I visited Cairo in late November 2021, after a two-year absence. I knew to expect changes, and I found them. The area around Tahrir Square, emptied of most of its cultural life, has become a decorative and heavily policed showcase. The dense lower-class neighborhood of Bulaq has been cleared to make way for hotels and high-rises. The riverside promenade along my old neighborhood is under construction too, and I fear for the trees there, since so many elsewhere have been uprooted. Huge new elevated freeways cut through central neighborhoods. They are designed to make it easier to drive and to reach the grandiose new administrative capital that the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is building in the desert east of Cairo at a cost of $58 billion.1
The city seemed unfamiliar, but it wasn’t just because of this physical transformation. My sense of Cairo was strongly marked by the last year I lived there, 2014—by which time the euphoria, chaos, and anxiety of the Arab Spring, three years earlier, had been brought to an end by the installation of a counterrevolutionary military regime. I’ve been back several times since. Many of the people I knew have left, and those who have remained are either tired of talking about what went wrong or busy dealing with the never-ending trouble they’re in.
What was different this time was the way the memory of the 2011 uprising seemed not just buried but obliterated, as if it had never happened at all. Ever since it took power, the Sisi regime’s goal has been not just to undo the effects of the uprising (which Sisi has said he viewed from the beginning as “the death certificate of the Egyptian state”) but to wipe away the very story of what happened with a flood of lies and threats.
These days it feels hopeless, even pathetic, to go on looking back at the Arab Spring. Yet a minority of Egyptians remain committed to its memory and ideals. One of them is the writer Basma Abdel Aziz, whom I met one morning to discuss her latest book, Here Is a Body. Her original publisher has been instructed not to promote it, bookstores not to sell it, newspapers not to write about it. Copies of the English translation by Jonathan Wright, published by an imprint of the American University in Cairo Press, aren’t available in Egypt. What makes this novel so unwelcome?
Here Is a Body opens in disorientation and terror. Rabie, a homeless boy, is kidnapped in the middle of the night from the garbage dump where he and other street kids live:
My hand was crushed under someone’s boot, along with Emad’s arm. I gasped silently. Then someone started lifting my leg, which was stuck under Youssef’s stomach, and then my body too. I clung on to Youssef’s clothes, but the hand lifting me was much too strong for me. I suddenly found my head swinging through the air. I stiffened my neck to try to control it, but it was no use. I couldn’t make out where the voice giving orders was coming from but it was definitely from above.
“Get up, you filthy bastard. Get up, you piece of shit. Get up, get up,” it said.
The children are gagged, blindfolded, and transported to an unknown location, where they are dumped in a crowded room and left to cry and moan and shit themselves for days. One of their captors explains that they have been rounded up to end the nuisance and disgrace of their vagrancy. Various solutions have been proposed. An eminent scholar has
suggested we consider you to be non-existent, that we eliminate you completely, that we remove your names from the official records, if your names are even there, and that we treat you in the same way we treat stray dogs…. The country cannot afford to spend money feeding, educating, and housing you without you doing anything in return.
In the end, though, the authorities decide to spare the boys. They will not be slaughtered but rather rehabilitated in this camp, where they lose their names and are simply addressed as “bodies” (the word in Arabic is badan, which specifically refers to the torso, the body without the head); their masters are addressed as “Heads.” The children undergo physical training and attend lectures. They are told that they must help defend their country, be ready to sacrifice whatever they possess; that they are like scalpels, excising infected wounds from the body of the nation; that they are soldiers supported by God Almighty, who will reward them in the afterlife and send their enemies to hell.
At first the boys are skeptical. But eventually they begin to be sent out on missions, attacking protesters or creating pretexts for the police to open fire on them. Some of the boys are intoxicated with their newfound power. As one of them explains:
Now we’re the masters, the masters of the country. No one will dare to harass us. No son-of-a-whore driver will look down on us, no lousy waiter will shoo us away from outside a restaurant or a café. No one will dare call for help or report us. We’ll report on people and wipe them off the face of the earth like straw. If some bastard shouts, we’ll shut him up and in future he’ll open his mouth only to obey us.
