[This review is part of the latest volume of the Arab Studies Journal! Read the ASJ's editors' note and the table of contents here.]
Mona El-Ghobashy, Bread and Freedom: Egypt’s Revolutionary Situation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021). 392 pages. $28.00 Paperback.
The Egyptian revolution of 2011 is not only a watershed episode in Middle Eastern political history but also a curious case from the perspective of scholarship. It has been the subject of extensive analysis – perhaps not since the 1979 Iranian revolution have so many reports, articles, and books been written on a single event in the region. And yet, despite this deluge of writing, it remains a deeply enigmatic case, with paradoxes and puzzles in need of resolution, and some of the most foundational questions still begging for compelling answers. Why did the democratic experiment fail? How did an inspiring revolution devolve so quickly into a tragic counterrevolution?
Mona El-Ghobashy’s book, Bread and Freedom, offers a genuinely fresh take on these pressing questions. The book takes on much of the conventional wisdom about the revolution, reopening and shedding new light on old debates, and reminding us of the myriad futures that might have been. It is written as “an anatomy of disorder” (257), which places the uncertainty and open-endedness of the revolution at the core of the analysis. Its central point is that the outcomes that many have so neatly traced back to a handful of clear determinants were in fact the final events in a concatenation of interactions, shifting relations, and contingent moments. Written in powerful and lucid prose, El-Ghobashy’s book guides the reader through the complexity of these connected interactions over the arc of the revolution, transition, and counterrevolution.
To frame the analysis, El-Ghobashy draws on Charles Tilly’s concept of a “revolutionary situation.” Debates about Egypt’s revolution often begin at the level of the semantic. Was it a nonviolent uprising? An authoritarian breakdown and a doomed democratic transition? A successful revolution followed by a counterrevolution? El-Ghobashy prefers the term revolutionary situation, which Tilly used to describe the period of dual sovereignty during a revolutionary process, when challengers in society credibly lay claim to the state but ruling elites stubbornly cling to power. El-Ghobashy argues that Tilly’s concept offers the best way to think about the years 2011 to 2013 in Egypt because it captures “the unstable power arrangements and contests over supreme authority” (256) among the Mubarak regime, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the judiciary, protesters, the Muslim Brotherhood, and others. Perhaps even more important, revolutionary situations are defined by open-endedness, and El-Ghobashy uses the concept to excavate the alternative futures that Egypt’s revolution might have brought about.
Perhaps the book’s greatest contribution is to make the case, compellingly and emphatically, that these alternative futures were genuinely possible. As El-Ghobashy writes, “my central purpose in this book is to show how the unexpected uprising opened up several possibilities for how Egypt would be governed” (28). This seemingly simple point is important because, as the 2013 counterrevolution has receded into the distance, a somewhat deterministic view of Egypt’s revolution has taken hold. According to this conventional wisdom, Egypt’s generals never really gave up the reins of power after they pushed Mubarak out or, if they did, they were always bound to grab them back. By this account, “each juncture from 2011 to 2014 was a calculated, well-played move by the military high command to encircle and defeat the uprising” (39). El-Ghobashy deftly puts paid to this overly structural narrative, which does not square with an empirical reality in which the generals dithered and flailed in response to popular pressure, before executing a genuine handover to a civilian government. She is also explicit about the variety of governing arrangements that might have emerged from this cauldron of uncertainty: “a presidential regime with a dual civilian-military executive; a parliamentary republic with military veto points; or a mixed regime of strong presidency, empowered legislature, and military jurisdiction over specific policy domains” (94).
The structure of the book is chronological. Following a beautifully written prologue, which narrates the unfolding of the eighteen-day uprising in a series of vivid vignettes, the first chapter lays out the book’s theoretical framework, arguments, and contributions. Chapter 2 covers the years leading up to the 2011 revolution, explaining how the uprising emerged, seemingly, from nowhere. Chapter 3 focuses on the contest for government control between SCAF and the various revolutionary forces during 2011. Chapter 4 then trains a light on the parliament that was elected at the end of 2011, which El-Ghobashy argues was an underappreciated power bloc and locus of political competition during the transition. Chapter 5 covers the year in which Muhammad Mursi, of the Muslim Brothers, served as president, and the impossible situation that he found himself in as he tried to consolidate his hold over the government. Chapter 6 analyzes the period following Mursi’s ouster at the hands of ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, who quickly set about constructing a violent, jingoistic counterrevolutionary regime on the ashes of the defeated revolution.
