Pete Willows May 12, 2012 Word count: 968 willows@aucegypt.


Revolution on the Installment Plan
Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. 2012. American University in Cairo Press. 312pps. LE150.

Journalist Ashraf Khalil was at the American University in Cairo’s Tahrir campus last week, to talk about and sign his new book, Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. He spoke in the leafy, green courtyard near the fountain of the AUC Press bookstore. Just a few yards behind Khalil was Tahrir Square, where the Egyptian revolution ignited by spontaneous combustion. Late afternoon crept in as Khalil spoke of revolutions and journalists’ anecdotes. There are many books on the 2011 popular uprising in Egypt that felled Hosni Mubarak. This is the best one I’ve read. Khalil gives context, nuance and minutia to the events taking place during the eighteen days that were modern Egypt’s defining moment. And Khalil does so without tedious digression, or pedantic explanation. When asked about the rule of Mubarak, compared to other dictators in the Middle East, Khalil called Mubarak ‘La vache qui rit,’ referring to a French brand of processed cheese popular in Egypt, which means, ‘the laughing cow’ and is marketed with a rather goofy-looking cow on the package that smiles. “Mubarak didn’t seize power like Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein,” Khalil said, “he practically backed into it.”

Khalil writes about the curious choice of Mubarak as vice president by Anwar Sadat. Mubarak was everything Sadat wasn’t. Neither a plotter, nor a politician, Mubarak was also considered neither ambitious nor exceptionally bright – and he posed no threat to Sadat’s strong, presidential and impetuous personality. Mubarak, while no charismatic leader, did however, play a significant role in Sadat’s 1973 October War with the Israelis, as commander of the Egyptian Air Force. Regardless of what anybody thinks of qualifications and abilities, then or now, Mubarak took office following Sadat’s assassination in 1981, and remained the uncontested ruler of Egypt for almost thirty years. The unexpected events in the uprising that took down Mubarak engendered dramatic images that flashed across the world’s television screens. Major news sources broadcasting long panoramic shots of massive crowds swarming in Tahrir Square—demonstrators pitched in violent street battles with the under-trained and under-motivated state security conscripts, amid clouds of wafting teargas—grotesque, disturbed-looking goons riding roughshod into the square atop horses and camels in an attempt to break the demonstrators’ inertia, while swinging medieval war clubs that maimed and blinded those in their path. Khalil was there, and in the thick of it all. He told me, “shutting down the Internet and cell phone service providers only brought more people out into the streets,” that the regime’s attempt to end communication and coordination among the young revolutionaries ultimately back-fired. As the uprising gathered momentum, it became apparent there was no escape plan for Mubarak and his coterie of yes-men; they simply never saw it coming.

There were other propellants in the years leading up to the revolution, which Khalil explains in his book, like the 2010 death of Khalid Said whom, became a martyred symbol to the revolutionary call. Stencils of Khalid Said could be seen across downtown Cairo as recently as last summer. Said was dragged from an Internet café in Alexandria and brutally beaten to death in a doorway by local police, and in front of a crowd of people who were conditioned by fear of reprisal not to intervene. It wasn’t the repulsive photo of Khalid Said’s demolished face, which went viral on the Internet, and that triggered the deep emotional response among the Egyptian public, rather, it was the ‘before’ picture. Khalid Said looks like your brother, your cousin, your nephew or your son. He is one of the millions of educated, but unemployed youth who saw no opportunity under Mubarak’s crushing and intolerant regime—where regime connections, not competence, talent or hard work landed you a job in the bureaucratic machinery. In the cover up that followed, the police issued a report that stated Said had died by choking on a packet of hashish he had attempted to swallow, while the police were attempting to arrest him. Why he was targeted is not clear. Khalid Said’s death was one of the many sparks that lit the fuse of the revolution, Khalil writes, explaining that the youth’s death meant it was no longer good enough to mind your own business and keep your mouth shut. You could still be randomly selected by the state-sponsored goon squads for a senseless, fatal beating. It meant the government had broken their unspoken deal with the public one too many times—the ‘give us your silence and acquiescence in exchange for laissez-faire’, had been invalidated. As the sun set behind the American University in Cairo’s Tahrir courtyard, Khalil talked about other dynamics of the revolution, like the unsustainable hype of Mohamed ElBaradei as the

secular liberal savior to a revolutionary Egypt, and the controversial role that Egypt’s military has taken as the custodial government in the transitional phase. Like others I’ve talked to, Khalil opines the smart but shallow belief that the demonstrators should have remained in Tahrir Square after Mubarak stepped down, and refused the military’s take over; and like others, Khalil doesn’t acknowledge there simply was no civilian apparatus available to govern when Mubarak left. The revolution continues. The book was written quickly—in about 5-6 months, Khalil told me—and with the most recent event being the Maspero demonstrations that resulted in full-scale fatal street riots last October, downtown Cairo. But if the book is written fast, the book is written competently and thoughtfully. The author has been a foreign correspondent based in Cairo for fifteen years, and has first-hand, solid knowledge on the complicated and intricate subject of modern revolutionary Egypt. He’s also written for several major news sources, from Foreign Policy to Rolling Stone, and explains the Egyptian perspective on the Arab Spring to a broad audience. A recommended read.
• Pete Willows is a contributor to The Egyptian Gazette and its weekly edition, The

Egyptian Mail. He lives and works in Cairo, and can be reached at

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