The book’s other storyline involves a couple, Aida and Murad, who have decided to join a tent city of protesters that has formed in “the Space.” The sit-in is organized by the Raised Banner movement to demand the return to power of their abducted ruler. For anyone who knows Egypt’s recent history, the references will be obvious: this is Cairo’s Rabaa el-Adawiya Square in the summer of 2013, where the Muslim Brotherhood was holding a massive sit-in that was about to be dispersed by security services in the worst massacre in Egypt’s modern history.
President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 was followed by a deliberately muddled transitional period in which the Muslim Brotherhood, the interim military government, and other state institutions maneuvered for power, while protesters continued to clash with security forces and to demand real reforms. In 2012 Mohamed Morsi, of the Brotherhood, narrowly won the presidential election. In their first year in power, the Brotherhood proved themselves to be intransigent, intolerant, and shortsighted. They lashed out at critics, refused to rein in violence by the police and their supporters, and pushed through a constitution that enshrined sharia law and alienated liberal and progressive forces in the country. Morsi clashed with the courts and issued a highly contested constitutional declaration that granted the presidency exceptional powers. A group that called itself Tamarod (Rebel) began gathering signatures for a petition demanding that he step down. On June 30, 2013, huge protests against the Brotherhood swept the country. The army stepped in and arrested Morsi. His supporters refused to accept this.
Abdel Aziz is a clinical psychiatrist who has worked for years with victims of state torture. She told me that her characters were fictional but her version of events was based on research and firsthand accounts. She captures the delusion, grandiosity, and belligerence that were on display during the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in. A sheikh tells the crowds, “Let them take heed. If anyone dares to harm our ruler, even with a splash of water, we will respond with a torrent of blood!” Abdel Aziz suggests that the leadership of the Brotherhood whipped up its base, expecting to be able to negotiate at least a partial return to power. She shows how some in the Islamist camp advocated bringing in weapons (and a handful actually did), how suspected informers and infiltrators were treated brutally, and how the surrounding neighborhood was frightened and brought to a standstill by the sit-in. But she also portrays the protest as overwhelmingly peaceful, joined by average people with some misgivings but understandable motivations. Aida thinks to herself:
The last thing she had ever imagined was that she might one day go and protest in the street along with thousands of other people, protest about something political, but what could one do when the ruler had been abducted? What could one do when he had been removed from office and his supporters had been humiliatingly excluded from government?
On July 24, then defense minister Sisi asked the people of Egypt to go into the streets to give him a mandate to fight terrorism. “I’m asking you to show the world,” he said. “If violence is sought, or terrorism is sought, the military and the police are authorized to confront this.” On August 14, security forces moved to clear the camp at Rabaa, using tear gas, armed personnel carriers, bulldozers, snipers, and helicopters. A report by Human Rights Watch found that they used live ammunition indiscriminately against the protesters, who included women and children. A recorded warning to leave the square was broadcast only minutes before the attack began, and protesters could not find safe exits; many reported being shot at as they tried to escape. In the chapter she dedicates to the massacre, Abdel Aziz describes Aida, whose husband is dead, wandering the camp in a desperate daze, unable to find her son or a way out:
Tongues of flame could be seen from the podium area. Many of the protesters were cowering behind sandbags or tires that were spread around the Space and hadn’t caught fire yet. They thought they were protected, but bullets went through the tires and came out the other side like knives cutting through butter. The bulldozer was shoveling corpses and crushing the ones that got caught up in its tracks. The crushing machine was working at full strength to wipe out every trace that might remind people of the protest. More than forty days had to be erased from the face of the earth. The bulldozer pushed out the pegs of one tent, drove into another and crushed what was left of it. It did not stop for a man hidden between the twisted chairs and the shredded blankets. It mangled his flesh and bones along with pots and pans, copies of the Quran and assorted household objects. Aida picked up a stone from the ground and threw it at the raging beast, then a second stone and a third.
