The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged revolution
In Translation: Five Years On.. Did the Egyptian Revolution Fail?

The Egyptian authorities were so worried about the anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak that they reportedly inspected hundreds of apartments Downtown and forced young people to show their social media accounts. They also shut down many cultural venues that are gathering places (being young, being online, and hanging out Downtown are now explicitly grounds for suspicion). 

A lot of media is publishing eulogies of the 2011 Egyptians uprising, asking those who supported it to reflect on its disappointing denouement. It can be painful and a bit frustrating to read these pieces (I think media professionals themselves -- and I include myself -- as well as pundits and Western politicians, could just as well be asked what they got "terribly wrong"). That said we have one of our own, translated as usually by the professional team of Industry Arabic

Rabab El Mahdi is a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. She was also an active participant in post-2011 politics, notably when she acted as an advisor to the presidential campaign of moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (El Mahdi herself is a staunch leftist). This piece takes a brooders view at the current moment of crisis, not just in the Middle East but in the world's economic and political systems. 


Rabab El Mahdi, al-Shorouq, 21 January 2016

A mixture of suppressed anger, sorrow and fatigue engulfs the city known as “victorious,” [Ed. Note: One of the meanings of Cairo] a rough but vibrant city. Over the past five years the city has changed – and, to my mind, not necessarily for the worse, as the followers of the “good old days” school of thinking like to put forth. However, it has changed and I am almost certain that it will never be the same. Those who supported the revolution and thought that something better was possible have become frustrated and dispersed; those who followed the revolution with interest and anticipation have become fatigued; and those who opposed the revolution and continue to do so, believing it to be a conspiracy, are still afflicted by the fear caused by that earthquake in 2011, whose consequences, though they have temporarily subsided, remain present. The question shared by all these groups, whatever their political orientation, is: What next? This question is on everyone’s minds, even if it is not spoken aloud. But the question that remains of particular concern to the majority of those who dreamed of and believed in the 2011 revolution in Egypt is: Did the revolution fail?

I do not think that any one of us, whatever they claim, can definitively answer this question, and anyone who attempts to do so is just showing that they are not aware of the limits of their knowledge. However, there are in my opinion some necessary starting points, even if they are not enough for us to be able to understand what happened and therefore—most importantly—what can happen in the future.

We must realize that what Egypt has been going through over the past five years is not just a political movement or even an aborted attempt at a revolution, it is a historical process of change that involves society as a whole, including its political and even its cultural structures. Therefore, this process could last for decades. The post-colonial state that was formed in the middle of the last century has reached its end. In its current form, it is no longer able to fulfill its various roles managing society or even to achieve the requirement of being accepted by new generations, who are no longer satisfied with the idea of exchanging freedom for a non-existent economic security or to relinquish their personal dignity in a police state under the pretext of security and national autonomy. We are in the midst of a battle to redefine and to question what had previously been a given.

The fervor surrounding the idea of national independence and international conspiracies is no longer enough to subdue the generations of the new millennium, especially those whose political awareness was formed by the revolution, even if they did not participate in it. The concepts of the nation, pride and dignity have become part of the public debate and are linked to personal lives and no longer merely abstract concepts. Thus, the famous song lyric: “Don’t say, ‘What has Egypt done for us?’” is no longer a sufficient response to their questions and aspirations to a better individual and public life. Just as the project of the independent state was the dream of  20th century generations, the dream of a free society is the project of 21st century generations. From another perspective, the welfare state capable of providing social advancement through education and employment—even if that state is authoritarian—has ended. With the crisis of global capitalism and of the ambitions to build of the Gulf states, the Egyptian state is no longer able to meet the needs of its citizens. It cannot do so by way of an “industrial renaissance,” as in the era of Nasser, by offering a model like Sadat’s “Infitah” or even by way of the rentier state model (exporting labor to the Gulf and relying on their remittances), as was the case during the Mubarak era. For global and regional reasons, all of these economic models have been exhausted.

At the same time, society is experiencing these labor pains not only at the level of the relationship to the state, but also at the level of social and cultural patterns and individual relations. Towns and villages have evolved into small cities; the state’s domination over local media, education and cultural institutions is being confronted by the ungovernable openness of the internet and the diversity of resources for self-education; control by the religious establishment is being confronted by the rise of religious currents that may be worse and more extremist, but that are disrupting the idea of religion being monopolized or dominated by a single institution. The struggle among these views is reshaping society and the individual in a historic sense not seen since the late 19th and early 20th century with the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the concept of Arab nationalism and the emancipation of women, etc. This is a struggle that surpasses the idea of a political movement, which has become merely the outer layer of the deeper changes that society is experiencing.

Furthermore, the region and the world are witnessing rapid transformations that affect us, though some had thought that they didn’t. The regional scene has come to resemble what Europe and the world went through during the period of the first half of the 20th century: world wars, the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism and Nazism, the end of the old colonial powers and the Ottoman Empire, the rise of national movements, the drawing of borders for new states and the beginning of the Cold War. With the rise of non-state actors, such as ISIS and even Hezbollah as regional actors and the shift in the network of state alliances -- with the emergence of Iran and Turkey and the rise of China and Russia as states with international ambitions particularly focused in the region -- the set and the nature of regional actors has changed, as has the game itself. Thus, it is no longer possible to restrict oneself to long-term, low-level conflict management. On the contrary, what we see is an intensification and escalation, up to the moment of an imminent explosion that will redraw the map of the region – that may redraw even the nature of the states and their borders as we have known them over the last century and the concept of the state’s control over the instruments of legitimate violence and fixed territorial borders, which we studied in political science.

At the same time, the world has been witnessing successive crises, beginning with the 2008 financial crisis and through the recent crisis in Greece. These crises threaten the nature of the global economic system as we know it or at least indicate the scale of the crisis created by the global capitalist system. In parallel, we see the rise of movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy and the demise of political parties as the principal instrument for managing conflicts and political competition as well as the rise of far-right discourse in Europe and the Arab world (though their tools and motivations differ). These variables reflect the magnitude of the change that is overtaking to the world as a whole, and even those ideas and concepts the world had thought settled, such as the optimal political form and the meaning and administration of democracy.

In sum, we are at the beginning of the end of a historic phase domestically, regionally and globally, even if that does not mean that this phase will end tomorrow. The starting point is to understand the nature of this phase and then to begin to pose questions about what we, as individuals and as groups, hope for in order to shape the future and to draft preliminary plans for how to achieve it, while keeping in mind that both state violence and non-state violence are an unsustainable situation. In this sense, judging the outcomes of the Egyptian Revolution or what is called the Arab Spring is premature. We are witnessing the beginning of the final chapter of a stage in the evolution of human society, but how this final scene will end has yet to be decided. May God have mercy on all the martyrs, refugees, prisoners and all those who came out and took action, only wanting a better future for humankind.

What Killed Egyptian Democracy?

