Journalism in a specific setting usually deserves its reputation as the “first rough draft of history.” Because the end of the Hosni Mubarak government in Egypt came just last year, it would be reasonable to expect little of historical permanence from a book-length account of what happened. Yet Egyptian journalist Ashraf Khalil confounds expectations with an insightful account that feels rich – and perhaps will attain permanence.
Khalil, who sometimes writes for this newspaper, lives in Cairo, speaks the Arabic language fluently, and has reported Egyptian news for a long time. He also served as editor in chief of an English-language newspaper, The Cairo Times, that pushed against censorship from the dictatorship by operating as much as possible in the manner of the relatively free Western media. An account from Khalil is certain to top anything coming from the traditional Western foreign correspondent who parachutes into a hot spot without the appropriate language training or knowledge about the context. It is difficult to imagine a better guide to the Egyptian portion of the so-called Arab Spring than Khalil’s book Liberation Square.
Like all accounts that look inside long-standing dictatorships, “Liberation Square” cannot completely account for what may be the most perplexing dilemma of human history: Why does any population allow the rise of brutal, dishonest men (and occasionally women) to dominate every aspect of life? Can any author thoroughly parse the reality of an Adolf Hitler or a Josef Stalin or a Hosni Mubarak and show us how that person gains control over millions or tens of millions of an historically proud, accomplished, spirited people? No. But Khalil labors mightily to reach that explanatory summit, and offers plenty of wisdom, along with action-packed reportage, along the way.
Khalil opens his narrative on January 28, 2011, when a sufficient number of Egyptian citizens finally massed near Tahrir Square in Cairo to overwhelm the brutal police who had helped keep Mubarak in power for 29 years. The book then moves back in time to explain how Mubarak, a poorly regarded military general, became “the accidental dictator,” and how he consolidated his hold on the nation through force and corruption. Thoughtful Egyptians knew throughout the Mubarak dictatorship that they had let a proud heritage become compromised. Cruel jokes about his lack of brain power coursed through Egyptian society, and not even harshly violent security guards could halt the dark humor. For decades, however, the jokes trailed off into the atmosphere and nothing changed for the better. That is why, Khalil explains, on January 28, 2011, “there was a distinct undercurrent of bitterness and shame mixed in with the euphoria and the resurgent sense of empowerment coursing through the Cairo streets” as it became clear Mubarak would resign.
Sections of Khalil’s narrative demonstrate that the power of the masses can begin with the courageous words and actions of inspiring individuals. As technology evolved, brave individuals could rally support through the Internet, a phenomenon that no dictatorship can control completely. Unfortunately, one of those heroes served in death more than in life; Khalil recounts the saga of Khaled Saieed, a 28-year-old introverted computer geek residing in Alexandria, Egypt. During June 2010, two plainclothes police officers accosted Saieed at a cyberspace café, and beat him to death. The reasons for the apparent arrest of Saieed are unclear, but the results are evident indeed: countless Egyptians became enraged at the before-and-after photographs circulating on the Internet. Before, Saieed looks like an ordinary, harmless young man. After, his brutalized corpse could not be ignored.
Khalil does not always profess objectivity as he presents his narrative. At the end of the text, it is impossible to know yet whether Khalil deserves praise as a prognosticator. Here is a summary of his punditry, found in the book’s Epilogue, which is titled “The Cairo Effect.” Khalil notes that because of “its population, history and geographic position,” Egypt has always greatly influenced other Middle East nations. Circa 2012, “a properly rebuilt Egypt – one structured around rule of law, firm governmental checks and balances, and trusted, uncorrupted national institutions – could gradually transform the Middle East. An Egypt built around the idea of a true meritocracy, a place where people can choose their own leaders and then peacefully choose different ones, could become the proverbial ‘light unto the nations’ for a region that has been sliding backward for most of the past century.”
Even a permanent peace with Israel seems possible now, Khalil believes – not because most Egyptians are comfortable with Israeli hegemony, but because peace is a better alternative than war.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, author of eight nonfiction books, and an investigative reporter with 40 years’ experience.