After the clearing of the camp, the book goes on for another sixty pages, detailing trials, detentions, and censorship, before ending abruptly.
Here Is a Body is urgent, uneven, sprawling, and at times heavy-handed. It is less well crafted than Abdel Aziz’s previous novel, The Queue, a taut, imaginative rendering of totalitarian vertigo, whose main character, Yehya, has been shot by security forces in a protest referred to only as the Disgraceful Events. But since the authorities deny that they shot protesters, they have tampered with his medical file. He is dying from a bullet in his gut that the state will not acknowledge exists. Like thousands of others, he spends days in a mile-long line before the closed Gate, a mysterious site of administrative authority and the source of a constant flurry of rules and regulations. It is the only place Yehya can obtain a Certificate of True Citizenship and a permit to get medical treatment. The book is very good at capturing the way constant surveillance and malicious bureaucracy can frighten people into a state of self-abasement and desperate hypocrisy.
Abdel Aziz began writing The Queue in September 2012. There is suspense in a story about the worst that could happen; less so in a story about the worst that has happened. In Here Is a Body it is as if reality has flattened imagination, as if the sheer volume of brutality and mendacity has left the writer no space to invent, only the conscientious impulse to record.
Eight policemen and at least nine hundred people—most likely well over a thousand—were killed at Rabaa. The massacre was preceded by a media campaign of fearmongering and dehumanization and followed by an equally ferocious hounding of dissenting voices. No officer or politician has ever been held accountable for the mass murder; even mentioning it has been criminalized as a form of support for terrorism. Rabaa is Egypt’s Tiananmen.
Given this climate, to write about the event—even under the cover of fiction—and to portray its victims sympathetically is an act of courage. Abdel Aziz had girded herself for a backlash; instead she’s faced a deafening silence. Certainly this is the result of censorship and fear, but also of denial on the part of much of the country’s media, intelligentsia, and elites, who were complicit or quiescent in what happened and have yet to reckon with it.
The Egyptian activist and writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah said of Rabaa that
there are a lot of people who approve of it; and even more who’ve decided to turn a blind eye even though they don’t approve because they’re afraid; and even more just keeping quiet because there isn’t anything to be done.
He was one of the few who did not keep quiet: his condemnation was unequivocal.2
“The break-up of Rabaa was more terrible than anything we have ever experienced,” Abd el-Fattah wrote at the time. “It can only be compared to war…. Rabaa is unique.” He blamed the Brotherhood for creating the political impasse of the summer of 2013; he witnessed and condemned the violence of its supporters. But he also emphasized that none of that justified Rabaa:
Whatever we might say about the crimes of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood…whatever came before pales in significance…. I have a lot to say that damns the Brotherhood as an organization and political Islam as an idea despite the massacre, but I refuse to say it in the same breath as though I need to prove I’m against the Brotherhood or prove my loyalty to the nation or the revolution.
He saw immediately that “the arms that are being pointed at the Muslim Brotherhood today will be pointed at someone else next time; the military are not secularists against Islamism, the military are the old régime against change.” The massacre was a turning point that would define the new regime, as well as the understanding of all that had preceded it. By acceding to this level of state violence, Egyptians would lose any hope of democratic, accountable governance. Years later Abd el-Fattah wrote, “No one has been spared the aftermath of Rabaa except its martyrs; even those who ignore or justify it are paying its price today.”
A large number of Abd el-Fattah’s newspaper columns, tweets, speeches, Facebook posts, interviews, and communications from prison, where he has spent the majority of his days since 2011, have been collected in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. It is not available in Egypt. To read it is to be impressed, over and over, with the writer’s combination of honesty, originality, and humility. It is to be amazed by how often Abd el-Fattah is right, not in the sense that he knows what to do, but in the sense that he so often sees the truth of each messy, polarizing, often hopeless juncture. His writing is sharp and funny, passionate and vulnerable, straining generously to find something useful to say.