Continuing today's reflection on the failure of Egypt's revolutionaries, do not miss the sequence of essays in the Boston Review on this issue, starting off with Mohammed Fadel who argues revolutionary purity was the enemy of pragmatic progress:

The January 25 Revolution was also a striking failure of political theory. More precisely, it was a failure of the theories embraced by the most idealistic revolutionaries. Their demands were too pure; they refused to accord any legitimacy to a flawed transition—and what transition is not flawed?—that could only yield a flawed democracy. They made strategic mistakes because they did not pay enough attention to Egypt’s institutional, economic, political, and social circumstances. These idealists generally were politically liberal. But the problem does not lie in liberalism itself. The problem lies in a faulty understanding of the implications of political liberalism in the Egyptian context—an insufficient appreciation of factors that limited what could reasonably be achieved in the short term. A more sophisticated liberalism would have accounted for these realities.

P.S. Fadel has more grim reflections on the state of Egyptian society on his blog, where he doubts the very existence of Egyptian liberals or revolutionaries. 

"Our sin was pride"

From a long essay by imprisoned revolutionary activists Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma, in which they reflect on what went wrong:

Our sin was pride not treachery. We said, “We’re not like those who came before us, and so the young of the Brotherhood are different and the young Nasserites are different and the leftist young are different and the young liberals are different.” The weakness of our myth was exposed when we came up against the young officers.

To read alongside Steve's post on the revolutionary's need for self-examination – can't really say it's not happening, just that it's happening too late.

A dictionary of the revolution

Artist Amira Hanafy -- whose work I've written about here before -- is doing a kickstarter campaign to raise money for her next project, a dictionary of the revolution. She will travel around the country soliciting people's definition of various terms that have come into heavy use in the last years. 


From a press release about the project: 

“I’m not interested in creating one uncomplicated narrative for the revolution,” says Hanafi. “You could say, I’m not interested in “the Truth”. Instead, I’m interested in the truths that people believe. Egypt’s population is around 85 million. That means 85 million unique perspectives, 85 million truths. For one unique and incredible moment, it seemed that a great majority of those people were in agreement on what the country needed. But what’s happening in Egypt today is a clash of many truths. I’m interested in documenting the complexity of this moment.”


Tahrir has lead to...

Alaa Abdelfattah writes:

Tahrir has lead to an explosion of activism and community engagement. But Tahrir has also exposed the weaknesses in the current model of organizing. Relying too much on a small, highly connected network of activists who work on all causes at once has led to a revolution where 'the people' were not later represented in the political process. It has mobilized masses with no community memory of the long struggles that led to the uprising. Legions of citizen hungry for change and looking for ways to help change happen are failing because they lack the proper networks and experiences.

What next? That's been the question for two years.

Today's Arabic

I wrote a piece recently for Al Fanar -- a new English-Arabic portal about higher education in the Arab world -- about concerns over the "loss" of classical Arabic, supposedly threatened by the spread of foreign language schools, the Westernization of young Arabs, and the historical phenomenon of diglossia

Is the Arabic that young people speak today — grammatically “incorrect,” full of dialect, foreign words and neologisms — a threat to linguistic heritage and cultural identity? Or is it the natural development of a vital, globalized vernacular?

During the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, there were two slogans: الشعب يريد اسقاط النظام ("The People Want the Fall of the Regime") was in Fosha, or classical Arabic and -- as that language does -- it traveled across borders, from one Arab country to the other. But in Egypt there was also another slog: ارحل يعني امشي ("'Depart' means get out!") which "translated" the Fosha word for "leave" into the Aameya one. The revolution spread alongside a classical slogan, but they also saw an eruption of colloquial Arabic, indispensible to satire and subversion, to "telling it how it is," into the stultified public discourse, and I think that will remain the case (look at Bassem Youssef, look at mahraganaat music). 

That said Arabic-speakers don't want to lose contact with Fosha -- the language of the Koran and of literary heritage -- and there are very strong religious, political, cultural arguments against doing so. Ideally, young Arabs could master the entire colloquial-classical spectrum, plus a foreign language or two, and be all the richer for it. The fundamental challenge is not linguistic but has to do rather with low literacy and low-quality education. 

Egyptian writers and revolutions

"Black, not noir," is how our friend Adam Shatz describes Sonallah Ibrahim's groundbreaking debut novel Tilka El-Reiha, which has just been translated -- along with Ibrahim's early prison diaries -- by Robyn Creswell as The Smell and Notes from Prison

Readers of the blog will know that I am a great admirer of Ibrahim's (I'll post a profile of him I wrote a few years ago, on the occasion of the English translation of his autobiographical novel Stealth, at the end of this post). Not only is he one of the most original and talented writers of his generation, but he is also one of its most principled. What marks both his writing and his politics is a startling, almost compulsive honesty.

Shatz looks at the relationship between Ibrahim's prison memoirs (he was incarcerated by Nasser, in his early twenties, for being a Communist) and his fiction, and at the literary, personal and political influences and traumas that find expression in both. 

Only faint echoes of the cause that inspired Ibrahim can be heard in That Smell. An old comrade of the narrator’s rhapsodises about the masses, but seems to lack conviction, and this is the last we hear of the revolution. In occasional, italicised flashbacks, Ibrahim pays tribute to the solidarity the party created among its members, the small kindnesses that made prison life more bearable. On a visit to the wife of a comrade who died in prison, the narrator remembers sitting in the back of a police van while her husband sang ‘snatches of an old love song over and over’. He doesn’t share this memory, because just at that moment his friend was given a beating and taken away: ‘that was the last time I saw him.’ She asks if her husband loved her, and the narrator replies that he did, but also thinks to himself: ‘What could I say, what was the point of going into it after it was over, and who knows what goes on inside another person anyway?

Apart from these flashbacks, That Smell takes place in the dead zone of the present, ‘after it was over’: ‘it’ is the experience of a generation of Egyptian leftists who rallied to Nasser’s revolution only to find they had nowhere to go other than prison or exile. ‘The narrator’s stupor,’ Creswell writes, ‘is the daze of depoliticisation.’ But the narrator isn’t the only one wandering around in a daze. The conductor on the metro stops to ‘put a lump of opium in his mouth and sip some tea. Lucky man, I thought. He’d found a way to live that let him put on a brave face.’ Images of death and disfigurement are everywhere: on the street, a dead man lies ‘covered with bloody newspapers’; a pretty girl the narrator notices on the train turns out to be missing a limb. Even those who have found happiness, or what they’ve been told is happiness, seem doomed: his brother’s wife won’t have sex with him unless he pays her; his friend Samia, now a wife and mother, is ‘stuck for ever. There was nothing to do but submit.’ Desire is consummated with something like satisfaction – or honesty, without the pressures of marriage or the need for cash incentives – only when members of the same sex are involved. Ibrahim has spoken obliquely of his own relations with men in prison, and writes in his story ‘The Snake’ that after prison one comes to see ‘everything as normal’. The lack of normalising judgment, much less homophobia, in his work stands in contrast to, say, Alaa al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, where gays are represented as sex-crazed, dandified predators.

