Most journalists and commentators digest and regurgitate each other. We know this, but we read them because we don’t have much choice, and it’s not at all easy to break free of the apparently authoritative recycling of constantly repurposed opinion. Much, perhaps most, of what has been written about the Arab Spring in general, and Egypt in particular, falls into this category. We hear and read identikit comment on the Tahrir Revolution of January 2011, its betrayal by the SCAF and the Ikhwan, and the Counter-revolution of July 2013. I suspect that the anglophone press, both British and American, is particularly guilty of trotting out this too comfortable narrative which conflates Tahrir Square with Les Miserables, talks of Arab Spring succeeded by Arab Winter, of Islamists hijacking the Revolution, and of the army saving or hijacking it (selon gout). Most of us are at least occasionally guilty, in conversation or in writing, of using this sloppy intellectual template.
To read a really convincing analysis which flies squarely in the face of this romantic babble is very invigorating, and I strongly recommend Hugh Roberts’s review essay in The London Review of Books (12th September 2013) called The Revolution That Wasn’t. Roberts does what most journalists can’t, and places the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and its aftermath in a strongly anchored historical framework. Of the books he reviews it is clear that Hazem Kandil’s Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt is particularly interesting and formative, but Roberts is himelf a distinguished scholar of North Africa who has lived in Cairo for more than a decade, and observes and deconstructs in precisely the way that journalists who flit in for a few frantic days of pieces to camera, do not.
I’m not going to rehearse the review in detail here: it is essential reading, and I recommend it to you. What Roberts does is to suggest very coherently that what we think we know about it is what we are intended to think we know. He poo-poos the absurd figures for signatures on petitions and people at demonstrations; suggests coherently that the whole period, despite the idealism and courage of the demonstrators in the Square and across the country, is one not of revolution at all (at least in the Tunisian sense), but of a rebalancing between the Egyptian ruling institutions – a rebalancing that has seen the army, in constant tension with the presidency since Nasser, regain its upper hand. He shows Tamarod to be largely a glove-puppet of the army, and paints a very convincing picture of the Muslim Brotherhood’s being forced into the trap of government that its wiser heads tried hard to resist, seeing all too clearly the consequences that would follow.
Like a bucket of cold water thrown over one’s head, Roberts’s article leaves one thinking more clearly, and dissipates the fog of easy answers. I tried it out on a serious and respected commentator on the region, based in London, who wrote back to me: “Too many of today’s journalists, myself included, are not close enough and do not know their subject and regurgitate rubbish and confuse the picture. This article was like lifting a veil and being shown some genuine light.”
Hats off to the LRB (and note in passing that it ran a very interesting article by Hazem Kandil on March 21st called Deadlock in Cairo). Its coverage of Egypt in particular is indispensible.