Egypt, the Arabs and the World by Hani Shukrallah. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2011, pp. 329
Published in Cairo late last year, Egypt, the Arabs and the World by Ahram Online editor-in-chief Hani Shukrallah brings together a selection of the author’s journalism over the past 15 years, much of it written when Shukrallah was managing editor and then editor of Ahram Online’s sister publication Al-Ahram Weekly and then director of the Heikal Foundation for Arab Journalism in Cairo, a position he still holds today.
Many people will remember turning eagerly to the characteristically outspoken take on events Shukrallah contributed to the Weekly during his time there, and Egypt, the Arabs and the World includes many of these pieces, together with a sprinkling of the author’s other journalism from The Daily Star Egypt, the Arab Reform Bulletin and Ahram Online in the years leading up to the January 2011 Revolution. The book’s final section, “Came a Black Swan called Revolution,” contains pieces written since last January’s events, and Shukrallah has also contributed a long introduction that sets out his views on Egypt’s revolution.
Entitled “The Flood, Finally,” this introduction acts as a kind of coda to the articles collected in the book that follows, as well as to the author’s own career as a journalist and activist from the 1970s to the present. The January Revolution, Shukrallah explains, was the event “I had been looking forward to for the best part of my life,” the event that saw “a new Egyptian nationalism… catapulted across the land from Tahrir Square,” one that “spoke of fairness and justice, and above all of dignity… the innate dignity inscribed in our very humanity.”
The Revolution reversed frustrations Shukrallah and members of his generation had suffered from over the previous 30 or 40 years, many of them powerfully expressed in Egypt, the Arabs and the World. Instead of“the virtual political activism of Facebook and the rest serving as an easy alternative to real political activism,” with street protests being “besieged by several thousand shield- and stick-wielding anti-riot police… and beyond them a by-standing population looking on with bewilderment,” this time around something new took place.
For the first time in generations, the crowds grew and kept on coming, “most of them having limited if any links to the major political and ideological forces that had for decades prevailed in sluggish decay over the nation’s stagnant political landscape” and all of them committed to continuing their protests until they had ended “the unbounded criminality and cynicism of the Mubarak regime.”
When the cry of joy went up across Egypt on the evening of 11 February 2011 in response to the news of Mubarak’s resignation, a cry relayed around the world by television, then, Shukrallah says, Egyptians “recreated themselves, their polity, and the very notion of Egyptian nationhood. Dead for over thirty years, the political realm burst out from the popular uprising of the country’s young women and men fully armed, like Greek mythology had Athena spring from the head of Zeus.”
Elsewhere in the wider Arab world the Arab Spring represented a “refusal to buy into the ugly choices history had thrown the Arabs’ way.” Previous decades had shown that “ghouls exist,” notably in the shape of “Mubarak, Qadhafi, Ben Ali, Ali Saleh, Bashar al-Assad, and the host of torturers, murderers and crooks they let loose on their peoples.” But such ghoulishness was not the only harvest of recent Arab history, for in the Arab countries as much as in Egypt there had grown up a desire for root-and-branch change, one that many brave young people were prepared to sacrifice their lives in furthering.
It is perhaps in its blow-by-blow account of events in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world in the years leading up to last year’s revolutions that Shukrallah’s book does most sterling service, explaining where that urgent desire for change had come from. It is also fascinating to chart the author’s reactions to events on an almost weekly basis, the fruit of press deadlines, while all the time knowing the destination to which these events were heading in last year’s uprising in Tahrir Square and in towns and cities across Egypt.
Egypt, the Arabs and the World is divided into half a dozen thematic sections, and perhaps the author’s choice of subject matter reflects the audience he is addressing as much as it does his own interests. Al-Ahram Weekly, in which most of the articles first appeared, was started as a service for non-Arabic-speaking readers, whether in Egypt or abroad, who wanted to learn more about Egypt and the Arab world from an impeccably Egyptian source, the Al-Ahram Organisation in Cairo.