My first memories of Alaa are from the early 2000s, when he was a young, friendly, confident, curly-haired activist organizing protests against Mubarak’s endless reign and in support of a more independent judiciary. He was a computer programmer and blogger, and he and his wife, Manal, ran the website Manalaa.net, which was a nexus of early online activism in the country and beyond, a platform that connected other bloggers and spread ideas about open-source software and citizen journalism. He writes:
We came of age with the second intifada. Took our first real steps out into the world as bombs fell on Baghdad. All around us, fellow Arabs cried, “Over our dead bodies!,” Northern allies chanted “Not in our name!,” Southern comrades sang “Another world is possible.” We understood then that the world we’d inherited was dying, and that we were not alone.
In Egypt at the turn of the century, they longed for “one day that would end without the suffocating certainty that tomorrow would be exactly the same as all the days that had come before.”
When the Arab Spring exploded in Egypt several years later, Alaa and Manal rushed home from South Africa, where they had been living. In the first year of the Egyptian revolution, Alaa threw himself into organizing. He published trenchant critiques of the political transition process and proposed ways to write a truly popular constitution, modeled on the drafting of South Africa’s Freedom Charter. Quickly and inevitably, he came into conflict with the army, which was running the country as an interim authority.
In the fall of 2011, Coptic Christians marched against religious discrimination; the army attacked the march, killing twenty-six protesters, yet the authorities and the media presented it as an attack on the army and called on citizens to rush to the street to defend the armed forces, leading to sectarian clashes. Alaa, who alongside other activists spent days at the morgue convincing the families of dead protesters to get forensic examinations of their loved ones’ bodies, was arrested and charged with stealing and damaging military property and assaulting a soldier; to this was later added the charge of “murder, with the intent to commit an act of terrorism.” He refused to recognize the authority of the military court before which he appeared, arguing that he should be tried in a civilian one instead. When, after protests and pressure, the charges were dropped and he was released, he said:
We can’t celebrate that I’m getting out innocent, we always knew it wasn’t me that killed the people—but the killers are still out there…. And the revolution, this revolution, will have succeeded when General Hamdy Badeen is in cuffs in the courtroom picking his nose and a cylinder of cooking gas costs five pounds.
Two years later, as it ousted the Brotherhood from power, the military promised it would not be involved in politics. Yet within a year General Sisi ran for president, winning a landslide victory practically unopposed. (The next time he ran, in 2018, he made sure to jail any potential competitors first.) His regime quickly targeted all the leaders of the “revolutionary youth,” and Alaa was somewhere near the top of the list. When protests were banned altogether, he and a handful of others felt a duty to demonstrate against the new law. He was sentenced to five years in jail.
Much of his writing from prison is an acknowledgment of defeat and a search for its causes. “I think it’s an abject failure that in a moment like 2011–2012, when [the revolution] had broad popular support, we were unable to articulate a common dream of what we wanted in Egypt,” he concludes. The mistake of the revolutionaries was to become entranced by their own myth and “lose the battle for narrative to a poisonous polarization between a rabidly militarized pseudo-secular state and a viciously sectarian-paranoid form of Islamism.”
Alaa always connected events in Egypt to wider struggles for political and economic liberation, from Palestine to the United States. “We have been defeated, and meaning has been defeated with us,” he wrote in 2017.
And just as we were—in every step—affected by the world and affecting it, so was our defeat both a symptom and a cause of a wider war on meaning, a war on the crime of people searching for a supranational public sphere where they might find intimacy, exchange, communication, even quarrels, that allow a common understanding of reality, and multiple dreams of alternative worlds.
He was released in March 2019 but required to spend twelve hours a night in a police station, according to the state’s draconian interpretation of his five-year parole. He found handing himself over to the authorities every evening excruciating. He was also disoriented by the changes that had taken place in and around him. “I get lost in the streets,” he said in an interview with the independent news site Mada Masr. “I get confused when I’m asked to do two things at once.” He was mystified by the fact that “people speak in emojis and sounds—ha ha ho ho—not text.” He was skeptical of resistance discourse—“The Western Left has spent twenty years cheapening the term. Anything any marginalized person does is called resistance”—and felt that social media had led to a noxious embrace of absurdity and a regression in the ability to discuss complex ideas.
