Re­quiem for a dream

Tahrir Square and early hopes for the Egyp­tian rev­o­lu­tion lie at the heart of a new mem­oir and an in­de­pen­dent film chart­ing the ca­reer of satirist Bassem Youssef, Faisal Al Yafai writes

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For the Arab world’s largest coun­try, Fe­bru­ary 11, 2011, was the mo­ment the 21st-cen­tury be­gan. Hosni Mubarak, af­ter decades in power, was fi­nally pushed to step down af­ter mil­lions of peo­ple took the streets. Many things were born in Tahrir Square that day. Hope for the fu­ture. A new pol­i­tics led by youth. A rev­o­lu­tion­ary cur­rent, as H A Hel­lyer puts in his new book A Rev­o­lu­tion Un­done. A new re­la­tion­ship be­tween the me­dia and po­lit­i­cal power, as the Egyp­tian satirist Bassem Youssef hoped. Tahrir Square, the his­toric cen­tre of Cairo, be­came the caul­dron in which a new Egypt would be forged. But life in­ter­vened.

Tahrir Square is ev­ery­where in Hel­lyer’s A Rev­o­lu­tion Un­done, a blend of anal­y­sis and mem­oir of Egypt’s tur­bu­lent post-rev­o­lu­tion. It also ap­pears in Tick­ling Giants, a doc­u­men­tary about Youssef by Amer­i­can film­maker Sara Tak­sler.

Yet Tahrir is sub­tly dif­fer­ent in both. In Hel­lyer’s book it acts as a lodestar, even a mo­tif, re­turned to again and again, a phys­i­cal place and a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a rev­o­lu­tion. In Tick­ling Giants it serves as a back­drop, a place that re­minds us to whom Youssef’s satire is ad­dressed. There is a crowd out there be­yond the cam­era, a proud, bois­ter­ous, ma­ligned peo­ple, pushed around by po­lit­i­cal giants – and it is Youssef who, on the peo­ple’s be­half, tick­les them. But when you tickle a gi­ant, as be­comes ob­vi­ous in both the book and the doc­u­men­tary, you of­ten get squashed.

Tahrir is the first place we en­counter in both. It is there in the very first chap­ter of Hel­lyer’s book, al­beit at a dis­tance. As the rev­o­lu­tion be­gins, his con­cerns are more per­sonal. Law and or­der in Cairo is col­laps­ing and he joins men from his neigh­bour­hood who seek to pro­tect their fam­i­lies by as­sum­ing the role of po­lice­men. Al­ready, un­will­ingly, Hel­lyer, an aca­demic and an­a­lyst by train­ing and pro­fes­sion, is be­ing drawn into the rev­o­lu­tion. There is, in­deed, some­thing ab­surd about our nar­ra­tor, tem­po­rar­ily shelv­ing the books with which he has made his aca­demic rep­u­ta­tion for “clubs and homemade weapons” and man­ning check­points. Such anec­dotes pep­per the book, which stands as an at­tempt to piece to­gether what hap­pened in the five years since the rev­o­lu­tion. Thank­fully, there is no ma­jor vi­o­lence in Hel­lyer’s neigh­bour­hood.

Youssef is not so lucky. Even now, af­ter so many years, the sight of Tahrir in 2011 is still as­tound­ing. The way Tak­sler films it is real and raw – the stench, the chaos, the un­cer­tainty is pal­pa­ble. And the blood is real. “I’m sorry to ruin your com­edy,” a doc­tor in Tahrir Square tells Youssef at the very start of the film, ex­plain­ing how a man had died in his arms.

