I intended this essay, successively, to coincide with various recent events: the death of a president, the launch of a book, the anniversary of a revolution. That I failed to deliver on each of those occasions was the result of something of a blind spot: it was impossible, then as now, to write about Egypt over the past ten years without at last addressing what happened in the summer of 2013.1
I do not mean the army’s ouster of Egypt’s first freely elected post-revolution president, Mohamed Morsi, on July 3, 2013, after three days of enormous protests against his authoritarianism and Islamist policies.2 Nor am I referring to the subsequent crackdown on his supporters, an estimated 80,000 of whom camped in a Cairo public square for forty days demanding his reinstatement. I don’t refer to the bloodbath that ensued when police stormed the square or the swift rise to power of the defense minister, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. These events were all adequately documented by the press and in reports by human rights agencies. Rather, I am speaking much more particularly about my life, and how it was thoroughly altered for several years by an article I wrote in these pages during that time.3
The events of that summer divided Egypt. You were either against the ousting of the president and the crackdown on his supporters or, if you did not publicly state this, you were classified as endorsing the brutality of the police, which by the measure of the intellectual left and international observers meant you were morally bankrupt. It was in this second category that I found myself by default.
The reason was that in writing about what is referred to as “Rabaa,” after Rabaa al-Adawiya, the square in which Morsi’s supporters were camped, I had not used the terminology that almost every other writer and journalist reporting in English had: some version of “the Egyptian army massacred one thousand people.”4 Rather, after a year of reporting on the human rights abuses of the Morsi regime and its supporters, on that morning when the camp was dispersed, and amid the chaotic experience of witnessing crossfire, I tried not to take a position. As a writer, I attempted simply to bear witness. I tried to step back that day, and in the days following, to tell two sides of a story. I wrote about the death counts among both the police and the Islamists, and I also posed questions and offered evidence regarding not only the actions of the police but also the Muslim Brotherhood’s incitements to violence, including against Egypt’s Coptic Christian community.
When I think back, I can’t remember the specifics of what I will call “the fallout,” except for the moment I deactivated my Facebook account and the nine-month silence that followed between my closest friend and me. I remember the hate mail, the death threats, the acquaintances who became detractors, and the friends with whom time spent was fraught with what seemed to be unspoken disdain.
I raise all this now, some eight years later, for several reasons. The first came with the death of Morsi, in the summer of 2019, while he was on trial in Cairo on charges of treason. Diabetic and ailing after years of solitary confinement and inadequate access to medical care, Morsi collapsed and died while addressing the court. His burial by security forces, at dawn in a cemetery far from the site in his home village that his family requested, barely made local news. Newspaper editors were ordered to run a forty-two-word statement—sent via WhatsApp by the government—“on inside pages,” without mentioning that he was once head of state.5
For my parents and their friends, it was reminiscent of our exiled King Farouk, ousted by army generals in 1952, whose body was returned to Egypt from Italy after his death thirteen years later and buried quietly in the early morning hours. Those of my generation—who cast the bulk of the votes paving Morsi’s way into office, less out of a desire for an Islamist president than in opposition to his establishment rival—wondered aloud if the ex-president had been strategically killed in the public eye.
Morsi’s rise from a prison cell, where he was being held when the Egyptian revolution broke out in January 2011, to the presidency just over a year later was astonishing. Although I was ambivalent about his campaign, his inaugural address in Tahrir Square, in which he spoke of ushering in an era of pluralism, brought me to tears. With the news of Morsi’s death it felt like we had come as far as we could from the sense of possibility that the revolution had evoked, and it prompted a collective public remembrance across social media of the “Rabaa massacre.”6 Despite sharing in the acute feeling of loss at the time, I felt I had no right to partake in the mourning.
I remained hounded by “the fallout” and the question of whether it had been possible for me to have been simply a witness, as I had attempted to be, or if my choice not to use the terminology of “massacre” had implicated me as sympathetic to the army’s crackdown. Could I have told the two sides of the story differently, or did the number of deaths—approximately one thousand Morsi supporters and some 160 on the other side—speak to a story that could, or perhaps should, have been told from only one vantage point? These questions have occupied me for the better part of the past eight years.
