When coffee caused a revolution

Café culture shaped, and continues to shape, Egypt's transformation

Published August 15, 2012 7:45PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

The café is synonymous with Egyptian society and, more generally, the Arab world. Unlike their European counterparts, Egyptian cafes are chaotic places of informal and raw discussion. Café Riche, once the intellectual and literary hangout of Cairo, awoke from its long slumber as a tourist attraction, with what seemed like eternal appeal, during last year's revolution. The wood paneling and white tablecloths speak to a forgotten Cairo era; one unashamed of its colonial pedigree, catering to foreign journalists replete with a selection of imported alcohol. These days, in post-revolutionary, perhaps revolutionary Cairo, Egyptian intellectuals and activists once again filter in for interviews in various languages beneath the high ceilings of the cafe.

Los Angeles Review of Books

During the height of the revolution that forced out former President Hosni Mubarak, Café Riche reestablished itself as a space where revolution was observed, unpacked, and understood. A stone’s throw from Tahrir Square, the physical embodiment of current Middle Eastern Revolution, the café even became a makeshift hospital for injured activists fleeing the street battles engulfing Cairo.

While Café Riche served as a hub of activity during the most intense moments of the 2011 revolution, the early planning of revolution didn't rely on cafés as much as other such moments of upheaval in Egypt's storied history. Hosni Mubarak's ambitious modernization of Egyptian telecommunication opened, somewhat ironically, an entirely new space for Egyptians to gather and sow revolution: The Internet.

With the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate Mohammed Mursi, Egypt has opened a new chapter in the country's most recent revolution. Yet, as is all too often the case in Egyptian history, the veneer of revolution conceals the deep power of the military.

In the interim period between the two phases of this summer's landmark presidential election, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF, as it is commonly referred to in Egypt and in the media) announced, without the slightest hint of irony, that the country's parliament was to be dissolved and the powers of the incoming president would be severely curtailed. The reason for these overtly anti-democratic and deeply anti-revolutionary measures is simple: The military fears for its lucrative control of the country's economic structure (for example, control of American aid totaling almost 2 billion dollars per year). Additionally, fear of prosecution for crimes committed against the Egyptian people during the uprising has compelled the generals to enforce an iron grip on the country.


The image of shadowy dictators and corrupt military men running the country from smoky offices overlooking a filthy, polluted Nile is a well-known trope in Egyptian literature. One work stands above the rest in its depiction of this discharge of society and how it is currently manifesting itself. Karnak Café, a short novella written by Nobel Prize winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, captures the angst, uncertainty and disillusionment which all too often accompanies political transition and revolution in Egypt and beyond.

In Karnak Café, a cafe loosely based on Café Riche serves as the backdrop onto which Mahfouz unpacks the implications of Egypt's 1952 revolution, which saw the ouster of dictator King Fouad. Mahfouz tracks the period following Nasser's 1952 coup into the late 1960's and the defeat by Israel in the 1967 war. The book quickly descends into a story of a revolution lost, abused, and co-opted. Mahfouz employs an unnamed narrator to explore the stories of two activists, their detention, and torture at the hands of the regime after the 1952 revolution. Their stories speak to the thousands of children of the revolution who experienced its gravity first hand.

Political conversations in Karnak Café are subtle, almost hushed, as the reader feels the security establishment's long arm. The tragedy of the revolution devouring its own, as well as the period following Nasser's 1952 coup until the defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, ensures that the story is at once timely and long lasting.

In the midst of all the political upheaval and social change, what remains a fixture in Egyptian society is the café: Mahfouz’s depictions of café life speak of a cultural center within which the political and social mores of Egyptian society are exchanged, consummated and organized. The similarities between then and now should not be lost on observers of Egypt's current power transition.

The unavoidable feeling of despair that Mahfouz captures permeates Egyptian society today — a condition all too often overlooked by the new crop of Egypt experts multiplying within international media. While the revolution marked a high point in the ability of people to organize in the Middle East, the people of Egypt remain divided, conflicted and downright frightened at the current state of their country. The starting point of the revolution might have been the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, but its ending point remains anyone's guess.

Revolutions are successful insofar as they incorporate the lessons of past periods of political upheaval. More than a year since Mubarak’s historic overthrow, the revolution stands on the edge of repeating precisely the steps which in the past have brought the country to its knees: creating a new veneer for the same institution, which might lead to elections, but hasn’t led to real change. In the uncertain climate of Egypt's presidential election season, the first of its kind in the country's layered history, there is a word that never seems to be far from the lips of Egyptian's mouths: Feloul. Roughly translated as "remnant," the term has become a catchword for everything connected to the Mubarak regime, from his security apparatus to his relationship with Israel. As in 1950's Egypt, fear of the old regime's reach is a persistent feature of contemporary Egyptian society. While cafes don't serve the role they once did, Egyptians have taken their discontent to the Internet, to the streets, and to newspapers.

One person at the forefront of the Egyptian revolution as an activist is Tarek Shalaby. I met him in downtown Cairo, blocks away from Tahrir Square, during the interim in runoff voting for Egypt's new president. Shalaby explained how social media platforms have become a new form of protection against the strength of the military's security apparatus, as well as a key mechanism in the work of sowing revolution. He is able to share his whereabouts and update his thousands of followers with live information as things are happening on the streets.

