Review: Liberation Square: Egyptians’ Path to Political Agency

On a visit to Egypt shortly after the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza strip in the summer of 2005, I visited the Cairo bureau of the Spanish news agency EFE. Comparing news coverage between Cairo and Jerusalem, one of my colleagues there expressed wonder at the amount of historical events taking place in Palestine and Israel, and the amount of articles one could publish on the conflict. I mentioned that in Egypt, with some eighty million inhabitants—about ten times more than those living in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel—the potential for finding stories should be huge, to which he retorted that there was very little that Egyptians did that was actually considered newsworthy; the old “nothing happens here” rant of a frustrated journalist.

To say that there are no news stories in Cairo could seem either totally blind or extremely cynical. Cairo is a sleepless city—probably more so than New York. The whole theater of life is there on the streets at all hours: the chances are that if you walk around a bit you will bump into a wedding party or stumble into a wake. You will, without a doubt, see people praying, masses of them. What in the journalist trade is known as “human stories” and “local color” abound. And Egyptians are usually very gregarious, so it is easy to collect quotes for a story.

However, in a way my former colleague was right. Hard news is the staple of an agency, and Egypt didn’t produce as many of those, at least in comparison with Palestinians and Israelis. It was actually quantifiable; the amount of wires being published from Jerusalem outnumbered those from Cairo about Egypt. To be fair, this has also much to do with the importance that a media outlet attaches to a particular country, which in turn is related to the geopolitical weight given to that country, among other factors.

But what my friend was hinting at was that Egyptians could do little that had political repercussions, and that therefore would be considered newsworthy. And that was because they lived under an authoritarian regime that denied them political agency.

Important developments were in fact taking place and were being covered, but they were by no means given the significance that we now, in hindsight, know they had. In September 2005 the presidential elections were held and the Kefaya (“enough” in Arabic) movement—asking for the end of Mubarak rule and essentially regime change—had been born the year before. These events were reported on at the time, but movements like Kefaya—which we now know paved the way for change—had few followers and were considered marginal.

There were also many other events taking place that were very important, but were considered by many to be inconsequential and reported on even more rarely. This is for example the case with the dozens of workers strikes in government factories, which later played a fundamental role in ousting Mubarak.

Ashraf Khalil’s Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation aims to give these key events, and others, the attention they deserve. Published in January 2012, the book describes with great insight what brought Egyptians to the boiling point; the milestones on the path to President Hosni Mubarak’s renunciation of power. Khalil not only explains the causes that led to the Egyptian uprising in January 2011, but how a people that were often portrayed as the model of subservience, under a regime that was thought to have mastered the art and balance of dictatorial rule, woke up from the stupor. About the strikes he explains, for example, how they “served to finally fuse the country’s political and democratic grievances with the economic grievances.”

Khalil’s craft is journalism and in his palette are impressions, anecdotes, but he gives thorough, tightly argued and illuminating explanations of the topics he chooses to cover. Egypt is a country he knows well. He cites the relevant cultural references—the Egyptian film Cultural Film, the bestselling novel The Yacoubian Building—and also dissects them explaining what they say about Egyptian society. He is not trying to be erudite, just connecting the dots. He can analyze conversations through the jokes people exchange, such as comparing Mubarak to “la vache qui rit” in reference to his lack of intelligence, or to “Dolly,” the first cloned sheep, in an allusion to his desire to rule eternally. He also discusses darker sayings like “walk next to the wall,” a way of advising someone to keep a low profile in order to survive. The events he writes about are ones he has either experienced or diligently investigated.

He is particularly lucid in his exposition of the drama of the youth in Egypt, and the unbearable economic, social and sexual frustrations that dog them. His description of the killing of Khaled Said, the pivotal event in Egypt’s road to change, is a case in point. He gives the reader an intimate biography of Said, interviewing close friends and family, which provides the reader a character profile of a young middle class Egyptian, and juxtaposes the normality of this young man—spent much of his time in front of the computer, had a small-time business selling stereo equipment his brother would ship him from America, occasionally smoked hashish—with the extraordinary role he played in the history of his country. “His name became a touchstone, symbolic of the decades-long excesses of the Egyptian police state under the emergency laws—an instant shorthand for the arbitrary nature of the brutality in the late-stage Mubarak era,” Khalil writes.

The author also relates in detail the eyewitness accounts of the beating that led to the death of Said. This is important because not only it gives a sense of the viciousness of the Egyptian police—“the two officers spent twenty minutes kicking [Said] and slamming his head into the concrete floor as he pleaded for mercy”—but also because of the crude attempts at covering it up and the shameless, malicious smear campaign of the regime aimed at him that followed. It cast Said as a hashish addict who died as he choked on a packet of the drug that he tried to swallow when the police approached him.

Khalil also provides a more intimate portrait of Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the IAEA, than we for example find in Wael Ghoneim’s Revolution 2.0, which allows us to better understand his withdrawal from the presidential race and his limited—albeit essential—role in the revolts: “The reasons for Elbaradei’s loss of momentum were multiple. For starters, despite people’s expectations of him, the bookish former diplomat proved himself anything but an instinctive politician. He rarely appeared in public, and when he did, ElBaradei seemed distinctly uncomfortable with the masses.”

Khalil is capable of making broader historical strokes, and traces police repression to the state’s response to the massacres by radical Islamic groups in the 1990s and the subsequent appointment of Habib al-Adly as Interior Minister, whose own reign of terror made no small contribution to ordinary Egyptians’ sense of estrangement from the state.

In sum, Khalil tells the tale of how a regime focused on making people passive subjects, bent on convincing them to stay home and leave politics to the state—sometimes referred to as the Nasserist contract—managed to re-politicize them. In this context, we can interpret the Egyptian revolt as an attempt by ordinary people to make their opinions and actions count, to have a political consequence—and anecdotally, following the argument above, to also become newsworthy. The presidential elections, with their endless queues of millions of Egyptians across cities and villages patiently and anxiously waiting for their turn to vote, are the ultimate expression of this.

Jose Vericat is an Adviser at the International Peace Institute