For some reason reading about Ibrahim made me think of this very powerful (and fantasmagorical) piece of writing by novelist Youssef Rakha. It's in a completely different register from Ibrahim's affectless chronicle of alienation (and it uses global consumerism -- the destructive reach of which is a theme of Ibrahim's later work -- as an international vernacular). But it also captures a different moment of political disappointment, which in this cases produces enraged flippancy rather than numbness. I have to quote at some length: 

You’ve been in Cairo six months, you say. So you know: first we agitated on Facebook. We set a date, a time, and a venue for a big demonstration. Tahrir Square, yes. The riot police killed some of us, and we had an even bigger demonstration. That day they killed so many we ended up occupying the place—millions of us, eventually—protected by the Army. And what were we protesting? Brutality and bureaucracy, control and corruption. Plans to make the presidency a hereditary post, the way it is in Syria. Not, you understand, the conditions of Islam. The plight of the Umma was not on our list of grievances; if anything, we were angry because we didn’t feel we were part of the non-Umma. When we realized something was happening we called it a Revolution, the second, must-see episode in the Arab Spring series.

That was January–February, 2011. And, until February–March, 2012, when it became obvious that our protests were playing into Islamists’ hands and I fell prey to despair, I was deeply involved: as a tweep, a chant-author, a maker of improvised anti-tear gas masks, a field hospital doctor (because, even though I’m thirty-two years old, I’m still a medical student hoping to graduate some day). I was there for every demonstration, every portable slaughterhouse. I saw bodies dismembered by corrugated wheels and blunt swords gashing heads. I hurled stones at people in uniform. I chanted. And that’s how I got the name Che Nawwarah, after the Communist icon Che Guevara. He too was a failed physician. Though now that I’ve read about him, I suspect he was only a fanatical psychopath, a serial killer with pretensions.

The protests started to feel like voluntary sacrificial rites to help the bearded bastards get more power, and I stopped going. I didn’t even try to warn my comrades because I knew they wouldn’t listen. In my despair I could tell the mini-inquisitions were round the corner. Already strangers ruled over us, worse than the tyrants of before. Now that the Islamists were identified with the Revolution, there was no one that would deliver us out of their hand. We would be getting our bread with the peril of our lives because of the thug’s sword. Good Muslims would hang by their hands—not only metaphorically, either—and, by sexual harassment, premature marriage, and female genital mutilation, the women of Cairo would be ravished, so would the maids of the Nile Delta. The faces of true human beings who spoke out would not be spared—but wait! I should explain the difference between Muslim and Islamist in case you’re not an operative and don’t know.

Most Egyptians are Muslim by birth. Many practice, but until the hijab became ubiquitous in the nineties, you could hardly tell. The Islamists are the ones who carry Islam on their person the way you carry an electronic gadget on the subway. From months of study I’ve decided that they don’t stand out in any other way, except maybe by hating women and Christians, foreigners like you and so-called liberals like me. They just have pre-cultural Bedouin beliefs that they call Islam. And they flaunt those beliefs in a range of brands: Nokia-Jihadi (kill the infidels), Samsung-Salafi (kowtow to the autarch and marry as many as four circumcised nine-year-old girls at a time), Apple-Muslim Brotherhood (win elections, win more elections, and win still more elections). . . . The Islamists were the ones who, unbeknown to us, somehow, inherited the Revolution.

Finally, here is my profile of Ibrahim, who better than any other writer in Egypt articulated what was rotten in the land:

“I spent forty years trying to write it,” Sonallah Ibrahim tells me. We’re talking about his novel Stealth. This intimate, unusual family portrait by the renowned Egyptian writer is his first work to be translated into English since his 1992 masterpiece Zaat. It’s also—in its understated way--one of his best. 

Just minutes earlier, I had arrived to the top (sixth) floor of Ibrahim’s elevator-free building, in a northern suburb of Cairo. I guess correctly that his door is the one with the faded Kifaya (“Enough”) sticker--Ibrahim was a regular at the opposition movement’s demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak.

The author opens the door. Largely unknown in the West, Ibrahim is one of Egypt’s most respected men of letters. The great writer and satirist—scourge of corruption and hypocrisy, symbol of unfaltering commitment to both political principles and art—is a small, smiling, gentle-looking man. The large glasses he wears give his thin face an owlish look. Above it rises an unruly, vertical tuft of gray hair.

He waves me into his small, book-crammed apartment while apologizing for the climb I’ve just had. After he’s offered me a cup of tea and turned on a fan, he settles in on the cushions on the floor across from me. And tells me how he first thought of writing the story in Stealth over forty years ago, when he was a young political prisoner who had only just started dreaming of becoming a novelist. He’s turned the subject over in his head ever since.

“What really decided the matter is that I reached the age of my father, at that time,” says Ibrahim, who is 73. “So I was able to understand him—what kind of motives, what kind of feelings [he had].” 

That time is Egypt shortly before the 1952 Revolution. The young narrator of Ibrahim’s affecting, autobiographical novel is -- like the author -- the son of an elderly man who, to his grown children’s horror, has married a much younger woman of humble origins. The novel details the daily routine of the old man and the young boy—their household arrangements, their outings, their small arguments, their dependency on each other.

The boy’s mother is missing, and throughout most of the novel we have little idea why. The child and the father’s longing for her shadows the narrative. Meanwhile the boy’s world is mysterious, precarious, unsettled by the absence of his mother and the puzzling needs of his father. The story is told from his blinkered point of view, as he tries to keep up with and make sense of events. To do so, he peeps at keyholes, eavesdrops on conversations, goes through drawers.

The book is written in Ibrahim’s typical short-hand--photographically detailed, emotionally subdued. “My father stops for a second at the door to the house before we step into the alley. He raises his hand to his mouth, twisting the curved ends of his grey mustache upwards. He makes sure that his fez tilts slightly to the left. He removes the black, burnt-out cigarette from his mouth.”

Translator Essam Aboul-Ela does a fine job but falls short of the limpidity and concision of the original (especially compared with the superb French translation by Richard Jacquemond). This is a book whose foundation is the minute description of everyday scenes, in a language that draws no attention to itself. Aboul-Ela’s translation hues too close to the words on the page--rather than on clearly rendering the sequences of actions into English—leading to awkward constructions and, in a few instances, to misapprehensions about what, exactly, is going on.

We nonetheless fall into the flow of this childhood world precisely recollected. Only to be brought up short, every so often, by a small revelation; a sharp observation; an intimation of great, contained emotion. The boy, pretending to sleep, overhears his father recount how he fell in love with his mother; he watches through a crack in a door as his uncle harasses a maid; he discovers that the couple living next door aren’t actually married; he remembers—in one of a series of sudden, evocative flashbacks--happier times: “The lamp of the living room shines over the table top. It’s messier than usual. Smell of sautéed liver. Olives. Pistachios. A small bottle with a clear liquid. Her voice comes from the bedroom. She’s singing the Ismahan song over and over. “When will you know it’s true? That I love only you.” Laughter. Her voice again to a different beat. “Darling don’t let me be. See what’s happening to me.” My father’s voice finishes the song. “Loving you is destroying me!”

No explanations are offered and no judgments are passed. But we begin to see how complex and un-childlike this story is. The writer is engaged in a melancholy, masterful and very adult investigation of his past.

“When you get old you start to look back,” Ibrahim tells me, and “memories of the early years are more alive than recent ones.”