Around the time of Morsi’s death, while I was sharing beers and lentil soup with the political scientist and Middle East law professor Nathan J. Brown at the storied Café Riche, just off Tahrir Square, he told me that on reading the article in question, his one thought had been, “They even got to her, too.” I raise all this now to reckon with that past, to acknowledge intent, and the realization that it can have little bearing on the reading of a story.
I took as many opportunities as I could to get away from Egypt after that summer. A residency here, a fellowship there, teaching positions when they came. I made an attempt to relocate permanently to New York,7 and although I wrote a novel during that time, for the majority of those years I could hardly write about my home country, even as it was the only thing on my mind. I returned often to Cairo to visit, but there was, for me, the question of legitimacy: what it meant to be writing about a place from afar. Exile might have been easier to negotiate.8
In America, I watched the 2016 US presidential election through the prism of what I had experienced in Egypt. I recall telling a gathering of colleagues at Princeton University, where I was teaching, that Donald Trump seemed likely to win. He was his supporters’ Morsi, the anti-establishment figure.9 My suggestion, which included recollections of what I had witnessed in Egypt, was met with dismissal, even scorn, as was my insinuation months later that Trump was acting like an autocrat. It gave me a deeper insight into my own country’s history. It was also at Princeton that I had my first encounters with white bigotry.10
For those of us who left Egypt for America following the 2011 revolution and its aftermath, Hillary Clinton’s loss—despite the fact that many of us loathed her positions on Middle East policy11—dealt a devastating blow. Trump’s “Muslim ban” affected many close to me. Although Egypt wasn’t included on the list of countries from which travel to the US was forbidden, we feared it might be added, and for some seven months I felt anxious about leaving the US to visit my parents in Egypt and not being able to return. As a “resident alien” I had no claims. At the time, it was hard to grasp which of the two evils—Trump’s America or Sisi’s Egypt—I felt more ready to fight. The accounts I received from home of arrests, censorship, and abuses of power seemed to escalate by the day. I had been threatened in the past by Egypt’s “deep state” and was traumatized by the possibility of persecution.12
The answer eventually came in a letter from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). My immigrant-track visa, a petition-based EB-1A that would give me a green card, was questioned and ultimately denied. Among its citations was the “assessment” that my writing did not demonstrate “original” research, discourse, or contributions, because “in general” such original content “has footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography.” Despite follow-up letters of support from distinguished professors, writers, and editors across the US, including a National Humanities Medal recipient, all vouching for my qualifications and the “originality” of my work, the USCIS was resolute: “Expert opinion testimony does not purport to be evidence as to ‘fact.’”
I returned to Cairo late in 2017 to pack up my lifelong family home, which had just been sold. Over the next six months, as I sifted through eighty years of my family’s belongings, I followed our own presidential election, held in March 2018.13 The state’s tactics were predictable: one candidate after another was defamed, bullied, or arrested and made to retract his bid. President Sisi essentially ran unopposed and was reelected with 97 percent of the vote. Although I was thoroughly caught up in the process of losing two homes—the one I had always had in Cairo and the one I had desperately tried to make in New York—it was not lost on me that we had returned to the same political predicament that had precipitated the revolution.
It became impossible to orient myself again—personally, politically, even in writing—without the aid of medication, and I learned that prescriptions for SSRIs (used to treat anxiety, depression, and trauma) had spiked in Egypt by approximately 70 percent in the past eight years, a fact that pharmacists and psychiatrists I spoke to attributed to the political and social aftermath of revolution. A page in my notebook from that time reads, kaleidoscopically, like this:
Rolexes. Economy of dollars, cash
The funeral with each rolex bigger than the one before.14
Pound-dollar stable. Bank manager says its political.