The empirical substance of the book comes from documentary sources. These include speeches, manifestos, and decrees, as well as a range of newspapers in English and Arabic, most especially the Egyptian dailies al-Misri al-Yawm and al-Shuruq, which dominate the footnotes. El-Ghobashy justifies the use of documentary sources over interviews partly on methodological grounds and partly as a matter of expediency. Whereas interviews rely on recall and retrospection, documents have the advantage of being contemporaneous with the events they describe. Moreover, she explains, the book was written at a time when the most relevant potential interviewees were either “exiled, in prison, deceased, or otherwise silenced” (45).
She is right on this last point, but only partly. Many Egyptians who played prominent roles during the revolution are still accessible and willing to speak, under the right conditions. And for a study emphasizing the causal importance of interactions and relations, interviews would seem to be a particularly valuable source of data that could easily be wedded with contemporaneous documents. Indeed, the absence of interview data means that the book is relatively silent on aspects of the transition that remain shrouded in mystery, precisely because they were never documented: the jockeying of rival factions among the Muslim Brothers; the Mursi administration’s evolving governance strategy; the formation of the coalition behind the Tamarrud Movement; the negotiations between Mursi and the secularist opposition; and the role of foreign actors in shaping events.
Still, it is striking how much insight and nuance El-Ghobashy is able to offer with these documentary sources. For example, she accurately characterizes SCAF’s position immediately after seizing power, noting how much they feared suffering the same fate as Mubarak. She also offers a convincing explanation for the Brothers’ decision to break their promise and nominate a presidential candidate, explaining it not as a function of political opportunism but rather as a defensive move against the military. Later, she is careful not to overstate the role of state agents in the popular movement behind the counterrevolution, which they “stoked and steered, but did not create” (205).
For all that El-Ghobashy offers a welcome corrective to the deterministic structuralism of recent scholarship, it is sometimes difficult to pin down the book’s main takeaways. Yes, revolutions are confusing and messy, and, yes, there were many possible endpoints to Egypt’s winding transition. But why this ending, why counterrevolution? In multiple places, El-Ghobashy writes that she wishes to avoid the “prosecutorial narratives” (33) and “dramaturgical storylines” (31) that implicitly blame actors for choices made or roads not taken. But in her determined effort to avoid assigning blame, El-Ghobashy may at times sacrifice explanation, or at least the type of explanation she claims to embrace.
For if the outcomes that really mattered in shaping Egypt’s transition—the inability of the Islamists and secularists to work together, the escalating crises of the Mursi presidency—were not a function of deliberate strategy and/or hubristic miscalculation, then what are we left with? Curiously, despite the book’s stated commitment to contingency and agency, there is something of a latent structuralism in some of its key explanations. Islamists and secularists could not get along because “the institutional structure of Egypt’s politics worked against compromise” (255). Mursi’s failure was not of his own making, but the product of a “hazardous situation” in which the “scope of his authority and his room to govern were obstructed at every turn by powerful state actors ready and willing to block him” (170). In this sense, El-Ghobashy’s account suggests that, as in all political dramas, Egypt’s protagonists during the transition were constrained in what they could reasonably accomplish by the legacies of the Mubarak regime: a powerful and paranoid military, an insular judiciary, a history of presidentialism, and a polarized political culture.
None of this, though, detracts from the book’s main contribution, as well as its overall lucidity. Even if Egypt’s revolutionary situation was perhaps not as open-ended as El-Ghobashy suggests, it was still never a foregone conclusion that it had to end the way it did. That other outcomes were always possible, despite the constraints of the past and the legacies of authoritarian rule, is perhaps the main lesson readers will take away from the book. Ultimately, it is a masterful account of the Egyptian revolution—one of the best that has yet been written—and it will surely be read and remembered by many for its incisive analysis, its dazzling prose, and its clear explication of this important and complex political episode.