The emotional charge of this story comes from the tenderness of the father-son relationship. After a difficult day, the boy narrates one of many poignant but comforting homecomings: “We go into our dark apartment. The lamp in the hallway is burned out. I cling to my father’s clothes until he can open the door to our room and light the lamp inside. He heats a cup of sugar and water. He puts a tray on top of the bed and we sit next to it. We dip the cookies in the water. He says our house is the best place in the world.”

When I ask Ibrahim what writing this book taught him, he stares out the window at the surrounding sun-baked rooftops and then tells me—with visible emotion—that it gave him a greater understanding of “the father character.” 

The work’s intellectual edge, meanwhile, comes from its layered study of voyeurism. All the grown-ups in Stealth also spy on each other and sneak around. More than once, the father uses the son as his eyes and ears, tasking him with gathering information about the neighbours. All of us, Ibrahim maintains, “sneak into the life of others”—whether we are watching TV or making art. As for children, “this is the main thing in their life—to know what’s happening, what’s behind this door, what’s inside this drawer.” And the same goes for writers, perhaps? “Of course.”


The child narrator and the adult author of Stealth are both (in their different, overlapping ways) after the truth, and the truth in Ibrahim’s books is invariably unsettling and unflattering. Ibrahim is a particularly acute observer of the small humiliations of genteel poverty and old age, of the hypocrisies, subterfuges and unkindness that surround sex and classthe tone of voice of a shopkeeper when he asks “Put it on your bill?”; the father’s conviction that a maid will steal food in the kitchen; the strained welcome at the house of affluent relatives. Not to mention the bodily activities that Ibrahim makes a point of including: menstruating, masturbating, going to the bathroom, plucking lice, having sex.  

“Why cover up reality?” says Ibrahim. “I believe we shouldn’t be ashamed of what we do. It’s normal.” Ibrahim wants to make his literature as unliterary as possible, to plainly saw what is usually left off the page, and to startle his readers into acknowledging some small truth about their own lives. Leaning forward with animation, Ibrahim sums up his attitude towards his readers as: “Look! You must know! You must realize these things! I know that you are infuriated and trying to ignore [me] but I want to remind you.”

Ibrahim has always approached his profession with a sense of mission. He turned to writing during the five years he spent in prison, from 1959 to 1964, for being a member in the Communist Party. In his untranslated prison memoir Youmiyaat Al-Wahat (“Oasis Prison Diary”), he recalls how he filled the long days in jail by summoning childhood memories, exchanging stories with other inmates, and—when all narrative sources had run dry—weaving elaborate daydreams. Pretty soon he had decided to become a writer, and was busy hiding smuggled books in underground caches and using empty cement sacks and cigarette papers as writing material.

In his prison diary—finally published in 2005 with an introduction and copious, sometimes rueful notes by his older self—the young Ibrahim quotes Tolstoy, Gogol and Graham Greene and earnestly discusses “the role of the writer in Egypt today.” Perhaps the greatest influence on him at that time was Hemingway. “I liked very much the way he stands far from his subject, with no evident emotion,” Ibrahim remembers. To this day, he explains that in his writing he tries “to be neutral, to create a space between myself and the characters’ feelings.”


It was while in prison that Ibrahim self-published his first book. Financed by his cigarette allowance, the hand-written volume had a cardboard cover of flattened food boxes, chapter titles in red ink made from mercurochrome, and a spine held together by bread paste. It included the introduction to a novel, Khalil Bey—the never-finished fore-runner of what would one day become Stealth. After his release from prison, Ibrahim wrote novels that were published in more traditional, less pain-staking ways. But the subject of his childhood haunted him. All along, he says, “I was thinking of it, of how to deal with it.”


Meanwhile, Ibrahim was becoming one of Egypt’s most influential and innovative writers. His work is a remarkable combination of old-fashioned political commitment and formal originality; an inspired blend of the surreal, the satirical and the documentary.

Only three of Ibrahim’s many novels have been translated into English. His 1966 debut, The Smell of It, follows a benumbed young political prisoner who has just been released from jail. The work’s bleak, unliterary style, near lack of plot and shocking (at the time) reference to masturbation and other bodily functions caused a furor in Egyptian literary circles. The Committee is an indictment of authoritarianism and globalization whose narrator is subjected to increasingly bizarre and humiliating tests by the committee of the title (to conclude, he is instructed to eat himself). Zaat—whose hapless heroine hallucinates Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat redecorating her kitchen--is a rollicking, ferocious satire of Egypt from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Ibrahim was also becoming Egypt’s reluctant literary conscience, what literary scholar and close friend Samia Mehrez calls  “an autonomous anomaly” in a cultural field that is extremely vulnerable to social pressure and political manipulation. His status rests not so much on the fact that some of his books have been banned or that his work is underpinned by such explicit critiques of imperialism, authoritarianism, and global capitalism, but on the way he has so doggedly avoided almost all forms of compensation and compromise. He has accepted no government sinecures; publishes almost exclusively with a small, leftist publishing house; and makes a habit of turning down literary prizes (three so far). His reputation for being incorruptible was cemented by his last, dramatic refusal, in 2003, when he stepped up to a podium surrounded by government officials and famous Arab writers and declined Egypt’s most prestigious and remunerative literary prize because “this government doesn’t have the credibility to award it.” It was a rebuke not just to the government but to every writer and intellectual who has reached an accommodation with it.

Such possibly pointless gestures of revolt are the kind Ibrahim’s protagonists often make. One could say that each of his books has been one too. Ibrahim has written two novels since Stealth;  he is always writing, starting a new project before he has finished the last--to avoid the depression that he says besets him the moment he completes a book. “Even though,” he admits, “now I am tired.”


He mentions his age several times during our interview and although he actually looks sprightly, younger than his years, and laughs often, there is an autumnal undertow to our conversation. He is clearly taking stock, these days, of both personal and national history. The latter, in particular, makes for a dispiriting study.

There’s a baffled melancholy in his face as he says that in Egypt today, “We are all unhappy, all the time.” Asked what he expects in the coming year, as Egypt heads towards parliamentary and presidential elections, he shakes his head and says: “More chaos. I can’t think what’s going to happen.” Right now, he notes, “There is some kind of equilibrium between the different forces in society: They are all weak.”

Ibrahim illustrates his view of the country’s progress under Mubarak by an eloquent, steep, downward hand motion. Even basic services have collapsed, he says. Cairo’s streets are strewn with uncollected garbage. Entering a hospital is the equivalent of  “putting your life in God’s hands.”

“Sometimes,” he goes on, “I don’t know what should be done…there are a lot problems in every sphere. Where to start? How can you change the morality of the people and the way of life and the values? Either you have a kind of volcano or a fire, which will destroy everything, and start again…” he muses, without really seeming to be joking. He only laughs when he adds: “But maybe we will start over the same way!”

Of course Ibrahim himself is probably the foremost chronicler of Egypt’s malaise—of the violence of political oppression, the rise of superficial piety, the wildfire spread of corruption that many lament here today. 

