At what point did the revolution in Egypt go off the rails? This was the question my friends and I spent most of our time discussing in smoke-filled rooms in Cairo in the years following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Islamists swept the elections; protests turned into clashes and massacres; jails filled with young men and women; an avuncular, menacing general took over. And the uprisings that had erupted in Syria, Yemen and Libya degenerated into brutal civil wars. Had it been a revolution after all?
In July, Amnesty International reported on the Egyptian security forces’ practice of ‘disappearing’ civilians; hundreds have been kidnapped, held in secret locations, and tortured into giving false confessions. This summer in Syria, the rebel-held sector of Aleppo was finally cut off by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces who, with Russian assistance, have bombed relentlessly (hospitals are a particular target). Residents must choose between starvation and handing themselves over to government soldiers.
Those in search of perspective should turn to Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by reporter Robin Yassin-Kassab and activist Leila al-Shami (published by Pluto Press). It offers a morally lucid account of the revolt against the Assad regime and an explanation of why it turned into a civil war; it elicits the voices of Syrians involved in the uprising, acknowledging their suffering while explaining the terrible choices forced on them: ‘Pressed on all sides, these are people who’ve truly made history enough to compete with and for a moment drown the savage history made by states.’
The book chronicles the grassroots political and cultural activism, the creativity and courage of the revolution’s first year. It also charts how the struggle turned violent and sectarian. From the beginning, the Assad regime insisted on ‘reading the revolution through ethnic and religious categories; largely as a result of its own efforts, these categories would indeed eventually grow in importance until they dominated the field of struggle. The regime’s priority was to refuse any recognition of the non-Islamist civil activists.’ The regime knew it would be more convenient to be seen as fighting an extremist opposition — the ‘terrorists’ that it had accused the demonstrators of being from the start.
The regime made clear that it was ‘willing to go to war against the majority of their country’s populace.’ Under these circumstances, the revolution quickly militarised. ‘Syria’s revolutionaries didn’t make a formal collective decision to pick up arms … rather, a million individual decisions were made under fire.’ At least 6% of Syria’s population has been killed or wounded. Assad has jailed more than 150,000. Four out of five Syrians are living in poverty. There are nearly five million refugees and millions more displaced within the country.
In 2013 Raed Fares, an activist in Kafranbel, was asked if he’d have joined the protests in 2011 knowing what would follow. Fares replied: ‘No. The price was too high. Just in Kafranbel we’ve had 150 martyrs … I can’t cry anymore. I don’t feel properly. I’ve taken pictures of too many battles … But it’s too late now. There’s no going back. We have to finish what we started.’
Yassin-Kassab and Shami argue that the revolt against the Assad regime was not inevitable, nor was it doomed to fail. They wager that had the Free Syrian Army and grassroots organisers not been abandoned and betrayed, and had Assad not received such solid economic and military support from Iran and Russia, he might have fallen. If the US had imposed a no-fly zone, it could have saved lives and prevented the devastation of Syria’s cities.
But ‘American diplomatic policy was fairly constant … The (unrealised) aim was to bring Assad to the negotiating table, never to end his failed regime.’ The Obama administration was fearful of what might happen in a vacuum created by Assad’s fall; but by not taking a stance, it allowed an equally dangerous vacuum to open up. The idea that Assad and his foreign backers will join the West in an alliance against ISIS is ‘unadulterated fantasy’ because ISIS is a by-product of the regime’s brutality and its collapse. ISIS is also useful as a source of leverage. The policy of the regime has long been ‘to present itself as the essential solution to problems it has itself manufactured.’ Burning Country makes a persuasive case that the ‘realist’ argument that one must deal with Assad is morally unconscionable and strategically foolish.
Yassin-Kassab and Shami are critical of leftist orthodoxies on Syria. They quote the Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh: ‘I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians … Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate.’
Burning Country is dedicated to Razan Zaitouneh, a human-rights lawyer who defended political prisoners under Assad. She lived in hiding before settling in Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, and documented the regime’s starvation siege and sarin gas attack. Zaitouneh and other activists were kidnapped in 2013, probably by an Islamist militia. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
The authors believe that Assad — dependent on foreign backing, weapons, and troops — will fall eventually. But they admit ‘building a free and socially just society out of Syria’s wreckage … will be an almost impossible task.’ Because ‘a people who dared to demand freedom received annihilation instead.’
