Rites of Spring

Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed BY Ahdaf Soueif. Pantheon. Hardcover, 272 pages. $24.

The cover of Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed

Henri Lefebvre’s notion of “Revolution as Festival,” which the great French political thinker developed in his account of popular uprisings of the twentieth century, continues to inspire today’s global Left and its ideas of “people power.” Cultural theorist Gavin Grindon cannily sees this vernacular spirit of celebration in “the global cycle of social struggles since the 1990s, from Reclaim the Streets to the Seattle World Trade Organization Csarnival Against Capitalism, Euromayday and Climate Camp to Occupy’s Debt Jubilee.” And this same narrative—which at times approached a shared, lived reality—informed many domestic and international perceptions of the early “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, particularly those in Tunisia and Egypt.

Most of Ahdaf Soueif’s new book, Cairo, participates wholeheartedly in this celebratory, utopian account of the eighteen-day overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and its aftermath. But as Soueif traces the still-unresolved and unstable arc of Egypt’s unfolding saga, she comes away—as Lefebvre would have anticipated—with a much more subdued evaluation of just how this festival may end.

Looking back on his own youthful idealism, Lefebvre—with an obviously heavy heart—recalled how “a few years after the Russian Revolution,” the French Left “naïvely imagined the revolution as an incessant popular festival.” And in Soueif’s account of Mubarak’s downfall, there are hints of a similar leap of imagination. “Everyone is suddenly, miraculously, completely themselves,” she writes of the uprising. “Everyone understands.”

Stylistically, her book is a mash-up of genres. It includes detours into confessional personal memoir as well as stretches of quasi political reportage. It is primarily structured around entries from a daily diary that lapse all too often into purely mundane personal detail (“I am ill. Layers of jumpers, woolly socks, and a hot-water bottle to hug. Boxes of tissues”). These passages are linked together by bursts of what are frequently halfhearted efforts at focused political analysis—forays into social commentary that only gain full traction in Cairo’s outstanding postscript.

While the book’s individual parts can make for an incomplete and frustrating vantage on the events that have lately shaken Egypt’s political order and civil society to their core, Cairo is nonetheless greater than the sum of its diary entries. It offers an invaluable window into the mind-set of a large proportion of the engaged Egyptian population—as well as an extremely detailed, honest, and unflinching portrait of a very specific class of self-defined “revolutionaries.”

Behind the bipolar realities of euphoria and despair, nostalgia and unconditional optimism, Soueif’s book unfolds a narrative technique that is not only highly personal but also profoundly intimate and conversational. It often feels as if a nice middle-aged, middle-class lady (which she is) has invited you into her Wimbledon living room (where I have been) and is telling you a dramatic story over warm, milky tea and biscuits. (Full disclosure: Soueif was a close associate of my father’s toward the end of his life, and I have met her on numerous occasions, though not for at least a decade.)

In Soueif’s telling, the incredible story of Mubarak’s downfall often verges on a political fairy tale. Her version of these events is filled with what she admits are “big, dramatic clichés,” such as “the Forces of Darkness, the Battle against Evil.” “But,” she insists, “clichés can also be true descriptions.” They can indeed—but typically at the expense of more nuanced realities, which often get elbowed aside here to make room for what can only be described as revolutionary romanticism.

Soueif’s memoir is infused with the notion that Egyptians, as a people, absolutely came together in total unity on the street to throw off the “rigged game” erected and maintained by Mubarak’s ancien régime. She writes so enthusiastically about the “Revolution,” and her own role as a “revolutionary,” that the romantic thrust of her account can at times become cloying. Worse, she doesn’t define either of these terms. Indeed, according to Soueif, Egypt has had no fewer than three “Revolutions” in the past three years: first against Mubarak, second against the military, and third against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Cairo is, in this sense, a curiously neurotic document: Soueif’s obsession with these undefined but quintessentially ideological terms, “Revolution” and “revolutionary,” is a perfect exemplar of what Jacques Lacan described as the implacable sovereign command of the “Big Other.” In Lacan’s account, the analysand’s embrace of these impossible demands presents as an irresistible imperative that seems to come from an all-powerful, external authority—something that’s intensely felt but can be neither critiqued nor interrogated. It simply is, and must be, obeyed. And in this case the demand is for “Revolution.”

I would, however, strongly argue the contrary: There has been no “revolution” as such in Egypt. The first revolt was a genuine popular uprising against a long-serving despot that produced regime decapitation. The second included a series of protests that hardly forced the country’s military leaders to step down; they were more than ready to do so anyway, having found little personal or institutional benefit in the routines of direct governance. The third was a massive popular outpouring of outrage against Muslim Brotherhood misrule—but what it led to was yet another military-led government.