Rev­o­lu­tions by their na­ture don’t hap­pen from above, they hap­pen from be­low, in the streets and al­leys. Laws col­lapse and peo­ple try to build them back up again. To some de­gree, this is what both works have in com­mon: Hel­lyer tries to make sense of what is hap­pen­ing around him, even as the rev­o­lu­tion un­folds. Youssef is try­ing to do the same, try­ing to carve a space in the so­ci­ety for his brand of com­edy – prob­ing to see if this space ex­ists, if it can be kept open. Both come back to the early hope of the rev­o­lu­tion, the gen­uine be­lief of a gen­er­a­tion that things could change, now, in this mo­ment. Ex­actly when that hope mor­phed into some­thing else is a mat­ter of dif­fer­ence. This is per­haps the best as­pect of Hel­lyer’s book. He traces not only his own in­tel­lec­tual re­ac­tion to the events around him – his doubts, un­cer­tain­ties and mis­takes – but also the evolv­ing ideas of those around him.

He writes of the tran­si­tion to Egypt’s first demo­cratic elec­tions as a time of flux, when peo­ple were un­sure who to vote for and who they were rep­re­sent­ing. It is now of­ten for­got­ten that there were al­most two dozen can­di­dates for pres­i­dent. It was not merely a con­test be­tween an es­tab­lish­ment can­di­date, Ahmed Shafiq, a for­mer prime min­is­ter, and Mo­hammed Morsi of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood.

Hel­lyer spends some time un­pick­ing the dif­fer­ent strands of Is­lam and de­vo­tion in Egypt, not­ing how dif­fer­ent parts of Egyp­tian so­ci­ety – re­li­gious con­ser­va­tive, law and or­der sup­port­ers of the mil­i­tary, youth­ful lib­er­als – tus­sled with their views in the run-up to the elec­tion. There are no bi­na­ries in Hel­lyer’s book: he is much too sub­tle an an­a­lyst to be­lieve vot­ers were mo­ti­vated by one thing and is pro­foundly – the ca­sual reader may say too pro­foundly – aware of the dis­tinc­tions and di­vi­sions within Egyp­tian so­ci­ety.

As his­tory records, Morsi be­came Egypt’s first demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent. The after­math, writes Hel­lyer, was “a slow mov­ing train-wreck”, as the Broth­er­hood, so long ex­cluded from pol­i­tics, let alone power, sud­denly find them­selves gov­ern­ing Egypt. Hel­lyer ju­di­ciously al­lo­cates blame – the Broth­er­hood cer­tainly made them­selves easy to dis­like, mak­ing en­e­mies at home and abroad. But the army, now the other pil­lar of power in the coun­try, also mis­han­dled the tran­si­tional pe­riod and had no real idea how to han­dle Morsi.

In this re­gard, Hel­lyer is per­haps too much the an­a­lyst and less the mem­oirist.

His at­tempts to dis­sect ex­actly where Morsi went wrong, what other po­lit­i­cal paths he could have trav­elled down are in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­ter­est­ing, but miss the drama of real life. The mass move­ment that even­tu­ally pushed the army to in­ter­vene was too big for pol­i­tics. It ex­isted above it, be­yond it. Po­lit­i­cal ac­tors like the army may well have rid­den that wave, but the wave was com­ing from the peo­ple.

A sim­i­lar tide sweeps over Youssef in the film, but it comes later, af­ter the army in­ter­venes and Ab­del Fat­tah El Sisi be­comes pres­i­dent. Youssef had an ar­rest war­rant is­sued against him by the Morsi gov­ern­ment for mak­ing fun of the pres­i­dent. When the case col­lapses, he re­turns to the TV stu­dio a hero.

In Tak­sler’s film, these are the best days for Youssef’s show. The public is be­hind him and the young Egyp­tians who staff the show are buoyed and ex­cited. As protests gather against Morsi, he of­fers a pithy ex­pla­na­tion of their ori­gin: “Peo­ple value their per­sonal freedom over freedom of ex­pres­sion. They hated be­ing told what to do.”

