The Road To Tahrir Square by Lloyd C. Gardner is a gently interesting piece of contemporary political journalism. It is about modern Egyptian politics (as you can guess from the title), but it is very much a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to the real, and far more significant, narrative that exists on the cusps of its pages, which is revealed by its subtitle: Egypt and the United States from the Rise of Nasser to the Fall of Mubarak. US, so vain, I bet you thinks the Arab Spring is about you.
I don’t think I’ve read a book like this before. It is full of spelling and grammatical errors, and though it is researched and considered (there’s a LONG list of sources for all its assertions), it is very much like a MASSIVE newspaper article. You know sometimes when you start reading a piece on a newspaper website on an intriguing topic when you’ve got a short time to kill – i.e. taking a shit, just before you get out of bed in the morning, waiting for the toaster to ping up, etc – and it turns out to be WAY TOO LONG for the allotted time, and you think “Oh, I’ll come back to this later” but you never do because it’s political journalism and the writer will’ve written something else of a similar length before you next sit down to read the news and that’ll be about something more up to date and why would you read yesterday’s news tomorrow, especially as it’s an informed, but knocked-off quickly, piece – you know that feeling, yeah? Well, imagine trying to read a whole book like that. It drags.
That’s not to say that Gardner doesn’t care about his subject or isn’t informative, it’s merely to point out that The Road to Tahrir Square is not a labour of love. It’s a labour or journalism, ideas and occurrences reported as fact, with a small amount of analysis attached. This is not really the time or the year to be reading this kind of material, as erstwhile popular debates about what constitutes an objective fact are being sidelined by debates as to whether or not facts exist. Fact is opinion, opinion is fact. So, in some ways, it is refreshing to sink into non-fiction from a few years ago, where obvious pontificating is sidelined and “hard facts” are all we’re given.
Gardner’s book draws on data – ie numbers – as well as extracts from formal documents. This is a book about Egyptian politics, in theory, but is actually a book about American foreign policy. While it is ostensibly a study of how the USA and Egypt’s leaders interacted, it is far more concerned with US-Saudi and US-Israeli relations than it is with Egypt’s own interactions with either of those countries. Don’t misread this comment as criticism of the work as a whole, though – Gardner, one imagines, has nowhere near the same level of access to files from those administrations as he does to those of his own nation. His book charts the loss of British and French influence in the Middle East, and how the colonial influence shifted across the Atlantic, he looks at how Cold War policy was exploited by Egypt to gain aid from both the US and the USSR, and it discusses the importance of the “neutral bloc” – Egypt, Yugoslavia, India – which I’d never before encountered. The creation of Israel and its effect on regional politics is interesting, as too is the financial rise of Saudi Arabia off the back of its oil. These ideas, however, are outside Egypt, and though things like the Iranian revolution and the subsequent war with Iraq and then the two Gulf Wars had a huge effect on Egypt, of course, Gardner’s book makes that cardinal sin of old school history books and ignores the people of Egypt.
The Road to Tahrir Square writes politics as play of the elites, as a game, with the world as a Risk board with hundreds of different players. It is a reductive and conservative way to view history, belied by the confused and, frankly, dismissive tone Gardner uses when he writes about the Arab Spring at the book’s end. For him, history is about loans of billions of dollars, arms sales, statesman, intrigue, gambles and “big men”. But that’s not what history is, and it seems churlish to pretend that it is. Gardner mentions social media like someone who has never engaged with it, and that’s fine, but it does mean this book offers no satisfying explanation of its titular event. Where are the protesters, the factory workers and the dispossesed? Where are the hungry, the ill, the injured? Mentioned as statistics, percentages below the poverty line, but that’s it here. This isn’t social history, this is 1950s history by rote. The lives of the elites are not better or more important than the lives of the ordinary, so while this book purports to be an in depth study of international relations, it inevitably barely scratches the surface of the notional repercussions of the exchanges it describes. This is background reading for a more interesting study. Have a look at Adam Thirwell’s Kaboom for a fictional – and self aware – version of the same thing.
Interesting, but anachronistic. The Arab Spring was not the result of US foreign policy, yeah…
I’d like to read something about the Arab Spring as well but I guess we’re too close to events for anything other than journalistic pieces to be available. I only ever read the headline and then the first few paragraphs of newspaper articles as they just start to waffle after that.
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Yes, that’s exactly the problem here. I’d like to read more, too (hence why I read this) but I don’t think anything from an outsider perspective is ever going to be satisfactory…
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..and anything by an insider is liable to be too partisan. I shall probably just do what you have done and dive in with what’s available and try to keep an open mind.
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