Egypt’s revolution of three years ago — an incandescent burst of defiance that brought down a dictator and astonished the world — died in the early hours of its birth. The nation, like a man ambling through the dark, tumbled through a façade of democracy. The military and the Muslim Brotherhood, the state’s ultimate and diametrically opposed powers, sabotaged the spirit for change that embodied the flags and faces of their countrymen.
The revolution, if it can even be called that now, has become a dangerous hope for idealists. The generals have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, locking up its leaders, including freely elected President Mohamed Morsi. Many of the young, secular voices that inspired the so-called Arab Spring have been arrested. Islamist extremists ambush soldiers and set off bombs in cities turned sullen and suspicious.
Ahdaf Soueif’s new book, “Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed,” is a compelling memoir of those 18 days in 2011 when the Tahrir Square protests were the epicenter of the Arab world. The uprising ended the 30-year police state of U.S.-backed President Hosni Mubarak. But Soueif also notes that a transcendent moment of national unity was quickly snuffed by the military and “deep state,” which as months and years went by refused to allow Egypt to slip from their brutal grasps.
Much of the book focuses on the Soueif family and its bonds to the nation. The daughter of university professors, Soueif, whose Booker Prize-shortlisted novel “The Map of Love” set a love story against Egypt’s past, took part in and reported on the groundswell that began in January 2011 and culminated in the battle for freedom played out in Tahrir. She captures the enthusiasm, whispers, marches, fears, personal bonds and determination of Egyptians summoning their courage to change their fate.
“Each person was in one place, totally and fully committed to that place,” she writes, “trusting that other people in other places were doing the same.”
Soueif’s fervor is infectious. She has much at stake. Her son returns with her to join the uprising; friends and relatives are arrested; stones and bullets whistle through Tahrir; the bloodied are carried away; tanks roll in; snipers take aim; fires burn; and tear gas canisters hiss in the Nile. She possesses a revolutionary’s zeal but also an artist’s regret at not finishing a new novel that would have put the uprising’s clamor, anger and aspirations into context.
“The novel I’ve been working on (and off) for the last several years has gathered itself into a cold little knot in the corner of my mind: is my novel obsolete? My characters, discussing the state of Egypt, the state of the world, acting, working, loving — are they dead? If I think about it I’ll be wracked with guilt and self blame that I did not finish it … when I could have, and then it would have been part of what’s happening now…"
Publishing a book about an unfolding political drama has drawbacks. Soueif pauses the 18-day revolution with a section called “An Interruption: Eight Months Later: October 2011.” She fast-forwards to the months after the revolution and the struggle for power among the military, secular rebels, Islamists and others. Perhaps that decision was necessary to propel the narrative to closer to present day. But Soueif, as elegant and immediate a writer as she is, provides little historical context, especially on the Muslim Brotherhood and their rise from an 84-year-old opposition group to, momentarily at least, the pinnacle of political power.
This lack of insight means the reader does not experience the behind-the-scenes intrigue running parallel to the revolution and its aftermath, which has left hundreds dead and billions of dollars in economic ruin. The military’s control is more punishing than the days of Mubarak; faces of dead protesters are stenciled on city walls and female activists are recovering from the humiliation of “virginity tests” carried out by army doctors.
“So what has changed?” asks Soueif. “Well, us, and the way we see our problems. We see that we were never going to clean out the residue of forty years of degradation and corruption in 18 days, or a year. The failures of our state and the ills of our society are coming out for all to see. We’re finished with smoke and mirrors. We see that we are divided, and that we have to make a huge and imaginative effort to forge a new common ground.”
One hopes Egypt, where the pyramids stand timeless in the dust, can reach this dream. But it won’t be any time soon. The young revolutionaries Soueif writes about were both inspired and inspiring, but in the end too little of a threat to the entrenched forces arrayed against them.
Fleishman is the Times’ former Cairo bureau chief and author of the novel “Shadow Man.”
Memoir of a City Transformed
Pantheon: 272 pp., $24.95