being trespassed by outsiders; the governmental forces expend more on its ministry of interior, the main element of its policing system, than on health and educational combined. As economic reforms fuelled disentitlement and poverty among the Egyptian population, that safety 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 2000 s, 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 Mubaraks era, become a transmission line for privileged appropriation and barbarism. Abroad, western power-brokers queued up to applaud the transformation. In the runup to revolution, the IMF hailed Egypts 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 Egypts 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 constructed Egypt a key partner in its war on terror and used the country as a central base in the CIAs extraordinary rendition programme, transferred more annual aid to the Mubarak regime than to any other nation bar Israel. I genuinely consider President and Mrs Mubarak to be friends of their own families, 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 Mubaraks ruling National Democratic party awarded itself 96% of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections.
When the revolution erupted, the nation upon which these impressive conditions depended was plunged into an unprecedented crisis. With its various mechanisms of exclusion now peppered with violates, Egyptians were briefly be permitted to scamper over the states defences and seemed 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 exploded deep inside countless imaginations. One major outcome not universal, by any means, but widespread and devastating nonetheless was a psychological change that upended traditional the idea of what legitimate power consisted of. Formal authority “re no longer” sanctified; the prospect of upper-class admonishment or discipline no longer commanded so much fear. This was a hurricane that blew through the family dining room, the college lecturing foyer and the school playground as forcibly as it did the passageways 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 country as it is currently constituted from its economic apparatus to members of the 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 oust of Mubarak, they have sacrificed successive prime ministers and chairwomen, invited conservative contenders to enter the establishment and help reseal its walls, disingenuously adopted the language of revolution in an attempt to sap the strength of protesters, and unleashed waves of terror to subdue Egypts population back into quietude.
Many of these measures have been successful, at least in the short term; the ancien regime 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 the individuals 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 the individuals who dont; 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, geographic and class lines, to name a few but although they assist illuminate the daily twists and turns of post-Mubarak Egypt, they are not the underlying fissure that is animating this epoch. Egypt is currently experiencing a prolonged moment of flux, one in which a democratic citizenry is haphazardly emerging within a despotic state that repudiates the possibility of setting up any such democracy existing.
The closest historical parallel is not Gamal Abdel Nassers coup in 1952, which left most Egyptians still estranged from the states institutions and decision-making, but instead the river of revolutions that swept across Europe in the late 1840 s in which certain segments of society attempted for the first time to enter politics hitherto the sole conserve of armies, autocracies , noblemen and the church. Those insurgencies 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 country as we know it. The Egyptian revolution has likewise thrust long-neglected segments of the population not only the bourgeois, as in 1848, but a far broader group of citizens, including many of those most maltreated under market fundamentalism and military dictatorship headlong into the political arena. Like many others across the world right now, they are exploding the old routes while struggling, in so far, to enunciate the new.None of this is taking place in a vacuum. Just as the tactics and imagery of Egypts revolution have been reproduced abroad, so too has the counter-revolution been globalised. Under Sisis rule, a familiar triumvirate of army generals, international capital and western political support has is again coalesced to shield the existing nation from further cyclones. New investment and insolvency legislation has been passed, including special provisions enabling foreign investors to circumvent Egyptian the tribunals and abandons privatised projects without penalty, alongside fresh taxation cuts and fiscal exemptions for major firms. Meanwhile new laws covering protest, terrorism and the armed forces has actually been rendered all demoes illegal, granted the country the human rights of categorize 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 devote it subsistence in bringing in this new epoch for the people of Egypt, Tony Blair has stated. Right now I think its 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 growth conference in Sharm elSheikh 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 boss from Coca-Cola, Unilever, Siemens, Allianz and oil giants BP, BG and Total all held keynote conferences. Your war is our war, and your stability is our stability, Italys prime minister, Matteo Renzi, told Egypts 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 lately invited Sisi to London and posed for photos with him on the Downing Street red carpet it is no doubt comforting to believe that Egypts 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 1970 s and early 1980 s when the current 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 nations, be they military dictatorships 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 Countries of the middle east, existing political models are buckling under the strain. There is no guarantee that what emerges from the said period will be more democratic than what has preceded it. But undoubtedly, those who are most invested in the old styles are facing a battle for their survival, and Egypt sits securely on that battles 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 creek 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 backward and forward between a minority intent on ruling as if nothing has changed and big 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 define it in motion. But swing it will. You do not require 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 seminar, in between the coffee machines and the corporate showing stands, delegates were treated to projections of the countrys great relics. More recent historical artefacts such as the obelisk engraved 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. Egypts 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.
By the time we reached el-Maraziki bridge, which connects Helwan to the west bank of the Nile, the sun had disappeared and the bridges giant metal girders were dimming with the last of the days light. Our driver lights another cigarette and gale down the window; the dust-storm which had dogged us throughout our ride from the station seemed to have finally eased off, and through the growing darkness we could make out clumps of palms and reed-strewn lagoons. Ghamrawi nudged me and pointed at a shimmer of illuminations to the south, beyond a large field of open land. It had to be Zawyet Dahshur.
I recognised the school straight away from the video: tidy red-brick blocks with wraparound external walkways, a bare situate of goalposts on the ground below. It was late, but a few lightings 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 breaking. It was only by the merest opportunity 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 movie afterwards ran viral on YouTube. Egypts 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 entails there will be a lifetime of revolution.
A man emerged from a doorway 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 hurl themselves into it, he confided. That video became a bit famous but it was just one minute of footage theyve been playing like that since the revolution started, during every breach again and again when class finish at the end of the day. Sometimes they do it 20 periods 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.
Theyre braver than that, he replied. The voice on the video is very crackly so people didnt realise; everyone who watched it thought the children were calling for the downfall of the musheer [ field marshal ], but actually they were hollering elshaab, yureed, isqat elmudeer The people want the downfall of the principal. They werent just copying what they find on television, they were changing it to carry out their own mini-revolution right here at the school! He poured out more tea and shovelled a small mountain of sugar into each glass. The children are completely different now. Within two minutes of the revolution starting they had begun speaking out in class, challenging things the educators said, asking us about what was happening on the streets and what it all mean. Some of the staff, including me, had participated in the protests in Tahrir, and the students wanted to know everything, they wanted to know how it felt to have a voice at last. We changed, and they changed with us.
Outside, the football game had come to an end. As we emerged from the staff room the children flocked around us, clambering over one another shoulders in an effort to be in one of Ghamrawis photos. We detested him! shouted one, when I asked why they had been trying to bring down the principal who has, sure enough , now departed from the school. He wouldnt let us have a football tournament, even though he had promised us one the year before. Several heads nodded vigorously in agreement. We assured 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 Egypts 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 defeat. Contained within it is heroism, and hope, that belongs to us all. The kids reeled off a listing of ways in which “peoples 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 class students refused to be screamed at any more by teachers, and regularly strolled 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 Revolutionary Story by Jack Shenker, published by Allen Lane on 28 January. To order a copy for PS12. 79( RRPPS1 5.99 ), go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders merely. Phone orders min. p& p of PS1. 99.
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