Egypt's revolution: Five years on Caabu briefing with journalist and author Jack Shenker

On 22 March, Caabu hosted a briefing in Parliament with journalist and author Jack Shenker, ‘Egypt’s Revolution: Five years on’. The event was chaired by MP and Caabu board member David Jones.

Jack Shenker, whose new book is out titled The Egyptians; A Radical Story, set out his briefing by arguing that Egypt’s revolution cannot be isolated to one time or place, such as Tahrir Square in January 2011, and should therefore not be declared ‘failed’. It is instead part of a wider struggle with deep historical roots and the underlying revolutionary dynamic is very much ongoing. According to Shenker, Egypt is at the beginning of a sustained period of flux.

Domestic situation

Shenker was very damning towards the current Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime. He argued that state repression is becoming more unpredictable and brutal by the day, the worst that it has been in generations dating back to the 1950s. Indeed, in 2015 year alone, more than 400 Egyptians were forcibly disappeared by the state and there were over 600 cases of state torture. 

Although such tactics have made opposition more difficult, Shenker pointed to various signs of a growing intolerance on the part of the Egyptian public against such state brutality and lack of accountability. This can be seen by a recent rise in strikes and protests from a wide range of Egyptians, including lawyers, taxi drivers, textile workers, and doctors. The regime’s response to such protest has been unconvincing. After the killing of Muhammad Sayyid by a police officer on 18 February for instance, an official statement declared absurdly that "the bullet mistakenly came out of the gun". A recent reform amid mounting criticism does little to change the large apparatus of police violence. Sisi’s authoritarianism is increasingly being met with mockery and he has clearly lost significant respect from the Egyptian public. After he said he would sell himself to help the country’s economy, Egyptians took to the internet and made a joke page for him on Ebay. 

Shenker acknowledged that Sisi’s and the military’s rise to power was initially welcomed by many Egyptians in 2013, noting the widespread protest which had developed against the increasingly authoritarian rule of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Just as the Muslim Brotherhood struck a bargain with the ‘deep state’ (i.e. the military, intelligence services, and police) when they assumed power in 2012, using existing state instruments of power to crush protest and attempt to cement their rule, sections of Egypt’s elite made the same bargain in June 2013 to help overthrow and crush the Muslim Brotherhood. Such a pact was problematic from the start, giving the green light for a bloody crackdown on Brotherhood supporters, and its dangers are becoming more and more visible for Egyptians as the crackdown widens against all dissident voices, both Islamist and secular.       

The short-term pact between the army and people was also built around an understandable desire for economic stability and security. However Shenker argued that the regime has failed on these fronts too. It has continued the aggressive neo-liberalism of the Mubarak era which marginalised so many Egyptians, overseeing further economic deterioration. And although Egypt is a victim of terrorism and this fear is very real, with terrorist attacks at an all time high the public is beginning to question Sisi’s brutal approach, waking up to the fact that the regime is using terrorism to crack down on legitimate opposition. Ultimately Shenker argued that economic stability and security are not mutually exclusive with democracy. The regime used a brief period of popularity to calculate as much support as possible, but Shenker warned that the pendulum will swing again.

In terms of the durability of Sisi’s government, Shenker predicted that the model they have adopted is ultimately doomed to fail. He argued that the regime is more fragmented than Mubarak’s, lacking any internal logic or ‘red lines’, which perhaps helps to explain its increased brutality. Such fragmentation shows a vulnerability, with cracks likely to emerge first from within the ruling establishment. This should create space to emerge for movements on the ground. He warned that the revolutionary opposition must be more developed that it was after 2011, quick to note that they are very aware of this. While the lack of an organised alternative was part of the revolution’s strength, with ‘no obvious trunk to cut’, it also presented a weakness, and Shenker argued that the next revolutionary wave needs some coherent structure.  He raised the challenge for Islamists and revolutionaries to make common ground against the regime, as well as the significance of struggles being fought outside of Cairo, often overlooked.  He also highlighted the role of women in Egypt, who have been the biggest victims of state oppression, but also played as big a revolutionary role as men and are likely to do so during the next revolutionary wave.

International dynamics

In light of such repression in Egypt, Shenker posed the probing question- which side of history does the international community wish to be on? Despite the Egyptian regime espousing fear mongering conspiracy theories about CIA spies attempting to bring down the country, US military aid to Egypt has continued under Sisi, without any apparent human rights conditions. Sisi also enjoys the backing of the Israeli government, united in perceived strategic interests and in common ground against Gaza, also ignoring questions of human rights. Shenker highlighted the hypocrisy of UK foreign policy, with Cameron praising the ‘great opportunity’ for democracy in 2011 but now rolling out the red carpet for Sisiand selling arms to a repressive regime. Sisi may sell himself to the west as a familiar face in unfamiliar region, but despite the claims of him and other leaders, Egypt is not stable. Given UK’s position, Shenker called on the British public to lobby their MPs on these issues and get involved with campaigns from human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

Despite much of the international community serving to prop up the regime, Shenker sees signs of a different narrative emerging. The horrific death of Italian student Giulio Regeni sent a chill throughout the world. Italian newspapers were very critical of Sisi, and the EU recently passed a resolution condemning the suspected torture and murder of Regeni by Egyptian security forces. Shenker warned that Egypt is now one of the most dangerous places in the world to operate as a journalist or an academic, admitting that he himself has been beaten up by Egyptian police. He noted that such risks are microscopic compared to those which Egyptians face.