While Shukrallah does not always have flattering things to say about Egypt’s state-owned media, he pays generous tribute to the Weekly’s founding editor, Hosni Guindi, who went out of his way to establish and uphold high professional standards and to do what he could to guarantee free expression. Hosni, Shukrallah writes, “would read my latest piece before publication, on occasion coming to me, a worried expression on his face, asking – hesitantly and in the mildest of tones – whether I did not feel that a certain passage, or even the whole piece, has not crossed certain red lines, and might, therefore, pose a threat to my career or, indeed, freedom.”
Such pieces, rearranged here under the headings of “civilisation as caricature,” “our culture, ourselves” and “crisis of the intellect, or, yet again, a critique of Arab reason” among others, defend the Arab world from the false accountings of western orientalists, neo-cons, media pundits and others, while also being characteristically critical of home-grown distortions. “In this absurd and destructive struggle” of east and west, the fruit of “a great many vested interests on both sides, I stand as a conscientious objector,” Shukrallah writes, aiming to present an independent point of view to his English-speaking readers.
In a 2002 column from the Weekly, for example, Shukrallah describes the case of a European ambassador in Cairo whose view it was that “Egyptians are used to being physically abused in police stations and prisons – it’s a cultural thing, you might say,” and therefore not to be taken too seriously by human rights activists. In another piece he asks “what makes an ‘authentic’ Egyptian identity” in response to those who might be seeking to monopolise such a thing. How does one “tarnish Egypt’s image abroad,” or guard against “foreign penetration,” Shukrallah asks, in a tone of barely suppressed exasperation.
His answer to such questions, linked to his political activism, is that reductive explanations of Arab affairs – culturalist, essentialist, or tying the views of western orientalists to the certainties of religious discourse – do everyone a disservice.
The “whole edifice of thought that held that Arabs and Muslims were inherently antithetical to such ‘western’ values as freedom, democracy, rationalism, and modernity,” reducing Egypt and the Arab world to a single, monolithic version of identity, “came crashing down in Tahrir Square, where young Egyptian women and men were chanting the word ‘freedom’ over and over with such passion and intense longing.”
Saluting the work of the late Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 2005, Shukrallah writes that the Arab Spring has reinforced the “firm belief that Arabs and Muslims have as much of a claim on rationalism, humanism, and the yearning for freedom as any other national or cultural group in the world, east or west.” This is despite what he calls the “catastrophic potential” of Arab societies before last year’s revolutions, caught up as they may have seemed in an “age of horrible choices” that appeared to reduce the options to “oligarchic and military dictatorships or Islamist theocracies, American occupation in Iraq or the video butchers of Zarqawi, capitulation to Israeli hooliganism and occupation or the transformation of Arab youth into human suicide bombs.”
“The bulk of the material selected for this volume will demonstrate,” its author writes, that other choices are possible, and these were magnificently striven for in last year’s Arab Spring and in the Egyptian 25 January Revolution. “Such a commitment lay at the heart of my own project as a political commentator and columnist,” he adds, and readers of Egypt, the Arabs and the World owe Shukrallah a debt of gratitude for reminding them of it here.
While Shukrallah fervently believes that change has finally come to the Arab world, he has not lost his natural caution. In one of the final pieces in the present volume, “Good Morning Revolution: A To Do List” which appeared on Ahram Online in February last year, Shukrallah lists what he calls the “immediate tasks ahead” after Egypt’s January 2011 Revolution. Important steps have been taken towards some of these, notably with regard to drafting a new constitution and investigating officials from the previous Mubarak regime.
However, there is still some way to go, and Shukrallah is alive to the threat of counter-revolution. Parts of the Arab world at least may yet show themselves to be “immune to the waves upon waves of democratisation felt everywhere else,” he says. “Only a fully democratic Egypt is acceptable. Anything short of that goal simply will not do.”