Morsi death in a courtroom
Egypt decline into irrelevance
Morsi and the Dale Carnegie self development books
Brotherhood are fans15
Hani Shukrallah’s funeral that is cancelled then called on again16
Fear of gathering
The question of what went wrong
What it means to keep your private life shielded
Alaa and Gamal at the football match17
The paranoia around their popularity
Photos of them circulating as if gauge for their popularity if they were to run
Quickly another case planted against them
Gamal’s wife on plane with me [back from Greece]
Code for queer…
Code for the president…18
After months of rumors, and as I was beginning to put my life together again, in February 2019 Egypt’s parliament announced a national referendum on a constitutional amendment that would allow President Sisi to remain in office until 2034. I walked the streets of Cairo diligently in the weeks before the vote, in search of a sign that a “no” campaign might emerge. Although the result of this vote was predictable—one parliamentarian told me the result was “pre-cooked” and that, to his dismay, he was “in the kitchen”—it struck me at the time that as citizens we were being offered an opportunity to make a visible statement, even just in the guise of a “no” campaign, against this presidential power grab. I wrote as much in an opinion piece for The New York Times criticizing the referendum and proposing that the president himself reject the amendment, in the name of the will of the people, which he frequently invoked.19
Reaction to the piece was immediate and fervent—friends, colleagues, and government contacts warned me that I was openly crossing a line by criticizing the inner circle of the state. My father called one morning with words of counsel from a retired general, a friend with whom he spent mornings, and we discussed a contingency plan in the event of any threat against me by the government: whom he would call first, second, third, or as a last resort. It brought a certain sense of freedom, as well as consolation—less perhaps “the plan” than the realization that I still harbored political stamina, as well as the will to write.
That summer, I spent many afternoons at the pool with my seven-year-old goddaughter, Malak. Although I tried, it was hard to avoid politics entirely. Our pool mates included the activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah—who had recently been released from prison after completing a five-year sentence and who at the time was dating my best friend—and his son, Khaled, also seven, to whom my goddaughter took a liking. Their circumstances were difficult in different ways, and perhaps because of it, they played together well. From the outside, those might have seemed like regular summer days spent with friends, except that by 4:30 PM Alaa would rush off to shower and get dressed, saying hurried good-byes before zooming across the bridge to the Dokki Police Station. There, as a condition of his probation, in the presence of his mother or sister or a friend, he would turn himself in, sign over his phone (no electronics were allowed), and be locked in a closet-sized room where he would read or write from sunset to sunrise.20
I tried to explain to Malak, in the simplest terms I could, why Alaa had been unjustly imprisoned, why he still had to report to the police station each night, and why his son—who had been two when his father was taken away from their family home—barely ever spoke. Malak asked me questions with persistence: Why can’t he sleep at home? Why does Sisi not like him? Why can’t anyone help? Let’s think of someone who can.
For those brief months that Alaa was partially free and Malak and Khaled shared a silent friendship, I felt hopeful for the future. Everyone says he can’t speak, Malak told me of Khaled. But he can. He just doesn’t want to. She seemed to have come to her own understanding about the threats of speaking out and promised to be a better president when she was elected. From Alaa, she began to learn about the fundamentals of democracy and invited him to be a student in her “Imaginary School.” Over breakfasts on my terrace, they came up with a curriculum, made signs, and decided what classes he personally would take.
In late September, several weeks into the Imaginary School project, Alaa was kidnapped by the state from the police station he reported to each night. He was thrust into a maze of interrogations and sent back to the same prison where he had served his five-year sentence, this time on charges of “joining an illegal organization [unidentified], committing a crime connected to this organization’s foreign funding, spreading false news that endangers national security and using social media to spread such news.”21
It was part of the government’s harshest crackdown since 2013, precipitated by a flash protest instigated by Mohamed Ali, a building contractor who had formerly worked for the army and had been posting videos of himself on YouTube outlining the government’s spending and corruption. His commentaries were detailed, fact-filled, and believable, and very quickly went viral. We all waited daily for the next installment, posted from his exile in Spain. His persistent message was for us to return to the streets, and for days there was a sense of political life becoming emboldened again. And yet when protests erupted in Lebanon some weeks later, in opposition to a new tax law, I remember watching them on TV with friends who commented that it was remarkable to think people still had faith in the idea of that kind of movement.