Ibrahim’s literary landscapes are built on meticulous research. The writer is famously dedicated to his personal archive of press clippings, and he often interpolates these documentary materials into his fictions. In Zaat, Ibrahim alternates the stages of his heroine’s life with suggestive collages of newspaper headlines, shifting back and forwards between an individual and a historical perspective. Sometimes the avalanches of information in his novels can be deadening. But most often they dramatize the difficulty of either absorbing or expressing the real nature of political and economic power. In his prison novel Sharaf, when the intellectual inmate Dr. Ramzy uselessly harangues his bored fellow prisoners about global corporations and political corruption, he stands in for the engagé author himself, and the effect is pathetic, sardonic and enervating all at once.

In Stealth, the writer reconstitutes his childhood world as meticulously as, in other works, he describes life in prison or the workings of Egypt’s economy. He researched exactly what brands of toiletries would be in a bathroom, what headlines in the newspapers. Yet here the accumulation of detail serves to probe a personal rather than political truth. “This is just a simple, intimate story,” he says.

But that is its strength. Ibrahim’s dry style, here, crackles with restrained emotion. The child narrator is an antenna, picking up every hint of desire, regret and hostility in the adults around him, storing away these mysterious and fascinating broadcasts to decode them decades later.

In the introduction to his prison memoir, Ibrahim describes his father as his school, and his time in jail as his university. Clearly, as he enters old age, the author’s thoughts are turning to his early education. He decided to publish his old diary because he thought it might be useful to “shed light…on the difficult and complicated beginnings of a writer’s development.” It is indeed fascinating to witness Ibrahim’s writerly emergence, to follow his process and his philosophizing. Stealth reaches even further back in the author’s life for its material. It is a final, tender act of reckoning with some of the most fundamental influences in Ibrahim’s life.

And while this book may strike some as quite different from Ibrahim’s others, in some sense it sheds light on all the rest of his oeuvre. We may all be sneaks, as the author believes--but some of us are much more willing than others to take things at face value. Ibrahim, it would seem, has always been a nosey parker. It’s tempting to trace the writer’s powers of observation to the anxious sleuthing of his childhood years. To guess that—born, like the boy in Stealth, on the fringe of ease and propriety—the author developed an ear for disingenuousness, a sympathy for losers (every one of his protagonists is resoundingly defeated) and a compulsion, in his writing, to sneak up on the truth.


In Translation: The Revolutionary Youth Coalition's final report

We're really fortunate to bring to you a long translation of an important document today — one made possible by the upstanding chaps at Industry Arabic, who provide great Arabic translation services and more. If you or your business have need of top-notch translation from Arabic into another language, please give them a try and help them keep on helping us.

The Revolutionary Youth Coalition was the most important umbrella group to emerge out of the protest movement of January 25. It continued to be the main reference and contact point for "youth" for several interlocutors in the months that followed Mubarak's overthrow, holding meetings with state representatives and often representing protestors at national conferences and elsewhere. On July 8, the Coalition announced its dissolution and published the document below —  an examination of its actions, mistakes and successes in the last sixteen months. As the writers note, such self-examination is rare in Egyptian politics, particularly as it has descended into a circus in the last few months. It makes for poignant reading, and I've added a few notes for clarification.

An Account of the Actions of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth

From the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth Facebook page, July 8, 2012.

We believe that every experience should either continue or end according to facts on the ground and logical reasoning. And — even though it is not standard operating procedure in Egypt — we believe it is necessary that every group and/or political entity submit a transparent and clear account that outlines what the organization has done over time, be it good or bad.

Under exceptional circumstances, like that of the great Egyptian people’s Revolution, we contend that it is our duty to publish this account for the Egyptian public, for they placed their trust in the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, as well as for those who criticized the organization. This account is also dedicated to the best of Egypt’s youth – the activists and believers in the goals and values of this revolution and similar revolutionary movements – as well as for that sector of the Egyptian elite who did what they could in service to this nation. This is for the admirable victims of this revolution who paid the greatest price and who continue to do so for the sake of this revolution; and this is also for the souls of the revolutionary martyrs who continue to fall – up to today – in anticipation of the day when this nation will achieve freedom and dignity, the day when each Egyptian will receive his demands for “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice.”


The establishment [of the Coalition] was comprised of groups that coordinated with one another before the Revolution and the Coalition’s formation was announced under the name the Revolutionary Youth Coalition in [Tahrir] Square on February 1 [2011]. Its first press conference was held on February 4 with the following organizations at the time of the announcement: the Campaign for Supporting ElBaradei, the April 6 Movement, the Youth Movement for Justice and Freedom, the Youth of the Democratic Front Party, the Muslim Brotherhood Youth, in addition to the following independent individuals: Nasser Abdel Hameed, Sally Toma, and Abdel Rahman Fares. Thereafter, other groups were added, such as the Progressive Youth Union and the Campaign for Supporting Hamdeen Sabahi.

The State:

The Military Council: The Coalition of Revolutionary Youth met with a number of members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces twice. The first session took place in the final days of February, during which conversations focused on two papers the Coalition presented. These two documents had been prepared in detail with a group of nationally respected figures. The first document included [a request] for the resignation of the government of Air Marshal Ahmed Shafik, the abolishment of the Emergency Law, and the dissolution of the State Security Investigation Service; the rest of the demands were associated with democratic transformation. A second socio-economic document included a plan for a timetable for implementing special procedures concerning wages and other demands made by Egypt’s laborers, farmers, and the poor.

The second session was a joint session that brought together the Coalition and the Revolutionary Youth Union with Major General Mahmoud Hijazi. This took place in March. The discussions were haphazard. The most important point was the decision to review the two preceding documents of the previous meeting, in addition to: the discussion about breaking up the journalists’ sit-in in front of Maspero [the state television building], doubts that the virginity-test affair “had not yet been confirmed”, and other issues concerning poor and slow performance and management.

The meetings then ended entirely and definitively after the pre-dawn attack on protesters [in Tahrir Square] on April 9, 2011.

The Government of Dr. Essam Sharaf

Contact with Dr. Essam Sharaf’s government was first undertaken after Dr. Sharaf himself called the Coalition to have a meeting, in which he proposed to the Coalition the same two documents previously mentioned. After a lengthy presentation, he both emphatically welcomed [the ideas] and promised to work [with the Coalition] on implementing the contents of the two documents.

The Coalition was presented with the option of choosing a number of its members for work inside the Cabinet of Ministers as advisors to the Prime Minister in order to create a direct line of communication between him and the revolutionary forces. The Coalition rejected this entirely, confirming that it would become a political supporter of this government only if it sincerely desired to achieve the goals of the Revolution. This in turn compelled the Cabinet of Ministers to rely on other young Egyptians for this endeavor.

A number of Coalition Youth participated in the Council of National Justice, under the Cabinet of Ministers, which was responsible for trying to find radical solutions to the issue of sectarianism and discrimination that developed following [the burning of the Two Martyrs] Church in the village of Sol. The Council’s duty was to draft a legal bill on the standard role of religious practice, as well as the creation of a unit for early warning, especially concerning confessional problems and other similar instances.[1]

A number of Coalition youth also participated in the council responsible for the fund for martyrs and injured persons at a time when the idea had not yet been implemented. All of the participating youth members thereafter definitively refrained from attending the two councils after a number of sessions ended without achieving any of the desired or anticipated goals.

