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Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Book Review - From Tahrir to the Cabinet - Mémoires of a minister of the January Revolution

Gouda AbdelKhalek’s testimony on his 18-month experience as minister of solidarity and social justice is a precise account on how the January Revolution's dreams rose and fell

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 3 May 2020
Gouda Abdel-Khalek’s book cover
Gouda Abdel-Khalek’s book cover
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Min AlMidan Ila AlDiwan – Mouzkerat Wazir Fi Zamn AlThawra (From Tahrir to the Cabinet – The mémoires of a minister of the January Revolution), Gouda AbdelKhalek (Cairo: Dar AlShorouk), 2020

It is perhaps one of the most concise and precise mémoires that a cabinet minister has ever written. Goulda AbdelKhalek’s Min AlMidan Ila AlDiwan – Mouzkerat Wazir Fi Zamn AlThawra (From Tahrir to the Cabinet – The memoires of a minister of the January Revolution) is a 150-page book that tells the story of his time as a two-portfolio minister of supply and social solidarity – at the time, called the Ministry of Solidarity and Social Justice.

This was not a title for the ministry that AbdelKhalek chose, as he explains in his concise and perceptive account. It was rather the guidelines of mission that this prominent Leftist economist chose to accept and undertake at the decisive time starting 22 February 2011, just 10 days after Hosni Mubarak had to step down under the pressure of nationwide demonstrations that started 25 January in Tahrir Square, to 2 August 2012 when Hisham Qandil formed his very short-lived government after the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi as the first president after the January Revolution.

It was a mission that the millions of people who demonstrated all across the country for 18 consecutive days wished that the first post-Mubarak government would achieve.

According to AbdelKhalek’s account, it was not mission impossible – although it was a hard task that required a lot of work and commitment way beyond his 18 months in office, wherein he joined four successive governments that were headed by Ahmed Shafik, Essam Sharaf and Kamal El-Ganzouri.

AbdelKhalek dedicates most of his five compact chapters to explaining how he tried to turn the ministry from an executive body that was essentially managing supply and providing assistance to a policymaking entity focused on bowing to the call of the masses during the 18-days for "Bread, Freedom and Social Justice."

To secure bread, freedom and social justice, AbdelKhalek argued, it was essential to secure a sufficient and well-priced supply of wheat from foreign countries, away from any political pressure, and to subsequently secure that this wheat is properly channeled to the production of subsidised bread that would only be accessible to those who needed it.

Not an easy battle, judging by his account of the tough bras de fer he had to have with a corrupt cartel of wheat exporters and bakery owners that had for long had their way to secure exaggerated financial benefits under the rule of Mubarak.

AbdelKhalek shares some of the details of two equally tough other battles with cartels of the rice and cylinder gas markets. These cartels were very well connected to the bureaucracy and knew how to get around all existing laws to maximise their interests.

This battle with a well-established and almost institutionalised state of corruption is one story that AbdelKhalek’s book highlights so well.

To a lesser degree, the book sheds light on what AbdelKhalek himself qualifies as tough and often convoluted months of transition, which were originally supposed to last for no more than six months and then allow for the drafting of a new constitution to be followed by both presidential and legislative elections.

But things did not go this way. Upon a March 2011 referendum, legislative elections took place first, allowing for a large take over of Islamists who controlled over 70 per both the upper and lower houses of parliament. Then there was turmoil. AbdelKhalek refers to the April 2011 demonstration of radical Islamists in Qena against the assignment of a Coptic governor and the October 2011 confrontations between Coptic demonstrators calling for an end to attacks against their churches and law enforcement bodies.

He skips subsequent waves of confrontations that happened in November and December 2011. However, he shares some very telling accounts that all but forecast a counter-attack to the January Revolution.

AbdelKhalek’s book blames not just the power clusters of the Mubarak regime for the failure of the January Revolution's dreams, but also the Islamists, both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis.

He clearly says that he saw the rise of Islamists to power in late 2011, through the parliamentary elections, to mid-2012, through the presidential elections, as a defining detour from the path of the January Revolution.

This, he said, was why he declined to the invitation of Qandil for him to join the first cabinet of what turned out to be the one-year presidency of Mohamed Morsi.

AbdelKhalek’s book is quite anecdotal and it is written in a very presumptuous tone that is a defining characteristic of this minister who dreaded wearing a tie even to cabinet meetings.
 

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