Reliving Tahrir

APR 11, 2019

by Tarek Masoud

On January 25th, 2011, hundreds, then thousands, of Egyptians descended upon Tahrir Square in Cairo and upon the squares and streets of other cities to call for “bread, freedom, and social justice (`aysh, hurriya, `adala ijtima`iyya),” and to demand an end to the brutality of their country’s police. Eighteen days later, those thousands had grown to millions, and together they compelled their country’s long-ruling dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to resign his office and flee to his seaside retreat (eventually to face trial for his misdeeds). But today, almost a decade from that event, it is hard to believe that any of those things actually happened. Bread, freedom, and social justice remain distant imaginings. Mubarak, though a little worse for wear, walks free. And the democracy for which so many Egyptians fought and died has been excised from the national agenda by a regime that is by many accounts more repressive than the one against which Egyptians rose up those eight long years ago. So decisively has the revolution of 2011 been rolled back that it is easy to wonder whether it happened at all. Was Tahrir Square just a dream?

We Live in Cairo, a new musical by Daniel and Patrick Lazour, comes to remind us that it was not, that what happened during those eighteen days in Egypt was real. The play introduces us to six young friends who throw themselves into their country’s glorious revolt against dictatorship, and who then must struggle to find their way in the chaos and discord that follow. Driven by an acoustic guitar that recalls the melodies of revolutionary Egyptian musicians such as Yasser al-Manawahly or Ramy Essam, and with a sometimes wicked sense of humor that seems borrowed from the great musical satirical duo of Ahmed Fouad Negm (d. 2013) and Sayyid Imam (d. 1995), We Live in Cairo is a remarkable work of art that will infect American audiences with the spirit and drama of a revolution now routinely declared dead by most Western interpreters of the Middle East.

And what drama there is. It is fitting that the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath should be made into a work of art, because it was itself a work of art. Those eighteen days in Tahrir were a collective act of stunning creativity by a people few thought capable of such a feat. The decade prior to Mubarak’s overthrow had been filled with sober, sometimes regretful, but always certain, pronouncements on the enervation and apathy of the Egyptian public. This was a people whose silent assent to the untender ministrations of the powerful was taken for granted. And so, when they confounded expectations, awoke from their supposed slumber, and began to demand to be heard, it was not just of their leaders that they made the plea, but of all of us. And when they finally got our attention, what they showed us was indescribably beautiful. It is impossible to view scenes and photographs of the Egyptian revolution—whether taken by professionals or by amateurs clicking away on cellular phones—and not find them bewitching. In almost all of them, almost every Egyptian seems young and heroic and impossibly photogenic.

Egyptian protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square

But the beauty of the revolution is only part of what makes it such fertile terrain for artistic interpretation. For the aftermath of those eighteen days was one of incredible turmoil and tragedy. No sooner had the “kids” in the Square chased away the strongman than were they too chased away, this time by dueling zealots—religious and militaristic—who captured the country’s politics and spent two years tussling over who would ultimately get to monopolize it. The democratic elections that people had dreamt of brought to power not the photogenic young revolutionaries of Tahrir, but religious conservatives. The lion’s share of these (including the country’s president) were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood—a ninety-year old pietistic and political movement that recalls nothing so much as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority—but a healthy contingent of them included ultra-orthodox Islamic politicians who wished to hold the line against expanding personal freedoms, keep women at home, and turn their Christian compatriots into second-class citizens. Some of us argued that the results of democratic procedures had to be respected, that the triumph of Islamists was only temporary, and that repeated elections would generate new possibilities. But such assurances were cold comfort to people reeling from the gap between their dreams of revolution and the reality of what it had wrought.

Into this gap came the men with guns and uniforms. Egypt’s military had long been the hegemonic power of Egyptian politics, and the democratic interlude that set in after Tahrir was one in which the gendarmes had begun to feel squeezed. Although Islamist politicians often made great shows of respect to the armed forces, the power that had passed into the hands of this assorted religious rabble could not have been viewed with equanimity by those long used to hogging it. And with every show of arrogance by Islamist politicians, every high-handed act of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood president, the number of Egyptians who were willing to turn their backs on the revolution and throw their lot in with the generals grew. When the president was finally overthrown in July 2013, it was after popular protests that by many credible accounts were larger than the ones that had preceded the overthrow of Mubarak. The revolution had come full circle, except this time, the images were not of heroic young people hoisted aloft on the shoulders of a grateful nation, but of faces contorted by fear and anger, of bodies mangled by the implements of those sworn to protect them, and of a nation at war with itself.

Audiences of We Live in Cairo will experience all of this anew. The result is not just a bit of entertainment, but hopefully something more transformative. Shortly after Mubarak laid down his mantle, the American president, Barack Obama, declared that “The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.” It is a line that has not aged well—given Egypt’s dramatic return to authoritarianism in the summer of 2013—and I have often quoted it ironically. What We Live in Cairo teaches me was that President Obama was right. The Egypt of today is not the same as the Egypt that existed before the revolution, if only because its people carry in their heads and their hearts the memory of that event and of what they almost achieved. And, after We Live in Cairo, so will you.


Tarek Masoud is the Sultan of Oman Professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.


Image Credit
Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square: Andre Pain/​EPA/​Shutterstock

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