There are two ways of viewing the changes sweeping through the Arab world in general and Cairo in particular. There is the significance of individual events, such as the moment that the Tunisian street trader Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight and lit the fuse on protests that brought down the government of President Ben Ali. And there is the bigger picture, one that looks back at the years of economic decline, decades of abuse, mismanagement and corruption. In this long awaited book, the London-based Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif gives us two very different views of individual events, a tale of two halves.
The larger and more successful part of the book is an account of Soueif’s involvement in the protests that began in Cairo on 25 January 2011 and led to the downfall of President Mubarak on 11 February. Soueif lives most of the year in London. On 25 January last year she was at the Jaipur Literary Festival, with little idea of what was about to happen. Not that she didn’t know that discontent was seething in Egypt, and nowhere more so than Cairo. But decades of successful repression on the part of the regime, and a failure of imagination, organisation and drive on the part of the opposition, had lured even the most optimistic observer into thinking that protest would remain small-scale and ineffective. Things moved quickly. On 27 January, she flew into Cairo and called her sister from the airport: ‘Where’s the revolution?’
The answer, as we know, was that it was happening all over, but that its epicentre was Tahrir Square. Soueif bears witness, recording events in the square and her role in them, both as an activist and as an observer writing articles and giving interviews worldwide. The account of the 15 days that follow is vivid and emotional: it might move you to tears at the heroism of the protestors and is likely to incite you to anger at the stupidity, duplicity and savagery of the authorities.
She is especially good at capturing the spirit of the square, the joys of handing out bread to complete strangers with whom one shares nothing but a common goal, the way in which so much organisation fell into place — the field clinics (the word hospital would flatter the paucity of facilities with which volunteer doctors and nurses had to manage), the impromptu cinema showing crimes of the regime, the support given to the weak by the strong, to Christians by Muslims and vice versa. These passages capture the coming together of a people for the glorious and honourable purpose of restoring national dignity and reclaiming human rights.
The second narrative thread in this book, the ‘other half’, records Soueif’s reconnection with the place of her birth, her coming home. Bloomsbury, the publishers, originally commissioned a book on Cairo some 15 years ago, as part of its Writer and the City series. Soueif mentions this but fails to explain why she stalled. The truth, I suspect, may have had something to do with her being removed from the place and very much engaged with life elsewhere.
Because of her absence, the personal reminiscences that punctuate the book are from another time — memories of other homes the family have lived in, of her parents’ political activism, of her aunt who lived within sight of the screen of the open-air cinema, of time on their land out on the desert’s edge or up on the Mediterranean coast. Some are evocative, some filled with longing. But there are not enough of these moments to create a significant personal landscape, or a memoir of the city.
Happily that doesn’t detract from the importance of this description of the heady moments leading to the downfall of Mubarak. Since then, of course, February’s optimism has faded. Soueif has tried to plan for this by including events from July and October (at which point, presumably, she needed to get her pages to press).
Part of the fascination of reading these reports from January to October of last year, and in reading the many other accounts of this period now being published, is to see how far and how fast things have changed, again. There is nothing here that envisages the current state of affairs. That the Muslim Brotherhood could win a majority in any election was always a possibility, but there is no suggestion that the extremist Salafis might win over 25 per cent of the poll, as now looks likely. Then there is the naiveté of the assumption that ‘all the ills which plagued our society in the last decades have vanished overnight’. Perhaps most striking of all is the innocence of the thought that ‘the army will guarantee peace and safety’.
A year on from the start of the protests and Cairo looks a very different city, with many Egyptians talking with nostalgia of the stability of the Mubarak years. Yet Cairo remains a place where everything is possible and, as calls grow for another mass rally in Tahrir on 25 January, perhaps we will see the wheel turn again.