After it became clear to all that this government was weak and without any real power, Dr. Essam Sharaf met with some Coalition members before Friday July 8[2], after a long break at his home. They clearly and candidly demanded from him the resignation [of the government] and that people return to [Tahrir] Square. Dr. Essam Sharaf did not respond. The Coalition then announced in the Square on July 8 that Dr. Essam Sharaf’s government needed to be deposed and that a revolutionary government, endowed with plenary powers, be forcibly established by the will of the Square.

The General Intelligence Services:

The Coalition held one meeting with General Murad Muwafi and a number of members of the Intelligence Agency at the beginning of September. A majority of members attended, but the Justice and Freedom Movement[3] abstained. This is the same period in which the Intelligence Agency held a long series of meetings with a number of civil rights activists, public and political figures, as well as revolutionary movements. A number of respected and well-known public and political figures were also in attendance. On the following day, in order to maintain transparency, the Coalition announced to all media outlets that the meeting was held, as well as the details of everything that had been discussed. This was in accordance with the Coalition’s practice of declaring each of its meetings with the Military Council, as well as with the Government. (We published the draft of the two meetings with them in all newspapers and in press conferences.)

Evaluating the [Coalition’s] Relationship with the Government:

In a number of long conversations about the issue of communication, we faced much criticism representing a broad set of disapproval, ranging from the opinion that continuous and intensive communication was important and that it is wrong to interrupt communication even if there were differences, to the opinion that any and all communication would be a grave mistake. Between these two positions, there were some who believed that nothing is certain in politics and that cooperation must be pursued according to each case and situation.

Relations with the Revolutionary Forces

The Coalition appeared as though it were an umbrella coordinating body representing some of the youth organizations that helped the Egyptians in their grand revolution. On February 1, the establishment of the Coalition was announced, but due to some latent fear of attempts to sabotage the new organization, the Coalition closed down shop. This was an unjustifiable and serious mistake. Attempts at expansion undertaken by the Justice and Freedom Movement and independents actors from the Coalition were unsuccessful, though some small organizations were added to it. We believe that this had soured contact with other respectable revolutionary groups. Afterwards, attempts at rectifying this mistake were undertaken for the sake of the general welfare, through this dispatch of a representative of the Coalition to the Alliance of Movements and Parties.

The People’s Assembly Elections

Differences in opinion arose over elections. Specifically, some from within the Coalition called for boycotting the elections, which resulted in some of the youth abstaining from running the elections and others from participating at all. In general, participation in parliamentary elections was not ideal, insofar as the Coalition at the time was not able to enter the elections as a group. Some of its members preferred to enter the elections on the Egyptian Bloc list, and some others on the Revolution Continues Alliance list; some entered the elections running for independent seats. This was not conducive to creating a situation whereby everyone that might have been nominated for the list of a single electoral alliance could have run in the elections.

Presidential Elections

Since the beginning, there has been a group from within the Coalition – the Egyptian Current Party[4] – that has supported Dr. Aboul Fotouh and has also greatly helped his campaign at the national level. There is another group that did not decide to support any particular candidate, but it did try to help achieve setting up a presidential team that grouped together all the revolutionary candidates. This was undertaken with the help of a number of public figures. Also, a number of other initiatives cooperated, like the Council of 100. But neither these attempts nor the sessions held with the five [major] candidates – both directly and indirectly – were helpful in achieving the desired goal.

Therefore, the situation has continued in this manner. As a result some of the members have chosen to boycott the elections, whereas some other members have continued to support Dr. Aboul Fotouh. The rest have declared their support for Hamdeen Sabahi. Of course, this came at a later time, after which the idea of a presidential project had failed. As for the second round, the majority of Coalition members have decided to boycott the elections, but members of the Egyptian Current Party and the April 6 Movement have decided to support Dr. Mohamed Mursi.

The Intelligence Services and the Million Man Protests

  • The Coalition participated in the popular diplomacy initiative, which was involved in the Nile River Waters case. A number of the Coalition’s members traveled as part of a delegation of public figures to Uganda and Ethiopia.
  • The Coalition participated in the call for some of the important Million Man Protests, starting with the Million Man Protest calling for politically purging the government immediately after the Revolution.
  • Some members of the Coalition participated in some of the campaigns, like the Kazeboon (Liars) Campaign against SCAF.


A Letter to the Revolutionary Youth

We are aware that we have erred, that we have at times appeared to be monopolizing dialogue in the name of the Revolution. And we are aware that there are many among you who are better than us in both word and deed, and that there are many of you more suited to contributing to this great Revolution. And we are aware that there are many among you who have paid a price far greater than we have paid. But it is fate that has deemed us to be at this place at this time. We are also aware of the fact that you all hold many reservations concerning some of our practices and our meetings. God knows that in our appearance, in our dialogue, and in the meetings we have held, we have only ever worked for the sake of the Revolution and never for anything else.

A Letter to the Egyptian People

We only hope that you will graciously accept what we have done and forgive us for not fulfilling your expectations and wishes. We hope that you will at least acknowledge the pressure and the confusion we have faced, for this experience has not been easy and the complications involved are beyond most people’s imaginations. There is a whole universe of issues that lies beneath the surface. But every moment we see you in the street and see what you achieved in the parliamentary and presidential elections, this has all served to confirm our faith in the idea of the Revolution. Change is the greatest common variable now and it follows that the responsibility falls on all our shoulders to make this change real.

A Letter to Mr. Hamdeen Sabahi, Dr. Aboul Fotouh and Dr. ElBaradei:

We were not able to approach this [next] step until you all announced that there is a radiant energy emanating from within the formation of a broad national front that can guide the opposition in Egypt over the coming period. We believe that this is perhaps the best and most appropriate thing for the period to come. Everyone should be able to participate in this front; it should be truly representative and reflect the national interests, and it should be a way for accomplishing the goals of the Revolution; similarly it should serve as a reference upon which the Egyptian people can depend.

Finally, since a number of months the Coalition has not played a positive role that has pleased its members or the population at large. But only in name has dialogue continued in the media. We consider this to be an error. Similarly, we do not want to preserve the organization superficially only so that the name itself gains some gravity. Respect for the Revolution requires self-evaluation and criticism. In this context, we have decided to dissolve the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, on the condition that its constituent groups continue to practice their natural role practically. In another context, it could be appropriate for each group to join a broad national front when it is established – God willing – at which time it is also natural that some Coalition members would join as well.


  1. Regarding Timing: The decision had been made more than once several months ago to undertake this step, but each time the quick succession of events in Egypt prevented it from happening; it appeared as though the surprises that occurred during the transition period would not end. The idea of announcing to the media the formation of a broad national front after the presidential elections helped.

  2. Regarding the Revolution’s Path: The decision to dissolve the Coalition suggests that the Revolution’s path necessitates different and myriad means, as well as different frameworks, in order to realize its goals in the future. This is especially true if one takes recent developments into consideration.

  3. Regarding Joint Action: The Coalition was composed of organizations that were completely ideologically different, ranging from the far right to the far left. The Coalition was successful many times at reaching a consensus with major participants and in solving disputes democratically. But there were a number of changes that necessitated a new alignment, whereby it could be possible to reach a decision under a different framework. This is due to the fact that the experiment of joint and group action was successful in achieving broad common goals relatively often.

