The Egyptians: A Radical History of Egypt¿s Unfinished Revolution

The Egyptians: A Radical History of Egypt¿s Unfinished Revolution

by Jack Shenker


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The award-winning journalist and longtime Cairo resident delivers a “meticulous, passionate study” of the ongoing battle for contemporary Egypt (The Guardian).
On January, 25, 2011, a revolution began in Egypt that succeeded in ousting the country’s longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. In The Egyptians, journalist Jack Shenker uncovers the roots of the uprising and explores the country’s current state, divided between two irreconcilable political orders. Challenging conventional analyses that depict a battle between Islamists and secular forces, The Egyptians illuminates other, equally important fault lines: far-flung communities waging war against transnational corporations, men and women fighting to subvert long-established gender norms, and workers dramatically seizing control of their own factories.
Putting the Egyptian revolution in its proper context as an ongoing popular struggle against state authority and economic exclusion, The Egyptians explains why the events since 2011 have proved so threatening to elites both inside Egypt and abroad. As Egypt’s rulers seek to eliminate all forms of dissent, seeded within the rebellious politics of Egypt’s young generation are big ideas about democracy, sovereignty, social justice, and resistance that could yet change the world.
“I started reading this and couldn’t stop. It’s a remarkable piece of work, and very revealing. A stirring rendition of a people’s revolution as the popular forces that Shenker vividly depicts carry forward their many and varied struggles, with radical potential that extends far beyond Egypt.” —Noam Chomsky

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620972557
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 01/03/2017
Pages: 544
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Jack Shenker is a journalist based in London and Cairo. Formerly Egypt correspondent for The Guardian, he received multiple prizes for his coverage of the Egyptian revolution. This is his first book.

Read an Excerpt


'This is our Egypt'

Shahenda Maklad had run away from her village once before; now she was at it again. Out in the early hours past the snoozing doorman, through a mist turned silver by the rising sun. Out past the squat concrete post office, quickly now before the old Greek grocer starts to pile up his wares or the barber's first customers of the day begin traipsing in for a haircut, shave or minor piece of surgery. Out along the path where bundles of bamboo lie waiting to be whittled and thrashed together into rooftops, out across the sloughy canal-bank where sedentary water buffaloes watch on with impassive, sleepy eyes. Out to the Tala road where the dawn rattle of trucks and horse-carts is slowly building, out on a hitched ride to the industrial city of Shibin el-Kom and then beyond – to the wide expanse of the Nile Delta, to the Mediterranean coastline, to the elegant boulevards and seafront of Alexandria. Shahenda was going to stop at nothing. She was nineteen, and in love.

At the other end of this journey stood Shahenda's older cousin, Salah Hussein, who had entranced her for as long as she could remember. As a little girl, she often heard her father and other villagers swap tales of Salah's heroics while fighting alongside the Palestinian fedayeen ('resistance') units who battled the fledgling state of Israel in the late 1940s. By the time Shahenda became a teenager, Salah was back in Egypt and brimming with radical ideas. It was the early 1950s, the nation's corrupt, imperial-backed monarchy was faltering, and groups of dissident students were starting to arm themselves and launch guerrilla attacks against British colonial forces. Salah had joined their struggle, and it wasn't long before he returned to his home village of Kamshish, a small farming community in Munifaya, north-west of the capital, to agitate for revolution. 'At the time we lived under a feudal system; the lords owned the land and protected it by force, and the fellaheen ['farmers' or 'peasants'] were enslaved. It was a scene from the Middle Ages,' remembers Shahenda. Now she is much older, her face pinched and lined; she probes her way through these memories with care. 'Salah told us that he had learned many things on his travels, and that the war for liberation lay not just in Jerusalem or Cairo, but here in Kamshish as well.'