Alaa wasn’t the only person I know who was picked up in that crackdown, but his arrest was the one that hit me the hardest. For months after, Malak asked about him regularly, and even once suggested that we call his phone and try to reason with the policeman who answered. She stopped asking only when the pandemic overturned her life, robbing her of school, friends, normality.
The outbreak of Covid-19 came as a convenience to the government, allowing it to shut down all forms of gathering and public space. It was the perfect cover for political repression, if one was needed. During that time, and certainly in the first few months when there was a daytime curfew, there were moments when the pandemic felt like the revolution ten years earlier—that sense of open-endedness and of a situation greater than us, with no clear end in sight. The only thing missing, perhaps, was hope.
In many ways, the feeling remains of being stranded in place, hostage to time. I’ve spent most of the pandemic reflecting on the revolution and what it opened up in our lives—beyond activism—and then eventually took away. I understand now my father’s cautious response when the protests broke out in January 2011. I would call him from Tahrir Square several times a day, sharing developments, conversations, news. He would tell me not to get too excited and repeat how he had lived through it all before.22
My sentiments were similar as I watched the most recent series of Black Lives Matter and Me Too protests erupt across America, the country to which I have the closest second tie, despite no longer having even a permit to visit. Although the mass public gatherings, with their high visibility, seemed an important statement to make, all I could think at the time was that it was hardly enough. The damage of the Trump presidency, the storming of Capitol Hill, and the magnitude of Trump’s 74 million supporters and what he represents—racism, sexism, xenophobia—these things are not easy to undo.23
The revolution—our revolution—with all its political failings, caused its deepest disappointments for my friends and me in the everyday. Our lives have been jostled and dictated by political circumstance: my best friend falling in love with a dissident and having to temper her expectations of what a future, a relationship, a family, can mean; my goddaughter finding her first real role model, that same dissident, and having her earliest lessons in politics escalated into a crash course by his most recent imprisonment and its impact on her Imaginary School, and of course on her friendship with Khaled, his son. My own desires were curbed similarly, in the long journey out of Egypt and then back home, in the absolute paralysis when I tried to write, in the crippling disappointment of collapsed circumstances and heartbreak—what it has meant to lose “home” in America, and loved ones with it, inasmuch as my writing life is likewise grounded here.
The difficulty of writing about the place you are from is the difficulty of writing about these intimate stakes and struggles—most often without being able to precisely name or describe them, for fear of what that spotlight may bring and out of concern for the privacy of loved ones, as well as because of the emotional difficulty of living with situations so open-ended and unresolved. I see now in friends my age the same sense of resignation that I saw in my father. Some have been lost to exile, but some to trauma or depression. And there are those, of course, who were lost to the political divides that erupted in 2013 and to this day have not been bridged.
—Cairo, October 6, 2021
For a comprehensive narrative of the events leading up to and through 2013, and more broadly the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath, see Noah Feldman, The Arab Winter, A Tragedy (Princeton University Press, 2020). In one iteration, this essay was intended to coincide with the book’s release. ↩
Feldman gives the most balanced and accurate account of the controversial protests leading to Morsi’s removal. He writes, “The point of my account is not to document every twist and turn in this highly dramatic period but to set the stage for a second argument about political agency: that the Tahrir protests that led to the army’s removal of Morsi were manifestations of collective political agency every bit as much as were the protests that led to the removal of Mubarak….
