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MeMu: Egypt on and against the wall

We have arrived in January, in Egypt, in 2011. Let's jump forwards to 2015 and move backwards from there. Keep in mind that this is mostly a view from outside the country that does not aim to provide a full overview, but rather a brief, personal summary of events.

It has become very depressing to write about the country. After the initial elation and momentum behind the uprising, the energy and resistance to the power of the day, the hope seems to have been punched out of an entire people. Several reports describe the country as having slipped back into an authoritarian regime that is even more repressive that what the uprising throve to overthrow. The new regime, which many see as a recycled, refurbished version of the old one with a new coat of makeup, has not only developed miracle cures for AIDS and many other ills, it has also invented a time- machine intent on sending the country back into an age more reminiscent of feudal times than of the so-called democracies of the 21st century. 

After four years, the sentence that sums up many efforts in the country is "Egypt’s revolutionaries mistook their belief in the revolution for the existence of a revolution.". After a time in which it felt like anything was possible, indeed had to be made possible by any means, realpolitik and the will of old power structures to maintain the status quo to their advantage seems to have prevailed.

For a time, it was everyones revolutionary duty to work tirelessly to make the country a better place to live in, to rethink and rebuild it in an image that did not have the face of a dictator, or the pharaohs as its main point of identification. No- one could deny anymore that it was in their hands to change their surroundings and that, in the face of long neglect of many mechanisms supporting the development of a nation, it was the people who had to take charge. There was no more hiding behind complaints of an seemingly omnipresent and plenipotent regime ruining the country. For two and a half years, Egyptians laughed in the face of successive regimes, power cuts, fuel shortages, a crumbling economy and an education system that still leaves much to be desired. 

2015 began with Spider- Man being arrested in Cairo for distributing gifts to children. He didn't stay in prison for long- the Egyptian J.Jonah Jameson does not have Spider-Man on his radar. According to news reports, even the police felt somewhat sheepish about the act, telling him they did not want to arrest him, but they had to follow orders. Orders are sheepish things to follow. 

In the beginning of 2014, the army unofficially took back the running of the country with a landslide victory, with voting figures from the past- 96% is a very high endorsement, on paper. Who filled out the paper is the dark side of the coin. What followed was a massive dismantling of the infrastructure of civil society organisations, NGO's, and the possibility to demonstrate your opinion in public spaces. The independent cultural sector, after three years of fulfilling its understanding of a responsibility towards the development of the country, was hit by massive restrictions to its mechanisms that allowed it to operate unhampered. It is very telling that journalists at private and state- run newspapers rebel agains their own editors, who had collectively decreed that they would not run news openly critical of the regime- or the army. We also learned that there are precisely 866 atheists in the country, and that they worship satan in a café in downtown Cairo.

The beginning of 2013 is a distant era already- the laughter with Bassem Youssef making fun  of Mohammad Morsi, the now- imprisoned former president- and the country gathering for this collective release every Thursday night. He belonged to an organisation called the Muslim Brotherhood, who ruled the country for a year. Much hilarity at the way the country was run, but also outrage at blatant incompetence. This incompetent and funny organisation was labeled a terrorist group after being dissolved by the government. Between then, and 2014, the people took to the street to voice their support of the ouster of the first democratically elected president. He was, by a coalition between the armed forces, oligarchs and religious authorities not aligned with the MB. Through some very clever propaganda, in form of what may have begun as a joke- the Tamarod campaign- they lead the people to believe that he had to go immediately. After he was formally removed from office, his supporters camped on a square that was not called Tahrir. Although he had lost all popular legitimacy, they insisted he was still their president. Many of them were shot, and some killed for their belief, instigating a new cycle of violence, persecution and fear between the MB and the army with the Egyptian public thinking it was watching from the sidelines. The 15th of August 2013 will go down as the day on which they were removed from the considerations of the political class in the country, as well as marking a massacre that killed almost 650 people

The start of 2012… another century. Another energy. Violence on the streets, in the stadiums, in front of palaces… The people had the streets to themselves, absent a police force. In spite of reports of violent crime and robbery, there was a will to build afresh, to explore the potential of the country. Shops- now closed- were being opened. Art spaces- now endangered- were being visited by a curious public. Festivals were held in public space- one example is the now-defunct El Fan Midan- Art is no longer on the square. The potential of the country was not perceived to lie in the big plans of politics, but in the development of personal potentials, in the sharing of knowledge, in a critical exploration of the past. In June, Morsi was elected president, winning out agains Ahmed Shafik, the old regimes electoral ladder back to power. Even though it seemed the Islamists were taking over the country, spirits were still held high, voices were raised even higher in protest, or argument. He would, after all, be gone after a maximum of four years. And he did provide the country with some golden moments of comedy.