Salah's seditious rhetoric was in keeping with the times. Within a few months of his reappearance in Kamshish, breathless news reports and patriotic songs crackled out of the village radio announcing the toppling of the royal family, and the ascension to power of a group of nationalist military generals, the Free Officers, with Gamal Abdel Nasser at their helm. One of the core pillars of Nasser's coup was a modernization programme that promised to transform Egypt's stagnant rural economy and address a burning injustice: the massive concentration of fertile land in the hands of a tiny elite. On the eve of what became known as the 1952 revolution, 20 per cent of the nation's cultivated fields were owned by 0.1 per cent of the population, including the ever-bloating, wild-womanizing King Farouk, who was able to claim 250,000 feddans (one feddan is just over an acre) in the monarch's name. Meanwhile 90 per cent of the fellaheen officially classified as 'landowners' owned less than the minimum required to sustain a family; 3 million of them had under a single feddan to call their own, and millions more were completely landless. By the time soldiers kicked in the door of Farouk's palace, the average Egyptian was worse off than she had been at the start of the First World War.

Nasser's land reforms saw fields seized from the largest landowners and distributed to the landless and near-landless, and new controls placed on rents and foreign ownership. Law number 178, which was followed by a series of further reforms throughout the 1950s and 60s, was promoted by its drafters as the most important decree in modern Egyptian history, vitally reaffirming the link between ordinary Egyptians and their land. But beyond the capital, those targeted directly by the new measures – like the grand al-Fiqi family of Kamshish – saw Law 178 as an existential threat to their power and privilege, and they weren't about to give up without a fight. The al-Fiqis owned nearly 1,500 feddans in the area, and as leaders of the local agricultural cooperative the family also maintained almost complete control over other farmers' access to credit, seed and fertilizer. They ruthlessly exploited their dominance of the village council to dictate all manner of land transactions and agricultural activity; labour for their own fields could be demanded from villagers at a whim. On one occasion, according to the fellaheen, when a nearby linen factory began recruiting workers – which drove up wages and threatened to deplete the pool of agricultural labourers that the al-Fiqis relied upon in the cotton-harvesting season – the family arranged for the whole plant to be burned down. With relatives holding key positions in the provincial government, the al-Fiqis had little to fear in terms of retribution from the law. In Kamshish, as in the rest of the Egyptian countryside, local flows of power and money beat to the rhythm of the land-owning clan. That was the way it always had been – and to the al-Fiqis, that was the way it always must be.

For Salah, on the other hand, land reform was only the start. He knew that it wasn't just soil and crops the al-Fiqis depended on for their wealth and status: it was a whole way of life, codified and normalized by everyone in the village. Up the length of the Nile Valley and across the lotus-shaped Delta that fans north out of Cairo, relationships in the countryside were built upon centuries of class oppression. Henry Habib Ayrout, a Syrian Christian and contemporary observer of rural Egypt who wrote up his experiences in French as Moeurs et coutumes des fellahs, recounts a rich landowner telling him, 'The fellah can only be driven by the lash.' A police officer, whose beating of a local farmer was accidentally interrupted by the writer, explained: 'You have to treat the peasants like that. They are only brutes.' Over time, the subordinate position of ordinary farmers was reinforced by colonial violence. On a sunny June afternoon in 1906, five British officers strolled into the village of Denshawai – which lies a few miles to the east of Kamshish – for a spot of pigeon shooting; after killing several birds kept by residents as domestic animals and wounding the wife of the muezzin at the village mosque, the officers were set upon by an angry mob. In response, they murdered one Egyptian on the spot (who was tending to an injured British soldier at the time), hanged four more in the village square, and handed down twenty-eight other punishments ranging from a life sentence of penal servitude to hard labour and flogging. The social filter that sifted Kamshish's population into its right and proper order was therefore deeply entrenched. Whenever the head of the al-Fiqis, known locally as 'the lord', deigned to ride through the village, formal respect was demanded of all those he passed – which meant that radios had to be switched off and tawla ('backgammon') boards snapped shut. At the call to prayer, kneeling arrangements in the village mosque consisted of al-Fiqi on his own at the front and everyone else crammed together at the back. A popular song at the time called on the overhanging branches of trees to raise themselves magically and enable al- Fiqi to pass unhindered, and the young people who hummed it were required to wear special hats in public marking their deference to the lord.

