Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American book critic and fiction writer.
In 2011, all eyes were on the youth of Egypt. Their mobilization efforts — both online and off — helped bring down the oppressive, nearly 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. But the revolution ultimately has been seen as a failure. The years since have been marked by violence, political upheaval and crackdowns on dissent, leaving Egyptians in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Rachel Aspden’s “Generation Revolution” offers sharp insight into how the youth movement came together and why it fell apart.
“Beyond the turmoil of parties, factions and elections that followed Mubarak’s overthrow, I wanted to know about the personal beliefs and choices that would shape Egypt directly, but less surely,” Aspden writes. “I wanted to understand why a woman with three degrees might wear a face veil and conceal her hands with black gloves; why a start-up entrepreneur might demand his bride-to-be was a certified virgin; why a nightclub-going, hash-smoking student might despise the idea of democracy.” Chronicling the experiences of four young Egyptians, the book provides fascinating detail but no easy answers.
Aspden was an outsider to Egypt, a journalist of the ever-suspicious West, which she thankfully acknowledges. Throughout the book, she shares her own perspective sparingly but enough to remind readers that she, too, is unable to grasp some ideas that are taken for granted in Egyptian society. If there’s one thing that’s missing, it’s how Aspden managed to earn the trust of those she writes about, young men like Ayman, who became a Salafi (a member of a strictly orthodox Sunni Muslim sect) when he was 16, or Mazen, a fanboy of the TV preacher Amr Khaled.
The book begins in the last years before Mubarak’s downfall, as Egypt became ripe for change. Khaled was a key part of this charged environment — his TV program created the youth movement Life Makers, which trained people to be politically active. In addition, the conservative values that had tightened around Egyptians — often as holdovers from expats returning from stricter gulf states — were frustrating to young people watching cosmopolitan first lady Suzanne Mubarak and other elites dress in Western fashions and espouse Western ideas. Egypt was a country full of contradictions: The rise of conservative Islam was spurred by the liberal, wealthy administration and its web of military favoritism. The imbalance of power and money, mixed messages, politically active young people, and the introduction of the Internet fostered unrest.
Ayman and Mazen provide an intriguing window into the Egyptian youth movement. Both were middle class with politically moderate parents. Both were versions of a similar phenomenon, embodied by a phrase Aspden heard over and over: “Egyptians are religious by nature.” Those words helped reinforce faith as a communal identity rather than a private matter between a person and their god (or lack thereof). Ayman, who saw hypocrisy in popular organized religion, turned to Salafism, while Mazen devoutly followed the action-oriented Amr Khaled.
Aspden paints her subjects not as revolutionaries who were itching for a fight but as regular people, Egyptians of varying upbringings and socioeconomic status. That they ended up being part of the movement against Mubarak was as much a result of luck, timing and the force of a collective as it was a matter of individual readiness.
Aspden goes on to examine the protests that sparked Egypt’s uprising. In June 2010, 28-year-old Khaled Said was beaten to death by police. Soon after, protests in Tunisia began. Swiftly, the head of the Tunisian regime was ousted, and Egyptians on social media called for protests of their own. These demonstrations were meant at first to be reactions to police brutality. Instead, Tahrir Square in Cairo filled with thousands speaking out against the militarized Mubarak regime. On Jan. 28, “the Friday of Anger,” tens of thousands were in the streets. Police began retreating, and military forces arrived, providing hope for the protesters who saw them as saviors, knowing that without military support, Mubarak wouldn’t be able to stay in power.
Aspden deftly captures small details about the protesters: She describes how Mazen saw men taking bottles of Pepsi from an abandoned store (the fizzy drink is effective in combating tear gas) and leaving money on the counter for the owner. The protesters had no interest in anarchy; they wanted safety and to see their country evolve.
Another of Aspden’s subjects, Amr, a software engineer, thought Mubarak “was a dinosaur” who had shut down the Internet and “sent camels and horses to do battle in the middle of Cairo.” But even then, some expressed concerns about what would happen if and when Mubarak was ousted; some of Amr’s friends feared that if “Mubarak goes, the Islamists will take power.”
After Mubarak stepped down, the internal conflict in Egypt began in earnest. Activists who once came together for change began to disagree about what the change should look like. Aspden explains the various reasons her contacts voted for the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi: They thought he would “clean up politics,” they were disgusted by everything his rival stood for, or, as the most cynical believed, it was necessary to see the Brotherhood in power in order to expose its true “evil and stupid” identity.
During Morsi’s brief time as president, there were demonstrations for and against him — for him because of his religion but also because he was elected by a democratic process; against, because people disliked an Islam-tinged government, despite being “religious by nature.” The latter were eventually aided by the army, which was forming a coup to overthrow Morsi.
Returning to a militarized regime left Aspden’s contacts disheartened , angry and hopeless. Former revolutionaries looked on, aghast and exhausted, as military scientists lied on TV and power went off at even the most prosperous shopping malls. Software engineer Amr’s activist streak had long ago burned out. Amal, a woman who fled her family’s strict rules, told Aspden that in 2011 she thought things might change for women, but no more: “All this stupid stuff, obsessing about sex, about covering women’s hair, is because of the vacuum we live in.”
Amr and Amal were among the few who had the opportunity to leave Egypt. Most people, like Ayman, had to keep working to support themselves and their families. Mazen, who paid off government officials to smooth the way through red tape and move forward with a venture — selling sparkly cellphone cases bought on the cheap from abroad — “looked years older” when Aspden saw him for the last time in 2014. “His face was set in disillusioned lines and his voice had an unhappy, cynical tone,” she writes. The “new-old regime was stifling everyone.”
Still, Aspden ends on a note of cautious optimism. “Things in Egypt would never be the same again. An awareness that things could be different had been planted and at some point it would bear fruit.” The Egyptian activists may have lost this battle, but the war for freedom is far from over.
By Rachel Aspden
Other. 262 pp. $24.95