Book review: Chronicles of the Egyptian Revolution

Book review: Chronicles of the Egyptian Revolution
Book review: Bassiouni's account of Egypt's revolution is an engaging insight into Egypt's Arab Spring and its aftermath, from the side of state power, writes Laith Saud.
6 min read
29 Jan, 2018
The Egyptian state is now deeply entrenched in counter-revolution [Anadolu]
As we mark another 25 January, we remember more hopeful days in Egypt, with democracy on the horizon and the resounding voice of a people.  

But seven years later, dictatorship and hopelessness prevail. Much has been written on the future of Egypt, but the history of the revolution is, in the words of Sam Hamad being "erased".

Fortunately, the late M. Cherif Bassiouni (1937-2017) wrote a detailed history, "Chronicles of the Egyptian Revolution and Its Aftermath: 2011-2016". As we commemorate another year, it is worth reviewing this work, as well as its prognosis for the future of Egypt. 

Biography of the author

Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni was Emeritus Professor of Law at DePaul University where he taught for 45 years. There, he raised an entire generation of lawyers who pursued human and civil rights. His contributions to international law are too numerous to list here, but his influential writings changed geopolitics.

He served as chairman of the Inquiry into War Crimes in Yugoslavia, of which he was most proud, and in a similar capacity for UN investigations in Libya, Afghanistan and Bahrain. In 1999, Bassiouni was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to establishing the International Criminal Court.

To those who knew him, he was a proud Arab and Muslim, but few things were as dear to him as Egypt. His family is part of the fabric of modern Egypt, his father was an ambassador, and his grandfather, after whom he is named, was instrumental in the nationalist revolution of 1919 and became president of the Egyptian senate. 

This is the political diary of a man intimately connected to the political establishment in Egypt

In Cairo, there is a street named after Mahmoud Bassiouni and in Chicago, the academic's adopted home, there is a street named after M. Cherif Bassiouni. Commemorating his grandfather's honour pleased him.

Two things should be remembered when reviewing the "Chronicles": First, this is the political diary of a man intimately connected to the political establishment in Egypt; judicial, military or otherwise. Secondly, that intimacy informs the trajectory and concerns of his analysis. 

Read more: Sisi: A tyrant plagued by the ghosts of Egypt's revolution

Bassiouni was a deeply committed advocate of human rights and the Palestinian cause; things that cost him professionally, but from which he never deterred. He was not, however, a revolutionary in the same sense as the occupants of Tahrir Square. He was deeply pessimistic of the revolution, but, again, that never dissuaded him from criticising the regime's brutality, even regarding the Muslim Brotherhood - an organisation he opposed strongly. 

"The Chronicles" are therefore an inside look into the revolution from the side of power, in which the author only examines the side of the law.     

'The Chronicles'

MCB, as those of us closest to him referred to him, would often tell us "in 20 years, Egypt will be another Bangladesh". With all due respect to Bangladesh, Bassiouni meant that the growing population, dwindling resources and potential water problems would eventually overwhelm Egypt's infrastructure, leaving millions impoverished and living in squalour. 

Bassiouni approached his history of the revolution not as simply a narrative of events between 2011 and 2016, but as a diagnosis of Egypt's future at the intersection of revolution, governance and development.

Given that today, the Egyptian state is now so deeply entrenched in counter-revolution, I would simply encourage the reader to reference the book regarding events in Tahrir, the elections of 2012 and the Morsi presidency. Here, I would like to focus on his analysis of the rise of Sisi, the role of the military in Egyptian life and his thoughts on the future.

On 3 July 2013, General Sisi appeared in a ceremony designed to present him to the country as its next leader.  Bassiouni observes that both the Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb and the Pope of the Coptic Church, Tawadros II, were present as a show of religious "unity". 

One of the striking things about this passage is the implication of the particular culture war that persists in Egypt. Though society is deeply religious in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood does not enjoy soaring popularity; the first free elections brought a Brotherhood member to power, Muhammad Morsi. 

But Morsi was ineffective. This fact, however, did not "justify his removal by force". Bassiouni goes on to say if "the assumption that he was leading the country to a dictatorial theocracy is correct, then his ouster, was the best of a bad set of possible outcomes.

Many Egyptians may share this sentiment, though I am not sure the Arab world does, again demonstrating its fractured realities.

The reign of Sisi of course continues, but Bassiouni describes it as "the military's return to power". His characterisation of Sisi is kind, some might say, and indeed, it is generous; he refers to the rais (president) as "devout", "progressive" and even "compassionate".

The author does acknowledge that Sisi is "ruthless" towards his enemies, but on the whole it is a sympathetic description of Sisi's personality.

This description, for me, typifies a certain approach to politics in the Middle East. The "strongman" is not necessarily condemned, but may even be seen as necessary, even though Bassiouni maintains the need to "pave the way for democracy".

Are these positions reconcilable?    

The military in Egypt is 'in effect, a state within a state'

But Sisi's presidency does demonstrate one indisputable fact of Egyptian life: the dominance of the military. The military in Egypt is "in effect, a state within a state;" operating according to its own institutional parameters, with no civilian oversight, and even competing with the private sector to act on public works. 

It is well known that the Egyptian military is integrated into a large part of the economy, and its effect on Egyptian culture is simple: It represents the most organised, effective institution in the country, and as a result enjoys some confidence among the people. But this dynamic is also what subjects Egypt to cyclical waves of control, revolt, repression and control. Democracy is not on Egypt's horizon.

The future

One reason a democratic future for Egypt looks unlikely, is the Sisi government's attempts to erase democratic sentiment. 

The site of the Rabaa massacre, which saw roughly 1,000 Brotherhood supporters killed, was to be renamed after a government official, a fact Bassiouni laments as "insult added to injury". 

Bassiouni also implicates Sisi in covering up corruption and managing public relations, instead of striving for "substantive achievements", ultimately leading to a society of very few rich and a great many poor. 

This criticism prevented him from visiting his home country in the final stages of his life, a country he loved until his dying breath. But as I read his assessment, I wonder if it might also be applied to the United States, his final resting place. Only time will tell.

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). 

Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.