In the next chap­ter of Egypt’s tran­si­tion, there is a pal­pa­ble change in mood. Tak­sler’s film shows how the public mood shifted and the net­works, them­selves un­der pres­sure from the gov­ern­ment and the public, shifted too. Some of the film’s most mov­ing mo­ments come when Youssef’s staff are cel­e­brat­ing a birth­day in their of­fices, while out­side pro­test­ers chant slo­gans against them. The re­al­ity of the mob so close by is both fright­en­ing and sur­real. Once again, in some form, Tahrir in­ter­venes. Once Youssef was on the right side, on the ground with the peo­ple. Now he is the one in the tower, watch­ing as the mob calls for him to go. As the sit­u­a­tion spi­rals out of con­trol, he drives to the air­port and es­capes into ex­ile.

By the end of his book, Hel­lyer is deeply dis­ap­pointed with Egypt’s tra­jec­tory. Not even Egypt, in­deed, but Cairo it­self. Hel­lyer is in­ti­mately at­tached to the city, its peo­ple and its pol­i­tics, and as he feels the city chang­ing and emp­ty­ing, he writes as if it is leav­ing him per­son­ally be­hind.

In his last chap­ter, Hel­lyer writes of his re­la­tion­ship with Bassem Sabry, a young Egyp­tian jour­nal­ist who died sud­denly in 2013. “We talked about the prospects for a new Arab po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy, one that would be true to the Arab world’s her­itage, but which would be vi­brant and dy­namic, be­yond the fail­ures that Egypt had al­ready seen and ex­pe­ri­enced.” Sabry, of course, would never get to wit­ness such a resur­gence. But Hel­lyer also won­ders if Egypt’s youth ever will.

In ex­ile in the United States, Youssef pon­ders these ques­tions. “That mo­ment of his­tory will al­ways re­main,” he says on film. “The show, with all the dif­fi­cul­ties we went through, was a short glimpse in time, where peo­ple can look back and say, you know what? It’s pos­si­ble.”

Some nos­tal­gia for those days of hope seems in­evitable. Nei­ther Hel­lyer nor Youssef wants to let it go. In that re­gard, Hel­lyer is dif­fer­ent be­cause, though dis­ap­pointed, he stayed in Egypt, while Youssef, de­spite the lin­ger­ing note the film sounds, went on to forge a suc­cess­ful me­dia ca­reer in his adopted home in the US.

Yet it is hard to avoid the sense that the mo­ment has passed. How did a rev­o­lu­tion born of such hope fall so far of ex­pec­ta­tions? Tak­sler wisely con­fines her­self to chart­ing Youssef’s rise and fall and doesn’t of­fer any ex­pla­na­tion. But Hel­lyer does.

“I used to view the eigh­teen days as a ‘some­thing’ that could be re­alised – a po­lit­i­cal force that was real, gen­uine and ca­pa­ble of tak­ing power in some shape or form. I ma­tured from that,” he writes.

The rev­o­lu­tion­ary mo­ment, so full of hope, was un­equal to the task ahead of it. Re­mak­ing the state, bloated from years of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic mis­man­age­ment, could not be done in a year or two. Mar­ry­ing the vast dis­crep­an­cies be­tween what those who voted for Morsi and those who sup­ported El Sisi wanted was just too much.

Borne out of pol­i­tics, the rev­o­lu­tion was even­tu­ally buried by it. A city as old and as grand as Cairo moved on, leav­ing jour­nal­ists and co­me­di­ans be­hind.

Faisal Al Yafai is a colum­nist for The Na­tional

John Moore / Getty Im­ages

Egyp­tians cel­e­brate in Tahrir Square af­ter hear­ing the news of the res­ig­na­tion of pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak on Fe­bru­ary 11, 2011.

Khaled De­souki / AFP

Egyp­tian satirist and TV host Bassem Youssef is sur­rounded by sup­port­ers out­side the high court in Cairo on March 31, 2013, fol­low­ing an ar­rest war­rant is­sued against him by the gov­ern­ment for in­sult­ing Pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Morsi.

A Rev­o­lu­tion Un­done: Egypt’s Road Be­yond Re­volt H A Hel­lyer Hurst Dh92

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