Cairo: play-by-play of the Arab Spring's early days in Egypt
On January 25, 2011, Ahdaf Soueif, who was attending the Jaipur Literary Festival, switched on her hotel TV and realised that CNN was reporting from her native Cairo - the picture on the screen, which she instantly recognised, was Midan el-Tahrir. She boarded an airplane the next morning and was soon in the centre of the Arab Spring. Over the next 18 days Soueif inhaled tear gas, dodged hurtling stones and wore layers (not a fashion statement but a strategic move that makes it easier to escape if someone grabs you), toured the city's pharmacies to get supplies for a makeshift hospital and interviewed numerous people. Cairo: My City, Our Revolution is her account of those events and some of the more recent developments in Egypt.
Without claiming any prophetic powers, Soueif expects the reader to be better informed of the state of things than she is at the time of writing, in October 2011, and refers to this gap to stress that the process she and Egypt are involved in is ongoing. An experienced journalist, she provides an objective day-to-day report of the uprising, describing the facts, the circumstances that drove people to the barricades, and the emotions in the crowd. The grief of bereaved families, the allure of street art that emerged during that time, the attitude of revolutionaries and their opponents - all those details are there, down to the slogans translated into English with their chanting rhythm intact, the better to recreate the atmosphere of Tahrir. The passion with which Soueif threw herself into action seeps into her writing, allowing her to capture the spirit of the moment.
Coming from a family with strong liberal traditions, Soueif is no novice in political activism and, while aware of the difficulties faced by any democratic movement in Egypt, she has a lot of faith in her people. She is especially enthusiastic about the nation's youth and proud to see them taking a stand against the regime: "We, the older revolutionaries, have been trying since '72 to take Tahrir. They are doing it [...] We follow them and pledge what's left of our lives to their effort." Talking about the government's corruption and poverty most of the country is pushed into, the lack of basic freedoms and the brutal rule of the security forces, the author does not mince her words, adding to her narrative the testimonies of people from all walks of life, from shopkeepers to academics. In her view, uniting people in their struggle is one of the main challenges of the revolution that flared in a country so big and so divided: economically, religiously, culturally.
Egypt's security apparatus is often in Soueif's crosshairs as she talks indignantly about its methods, which include sending truckloads of hired thugs to fight anti-government demonstrators. The army, on the other hand, is an institution that has long been part of society (although that perspective may be undergoing something of a re-evaluation): on previous occasions soldiers have refused direct orders to attack their fellow countrymen, and the crowds in Tahrir Square hope, at least initially, for their support, shouting "The People! The Army! One Hand!" No such sentiments are shown towards the notoriously corrupt parliament. The message for the government that appears most frequently on huge banners reads simply "Irhal! [Leave!]" In the country where everything, from stretches of the Nile to lenient sentences, is up for sale, some are resigned to it to the point of indifference, while others try to wake everyone up with their cheering: "Prices up and no one cares / Next you'll sell your beds and chairs."
Later, when a decision is announced to sell Tahrir Square to an international hotel chain - a measure taken to disperse another sit-in organised in July - there is little doubt about whose pockets are going to be lined. It is also easy to identify who is paying the provocateurs; as shards of marble and ceramics land among the protesters, the narrator cannot help remembering how the MPs who trade in these materials used them to build monstrosities in the capital and "not only made money but made Cairo into a clown".
This is another thread of the book, where Soueif laments the changes that have happened to Egypt's capital in the three decades of Hosni Mubarak's rule. After moving to London, she felt bitter about Cairo "being constantly downgraded" and could not bring herself to write about her native city. She attempts to do it here, but the set-pieces evoking her own past seem somewhat farfetched in the light of the revolutionary events she describes. They leave you with a feeling that they belong in a different book, along with Soueif's love letter to Cairo, fervent yet helpless. Regretting that the image of the city has suffered from the invasion of luxury apartments and shopping malls, she reminisces: "We told her we loved her anyway, told her we're staying", the latter statement sounding contradictory from someone about to leave for London. It is only when the author comes back to Cairo to become part of the city's life that she finds a voice which rings true and convinces.
Compelled to "believe that optimism is a duty", Soueif is inspired by the scenes she witnesses during the revolution when events unfold peacefully. As she watches people chatting to each other politely, sharing food and drink, being chivalrous, she may be prone to the odd hyperbole: "All the ills which plagued our society in the last decades have vanished overnight." If that was the mood of the moment, it did not prevent the author from judging the overall situation realistically. What starts off as a peaceful protest, with the demonstrators and the army playing football together, erupts into violence as clashes between the opposing sides become more frequent. When a cavalcade of hooligans on horses and camels (hired, once again, by security services) charges into the Tahrir crowd, the scene no longer resembles a street carnival - to use one blogger's phrase, it is "literally a circus", without any certainty as to who is going to have the last laugh.
Back on the streets of Cairo in July, Soueif notices another change in the atmosphere: "... it's as though these hundreds of thousands in Tahrir today are - kind of - tourists. I feel their bodies pushing against me but not their will". The arrival of Salafis and the growing presence of the Muslim Brotherhood are indicative of the lack of a common platform in the uprising. Soueif concedes that "it's their country too", but the danger of the revolution being hijacked by groups whose views are far from liberal is imminent. The more politically enlightened activists are ready to fight for their values, but it is impossible to overcome the inertia of the 80m population without a strong leader. "We need a figure [...] to step forward and claim the revolution. [...] The one individual who could conceivably do this is ElBaradei, but when he came to Tahrir he couldn't take it and had to leave after 15 minutes." Fast-forward to January 2012, and the Nobel Prize winner pulls out of the presidential race, unwilling to take part in elections with no democratic framework.
The book was finished on the eve of the parliamentary elections in Egypt, whose results have now been announced, with a coalition led by the Muslim Brotherhood grabbing nearly half of the seats, another quarter going to the ultra-conservative Al-Nour. The premonition Soueif had last summer, after the excitement of the revolution's achievement had subsided, was, it turns out, completely justified. The unity she and her comrades were hoping for has not been reached, and although they swear not to step back into the nightmare there is still a long way to go before they can persuade the rest of the nation to leave the past firmly behind.
The new rulers continue to employ the tried "divide and conquer" tactics, as suggested by the recent tragedy at Port Said, where a football match between the local Al-Masry club and the Cairo-based Al-Ahly was allowed to overspill into fighting, leaving many people dead and injured. The opinion that the police remained passive on purpose, in order to sow hostility and to exact revenge on the youngsters who dared to rise for their rights (Al-Ahly fans played a key role in last year's protests), is likely to be substantiated. The confrontation between liberals and fundamentalists, fuelled by the authorities, does not bode well for the revolution whose aim it is to bring freedom to the whole nation. And yet, as long as there are people who take optimism as their duty, all is not lost.
Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and co-editor of 3:AM magazine.