In early 2011, Egypt seemed to be on the verge of a radical transformation. A popular uprising brought down the president and turned Cairo's Tahrir Square into a ramshackle utopia, a fairground of poetry recitations, Muslim-Christian solidarity and volunteer sanitation workers. The protesters were brave, idealistic, unarmed and media-savvy. Many were young and beautiful. But they weren't experienced in practical politics. After their chief demand — Hosni Mubarak's removal from power — was met, they had few plans for what came next.
Four years later, Egypt is ruled once again by a military strongman, the former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood are back in prison or in hiding, but so are many secular dissidents. Political opposition in Egypt is now essentially criminalized. By most measures — civil rights, economic opportunity, the tenor of public discourse — the country is worse off than it was when the demonstrators first called for Mubarak's ouster. The thin safety net once provided by the Brotherhood is gone. To compensate, Sisi has called on Egyptians to toughen up — and use energy-saving light bulbs.
Wendell Steavenson reported on Egypt for The New Yorker during the tumultuous period from just before Mubarak's removal to the emergence of Sisi, who assumed power soon after the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood apparatchik who was Egypt's first democratically elected president. Steavenson fell hard for the original protesters. She was often in Tahrir during the spring of 2011, and that experience strongly colors her sense of what happened afterward.
"My heart thumped with them," she writes early in her book, watching the crowds on television, and later she catches herself in conversation identifying with the demonstrators ("This is the Tahrir that we fought for"). It's only during the anti-Morsi protests in the summer of 2013, which brought the army back to power, that she finds herself responding more or less like a journalist again: "I felt, for the first time on Tahrir, like a separate and almost disinterested observer."
Steavenson's book, "Circling the Square," is an unabashedly Tahrir-centric account of the Egyptian uprising and its aftermath. Her main interlocutors are those who were on the square or allied with the demonstrators: members of the liberal elite, opposition intellectuals, foreign and local journalists. Although this skews the book in important ways, it adds to the strength of her depiction of what happened on the square, of what it was like to be in the thick of things.
Here, for example, is her description of army tanks rolling into Tahrir: "The crowd inched forward gingerly. There was a wariness in front of these big beasts. One man touched the armored nose of the lead tank. Another did the same, and then another, until the crowd was flowing all around and in between the tanks. They patted their hot metal flanks and called to them in soft voices as if to tame them." This passage is remarkable not only for its sympathetic observation but for the way it suggests the Egyptians' complex relationship with the military — a mixture of reverence, familiarity and nervousness.Steavenson is less interested in the two major players that competed with the demonstrators — the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. About the first group she is disarmingly candid: "I didn't like the Brotherhood. It was based on obedience and hierarchy; dissent was expelled and discussion eschewed. . . . They did not really believe that other people had the right to have other ideas. Worse, they didn't have any ideas of their own." As for the men with guns, an elderly opposition leader tells her, "The army is a black box," and Steavenson takes him more or less at his word. Her talks with a blustery military intelligence officer are brief and inconclusive.
But the army isn't quite a black box, nor is the Brotherhood mindless, as the valuable researches of Hazem Kandil and others have shown. In any case, from our vantage point four years on, it's clear that the army and the Islamists were the dominant actors in this tragedy, even if they weren't the catalysts. After the departure of Mubarak, it was the Brotherhood that, by virtue of its superior organization, seized momentum from the demonstrators and entered into negotiations with the army. And from the beginning it was the officers who claimed for themselves the task of interpreting the will of the people on the square — drafting constitutions, setting up electoral schedules and even toppling presidents if need be. Unlike the protesters, these two groups played the long game, and ultimately the army played it more ruthlessly.
Given this history, Steavenson's account, which mostly adopts the perspective of the revolutionaries, seems out of touch. And it doesn't really answer the large questions about the uprising and its denouement that remain. Since they had so much to lose, why did the Muslim Brotherhood agree to field a presidential candidate? What calculus was responsible for the catastrophically bad decisions its members made once in power? How monolithic is the Egyptian Army, ideologically or generationally, and will it maintain any significant influence over Sisi's political ambitions?
Steavenson doesn't deal with these kinds of questions; she's more interested in capturing the feeling of events as they happened, including the feeling of bewilderment. Few books are better than this one at conveying the confusion and excitement of those days on the square. But what has happened in Egypt since then should serve as a caution. The story of Tahrir, for all its real heroism, is just one among many, and it may not be the most important.
CIRCLING THE SQUARE
Stories From the Egyptian Revolution
By Wendell Steavenson
Illustrated. 366 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.
Robyn Creswell teaches comparative literature at Yale and is the translator of the Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim's "That Smell and Notes From Prison."