ON 25 January 2011, Egyptians rose up against president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old corrupt and repressive government. Eighteen days later, on 11 February, he was ousted and Cairo exploded in joyful celebration.
There were 18 days of high political drama in which the true face of Mubarak’s Western-backed dictatorship was exposed. As the regime fought for its life, the brutality of the police state spilled onto the streets in full view of the world’s media. First the security forces and then the regime’s hired thugs battled with unarmed protesters for control of Tahrir Square – and lost.
Ahdaf Soueif, author of two successful novels about her native country and much thoughtful journalism about the Arab world, has produced a chronicle – heartfelt, courageous, and hopeful – of the 18 days that launched Egypt’s revolution and shook the world. This short, urgent, beautifully written book, rich in texture and atmosphere, is a timely reminder of the idealism, humanism, optimism and sacrifice of those first weeks of the revolution.
More than that, Cairo is an intimate portrait of an extraordinary city at an extraordinary moment in its history. An engaging diarist, Soueif interweaves her chronicle of the revolution with memories of a Cairene childhood, anecdotes about her Cairene family (many of them prominent activists) and thumbnail sketches of Cairene characters, friends and strangers. In warm tones, she captures with love and nostalgia the unique and overpowering allure of the city known to its inhabitants as Umm al-Dunya, mother of the world.
Egypt’s revolution and those it inspired in the Arab world are incomplete, their outcomes uncertain. One year on, as Soueif foretells, the generals who took power in Egypt on 12 February have, in an apparent effort to maintain Mubarak’s corrupt and discredited political system, resorted to the same old violent and deceitful tactics. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists have won significant electoral victories and are poised to take control of parliament.
Soueif writes: “The paramount [question] is this: can a people’s revolution that is determinedly democratic, grassroots, inclusive and peaceable succeed?” The answer is still unknown, but what’s clear is that it cannot succeed unless those who support it continue to struggle for what they believe in. In this sense, Cairo is not only a diary of a revolution and a portrait of a city, it is also a conscious act of political engagement.
“This book is part of my fight,” writes Soueif. And she has an important contribution to make, because she writes on the Middle East with both an insider’s sensibility and an understanding of Western readers. Soueif’s novelist’s eye and humanism help us to understand that Egyptians, Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs are just as angry about the routine and flagrant abuses of their rights as any other people would be. Thus her work provides an urgent antidote to the prevailing stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, which for decades have helped sustain the West’s naive assumption that political support for torturing regimes and tolerance of human rights abuses in the Middle East have no consequences.
Cairo is a hopeful book but it’s not naive. Sitting on a kerb in Tahrir Square, Soueif imagines what her beloved aunt Toufi, now dead, would make of the revolutionary scene in front of her. “I could only see Toufi cautious, sceptical, a little grim to be honest. A kind of: this is all very well but where’s it leading? ‘Come on, Toufi, it will lead to clean, honest, transparent government...’ I hear her typical phrase: ‘Let’s hope so.’”
Back at Tahrir Square: a youth shouts slogans during last month’s protests to mark the first anniversary of the revolution. Cairo is not only a diary of a revolution, it is also a conscious act of political engagement.
Cairo: My City, Our Revolution
BY Ahdaf Soueif
Bloomsbury, 225pp, £14.99