2011. We don't talk about 2011 anymore. The memory is too painful. Recalling the hope and unity, the anarchic energy of small groups and the promises made to many selves that this was finally, euphorically, our time and our world. But the signs to what was to follow were there from the start. "The army and the people are one hand." Thinking back, it is as if a floodgate for repressed emotions had been opened to relieve the pressure, to restore eroding humour and re-establish trust in the hand that turns the wheel. And that hand is, unfortunately, not that of the people. 

And so, we have a narrative, of sorts. A schoolboys summary of events far larger than himself, filled with personal memories, news clippings, but above all, with pictures that were drawn of those events on walls. They merged in research last year, a painful act of reminding myself in order to have a complete, somewhat independent timeline of the events surrounding that brief string of words you have just read. 

Memory is notoriously unreliable as a document. So we turn to documentations of events,  either personal records, or in the case of interconnected, seemingly random occurrences that form the stories of the life of an uprising, we turn to the documents we call historical. The old adage that history is written by the victors comes to mind- they usually own the printing presses and have the ability to spread their version of history until it becomes the accepted mythology. Thus history is as unreliable as the memory of the individual. Hence:


Line breaks: nar¦ra|tive
Pronunciation: /ˈnarətɪv

1.1[MASS NOUN] The narrated part of a literary work, as distinct from dialogue:the dialogue and the narrative suffer from awkward syntax
1.2[MASS NOUN] The practice or art of telling stories:traditions of oral narrative
1.3representation of a particular situation or process in such a way as to reflect or conformto an overarching set of aims or values:the coalition’s carefully constructed narrative about its sensitivity to recessionvictims

late Middle English (as an adjective): from French narratif-ive, from late Latin narrativus 'telling a story', from the verb narrare (see narrate).
I remember someone once jokingly telling me that the history schoolbooks in Egypt had been rewritten thrice since 2011- in the 2012 edition, the people had undertaken the revolution, in 2013, it was the Muslim brothers and in 2014, the army had reassumed its position at the campfire as the chief storyteller of Egyptian events. 

To bring together the many threads of that tale is an undertaking as large, if not larger, than the events themselves. 

It took 70 years to compile a first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary- conceived in 1857, published in full on the 19th of April 1928. It is not the largest dictionary to ever be compiled. The editors insisted that it be a comprehensive dictionary, listing words and their histories. not found in the dictionaries available in those times. They called for volunteers to read, copy and mail them quotations from books, both historical and current- by 1888 they had collected about two and a half million individual quotations- 1000 a day. The published edition- 10 volumes in 1928, 12 volumes in 1933, received over 5 million quotations, submitted by an estimated 2000 volunteers. About 2 million quotations were published in the dictionary. And so, we are presented with the standard narrative of the ever-evolving English language. (A concise narration of that process is to be found in "The Professor and The Madman" by Simon Winchester- proof that the truth makes excellent fiction.)

If one were to apply this method to the history of the Egyptian uprising, one would have to interview between 89 and 115 million Egyptians (the figure often quoted for the population of the country is the one I read in the 1995 edition of the Egyptian schoolbooks), and somehow manage to edit those tales into one very extended narrative. Sondos Shabayek is doing something in that vein with her performance project "Tahrir Monologues" and follow-up projects, Dalia El Bassiounys "Solitaire" examines a family narrative, and there are more than 25 documentary or docufiction films- "The Square", "The Good, The Bad and the Politician", "Art War", "The Secret Capital" are examples- examining various fragments of 2011 and the years that follow. And I don't even dare estimate how much has been written synchronously about those years, both in Arabic and other languages. 

Following the idea that nothing exists on its own, that events, objects or people exist in a nodal network, one would then have to consider expanding the scope of this research to include the rest of the world- after all, we are talking about one of the most medialised events in recent memory. Even working with what statistical researchers call a representative sample, it would be a megalomaniac undertaking. And then, someone would have to edit the research into a format that, while impressive and representative, does not sink a cargo freighter with its sheer weight. 

I'm glad to report that, having undertaken a comprehensive research based on news reports, blog posts, interviews and many other more esoteric sources- human rights reports, NSA documents, leaks, conspiracy theories- my ambitions in that direction have been satisfied with the publishing of Walls of Freedom. I know how much work and research went into it, how many months were spent sleepless by all involved, fuelled by the above-mentioned feeling of revolutionary responsibility. 

MeMu has its roots in that act, and a personal feeling that history and memory, whether personal or public, are too precious to be swept under the carpet. It is, in some ways, a continuation of my part in that book. See you in 170 years or so. Or next week. 


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