In September 2019, after a building contractor with close connections to the Sisi regime published videos detailing corruption and calling for protests, the authorities conducted a new round of mass arrests. Alaa spent two years in preventive detention—a widely abused legal provision that allows people to be held in jail before charges have been filed. When Covid-19 swept through Egyptian prisons, the authorities reacted with denial and further restrictions. Alaa was deprived of books, exercise, and—for long stretches—contact with his family. He used his court appearances as a means to communicate with the outside world, making impromptu speeches his lawyers reconstructed from memory afterward. “Practically, I am a captive, not a defendant,” he told the court.
My situation has become absurd even beyond a novelist’s imagination…. The Prosecution has not confronted me with details of the investigation, or any evidence, or witness testimonies, or even explanatory details of the charges against me.
Human rights groups estimate that since the coup the Sisi regime has detained 60,000 political prisoners—so many that it has had to build a network of secret prisons, where torture is endemic. One of the few organizations that has monitored the number of detainees and prisons in Egypt, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, announced on January 11 that it was closing because of unsustainable levels of harassment from the state. Most political prisoners are accused by the authorities of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But all of Egypt’s most prominent secular and liberal activists have faced prosecution, imprisonment, abuse, surveillance, or exile.
In the face of escalating repression, Alaa and his family have remained remarkably vocal and have paid a steep price for it. His father, Ahmed Seif el-Islam, was a Communist who was jailed and tortured in the 1980s and then became a widely admired human rights lawyer. Alaa was in prison at the time of his father’s death. (He was briefly allowed out the next month to deliver a eulogy included in this book.) He was also behind bars when his son, Khaled, was born. His mother, Laila Soueif, a mathematics professor, and his younger sisters, Mona and Sanaa, have been indefatigable advocates for him and the rights of other prisoners. Two years ago, while camped outside the prison doors, they were attacked by female thugs who beat them and stole their belongings as the prison guards looked on. When Sanaa Seif went to report the attack to the public prosecutor, she was snatched off the street and forced into a van. She resurfaced to face charges of “disseminating false news,” “inciting terrorism,” and “misusing social media” and was sentenced to eighteen months in jail.
On December 21, 2021, Alaa was sentenced to another five years in prison. His codefendants—the blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim and the lawyer Mohamed el-Baqer, who had been Alaa’s defense lawyer until he was arrested—were sentenced to four years. The trial took place in an emergency state security misdemeanors court, in which there is no possibility for appeal; the case was referred there just days before President Sisi announced that he was lifting emergency law, having instituted so many other judicial and extrajudicial forms of repression that he was able to do without it. The verdict was delivered to a few family members and lawyers who had to insist on being allowed into an empty, guarded courtroom. Neither the judge nor the defendants were present. Defense lawyers had not been allowed to see the case file, to meet with their clients, or to mount a defense. The charge of “disseminating false news” appears to have been based on Alaa retweeting news of the death of a prisoner.
Just a few months before, in September, Sisi—who has denied that there are any political prisoners in Egypt—presided over the launch of Egypt’s National Human Rights Strategy. In his speech he claimed that Egypt respects precisely the rights—“physical safety, personal freedom, participation in political life, freedom of expression and formation of non-governmental organizations”—that his regime has eviscerated. He also announced the construction of the first in a series of large “American-style” prisons. They will have modern amenities, he explained, and detainees won’t even need to leave for court appearances, because judges will be working on site. In January the US government withheld from Egypt $130 million in aid because of its dismal human rights record, while simultaneously authorizing more than $2 billion in arms sales.