Where cafés once served this role as a place of safety, a place people could keep tabs on their friends, knowing who would show up and when, the Internet has taken its place. Mahfouz's café, the café of 1960's Egypt, was the social network of the day. It was the space in which activists and common people could exchange ideas and the latest news of the revolution. It was the space where people could watch out for one and another, despite the oppressive eye of the military. The geography of that exchange has changed, from the smoky cafés to cyberspace, but its role in stoking a revolution has not.


Few were surprised when Ahmed Shafik, a physical embodiment of the Mubarak regime, secured a place in the country's presidential runoff. His opponent, also not a startling surprise, was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement outlawed during Mubarak's 30-year iron rule. In the political contest between a Mubarak regime stalwart — a Feloul if there ever was one — and the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's revolutionaries were left scratching their heads in astonishment. Despite the excitement at change in Egyptian society, the attitude in cafes was more melancholy. Another revolution lost. Egypt's transition was taking place in spurts of excitement and then receding into the routine of authoritarian control.

Despite this return to the ossified political contours of pitting autocratic rulers with Islamic opposition figures, Tarek Shalaby remains hopeful that the revolution's most dynamic leaders will emerge. The Egyptian economy, dormant since the revolution, will provide one crucial catalyst for mass rebellion. Shalaby's assertion that the workers were unhappy with the revolution was validated in July, when textile workers staged impressive strikes against the CEO of the Mahalla Misr Spinning and Waving company, the largest textile manufacturer in Egypt. In the course of our conversation, he excitedly noted that activists were increasingly aware that without the workers, nothing would change for the better in Egypt.

For Shalaby, the entire structure of the Egyptian economy, departing from one anchored in corruption toward an inclusive model of economic planning, will be required to keep people off of the streets. To succeed in its initial desire to change Egyptian society, the revolution will need to target and transform the nation's economy, and not simply embrace the West’s neoliberal platforms of market-oriented institutions and economic privatization, which in the Egyptian case includes an elaborate and growingly despised economic relationship with Israel.

But it was not the country's economic system alone that brought people back to Cairo's Tahrir Square. Rather, it was a Kafkaesque verdict handed down to Hosni Mubarak, his sons and the leadership responsible for the deaths of more than 850 protesters during the worst of revolutionary fighting. In a bizarre verdict, Judge Ahmed Rifaat excused many of Mubarak's senior military staff for their role in killing protesters, ruling that although they didn't do enough to stop the violence against unarmed protesters, the violence was perpetuated and ordered not by the defendants, but by “mysterious elements.” These elements have yet to be identified, much less indicted.

Following the delivery of the verdict, in the midst of Cairo's stifling and oppressive heat, crowds of angry protesters filled the square. Journalists clamored to report that the revolution's violence was again coming to the streets. Yet, nothing came of the hyped protests. Egyptians returned to regular life only to pour into the streets after Mohammed Morsi won the presidency by the slimmest of margins. Within days, Ahmed Shafik disappeared from the headlines, as Egypt opened a new chapter in democracy.

Mahfouz’s Karnak Café is filled with stories of torture and terror at the hands of Nasser's regime, committed in the name of protecting the revolution. But there is another source of despair — Israel — and Mahfouz depicts how the defeat in the 1967 war resulted in a loss of land and loss of pride. Egypt's relationship with Israel has long been marked by war, anger, cold peace and heavy international intervention, but the debate taking shape in contemporary Egypt is more positive. Nowadays, Israel plays a different role, at once revolutionary and Feloul.

Israel is an issue that unites Egyptians. The burning of the Israeli embassy last summer by angry protesters fed up with Israeli aggression, as well as President Morsi's gestures towards Palestinians — especially the Muslim Brotherhood off-shoot Hamas — is one area of policy that Egyptians can agree on. Few believe that fundamental changes will take place to the US-brokered Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, signed in 1978. The treaty's benefits — in the form of military and economic aid to Egypt, which is tightly controlled by SCAF — are too integral to allow for a rupture. Populist anti-Israel rhetoric will remain a source of easy political points for politicians but will remain ineffectual in changing the status quo.

In the final section of Karnak Café, one of the interrogators responsible for the torture of a café regular makes a surprise visit to the café itself. After having spent three years in prison himself following his role in the 1967 defeat, his allegiances have shifted. Announcing that he would like to be a regular, he finds himself a corner and nonchalantly orders a coffee. A commentary on the nature of Egyptian society and its unstable divisions, this scene could just as easily play itself out in today's Cairo, and perhaps is.

With the daily ups and downs of the Egyptian news cycle and the far from completed revolution seemingly dead in the water, the question remains: what next? There remains anger in Egypt. On some days, it is barely suppressed. On others, such as now during the holy month of Ramadan, it is subdued and confined to the smoky cafés lining Cairo alleyways. Mahfouz's novel gave voice to this anger, and the social problems exposed by the book remain glaringly present in contemporary Egypt. Modern day revolutions rarely change the dictatorial ruling structures of society, but the residue they leave burns slowly in the hearts of Egyptians. With its storied history, the intellectual luminaries of Egypt of the past have left for present day revolutionaries works of great insight. They also issue a challenge: Who will write today’s Karnak Café?

By Joseph Dana

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