“The people in the streets intended to send the message that the repeated democratic elections of the previous two years had produced results they did not like. They sought to communicate that they wanted the democratic process to be reversed. The proof is that the people left no doubt that the entity they were calling upon to reverse that process was the military.” ↩
The New Yorker described it as “slaughter,” The New York Times as a “mass killing,” and The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic as a “massacre.” ↩
In the first print edition of the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper on June 18, a front-page news-box item mentioned Morsi’s death, referring to him as the former president. By the third print edition, the item had been moved to the inside Accidents and Crime page, and any acknowledgment that he was a former head of state had been removed. ↩
A Google search of the phrase “Rabaa massacre” returns some 60,000 results. It has become the most common refrain for the events of that summer. ↩
On the one hand, the choice of America was a matter of opportunity—the fellowships and teaching positions that I was offered there—and on the other it was natural for me, since New York was the home of my partner at the time. These solid reasons for being there did not relieve my anxiety and self-consciousness about writing on Egypt from afar. ↩
Inasmuch as I was aware that the very personal, vicious backlash to “Egypt: The Misunderstood Agony” had paralyzed my writing, my blind spot, so to speak, was my inability to confront those reactions and—at least until now—to discuss the questions they raised for me on a personal and moral level of self-assessment. ↩
Feldman writes, “To vote for Morsi was to vote for change.” ↩
At a faculty meeting, for example, while discussing the Egyptian protests of 2013 and more broadly the revolution, I was cut off mid-sentence by colleagues and told that they would favor and refer to the accounts of the US-based historian and writer Hugh Roberts over my eyewitness accounts and reporting. I was told that he was the more credible commentator on the Egyptian revolution, even from his perch in Massachusetts. ↩
We viewed her as “hawkish” because of her vote for the war on Iraq. ↩
Egypt is said to have up to 400,000 plainclothes agents working as “informants”—“eyes and ears” to the government, a recently retired police chief told me. ↩
See my “Goodbye to the House My Grandmother Built,” The New York Times, April 13, 2018. ↩
The Egyptian economy is both unpredictable and controlled by the government, which in 2018 put a limit on the funds that could be withdrawn or transferred by US dollar account holders. This elevated certain items, such as luxury watches, beyond status symbols to dollar “safeholds”—in Egypt they can be bought only with cash in US dollars, so they function something like a currency black market. At this particular funeral, of a revered cultural figure, which I attended with a watch dealer friend, he estimated that of the some two thousand people in attendance, 20 percent of them wore watches worth an average of $60,000. ↩
On that evening I spent with Nathan Brown, he told me that one thing he had learned about the Muslim Brotherhood over his years of interviewing them was that they were big fans of Dale Carnegie’s self-improvement books. ↩
My friend and former editor Hani Shukrallah, a staunch leftist and prominent columnist and editor, passed away on May 5, 2019. The state’s security intelligence canceled his public funeral, for fear of the potential size of such a public gathering of the left. It was held only after intervention from high-level government-affiliated figures. ↩
At the Africa Cup of Nations held in Egypt in 2019, crowds were vying to take selfies with Hosni Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal. Laments for the lost “Mubarak days” are frequently heard, in particular among the poor, and the popularity of his sons—one of whom, Gamal, was being groomed for the presidency (the Egyptian revolution was predicated by the army on this fact)—has been a point of fear for the current government. After their presence in the football stadium was met with enthusiasm, their stadium passes were revoked. ↩
As the surveillance state has intensified, a lexicon of “codes” has developed informally. ↩
“Is This Egypt’s Next Revolution?,” February 27, 2019. ↩
Alaa’s political writings have just been collected in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated (Fitzcarraldo, 2021). ↩
See my “He Was Detained. That Didn’t Stop Them from Kidnapping Him,” The New York Times, October 3, 2019. ↩
Many accounts of Egypt’s 1952 revolution describe similar sentiments of initial hope and subsequent disappointment. ↩
In several essays in The New York Review (and later in The New Yorker), Masha Gessen wrote of the Trump presidency and the evidence of “moral corrosion” in the American system. From her experience of Russia, and mine of Egypt, it is evident that once a system has been subjected to such corrosion, and once it has a large enough cohort of supporters, it is difficult to eradicate. If it were so easy to uproot such entrenched systems of belief, Egypt would be in a very different place today—Egyptian leaders have repeatedly tried to uproot the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. Mubarak’s overthrow was also, in the end, fundamentally cosmetic. As Feldman writes, “the deep state” generally describes “entrenched career civil servants, especially those employed in security and intelligence services, who exercise power that is not easily limited or redirected by a new government, elected or otherwise.” In the same way that Egyptians understood that they could return to the streets to overthrow Morsi, having already done so with Mubarak, I believe American supporters of Trump understand that they can create spectacles similar to the storming of Capitol Hill if they feel provoked or inspired to. ↩