Salah knew that real liberation was going to take more than a few redrawn field maps handed down from on high in Cairo. What Kamshish needed was a psychological revolution – a reimagining of what ordinary citizens could achieve in the face of sustained exploitation – and there was plenty of historical inspiration for him to draw on. As recently as 1951, hundreds of farmers had risen up in rebellion in the northern province of Behout and destroyed properties belonging to the land-owning al-Badrawi family (some of whom would later become leading lights of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party). In his book, Ayrout offered many examples of 'entire populations' revolting against both landlords and the state that protected them, often holding out against security forces for several days. 'The women stood in the front line to urge on the men, the children gathered fresh supplies of missiles, and regular strategy was improvised,' he noted. Sometimes retribution against oppressors was stealthy, and swift: Ayrout observed that 'when a usurer, landowner or nazir [the landlord's 'overseer'] has carried out his exactions too far, and is murdered with public approval, the finest sleuth cannot discover the murderer, so close is the conspiracy of silence'. On other occasions, revenge took longer. Following the bloodshed at Denshawai, any hope of reconciliation between Egypt's growing independence movement and London was dashed; by 1919, a mass Egyptian revolt against the British was sending tremors through the realm. Almost half a century later, when Britain and its allies were defeated by Egypt in the Suez War, Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal said simply, 'The pigeons of Denshawai have come home to roost.'

Salah started with those demeaning hats. 'His slogan was "live free" over the land, and he began to educate the villagers,' explains Shahenda. 'He encouraged the youth to refuse to wear the hats, to deliberately break that tradition in an act of passive resistance.' Soon Salah was using local religious gatherings, wedding ceremonies and funerals to agitate for change, calling on the fellaheen to withdraw their corvée (unpaid) labour and to start questioning the status quo. It didn't take long for a group of youths known as the tullab ('students') to gather around Salah and commit themselves to anti-feudal activism. For the al- Fiqis, Salah was fast becoming an ugly headache; government legislation was something that could be resisted in the courts, but there were no state institutions that could be depended upon to halt the tide of Salah's speeches. These were thrilling, slippery days; all the old certainties of Kamshish were undergoing profound disruption, but no one could quite put their finger on the whats, whens or hows emerging in their place. Then came the attack on the dam.

For months, farmers had been troubled by an irrigation canal dug by al-Fiqi which ensured that the best water supply reached his own fields at the expense of the ordinary fellaheen, whose personal plots were bisected by the new waterway. 'Only when the al-Fiqis were done irrigating their own land would they open it to allow the leftover water to reach the farmers, so we got the very last drops,' remembers Shahenda. For Salah, the dam embodied everything that was wrong about the state of affairs in Kamshish, a daily reminder, both logistical and symbolic, of the lord's distorted ascendancy over Kamshish's poorer farmers. In secret, the tullab hatched their plans. But a man of al-Fiqi's clout had informants everywhere. On the rebels' first raid they were met on the pathway by hired muscle who opened fire, injuring seventeen fellaheen, male and female. Salah was shaken but undeterred; he knew that failure here would be a huge blow and allow al-Fiqi to shore up his crumbling authority through renewed violence and fear. A few nights later, the militants tried to reach the dam again. This time, they succeeded; a dynamite pop echoed through the dark sky and was followed by the sound of water gurgling rapidly into the farmers' undernourished fields.

Shahenda was fourteen years old, and the following day she joined the festive celebrations as news spread of the tullab's audacious assault. 'I had already been proud of the fact that my cousin had gone off to Palestine and then returned to try and liberate Egypt from injustice as well,' she says. We are sitting in Groppis cake shop, a slice of faded Cairene grandeur off Talaat Harb Square, as Shahenda unpacks her story. 'I was so happy when I found out about the dam, because even as a fourteen-year-old I felt a sensation that justice was on our side.' Her diminutive frame rises and falls with a deep breath. 'Salah was leading us to victory. And I was ... I was fond of him.'

