Egypt: Between Order and Chaos

Volunteers clearing trash and debris from Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 2011
Moises Saman/The New York Times/Redux
Volunteers clearing trash and debris from Tahrir Square the day after President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, Cairo, February 2011

Most foreign correspondents are in a rush—hurtling along with the news, racing to meet deadlines. They rarely have the opportunity to step back from the moment. Peter Hessler had the uncommon luxury of being able to spend five years in Egypt, from 2011 to 2016, reporting for The New Yorker and National Geographic. In The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, he has brought together the idiosyncratic and ambitious articles he wrote there. As the title suggests, it aims to unearth something deeper about the uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak out of office—and its dismal aftermath.

But there’s taking the long view, and there’s placing the events of the Arab Spring in the span of the last five millennia. The Buried’s opening pages contain a time chart that features, on one side, Egypt’s history spanning the Pharaonic, Mamluk, Ottoman, and modern eras; and, on the other, the years 2011 to 2016. The chart has a playful quality. But like the quotations from ancient Egyptian texts and the hieroglyphics that appear elsewhere in the book, it suggests that recent events in Egypt are just the latest cycle in a recurring historical schema.

Hessler is by no means alone in invoking Egypt’s past to explain its present. When I lived there, I heard Mubarak denounced repeatedly as a modern-day pharaoh; after the Arab Spring, those looking to celebrate a history of subversion liked to note that in the twelfth century BC Egyptian craftsmen carried out the first recorded sit-in in human history. The grandiloquent preamble of the country’s new post-2011 constitution, as Hessler wittily notes, was inundated by references to the Nile and the country’s glorious past. Yet if these examples show anything, it is that ancient history can be used to make almost any point about the politics of the present.

The Buried promises to uncover an essential truth about Egypt, but this is a promise that it can’t keep. What it does deliver is original, richly layered, and often delightful reporting. Hessler has a sharp sense of humor, a gift for observation, a healthy skepticism, and a knack for using memorable characters and anecdotes to demonstrate larger truths. Not all of his observations and parallels persuade, but they add up to a vivid picture of a country in turmoil that grinds painfully against the difficulties of achieving real change, as seen by an attentive, opinionated, and at times bemused observer.

Hessler arrived in Cairo in the fall of 2011 with his wife, Leslie Chang, also a journalist, and his young twin daughters. His book covers the next five years, as he studied Arabic and traveled to archaeological sites, southern villages, Chinese-run factories,…

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