  1. None of this has happened.  ↩

  2. The “Friday of Determination”, which was the largest protest in Tahrir Square since February 11.  ↩

  3. Youth movement of the Muslim Brotherhood.  ↩

  4. Muslim Brotherhood dissidents.  ↩

An Egyptian revolutionary "J'accuse"

I can hardly think of a more effective way to convey Egyptian revolutionaries' feeling towards political parties, the military and the whole idea that they were robbed of a revolution than the above video.

The split that has developed between those who espouse this worldview and the rest of the country is a little worrying, because it can turn into a lasting bitterness and misanthropy. What is needed down is to turn this frustration into effective new ways of organizing, lobbying, and campaigning.

And if that video depressed you, cheer up and watch this one:

In Translation: Samer Soliman on revolution and reform

For the last few weeks, a favorite topic of conversation around many Cairene tables - particularly those of activists and the politically involved - is how to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the 25 January uprising. For some, it should be a celebration of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. At the other end of the spectrum, more radical activists are calling for a "second revolution" and a repeat of the events of late January 2011, when, in the revolutionary narrative, "the people defeated the police state." The emerging dominant political players in Egypt - most notably the Muslim Brotherhood - have approached this issue carefully. They do not want another wave of protests only two days after the parliament that they control opens. They want to give some space to lingering grievances, but also control the situation in case radicals push for things to go another way.

I picked the following article because it reminded me of a conversation I recently had (at an excellent Iranian table - thanks P.) with two leading Egyptian human rights workers who worried that many of their friends had taken up revolutionary theory, were tempted by using violence against the state, and unwilling to see that they were a minority. In the article below, Samer Soliman, who teaches at AUC and is a well-known liberal writer, takes those types of revolutionaries to task.

As always, translation is provided by the awesome Industry Arabic, purveyors of fine translation services and more. 


A critical stance in support of my colleagues in the Revolution

By Samer Soliman, al-Shurouk, 9 January 2012

The revolution’s one-year anniversary represents a chance for reassessment and self-criticism by all those who participated in it. From this standpoint, the criticism that I direct at the positions and ideas of some of my revolutionary colleagues is the criticism of a comrade and has no trace of superiority. Its aim is to improve the performance of reform and revolutionary currents and get past unnecessary divisions in order to achieve our shared goal: establishing a state based on freedom, social justice and human dignity. I have four criticisms for some of my colleagues.

First: Absolute hostility to parties and to organizing is a fatal mistake

Politics, by one definition, is the management and organization of shared and collective interests. You are responsible for managing the affairs of your own home. However, managing the affairs of the entire building is not your responsibility alone, but rather the responsibility of the union of landlords, tenants or the like. This is politics. Politics is nothing but a collective activity that aims to organize the affairs of the state and society. Consequently, whoever is hostile to organizing is unwittingly hostile to politics. If you refuse to organize yourself in a party or group, how can you engage in an activity that basically aims at organizing society and the state? If you accept being organized in small groups, but absolutely reject parties, then you are hostile to the politics that aims to run the state apparatus. As a result, you insist on marginalizing yourself on the pretext of keeping your “revolutionary purity” away from party maneuvering. Yes, politics does not depend on party organizations alone, but is also based on non-party organizations such as pressure groups. However, these pressure groups are not an alternative to parties. Environmental groups, for example, push through their demands to limit pollution by communicating with parties, and cooperating with them and offering them support to the extent that they adopt programs to protect the environment. Whoever decides to act through politics must be a member in an organization of some sort: a party that aims to reach power or participate in it; a pressure group that does not wield power directly but which exerts influence on it; a union that defends workers’ rights in a certain profession, etc. The important thing is that members of every type of organization cannot do without the other types, and that true change only comes through integration and forming alliances among different types of organization.

Second: Revolution does not mean toppling the regime immediately, and revolution is not opposed to reform

People usually do not rebel against the group monopolizing power until after all means of gradual reform have been exhausted and they have participated in small, partial revolutions. The proverb goes that revolution is nothing but failed reform. There is no shortcut for a total revolution. For people to rise up against the group clinging to the summit of power, they have to go down a long road of attempting to reform the situation and rebelling against lesser authorities. The real revolutionary is someone who marches with people when reform is possible. In fact, it is his duty to be among them even if he is convinced that the possibility of reform is very low. Only when you are among the people during reform and minor revolutions can you preach total revolution and convince people that gradual reform is not the only choice. The revolutionary should maintain his credibility while he is engaging in revolution, and not raise a clarion call to topple the head of the regime without reading the real balance forces on the ground. For this reason, those calling for a new revolution to be launched on January 25 in order to topple the Military Council does not want to see that there is a People’s Assembly emerging that has a great deal of legitimacy to represent the people, and that many people are placing their bets on this Assembly and on the new government that will be formed by the winning parties. If this takes place, and the Military Council does not hand over power to the parliament, the new government or the next president, or if people discover that elected institutions take power for real and they do not live up to expectations, then the clarion call to topple the head of the regime can be raised. Before this time, struggling, sit-ins and protests go to achieve partial victories and limited demands, and do not topple the regime. The real revolutionary is the one who is one step ahead of people, not several steps. Because if you are several steps ahead of them, you will turn and find yourself alone against the powers-that-be. It will not benefit society much for you to be a hero confronting power alone with your chest bared. In any case, before you bring down power on your head, you should consider well who the alternative power is. Political power is nothing but that which organizes individuals and groups. The Military Council only received power after the fall of Mubarak, the police apparatus and the NDP because it was at the apex of a large, cohesive organization spread throughout Egypt: the army. If we topple the Military Council, what is the strong, cohesive organization spread throughout Egypt that will take up power? Please do not say honorable officers outside the Military Council. We have had enough of military coups and military rule.

Third: The older generation is the wrong enemy

The worst thing possible for the revolutionary movement to do is to lose potential allies and put those who are really their supporters in the enemy camp. One symptom of dictatorship in Egypt was the old age of the ruling clique, like Hosni Mubarak, Fathy Sorour, Safwat al-Sherif, Omar Suleiman, and Hussein Tantawi, etc. However, the old age of the elite was only one symptom of the disease, and not the disease itself – just like the fever that afflicts the body after it has been hit with influenza. The old age of the rulers is not the root of the illness, but one of its symptoms. The alternative to this is that the military dictatorship in Egypt started out young. Nasser and his colleagues reached power in their early 30s. It was a reproach to the Free Officers at that time that they were “almost children.” As time passed and the same ruling group remained with some minor changes, the ruling group became more middle-aged, which the regime tried to rectify in its last days by mobilizing a group of young people behind Gamal Mubarak, “leader of the future generation.” If Gamal had succeeded at taking his father’s place and replacing aging top leaders with other, young leaders, this would not have changed the reality of tyranny in Egypt in the least. The corrupt, tyrannical clique that controls Egypt is multi-generational, comprising the old, the middle-aged, the young and maybe children as well, since their children are raised from childhood to have contempt for the people and look down on God’s creatures. Likewise, the current that wants to get rid of this group and reach power must be multi-generational. Look around you. If you find that all the members of your organization or group are from one generation, I know you are moving on the wrong path, since in this case your group will not represent the diversity of your people. I know that you have undoubtedly lost because a mono-generational group is a poor one, and is not allowed to benefit from the diverse skills and resources that enable a multi-generational organization to win.

