Wit­nesses to a rev­o­lu­tion’s hope and fail­ure

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY ILANA MASAD

In 2011, all eyes were on the youth of Egypt. Their mo­bi­liza­tion ef­forts — both on­line and off — helped bring down the op­pres­sive, nearly 30-year rule of Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak. But the rev­o­lu­tion ul­ti­mately has been seen as a fail­ure. The years since have been marked by vi­o­lence, po­lit­i­cal up­heaval and crack­downs on dis­sent, leav­ing Egyp­tians in a state of per­pet­ual un­cer­tainty. Rachel Asp­den’s “Gen­er­a­tion Rev­o­lu­tion” of­fers sharp in­sight into how the youth move­ment came to­gether and why it fell apart.

“Be­yond the tur­moil of par­ties, fac­tions and elec­tions that fol­lowed Mubarak’s over­throw, I wanted to know about the per­sonal be­liefs and choices that would shape Egypt di­rectly, but less surely,” Asp­den writes. “I wanted to un­der­stand why a woman with three de­grees might wear a face veil and con­ceal her hands with black gloves; why a start-up en­tre­pre­neur might de­mand his bride-to-be was a cer­ti­fied vir­gin; why a night­club-go­ing, hash-smok­ing stu­dent might de­spise the idea of democ­racy.” Chron­i­cling the ex­pe­ri­ences of four young Egyp­tians, the book pro­vides fas­ci­nat­ing de­tail but no easy an­swers.

Asp­den was an out­sider to Egypt, a jour­nal­ist of the ever-sus­pi­cious West, which she Pro­test­ers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, when an up­ris­ing led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. thank­fully ac­knowl­edges. Through­out the book, she shares her own per­spec­tive spar­ingly but enough to re­mind read­ers that she, too, is un­able to grasp some ideas that are taken for granted in Egyp­tian so­ci­ety. If there’s one thing that’s miss­ing, it’s how Asp­den man­aged to earn the trust of those she writes about, young men like Ay­man, who be­came a Salafi (a mem­ber of a strictly or­tho­dox Sunni Mus­lim sect) when he was 16, or Mazen, a fan­boy of the TV preacher Amr Khaled.

The book be­gins in the last years be­fore Mubarak’s down­fall, as Egypt be­came ripe for change. Khaled was a key part of this charged en­vi­ron­ment — his TV pro­gram cre­ated the youth move­ment Life Mak­ers, which trained peo­ple to be po­lit­i­cally ac­tive. In ad­di­tion, the con­ser­va­tive val­ues that had tight­ened around Egyp­tians — of­ten as holdovers from ex­pats re­turn­ing from stricter gulf states — were frus­trat­ing to young peo­ple watch­ing cos­mopoli­tan first lady Suzanne Mubarak and other elites dress in Western fash­ions and es­pouse Western ideas. Egypt was a coun­try full of con­tra­dic­tions: The rise of con­ser­va­tive Is­lam was spurred by the lib­eral, wealthy ad­min­is­tra­tion and its web of mil­i­tary fa­voritism. The im­bal­ance of power and money, mixed mes­sages, po­lit­i­cally ac­tive young peo­ple, and the in­tro­duc­tion of the In­ter­net fos­tered un­rest.

Ay­man and Mazen pro­vide an in­trigu­ing win­dow into the Egyp­tian youth move­ment. Both were mid­dle class with po­lit­i­cally mod­er­ate par­ents. Both were ver­sions of a sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non, em­bod­ied by a phrase Asp­den heard over and over: “Egyp­tians are re­li­gious by na­ture.” Those words helped re­in­force faith as a com­mu­nal iden­tity rather than a pri­vate mat­ter be­tween a per­son and their god (or lack thereof). Ay­man, who saw hypocrisy in pop­u­lar or­ga­nized reli­gion, turned to Salafism, while Mazen de­voutly fol­lowed the ac­tion-ori­ented Amr Khaled.

Asp­den paints her sub­jects not as rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who were itch­ing for a fight but as reg­u­lar peo­ple, Egyp­tians of vary­ing up­bring­ings and so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus. That they ended up be­ing part of the move­ment against Mubarak was as much a re­sult of luck, tim­ing and the force of a col­lec­tive as it was a mat­ter of in­di­vid­ual readi­ness.