Revolutions, by definition, mean a complete overthrow of the previous system of government and a re-creation of social institutions. This has happened in at least one “Arab Spring” country: Libya, which is continuing to experience grave difficulties in creating a new system to replace Muammar Gadhafi’s dysfunctional regime, which left the country with virtually no extant governing or social institutions.

Egypt, by contrast, continues to be run by the same forces that held day-to-day power under Mubarak—the six to seven million bureaucrats and administrators who make up the country’s public-employee sector. Their institutions, administrative apparatuses, and structural roles have remained essentially unchanged. There has been, therefore, no revolution in any meaningful sense except one: that of the public mind-set.

And this is where Soueif’s book is especially strong. It is a testimony to the dramatic cultural shift that has taken place in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world in public attitudes toward power. It’s true that Soueif herself represents a very small category of Egyptian “revolutionaries”: the largely expat, bourgeois, liberal intellectuals. But her social and physical distance from the large mass of protesting Egyptians doesn’t prevent her from effectively channeling and communicating the mind-set of rebellion for the overwhelming majority of Egyptians—or the new political circumstances that their uprising has created.

Indeed, the lasting value of Cairo stems from the author’s ability to precisely and accessibly articulate the irreversible cultural changes that have suddenly transformed the public’s relationship to authority in Egypt and some other Arab states. Arab citizens at last feel empowered, collectively and individually, to assert their fundamental rights as citizens. This basic movement toward greater self-assertion among ordinary Egyptians has even carried through, as Soueif acknowledges in her postscript, into this past summer’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The purpose of democracy is to ensure that the people most affected by decisions get to make the decisions. The people saw the president steering the country to disaster,” she writes. “But the Constitution that the MB had pushed through did not describe a procedure to get rid of a president. So the people invented one.”

Egypt is now experiencing a phase of hypernationalism, chauvinism, and paranoia. Like many leftists and liberals, Soueif rightly worries that the old repressive forces of the “deep state” are the real powers behind what is largely a “coup by acclamation.” But one thing is certain, and the overall impact of Cairo makes this clear: Even if Egypt’s new military-led government is enjoying an extended honeymoon—an irrational phase of hero worship for its role in getting rid of the intolerable Muslim Brotherhood regime—this popular acquiescence is temporary and conditional. Soueif effectively explains exactly how and why that transformation in popular consciousness erupted:

There is a core, a resolute core, that does not lose sight of the aims of the revolution—bread, freedom, social justice—and what these bring of human dignity; that knows what the people will finally demand is the administration that will put them on the road to achieving these aims. And that the people—even if they digress onto a side street—will return to insist on their original path and their essential aims.

As such reflections show, the events of the past summer have set Soueif on a path toward a more sober set of political analyses. She describes the downfall of Mohamed Morsi with great precision, and views the ensuing situation with an appropriate degree of suspicion, if not alarm. “We’re in danger of the old regime slipping on yet another mask, slipping into power,” she writes. “No one knows how much room for maneuvering the one-month-old cabinet really has. No one knows how far General Sisi’s ambitions extend.”

Soueif voted for Morsi, as so many others did, in the hope that he and his faction would represent the aspirations of most Egyptians. But she has no difficulty now in seeing the Morsi regime for what it was—a totalitarian dictatorship in waiting—and in expressing a guarded appreciation for the popular demand for its ouster. At the same time, she has no illusions about the opportunistic nature of some forces involved in Morsi’s removal, especially those of the “deep state.”

In his final evaluation of the Paris Commune, Lefebvre concluded that

the popular festival apparently changes character. In truth, it continues; it gives way to pain. We know that Tragedy and Drama are bloody festivals, during which defeat, sacrifice and the death of the superhuman hero who has defied destiny are performed. . . . Then comes death and the triumph of destiny and misfortune, defeat and the final holocaust. . . . And so the Festival becomes drama and tragedy, absolute tragedy.

But there is no ironclad requirement for Lefebvre’s “general and delirious ‘all or nothing.’” And there’s certainly no reason to believe that “revolutions” look like “cultural festivals” at first but must always end in holocaust and tragedy. Soueif suggests a fundamental cultural change has occurred in Egypt that makes tragedy and holocaust avoidable, and a better future for Egypt and the Arab world plausible, achievable, and—just perhaps—inevitable.

Good political judgment may not yet be a common currency in most Arab societies. But passive acquiescence is a thing of the past. The new Egyptian government may be flawed in fundamental ways, and it may pay for those flaws sooner rather than later. But ultimately it will be accountable to the public because the public has finally found its voice. Soueif names the three Egyptian uprisings in as many years Revolutions I, II, and III. Call them what you will: They were all unmistakably assertions of the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

Egypt may not yet have undergone a political revolution as such, but it has certainly experienced a profound and irreversible cultural one: the emergence, at long last, of an ultimately irrepressible society of self-empowered citizens who give and withhold the consent of the governed at their own pace and convenience.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and a weekly columnist for The National (UAE).