Shahenda's father was the chief of police in a nearby town, though in these turbulent times of fast-shifting loyalties, that didn't mean he was against the rebels. In fact, he had been arming them secretly, as had the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement Salah had been a member of in the 1940s. But the dam explosion was serious business, and above the pay grade of a district lawman. In its aftermath, official security forces flooded the area and a curfew was imposed on the village; the village mayor was suspended and Anwar Sadat – one of Nasser's Free Officers, future president of Egypt and child of the nearby town of Mit Kom – was drafted in from Cairo to investigate Kamshish's disturbances. The Free Officers may have publicly espoused a progressive agenda, but the prospect of an independent agrarian resistance movement outside of their control, of the type being pieced together by Salah, was considered more of a mortal threat than the landowners. Sadat sided with the latter, as did the Brotherhood, who were persuaded to withdraw their support from the tullab – prompting a disgusted Salah to break his final ties with the Islamists. He was imprisoned for a year and exiled to Shibin el- Kom, the provincial capital. In the years that followed, skirmishes between al-Fiqi and the farmers continued in Kamshish, and so did the village curfew.

Shahenda, now a confident and politically conscious nineteen-year-old, had her own repressive edicts to contend with. The previous year she had been married off to a local police officer, but it proved to be a joyless union. 'I fought with all my strength to get away from him,' she grins. 'I even fled the house and told my family "I won't come back until I get a divorce."' This was 1956, when divorces were scarce and the idea of women initiating them even scarcer. But Shahenda was defiant, and eventually her parents had little choice but to help facilitate the separation. Shahenda returned to Kamshish and waited for Salah, whose passion and politics filled her with a fire she hadn't known before. She didn't have to wait long. Salah saw in her a kindred spirit of rebellion, and asked for her hand in marriage. Her parents were aghast. 'I would rather see my daughter hacked to pieces and fed to the dogs,' Shahenda's mother confided to Salah's mother, who couldn't help but sympathize. Salah may have been extraordinarily popular in Kamshish, but a renegade at war with authority didn't meet most people's definition of an ideal husband. Sensing that the obstacles to this marriage in Kamshish might be too big to circumvent, Shahenda packed her bags once again – this time with her fugitive lover in tow – and escaped to the coast.

When Salah and Shahenda arrived in Alexandria to seal their matrimony, they found a metropolis locked in steep decline, its grand hotels and seafront coffee houses looking as dishevelled as the pair of outcasts who had just blown in from the Delta. Following the Suez War and a government-led crackdown on 'foreign' interests, most of the city's multicultural populations – Jewish, Greek, Armenian – were heading to the harbour and exiting in droves; many churches, cafés and pensions now stood abandoned. Amid the turmoil, Salah had managed to secure a tiny room near the train station and find a job at a trade company paying 12 Egyptian pounds a month; Shahenda moved in and together they gathered all the paperwork they needed to legally become husband and wife. 'When we finally presented ourselves to the ma'zoon [a religious functionary who carries out weddings] we had Salah's two cousins with us plus one of his friends, to act as witnesses,' says Shahenda. 'The ma'zoon saw this little teenage girl with four big men and assumed I must have been kidnapped; he refused outright to perform the marriage.' Even when the party produced all the requisite paperwork and showed that Shahenda was of legal age to marry without her parents' consent, the ma'zoon remained jumpy. 'He kept trying to find excuses not to do it, first claiming that the date on one of the documents was wrong, then saying that his official stamp wasn't working!' Eventually the official's intransigence crumbled, and Shahenda and Salah walked out of the building and into the fresh sea air as a married couple. Now they were legally wedded, they could return to Kamshish. On the journey home, Shahenda felt sick with fear over how the community would react to their flight. She needn't have worried. 'The whole village had been following the soap opera of our relationship and they were delighted that we'd succeeded,' she smiles. 'I was stunned at how welcoming everyone was.'


Excerpted from "The Egyptians"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Jack Shenker.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Maps ix

Note on Transliteration xiii

Prologue: 'The people want …' 1

Part I Mubarak Country

1 'This is our Egypt' 25

2 Palace Ghosts and Desert Dreams 76

3 T Love to Singa' 109

Part II Resistance Country

4 The Colonel's Revenge 143

5 'Who told you we were weak?' 169

6 Enough 191

7 'The streets are ours' 210

Part III Revolution Country

8 The Old Ways and the New 241

9 Sheep Manure and Caramel 279

10 'Now we make our dreams real in the daytime' 326

11 Writing Walls 351

12 Body Paint 383

Epilogue: Journeys 428

Afterword 455

Notes 463

Acknowledgements 507

Index 509

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