Asp­den goes on to ex­am­ine the protests that sparked Egypt’s up­ris­ing. In June 2010, 28-year-old Khaled Said was beaten to death by po­lice. Soon af­ter, protests in Tu­nisia be­gan. Swiftly, the head of the Tu­nisian regime was ousted, and Egyp­tians on so­cial me­dia called for protests of their own. Th­ese demon­stra­tions were meant at first to be re­ac­tions to po­lice bru­tal­ity. In­stead, Tahrir Square in Cairo filled with thou­sands speak­ing out against the mil­i­ta­rized Mubarak regime. On Jan. 28, “the Fri­day of Anger,” tens of thou­sands were in the streets. Po­lice be­gan re­treat­ing, and mil­i­tary forces ar­rived, pro­vid­ing hope for the pro­test­ers who saw them as sav­iors, know­ing that with­out mil­i­tary sup­port, Mubarak wouldn’t be able to stay in power.

Asp­den deftly cap­tures small de­tails about the pro­test­ers: She de­scribes how Mazen saw men tak­ing bot­tles of Pepsi from an aban­doned store (the fizzy drink is ef­fec­tive in com­bat­ing tear gas) and leav­ing money on the counter for the owner. The pro­test­ers had no in­ter­est in an­ar­chy; they wanted safety and to see their coun­try evolve.

An­other of Asp­den’s sub­jects, Amr, a soft­ware en­gi­neer, thought Mubarak “was a di­nosaur” who had shut down the In­ter­net and “sent camels and horses to do bat­tle in the mid­dle of Cairo.” But even then, some ex­pressed con­cerns about what would hap­pen if and when Mubarak was ousted; some of Amr’s friends feared that if “Mubarak goes, the Is­lamists will take power.”

Af­ter Mubarak stepped down, the in­ter­nal con­flict in Egypt be­gan in earnest. Ac­tivists who once came to­gether for change be­gan to dis­agree about what the change should look like. Asp­den ex­plains the var­i­ous rea­sons her con­tacts voted for the Mus­lim Brother­hoodaf­fil­i­ated Mo­hamed Morsi: They thought he would “clean up pol­i­tics,” they were dis­gusted by ev­ery­thing his ri­val stood for, or, as the most cyn­i­cal be­lieved, it was nec­es­sary to see the Brother­hood in power in or­der to ex­pose its true “evil and stupid” iden­tity.

Dur­ing Morsi’s brief time as pres­i­dent, there were demon­stra­tions for and against him — for him be­cause of his reli­gion but also be­cause he was elected by a demo­cratic process; against, be­cause peo­ple dis­liked an Is­lam-tinged gov­ern­ment, de­spite be­ing “re­li­gious by na­ture.” The lat­ter were even­tu­ally aided by the army, which was form­ing a coup to over­throw Morsi.

Re­turn­ing to a mil­i­ta­rized regime left Asp­den’s con­tacts dis­heart­ened, an­gry and hope­less. Former rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies looked on, aghast and ex­hausted, as mil­i­tary sci­en­tists lied on TV and power went off at even the most pros­per­ous shop­ping malls. Soft­ware en­gi­neer Amr’s ac­tivist streak had long ago burned out. Amal, a woman who fled her fam­ily’s strict rules, told Asp­den that in 2011 she thought things might change for women, but no more: “All this stupid stuff, ob­sess­ing about sex, about cov­er­ing women’s hair, is be­cause of the vac­uum we live in.”

Amr and Amal were among the few who had the op­por­tu­nity to leave Egypt. Most peo­ple, like Ay­man, had to keep work­ing to sup­port them­selves and their fam­i­lies. Mazen, who paid off gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to smooth the way through red tape and move for­ward with a ven­ture — sell­ing sparkly cell­phone cases bought on the cheap from abroad — “looked years older” when Asp­den saw him for the last time in 2014. “His face was set in dis­il­lu­sioned lines and his voice had an un­happy, cyn­i­cal tone,” she writes. The “new-old regime was sti­fling ev­ery­one.”

Still, Asp­den ends on a note of cau­tious op­ti­mism. “Things in Egypt would never be the same again. An aware­ness that things could be dif­fer­ent had been planted and at some point it would bear fruit.” The Egyp­tian ac­tivists may have lost this bat­tle, but the war for free­dom is far from over.

Ilana Masad is an Is­raeli Amer­i­can book critic and fiction writer.


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