Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Dina Rashed reviews Bread and Freedom

Mona El-Ghobashy. Bread and Freedom: Egypt’s Revolutionary Situation. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2021. 392 pp.

Review by Dina Rashed

3 May 2023

A decade after Egyptian youth started a mass mobilization against the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak chanting “’aish, horeya, ‘adala ijtamayyiah” (bread, freedom, and social justice), another recounting of the events that gripped Egypt in 2011 offers a different lens through which to understand the country’s political trajectory. In Bread and Freedom, Mona El-Ghobashy examines the dynamics of contention not to provide a new causality for regime change or breakdown but to understand the state of uncertainty that engaged the rulers, institutions, opposition, and professional and civil society, and how it created a revolutionary situation. A situation, she contends, where—following a big political disruption—the rulers and the ruled cannot return to the status quo but a new political order is not assured.

El-Ghobashy emphasizes that she is not out to provide a new narrative of the events of 2011 but is more interested in understanding how two military coups, protean protests and demonstrations, succession of government, wrangles over the constituent process, competitive elections, collective violence, and court activism impinged on one another. In that framework, the revolutionary situation, which she describes as one where the old system comes under fierce assault but does not collapse, becomes an important political phenomenon in its own right.

Over six chapters, a prologue, and the conclusion, she draws an interstitial collage of events during a politically fluid period that was more than an authoritarian breakdown but less than a democratic build-up, covering the years between 2011 and 2014, including the presidency of Muhammed Morsi and then that of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. This sense of fluidity bleeds into the structure of the book itself; it is only on page thirty-five that we encounter the first big question of the book. Events are not resurrected in a linear chronology, and a flashback style brings readers full circle through developments between 1995 and 2020. The chapters expose three periods: Mubarak's Egypt (chapter two), the revolutionary situation of 2011–14 (chapters three–five), and the counterrevolutionary period through 2020 (chapter six).

The book exhausts newspapers, publications, and video sources that are easily verifiable; a welcome effort, especially for studies dealing with the military in political life. Despite the abundance of cited theoretical works, El-Ghobashy fails to explain why she refers to the mass mobilization as the revolution in most of her chapters before shifting to the use of uprising in the conclusion. This conflation remains unexplained.

What seems to be the biggest deficiency of this work is the analytical space given to the fluctuating position of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) during this revolutionary situation. El-Ghobashy does not apply the same level of scrutiny to the actions and positions of its leaders she applies to other players. Unlike other actors, especially the military or state courts whose actions have been traced in great detail, there is an unexplained dearth of attention to major positions that the MB took, thereby shaping the dynamics of coalition building during this period. The MB internal fissures, coalition building with allies under or post-Mubarak, and the tactical oscillation towards and from the military before and after its electoral successes in 2011–12 are all important junctures that necessitate the shedding of more light. The internal divisions, which ran across both generational lines and its leadership’s tactical preferences, played a crucial role in the revolutionary moment as early as the night of 25 January 2011, when the MB’s leadership refused to join the first movers of the uprising. Well-informed readers of Egyptian politics would know that neither the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) led by Muhammad Tantawi nor the MB leadership had lent themselves to radical change. They supported a more reformative approach to the status quo, often ignoring revolutionaries’ calls for structural reform. This early rapprochement may have been facilitated by the common traits that both value: strict discipline, hierarchy, and obedience to superiors within their rank and file.  

El-Ghobashy argues that the fall of Morsi’s presidency is a scenario that could have been replicated with other civilian presidents. In her analysis, the deep state would have blocked any independent civilian president from assuming real ruling power except a career bureaucrat. One of the deep state’s tools was a media campaign put to use against the civilian democratic movement, she argues. However, her analysis stops short of showing how the MB used the same tactic against its civilian and noncivilian rivals at different times between 2011–2013. First against revolutionary groups, especially secular and liberal figures during its rapprochement with SCAF, the MB ran choreographed character assassination campaigns through its well-funded media outlets, often playing the piety card to vilify challengers. At a later stage, especially during the second half of Morsi’s presidency when tensions soared with the military, the MB supported a campaign of verbal attacks against the armed forces. In one of his weekly addresses, the MB’s General Guide, Muhammad Badi’, described Egyptian soldiers as “docile” and called for their indoctrination. In another public event, another prominent MB leader described the military’s leadership as “cowardly mice.” Perhaps the most brazen attack came from Abu-Ela Madi, then head of the Islamist Al-Wassat Party and close Morsi associate, who claimed that the Egyptian generals were involved in training a three-thousand-man militia of thugs to bring havoc to Egyptian streets. 

In the final section of the book, El-Ghobashy returns to answer some of the questions that arise as we read her account, explaining why the MB acted the way they did, or why they failed to build a coalition with earlier Tahrir Square partners.

Regime-type specialists may find El-Ghobashy’s description of the current regime as neither an upgraded version of the Mubarak regime nor the direct negation of revolution, but as a surprising blend of familiar autocratic modes of rule and new administrative and ideological arrangements to be an invitation to reflect theoretically on post-uprising regime types.