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Egypt: The Moment of Change

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Rabab El-Mahdi and Philip Marfleet, Zed Books; (£16.99)
Issue 341

From the Giza Plateau and its great pyramids you can glimpse the complexity of Egypt, the Arab world’s most important country. Along the fertile Nile Valley peasants till the land using techniques unchanged since the time of the pharaohs. Behind is a global city that stretches out to the distance. Near the horizon smoke billows from modern factories.

Egypt is ribboned with such contradictions. On the outskirts of its capital, Cairo, the rich hide in their gated communities. In the centre vast numbers of poor people live in places such as the City of the Dead – a vast slum built among the tombs of the city’s historic cemetery.

Stripped to its basics, Egypt is a repressive state run by Hosni Mubarak that uses naked brutality to ensure the survival of the regime. For global institutions it is the poster child for neoliberalism. For ordinary Egyptians it is a dictatorship that should have been toppled by a thousand revolutions.

Yet the regime has endured. But now this “low intensity democracy” is facing the slow burn of revolt.

This revolt, that began with small protests in support of Palestine, has become transformed into a workers’ movement unparalleled since the 1940s.

Egypt:The Moment of Change, a collection of studies compiled by Philip Marfleet and Rabab El-Mahdi, sets out to examine this deeply complex society.

It is rare for a book to combine the work of those deeply immersed in struggle for change – Sameh Naguib, Aida Seif El-Dawla, Rabab El-Mahdi and Ahmad El-Sayed El-Naggar – with heavyweight academics such as Joel Beinin, Ray Bush and Anne Alexander.

It is difficult to do justice to such a broad work. But two chapters stand out, El-Mahdi’s “Cycles of Protest” and Naguib’s “Islamism Old and New”.

El-Mahdi examines the Kifaya (Enough) movement that did much to break Mubarak’s regime of fear. This movement, which emerged in 2004, became the “test balloon” that showed what was possible in the face of savage repression. But despite its early success, Kifaya left the stage as quickly as it appeared.

El-Mahdi argues that the Kifaya experience is a valuable guide to new forms of struggle thrown up at key historical junctures. Kifaya represents an episode in the cycle of protest that was displaced by the explosion of strikes that began in the giant textile mills of the Nile Delta. She maintains that it represented “a correlation between rising expressions of dissent and the democracy movement”.

In “Islamism Old and New” Naguib questions the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition movement.

He writes that at the height of Israel’s assault on Gaza at the end of 2008 many Egyptians expected the Brotherhood to call massive demonstrations. The Islamist movement, with millions of members, was well placed to tap into the widespread mood of despair and anger. Yet it held back.

Naguib unravels the complex class contradictions at the heart of the Brotherhood. He argues that it is not enough to explain the movement by the various positions it has taken. Its social base is in continuous flux and the only point of continuity is its adherence to the broad principles set out by Islamist ideals.

The Brotherhood is contradictory because it represents the varied nature of its base. It shifts and alters, sometimes acting as a brake, and at other times expressing the general discontent of its members – especially with Egypt’s subservience to imperialism.

Naguib argues that “such flexibility allows the Brotherhood to carry both counter-hegemonic and hegemonic impulses and tendencies”. This analysis stands in contrast to those who caricature the Brotherhood as either deeply reactionary or progressive.

The chapters on the living struggle are backed by in-depth analysis of the land and factories. Beinin and Bush churn through historical and statistical data to show the deep changes taking place in “the street” – the term used for ordinary people.

Marfleet and El-Nagger analyse the economy and the state in the era of neoliberalism while Alexander maps out Egypt’s position in the “war on terror”.

Finally Aida Seif El-Dawla, whose campaign to expose regime torture is testimony to the difference one person can make, presents a distressing chapter on the regime’s methods of repression.

This book fits broadly within the remit of radical social science, and is written within the boundaries of academic rigour. Some readers may have difficulty with its academic structure and some of the language – and wading through the statistics can be somewhat daunting. But Egypt: The Moment of Change should be on everyone’s shelf. It is a valuable guide to Egypt’s coming rupture.

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