“Liberation Square”: A thrilling account of Egypt’s revolution

From Facebook martyrs to camelback attacks, a Cairo reporter gives a street-level view of history in the making

Topics: What to Read, Egyptian Protests,

"Liberation Square": A thrilling account of Egypt's revolution Ashraf Khalil

The overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt last year served as dramatic proof that the Arab Spring wasn’t just a passing, or purely Tunisian, phenomenon. Egypt’s revolution heralds the coming obsolescence of the late-20th-century-style militarized pseudo-democracy in the Middle East, and its influence has extended as far as Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park. Future generations will surely study Tahrir Square and what happened there intensively, but anyone in search of an expert account today need look no further than Ashraf Khalil’s “Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.”

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist who reports on the Middle East for a variety of Western publications. While it’s impressive that he has published “Liberation Square” before the one-year anniversary of the uprising, it’s not unusual. Reporters routinely crank out quickie books on major news events, and these tend to be rushed and lumpy creations, nearly as ephemeral as the newspaper stories on which they’re based. What’s remarkable about “Liberation Square” is how good it is, how well written, how perfectly calibrated in its amounts of background, commentary and prognostication — and above all how thrilling it is to read.

“Liberation Square” is also far from impartial, though I doubt there are many readers who will fault it for that. As a longtime Cairene, Khalil is able to quickly and vividly sketch the mindset of his countrymen as, a mere year ago, they faced the demoralizing prospect of Mubarak’s son, Gamal, continuing his father’s nepotistic, kleptocratic style of governance into the foreseeable future. He knows the jokes they told and the shame they felt — as a nation of famously “clever, resourceful and resilient” people, inheritors of an ancient and storied civilization — at being dominated by a pack of bullies, liars and incompetents.



In describing the increasingly intolerable conditions in Egypt, Khalil picks out a few cultural and political milestones and symbols that capture this malaise and festering disgust. The buddy comedy movie, “Cultural Film,” about a group of friends desperately trying to find a place to watch a softcore video, portrayed the bottled-up sexual frustration of a generation of educated young men who had no hope of ever finding decent jobs, moving out of their parents’ homes and getting married. A bestselling novel, “The Yacoubian Building” (later made into a film), uses “a grand old building in downtown Cairo” to illustrate how the rigid Egyptian class system arbitrarily yet mercilessly dictates the residents’ fates.

And then there’s the Internet, whose role in the uprising was, Khalil confirms, pivotal. Two important figures were Khaled Saieed, a 28-year-old Alexandrian computer buff, who was beaten to death in a foyer by police officers for reasons unknown. A relative used a cellphone to secretly snap a photo of Saieed’s battered corpse, and this, along with the victim’s fresh-faced, quintessentially middle-class passport photo, “exploded onto the Egyptian Internet,” inspiring a We Are All Khaled Saieed page on Facebook. “The huge thing with Khaled Saieed wasn’t his picture after he got killed,” a blogger told Khalil. “It was his picture before he got killed. A little innocent-looking guy who looks just like your son, your cousin, your nephew. That’s what galvanized people.”

Another galvanizer was Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old veiled woman who took to YouTube to harangue the populace into attending the Jan. 25, 2011, protest in Tahrir Square, provoked by the flagrantly rigged elections of the previous year and the electrifying example of the Tunisian revolution. “Mahfouz directs more of her anger at her fellow Egyptian civilians than at the government and the police,” Khalil writes, “taunting viewers to prove their manhood” by showing up at the square. Aimed as it was at the Egyptians’ “prized self-perceptions of what it meant to be a man” and providing more traditional women with an activist role model, this and other Mahfouz videos constituted “a remarkable moment of viral political marketing,” Khalil writes. Her impact, he asserts, was enormous.

The last half of “Liberation Square” forms a suspenseful, day-by-day narrative of the weeks between that first protest, on Jan. 25, and Mubarak’s resignation on Feb. 11. Khalil was on the streets much of the time and has interviewed dozens of participants about the unfolding drama as the demonstrators sought to take bridges and public spaces from the police, figured out how to communicate when the government cut Internet and cellphone service, fended off attacks from hired Mubarak supporters on camel- and horseback, welcomed the military and then wondered why it didn’t do more to defend them, listened to and rejected the self-justifying statements of Mubarak and other officials, and gradually realized that there was no going back and that the country was theirs at last.

Khalil is responsible enough to outline the ways that “figuring out what comes next will be much more difficult” than jettisoning Mubarak. The new Egypt must cope with a press so accustomed to toadying to the government or private owners that it doesn’t know how to think for itself, and with old-school elites doing everything they can to make sure they’re not held accountable for their misdeeds. Will the army, which is currently running the government, surrender that power willingly? How can decades of corruption and cronyism be replaced by a more “meritocratic” society, a reform that Khalil regards as “the single most important change going forward”? Although “Liberation Square” does offer a satisfying resolution in the form of Mubarak’s ouster, it’s a resolution for the book,  certainly not for Egypt itself. There, the protests continue.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>