You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is an invaluable record of events in Egypt in the past decade, of the evolution of a leftist, humanist, internationalist thinker, and of the efforts of a remarkable person not to come undone in the face of overwhelming injustice. In a short essay entitled “Five Metaphors on Healing” (written during one of the nights he spent on parole inside a police station), Alaa quotes Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, James Baldwin, Lenin, Walter Benjamin, and Jacques Derrida to visualize the healing process as a rebirth, an amputation, a form of recycling, a haunting, and finally, inspired by Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, a regeneration:
If we are to be treated like animals with no agency, so be it. But we shall bypass cattle and livestock, ignore pets and domesticates. We shall look to the lizards, starfish and earthworms—those beings that can regenerate after any injury, no matter how grave. We shall accept that regenerated organs may not be identical to what was lost. They could appear to be mutilated, but look closer and you will see the beauty in monstrosity, for only the monstrous can hold both the history of dreams and hopes, and the reality of defeat and pain together. The monstrous need not forget their old injuries in order to lose their fear of acquiring new ones.
This sad, hopeful, poetic vision of survival also reverberates through The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany, an Egyptian writer who now lives in Berlin. Written in 2017 and beautifully translated into English by Robin Moger last year, it is a collection of essays, stories, and prose poems—all of them very short, full of thought and feeling that has crystalized into extraordinary shapes.
El Wardany presents sleep as a state where we can find shelter, escape, consolation, and freedom. “By night, another, quieter force is at work. It spreads its palms over the things day made and liberates them from their destinies,” he writes. “Sleep does not happen inside us or outside us. It happens when everything comes together.” Entering sleep is both a lonely and a collective experience, taking us into “a withdrawal which flows through the heart of the world.”
Those who stay up late, exploring sleep’s frontier, shrug off the daytime imperatives of labor and productivity. They wander and squander, making the nighttime city into “a vast pyre, a fire in which everyone competes to destroy anything they can lay their hands on—their ideas, their desires, their disaffection, their heart’s blood—then sit contented among the thick smoke rising.” Sleepers meanwhile are freed from the weight of individuality itself. The abandonment of sleep puts us into a state of sympathy and equality with the objects and creatures around us: “We are returned to nature: its indifference and indifference to value.”
Sleep is not just a suspension, a lack of consciousness, but a different, necessary, vivid state. In it we dream, we melt, we grow, we heal, we change. The self discards itself, then finds itself again. Sleep is a concession of failure, a giving up—but a healthy one. It contains hope, because when we drift off we trust that we will wake, and “every waking is an attempt, however modest, at a new day.”
There are only a few references to the events of the Arab Spring in the book, and yet the question of how to move past the elation and despair of that time is the affecting undertow of the entire text. In one essay El Wardany writes about protesters occupying a space. This radical act “can only be fully realized by a second act of extreme, almost antithetical, vulnerability, which is the act of sleeping in the site of occupation.” It is when protesters bed down in the site of their protest—as they did in Tahrir Square—that they fully own it:
The sleepers in an open-ended occupation are no longer individuals in a battle but, lying together side by side, they become instead the brokers of a new reality, their dreams the language of this reality whose code they seek to crack.
Is revolution a dream? El Wardany asks. Or an awakening? It seems it can be either, depending on the circumstances. In the meantime, sleep is where we come face-to-face with our past and ultimately shed it. In a piece entitled “The Squatting Beast,” he writes:
You will wake. It may take one year or one thousand, but you will wake in the end…. You have been spat out of your life and reborn with the next morning. A part of you is forever dead…. When you open your eyes, you will find that vanished part sitting upright like a dog and looking at you…. You will continue to walk through the streets where you encounter the beast of the past. It will continue to shrink with every glance until only its gaze remains. You will name these streets your new life. Your new life, which grows and flourishes beneath the gaze of your past.
It’s one thing to reconcile with your past; it’s another to have oblivion thrust over your head like a hood. The Sisi regime wants to have the sole right to remember—to remember a dissident like Alaa and keep him in prison forever; to remember the revolution and make sure it never happens again. These books have their own word to say.
See Yasmine El Rashidi, “Sisi’s New Cairo: Pharaonic Ambition in Ferro-Concrete,” nybooks.com, October 16, 2021. ↩