By Amr Khalifa
Speaking of tyrants Nael Shama said: “A typical consequence of such a distorted mind set is the equation between personal criticism and disloyalty.” Though that particular article was penned in the summer of 2008, two and half years before the [25 January] revolution, it is such a penetrating deconstruction that will draw readers of the new book Egypt before Tahrir by Dr Nael Shama, political commentator and St Andrews PHD holder.
Those with political glasses will easily see the parallels to today’s Egypt and, no less importantly, will come to better terms with recent Egyptian history that led to the outbreak of anger in Egyptian streets on a sunny January morning in 2011. A trip to Tahrir [Square], one with an eye to the past, in fact, facilitates both an understanding of the present and the potentialities of the near and distant future.
The ability to see what others may miss or see earlier than others is one of the chief elements separating the political analyst from the layman, and Shama looks prescient here. Writing after the Mahala textile worker strikes of 2007 the author explains “the metaphysical stature of the Egyptian state is fading away, something that Mubarak and his henchmen are probably losing sleep over’’(P.22).
That kind of detail helps to elucidate the long-term beginning of the end for the Mubarak regime. In going back further to 2006 and the terror attacks in southern Sinai, Shama illuminates that Egypt’s current security issues in the Sinai Peninsula have long tentacles in the regions historical alleyways.
The author points out that much of the state is shunted from, short changed, sectors of education and health to the security field, and yet no solutions are at hand. These security concerns, which have now mushroomed after the military takeover of 2013, into a full-fledged insurgency in northern Sinai, have yet to be dealt with effectively and threaten the very stability of the [President Abdel Fattah] Al-Sisi regime. Articles such as the aforementioned Republic of Security and Fear help to provide an effective historical framework for readers looking for answers to today’s instability labyrinth in Sinai.
Halfway through his sojourn into Egyptian politics, Shama, who I have come to know, both through many discussions on social media and as a source, makes a particularly interesting stop in linking the ever popular football with fascism in an article entitled “In the Footsteps of Fascism: The Mubaraks and Egyptian Football”. Many watchers of both scenes, football and the political arena, have long pointed to how football has been used by autocrats, historically, as an opium for the people to disengage from the political polemic borne of the state’s inadequacy.
But Shama takes it a step further in explaining how the now deposed pharaoh (Mubarak) was politically opportunistic in using a super-heated rivalry between Egypt and Algeria as a way to score points with the masses by amplifying hyper nationalist tendencies. Mubarak ‘’recalled the Egyptian ambassador to Algeria’’ (P.89), the author explained.
By heating up the conflict rather than resolving it pragmatically Mubarak understood how much his regime stood to gain with the average man. Moreover, this was not a one-time dive into the football pool. Out of a total of 16 teams fielded in the Egyptian first division, seven had connections to the Ministry of Interior, Defence (Army), Production and Petroleum. In Egypt, football has always been king, and Shama correctly points to the government as king maker.
Perhaps where Shama’s dissective eye serves him best is when he dons the monocle of observer. In drawing a comparison between the harrowing defeat of 1967 and the state of Egyptian affairs in 2010 “1967,2010: The annals of Defeat”, Shama tells of two personal accounts that help to shed revealing light on how badly off Egyptians were in 2010.
In the first tale, he explains how his father, a PHD student in Berlin circa 1967, witnessed a fellow graduate student tell a German who inquired about his origin ‘’he was from Israel’ (P.133). If that weren’t stunning enough, reflecting the degree of devastation for many Egyptians, Shama’s own episode in Germany 43 years later reflected how little had changed.
Upon responding to a Lebanese restaurant manager‘s question concerning his country of origin the reaction was unmistakably telling: “Ya ‘eeb el shom’’ (what a shame). Such were the state of affairs, within and without, that mere citizenship in Mubarak’s Egypt elicited ‘’a sad sigh’’ (P.134). It wasn’t a military defeat, rhetorically laid up the author, but rather ‘’civilisational defeat’’. The concept is an eloquent painting of a nation satisfied with the status quo and sliding down the hill of development by virtue of standing still. It is moments like these that make Tahrir before Revolution stand tall analytically.
Keenly aware that no look at Egypt before the revolution would be complete without closely examining Gamal and Hosni Mubarak, Shama equips himself while helping the reader to penetrate that warped universe. In his piece ending the book “Mubarak’s regime against the Washington Post”, Shama shows how little has changed from Mubarak times to the Al-Sisi era. In the same way that the Post remains a critical thorn in the regime’s side today, Shama edifies that ‘to Mubarak’s regime, the Washington Post has surely turned into a real nuisance’ (P.245). There is nothing personal in the Post’s attacks, but it becomes clear that whoever the reigning pharaoh may be nothing changes: sensitivity to criticism is perceived as both personal affront and a Western plot to damage the image of the Egyptian state.
The author makes no secret about his feelings for Gamal Mubarak either, if there are Western plots, Gamal’s potential presidency, at the time, was a plot woven by Egyptian hands. “If Gamal becomes president, the politics of the status quo, which Gamal has helped design and execute for the past ten years, will be maintained and deepened’’(P.37)
Fans of Gamal were missing a very important detail, argued the author, ‘legitimacy’. These words ring an even harsher sound in the insanity of today’s political scene, with Gamal free to roam the pyramids with his family and the Al-Sisi regime under increasingly bristling attack from within and without.
Ultimately, no single book can hope to explain a scene as complex, evolving and explosive as Egypt but Shama’s foray helps to explain one important detail: the reasons for the people’s uprising in 2011 are as varied as Egypt’s 90 million inhabitants.
A look at the scene today can only remind us that Egypt before Tahrir and after may very well be twins.
Amr Khalifa is freelance journalist and commentator recently published by Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah, the Tahrir Institute, and Arab Media Society. You can follow him on Twitter @cairo67unedited