The Egyptians: A Radical Story - the book that Noam Chomsky couldn't stop reading
It's hard for me to find enough superlatives to do justice to this excellent book. So instead, to get an idea of how good it is, it's worth reading what other people have said about it.
Take Noam Chomsky for instance. He tends to dish out fairly bland acclaim for lots of left-wing books, and isn't usually given to hyperbole or wildly extravagant statements. Not for The Egyptians: a radical story though. "I started reading this and couldn't stop," he gushes on the back cover of the book. "Remarkable."
Another critic seemed equally dazzled, writing that it was "truly astonishing," while someone else rated it as "revolutionary journalism at its finest" which "belongs in the bookshelf next to George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia." The Guardian and the Economist both listed it as one of the top books of 2016. And, to cap it off, the military government in Egypt banned it. So it must be alright.
The Egyptians: a radical story is journalist Jack Shenker's attempt to cover Egypt's revolution and counter-revolution from below. Rather than portraying the events of early 2011, which saw the overthrow of one of the Middle East's longest reigning dictators, as some kind of sudden outburst, he traces the roots of the revolution back through decades of struggle. And rather than framing the story as some kind of battle to win free markets and liberal democracy – as much of the media did – Shenker shows that its motive forces were, above all, aspirations for social and economic justice.
He knows what he'd talking about. Shenker speaks Arabic and lived in Cairo during 2011 and for years leading up to it. He writes about a country convulsed by rebellion: "the far-flung communities waging war against transnational corporations, the men and women fighting to subvert long-established gender norms, the workers dramatically seizing control of their own factories, and the cultural producers (novelists, graffiti artists and illicit bedroom DJs) appropriating public space in defiance of their repressive and violent western-backed regime." And he so obviously sympathises with and shares the aspirations of the people he describes. The book is beautifully written – at times almost poetic – and overflows with humanity.
Like Chomsky, I found The Egyptians: a radical story almost addictive. It was completely thrilling and exciting to witness millions of people struggling on such a massive scale against nearly unbelievable levels of repression. It’s so moving that at the end I was quite shell-shocked. And above all it gave me a much-needed shot of confidence that the great mass of people really can overturn the existing order and create a new society – not just in some past era, like 1936 or 1968, but right now.
The Egyptians: A Radical Story is available at Jura for $20.