The Arab Spring has been one of the most intensely covered upheavals of recent times. Perhaps no single event in this richly inspiring news season has captured so much attention as Egypt's revolution, and in particular its culmination in the vast, happy throngs that filled Cairo's Tahrir Square last winter.
The thrall of Hosni Mubarak's dramatic exit has dissolved into a lingering and less telegenic denouement. But at least the breathless eyewitness reporting can now be replaced by a more considered approach. Two highly readable books stand out from the inevitable instant accounts of Egypt's revolution. They serve not only to fill in enlightening detail, but to place the present turmoil within the context of Egypt's past — and to suggest what may lie in its future.
Steven Cook, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, takes a usefully corrective view. His book, The Struggle for Egypt, is a well-researched and lucid history that sweeps back to the origins of the praetorian dynasty that has ruled Egypt since the 1952 military coup.
Cook shows that whereas grievances against Mubarak certainly accumulated during his long tenure, and dramatically so towards its end, it was in many ways the style and shape of the state that he inherited (and did little to change) that carried the seeds of its own destruction. The group of mid-ranking officers who overthrew King Farouk started with no particular ideology and promised a swift return to parliamentary rule. But their ambitious leader, Jamal Abdul Nasser, gained a taste for power. The Nasserist structure was coup-proof and attentive to the hitherto neglected poor, but it was disastrous in other ways, producing a stunted economy, a bloated bureaucracy and a sequence of military debacles.
Yet as Cook explains, perhaps Nasser's greatest failure, and that of his peacemaking successor, Anwar Sadat, and their stolid inheritor, Mubarak, was of a more subtle nature. "Their rhetoric about social justice, economic change and democracy never matched the everyday reality of the vast majority of Egyptians," he writes. "What roles should Islam, nationalism, and liberalism play in Egyptian politics and society? The inability of Egypt's leaders to answer these questions in a convincing way forced them to fill the void with violence, which led to the Egyptian revolution of 2011."
Cook wisely refrains from predicting the outcome of Egypt's present political contest, which is pitting an amalgam of players who are oddly similar to those of the 1950s: a paranoid, military-dominated state, Islamists, liberals and anxious foreign powers. What continues is a struggle over Egypt's identity, and over competing legitimacies, likely to be long and bruising.
Ashraf Khalil, a Chicago-born Egyptian reporter who has covered the Middle East for more than a decade, provides a more intimate and chatty, but equally insightful and often humorous account of Egypt's revolution.
The leader's greatest crime, he says in Liberation Square, was to treat his people with contempt. "Hiding behind the truncheons and tear gas of the Central Security riot police was an intellectually bankrupt and cynical blank space of a regime … That's why there was a distinct undercurrent of bitterness and shame mixed in with the euphoria and the resurgent sense of empowerment coursing through the Cairo streets that February, when Mubarak meekly left the stage."
But one year on, many wonder who really calls the shots. The Nasserist security state is bloodied, but it still stands.
Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation By Ashraf Khalil, St Martin's Press, 324 pages, $26.99
The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square By Steven Cook, Oxford University Press, 408 pages, $27.95