The Egyptian people have not faced annihilation, but their aspirations for change have been brutally curtailed. Yet Jack Shenker, the former Cairo correspondent for The Guardian, doesn’t see their disappointment as the end of the story. ‘We stand at the beginning of a long and deep-seated revolutionary moment, looking out over a hurricane that will cause Egypt to shudder for a very long time,’ he writes in The Egyptians: a Radical Story (published by Allen Lane).
Shenker declares his solidarity with the Egyptian uprising, connecting it to global struggles against economic and political disenfranchisement, and focuses on the many ways in which Egyptians — before and after the 18 days in which they called for Mubarak to step down — have challenged a society he describes as ‘Neoliberal. Ahistorical. Static. Old. Male.’ His most valuable contribution is a discussion of the economic underpinnings of the uprising. In the 1990s, Egypt underwent structural adjustments recommended by the International Monetary Fund that privatised many state-owned businesses: ‘Across the 20-year privatisation programme, the total market value of all the assets sold by the Egyptian government to the private sector was estimated by experts at $104bn. The actual amount received by the state was $9.4bn.’
In the late Mubarak years, western diplomats and business newspapers celebrated the emerging ‘tiger on the Nile’ while dismissing a wave of strikes, as well as the impoverishment and dissatisfaction of millions of Egyptians; the number of Egyptians living on less than $2 a day grew from 20% to 44%. The rollback of Nasser-era land reforms resulted in evictions that left a million families without land. The state didn’t withdraw from the market but acted as a broker in deals that concentrated wealth in the hands of well-connected businessmen, the ruling family, and the upper echelons of the military and the security establishment, who expanded monopolies based on exclusive access to state resources.
Western governments and institutions remained focused on the country remaining open for business. At an international economic summit soon after President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi assumed power in 2014, the message was that ‘Egypt must get back to economic growth: to do so the country needs more debt, its assets need more privatisation, its citizens need more austerity, its dissenters need more muffling in the name of security and stability.’ Economic liberalisation, democracy and security would go hand in hand; the latter two goals were undermined, if not rendered impossible, by the first. It takes significant state repression to impose unpopular economic measures. Egypt is now poised to take out a new $12bn loan from the IMF, and Sissi has already warned that new austerity measures will be required.
But Shenker sometimes strains to measure every facet of Egypt’s complex social, historical and cultural reality according to his theoretical yardstick. All social ills are traced back to the regime and its embrace of neoliberalism. One gets little sense of the genuine support for the status quo and for the Egyptian army during the 2013 coup against the Muslim Brotherhood, or of the interplay between society and the regime. When Shenker describes how the authorities use sexual harassment and violence to intimidate dissenters, he doesn’t emphasise that these work because they exploit prevailing societal attitudes: female activists who are assaulted or humiliated often face the opprobrium of their own families and communities.
Shenker also barely acknowledges religiosity and political Islam as forces in Egyptian society, and provides a cursory account of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its relationship to the security establishment and business elites. He portrays the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 as payback for his economic policies, without considering the anger of Islamists over the peace treaty that Sadat had just negotiated with Israel. He discusses the Kefaya movement — a precursor of the anti-Mubarak protests — but not its focus on avoiding tawreeth, the inheritance of power by presidential scion Gamal Mubarak, distasteful to many army leaders. He depicts the clashes between protesters and police in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in 2011 as much more significant than they were. Several thousand protesters fought the police in downtown Cairo for days, trying to reach the interior ministry. It was a display of courage and rage, but confounding and tragic: many protesters were killed and maimed, to no avail. Shenker rightly condemns the Muslim Brotherhood for its lack of solidarity — the group was focused on elections — but I don’t see any way that, even if protesters had broken through, their victory would have sounded ‘the death knell for the police state’.
Ursula Lindsey is a writer based in the Middle East and manages the website The Arabist. This article is adapted from a longer piece to be published in The Nation on 26 September 2016.
Source LMD English