Book review: A Revolution Undone

Historical accounts of recent events are not usually my go-to source for leisure reading. However, I was more than happy to grab a copy of H.A. Hellyer’s book on the Egyptian revolution.

Having recently been taking significantly more time out of my schedule to write on current affairs, I imagined it would be interesting to take a step back in history to when I was still knee deep in my HR career. Back to a time when I was still working as an HR Generalist at Booz&Co, sitting in my office live streaming and watching the events of Tahrir square unfold on the BBC thinking to myself, wow, imagine the possibilities. 

The book delivered exactly that, not only did it make me smile at my own naivety as I peered at my old self to what seemed to be a lifetime ago, a time when I didn't even know the meaning of terms like revolutionary legitimacy or democratic mandate. But the book also provided a well balanced insight into how the events panned out on a personal level to the author, as well as taking a larger contextual scope presenting the unfolding of events through a more scholarly outlook.

An Overview

The book starts with an interesting prologue. Hellyer takes the time out to reflect on his identity as a dual citizen in the grand scheme of the topic, as well as how that identity impacted his perspective. Giving a raw account of his interconnectedness to the topic of study, he provides a parable on how he joined neighbors in setting up civilian checkpoints with with the use of “improvised weapons”. A part of the overarching spirit of camaraderie that accompanied the events in Tahrir, a recurring theme in the book.

With that, he also touches on a very important point, how could one, even in a scholarly setting, ever be able to summarize their life experiences and how those experiences impacted their worldview? Can anyone truly know how experiences shaped them? And with the objective of informing others, how can one ever make the chaos of growing up in an Arab country relatable?

The rest of the book is divided into three parts. The first part deals almost exclusive with the 18 days of the revolution, the actors, and the underlying dynamics of revolutionary legitimacy, military involvement, and democratic change. Here, insight into each of the players, from the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolutionaries, leftist factions, and even the army is provided in great detail. This is accompanied with a retelling of Hellyer’s first hand experience in Tahrir square itself, creating an interesting blend of direct witness and academic reflection.

The second part of the book investigates the aftermath of the revolution and the process which see Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood gain increased power. It starts of with am overview of Islamism and political Islam in Egypt, and the role of religion as a whole. This was by far the most insightful bit of the book providing a detailed description of the structure of Islamic politics in the country. The role of Egypt's’ police is also explored alongside the growing discontent of the general public and group polarization in the wake of other events, namely the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East.

The third and final section of the book delves into the “undoing” of the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood. Here, changes in the ideological principles of the revolution are explored, the violence that came with it, and finally the reestablishment of the army as the key player.

Some lost points

For all the details provided by the book, the end felt a bit rushed and there was a sense of unanswered questions. Sisi's accession to power was not explored with the same intensity, or perhaps the same detail, as the topics of revolutionary legitimacy etc. provided at the beginning of the book. As such it seems to leave out important answers on how Sisi now maintains his power.

It’s also only in the books conclusion that Hellyer brings in a concept of Egypt's role in "neo-Arabism". It was curious that the greater context of an Arab world was largely left untouched throughout the book which begs the question if the book was meant to focus on the revolution, why bring that up at all?

Final thoughts

In short, the book was a brilliant read, at times, painstakingly detailed. I can only imagine the energy that went into ensuring its completeness. I found it to be really well balanced. What I enjoyed the most is that not only did the book manage to maintain chronological and ideological cohesions, in the sense that the writing was able to provide background into the different rhetoric that shaped events without having the reader lose track of what the events themselves were, but it was able to incorporate a deeply personal feel. Not only does this lend the writing immense credibility by showing the extent of Hellyer’s involvement/knowledge but actually makes it fun to read breaking the dryness of a simple historical recounting. Small movements such as starting each chapter with "overheard" statements added to the pleasantness of the read.

Most importantly, the book skillfully provides an emotional insight of what it means to be in an environment of chaos where the realness of "political discourse" and its immediate effect is made clear. This will probably be the closest anyone can get to the reality of how things unfold on a street level in times of civil upheaval without witnessing them or being a part of them first hand.

I can see this being a great resource for anyone studying or interested in the topic, a resource that can bring them as close as possible to the events and the culture in which they unfolded.

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