Fourth: Construction cannot wait for demolition to be complete, and the economy cannot wait for the revolution to be complete

The Egyptian Revolution is long and extensive, and has many waves of attack and retreat, ebb and flow, toppling the head of the regime and putting pressure on the new leaders. It is natural then that the task of building institutions coincides with the task of protesting and sitting-in. For this reason, I was astounded when I asked one of them “Why don’t you join a political party?” and he told me, “Because we haven’t finished tearing down the old regime yet”! Aren’t political parties (some of them, of course) one of the tools for tearing down the old regime? Power is not a building that needs to be completely torn down before a new power can be erected on its rubble. The alternative power emerges in society, delves into it and exerts its influence and control in areas left unoccupied by the reigning power. When it achieves this, removing the existing regime becomes simply a matter of time, and the downfall of the state apparatus at its hands becomes all but inevitable.

One of the most important areas for the emergence of the new power is the economy, which some revolutionaries have been taking very lightly, or rather opportunistically – for example, brandishing the minimum wage as a slogan in Tahrir Square in the hopes of drawing blue- and white-collar workers to the sit-in, and hence to topple the Military Council. You do not mobilize social classes and groups in this way, and it is not through sit-ins alone that you topple regimes, but rather through general strikes. A general strike cannot be realized without a high level of organization of the working and middle classes. The glorious January Revolution overturned the grip of the regime and its security apparatus on the unions that has lasted nearly 60 years. We shall only reap the fruits of this historic victory after several years, because the old unions have not yet been reformed, and the new unions need several years to gain strength.

Egypt will only attain political and social democracy through a struggle lasting many years, in which destruction is mixed with construction, reform with revolution, and calm, foundational work with victorious revolutionary activity. It is normal for some of us to lean more toward destruction than construction, or toward reform more than revolution, or toward victorious activity more than calm, foundational work. The important thing is that we do not fall into the mistake of feeling superior toward one another, and that we do not fall into the sin of breaking with our allies and our comrades simply because they operate within different frameworks or follow a different course to reach the same goal. There is only one goal: establishing a state based on freedom, social justice and human dignity.


Culture and activism

I have a new piece up at the Middle East Research and Information Project about cultural production and cultural activism in Egypt. There is so much different kinds of cultural activity going on these days that it's hard to categorize, and there are many more artists and projects I could have referenced.  I've tried to make some general observations:

It is not easy to combine aesthetic and political ambitions in order to creatively address the revolutionary moment. For one thing, many artists and writers have continued to be active in the protest movement itself -- they have little detachment from the events of the last year, and their energies are depleted by their participation in protests, organizing meetings and advocacy campaigns. In their political work, they can face significant personal risk, like their fellow citizen-activists. In late December, at a press conference convened to deny army responsibility for the horrific violence visited by soldiers upon protesters near the cabinet, a blustering member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces suddenly denounced Muhammad Hashim -- head of the independent and widely esteemed publishing house Merit -- as one of several conspirators being investigated for instigating attacks upon the army. (His crime, it appears, consisted of supplying protesters with blankets and helmets.)

For another, it is too early for artists or anyone else to map the contours of the current juncture with any clarity. In late January 2011, there was a rupture in the reality Egyptians had known for so long. Many artists and novelists, returning home elated if exhausted from weeks of protesting, simply scrapped whatever work they were doing. Since then, the rapid pace of events -- or, many would say, of reversals -- has rendered it nearly impossible to fix a vantage point from which to consider developments. The Egyptian revolution is not yet a subject of art; it is an ongoing experience.

And I only just saw the trailer for this cool-looking documentary, "The Noise of Cairo," -- on artists and their relationship to the revolution. 

The Noise of Cairo (Trailer) from scenesfrom on Vimeo.

Revolution and art

I've been struggling with the (largely nonsensical) question of "revolutionary art" for a while now, as I work on a forthcoming piece for MERIP on cultural production in Egypt over the last year. It was therefore and extra pleasure to read this piece by friend of the blog Negar Azimi, which neatly sums up some of the pitfalls of the genre:

A survey of titles of works from recent exhibitions in Cairo reveals the following: ‘Freedom’, ‘Drink Freedom’, ‘Shadow of Freedom’, ‘People Demand’, ‘Man Crying’, and so on. This, it turns out, is the sort of revolution-kitsch the market seeks. Mona Said, the owner of the Safar Khan Gallery in Cairo, told Reuters that she had held a show of revolutionary art in March that was so successful that she sold four times the amount she expected and ended up shipping works to clients all around the world. To be blandly political is in vogue and to be apolitical risks flirting with philistinism. This is, of course, not entirely surprising in a country in which the faces of revolutionary martyrs have been mass-produced on car air-fresheners.

It is not surprising at all to me that artists should have trouble representing the revolution right now -- it's a ridiculous demand to make of them in the first place. On the other hand, as Negar also points out, there has been an outpouring of creative energy which in particular forms (graffiti, theater, perhaps music) has spoken to this historical moment in some very meaningful and moving ways. The use of Tahrir itself as a dramatic performance space has of course been remarked upon by many, and there have been some great new ventures, like Tahrir Cinema and El-Fan Midan

Also worth checking out: the last issue of Bidoun magazine, which Negar edits, dedicated to cleverly and creatively trying and (by its own admission) failing to address the Egyptian revolution. 

Ikhwan rap?

This You Tube video of what appears to be a rap song for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has been making the rounds. The song's lyrics don't seem to be satyrical at all: "We hope you'll hear from us just as you've heard about us. We've suffered 80 years of defamation. I'm from Freedom and Justice. We'll protect freedom and we'll build justice." But many commenters nonetheless are convinced that it's all a mockery. They either think this is hilarious or they think it's very haram. Oh, and the creator of the video explains in the comments that the picture of Eminem "got in by mistake." Don't know what to think myself. 

There's a small but burgeoning rap scene in Egypt these days. I haven't heard anything I'm crazy about yet -- nothing as good as North African rap -- but I'm intrigued by labels like Revolution Records.

The refrain of this song, "Down with Military Rule," goes: "It looks like you forgot who we are/You think we're still scared/We saw death and just smiled and stood there/Let me remind you since you've forgotten/We're the revolutionary generation."


(This image circulated online. The lion statue is one of a pair that stand on either side of the Kasr El Nil bridge)

One of the effects of the police's policy of shooting directly at protesters' heads in the last 3 days has been that many of them have lost an eye.

Ahmad Harara, a dentist, lost one eye on January 28 and one three days ago, on November 19.

Over 11,000 people were injured (and 800 killed) during the January 25th uprising, and no one, to this date, has been held responsible. It's this combination of brutality and impunity that has brought people back to the streets.

And protesters are devising ways to protect themselves. Some have industrial-style goggles. Others are sharing ingenious ways to make home-made visors.

Just another indication (as if one was needed) of the extraordinary resolve of Egyptians to see their revolution through.