Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, by Ahdaf Soueif. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012. 203pp, ISBN 978-1408826072. £14.99.
Ahdaf Soueif is a writer of many parts, and never more so than now. She is based in London and has not been a resident of Cairo for many years, but that didn’t stop her rushing back to Cairo in January 2011 when the rumblings against Hosni Mubarak’s regime suddenly turned from localised protest to a regimechanging nationwide movement. For the followingweeks she was part of the protests in Tahrir Square, she wrote about them in The Guardian and the Egyptian press, she gave television interviews and she collected material for a book about Cairo and the changes that were in the process of transforming it.
Soueif ’s Cairo book was already long overdue even before the Tunisian street trader Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight and lit the fuse on protests that brought down the government of President Ben Ali. Bloomsbury, Soueif ’s publishers, had commissioned a book about her Cairo some 15 years ago, as part of its ‘The Writer and the City’ series. For some reason— life, work, her commitment to the Palestinian cause, a sense of having more important things to write about—that Cairo book has never appeared—until now. Cairo, it turns out, is a book 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. Like most people, she was well aware that discontent was thick on the ground 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. But once started, things moved quickly. On 27 January, when she flew into Cairo, it was already clear wha was happening. She 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 an observer. The account of the 15 days that follow is vivid and emotional: the heroism of the protestors might move you to tears just as the stupidity, duplicity and savagery of the authorities is likely to incite you to anger.Soueif is especially good at capturing the spirit of the square, the joys of handing out bread to complete strangers with whom one shared nothing but a common goal, the wa 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 visa 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. This is the nod towards the book commissioned long ago. 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 of these memories 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. Instead, they look more like padding for what is a short narrative.
Happily, that doesn’t detract from the importance of this attempt to capture those heady moments leading up 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 th 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, including Ashraf Khalil’ very convincing Liberation Square, is to see how far and how fast things have changed, again. There is nothing in Soueif ’s book that envisages the current state of affairs. Tha the Muslim Brotherhood could win a majority in any election was always a possibility, but there is no suggestion here that the Islamist Salafi party would win 25% of the poll.
Then there is the naiveté of the assumption, once Mubarak had gone, that ‘all the ills which plagued our society in the last decades have vanished overnight.’ Far from it, as we now know. 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. (I have even heard calls for a restoration of the monarchy.) Perhaps most striking of all is the innocence of the thought that ‘the army will guarantee peace and safety.’ Violent conflicts in the square and elsewhere nearby, the death of so many Copts, the burning of the precious library of the Institut d’Égypte… this and so much more has proved just how wrong one can be. For now, it makes a frustrating read. In years to come, however, people will ignore the predictions and probably much of the reminiscence, and read this book for the way in which it conveys the spirit of Tahrir during that heady time leading up to the downfall of a president.