This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
In the February 23, 2023, issue of the Review, the journalist and critic Ursula Lindsey writes about the Arab Spring as recounted in Yasmin El-Rifae’s book Radius: A Story of Feminist Revolution. Through interviews and her own account, El-Rifae tells the story of the rise of Opantish (Operation Anti–Sexual Harassment and Assault), an organization formed in response to the surge of violence that women protesting in Tahrir Square faced nearly two years after the start of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. “Its members,” Lindsey writes, “were feminists, leftists, activists, people whose lives had been transformed by the uprising against Mubarak.” The book’s title, Radius, “suggests the way every act—of violence or of solidarity—radiates outward, rippling into the world.”
Lindsey has been interested in stories of violence and revolution since at least her first piece for the Review, in 2018, about the writer and filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani, a member of the group of Moroccan artists who launched the magazine Souffles in the mid-1960s after King Hasan II ordered a military crackdown on uprisings in Casablanca. The editors, Lindsey argued, believed that “a cultural revolution must necessarily accompany a political transformation.”
Lindsey writes widely on Middle Eastern and North African politics and on Arabic literature, which is also the subject of her podcast, BULAQ. Born in California and raised in Rome, she studied at Stanford and NYU. She now lives in Amman, where she moved in 2019 after five years in Rabat and, before that, eleven years in her beloved Cairo.
Sam Needleman: When did you go to Cairo and why?
Ursula Lindsey: I moved to Cairo in 2002. The short answer to “why” is because I didn’t have anywhere else to be at the time. I had gone to live in Paris after I finished university in California. After a year I was out of money and at loose ends (and couldn’t get a work visa). My father, who was a US diplomat, was posted in Egypt. I thought I would visit for a while. I ended up staying twelve years. I started working as a journalist at an independent local newsmagazine there (the defunct Cairo Times) and met my husband, Issandr El Amrani. I studied Arabic and started reading Arabic literature and meeting writers in Cairo. My husband and I loved our work and our many friends and living in Cairo, which we found endlessly surprising and interesting and challenging. In 2014 we left Egypt for personal reasons (we had a two-year-old), for work reasons, and because of the deteriorating political climate, although we had no idea how bad it would get.
You often write about poets, playwrights, and novelists who interrogate power and freedom—artists as different from one another as Mahmoud Darwish, Sa‘dallah Wannous, and Leila Slimani. For example, in Wannous’s Brechtian play Jabir, you write, he underlines “how interchangeable the elite is” by having “the same actors play the different rulers and their subordinates.” How do criticism and journalism sharpen our understanding of how power works?
Questions of political and personal freedom, of authoritarianism and the exercise of power, have been at the center of political life in the Arab region and naturally a concern of many of its writers. I think journalism and criticism can be complementary approaches to the question of political power, and in my writing I often combine the two. Journalism helps one learn about how power works on the ground, which then helps one understand the works of Arab writers and their circumstances. It can be difficult to report on repressive regimes, because they are opaque and repetitive: they do the same awful things, tell the same lies, over and over again. Arabic literature explores the relationship between individuals, society, and the state in so many different affecting, enlightening ways. You find not just an analysis and a critique of power but often a counternarrative. One of the things I find moving about many Arab writers is the degree to which the stories they tell are assertions of individual truth in the face of repression, intimidation, propaganda, disenfranchisement.
In your new piece on El-Rifae’s Radius, you describe Opantish as a “brave, generous, and largely unacknowledged enterprise…a testament to what women are capable of, to what can be achieved through passionate collective action.” How did the Egyptian revolution, in all its forms, change your understanding of collective action?
First and foremost, it made me realize just how difficult collective action is, especially in undemocratic, repressive, and unstable environments. One thing to keep in mind is that the revolution took everyone by surprise, and the Mubarak regime had ensured that there were very few organizations that had the resources, the networks, and the leadership necessary to take advantage of the moment. The window of opportunity was quite small, and people tried to organize in ever-changing (in fact, worsening) conditions, and against forces that were working hard to contain any real changes or demands. Once Mubarak was ousted they faced the challenge of setting a shared agenda, of participating in a political process that was largely rigged against them. Fears of an Islamist takeover—which the Islamists themselves did nothing to assuage—polarized the political field.
Collective action depends to a great degree on emotional and social bonds. Trust and loyalty and affection make individuals much more determined, effective, and willing to run risks and make sacrifices than if they are acting alone. People need to do things together, not just meet and talk. There is a limit, and those bonds can only bear so much. Certainly, what I saw in Egypt made very clear to me what is at stake when people try to collectively push for change against entrenched and violent interests. The Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring generally were a political education; I would say that it’s an experience that set my moral compass. It clarified a lot of abstract political ideas and terms, put them in perspective, and showed me what people are capable of, for better and for worse.
You often subtly embed yourself in your reporting and criticism. But the first person in your most recent piece was direct. You write, of the period when a series of mob rapes broke out in Tahrir Square, “It was at this time that I—a journalist who had lived in Cairo for the past decade—stopped wading into crowds in Tahrir.” Will you say more about what it was like to leave a place that you had spent so much time in, a place that, as you write, had been “welcoming and open” for women for so many months?
Generally I don’t aim to write about myself, but sometimes I think it will be useful or interesting to readers to get a sense of my connection to a topic. In this case it seemed relevant that I had been there at the time of these events, that they had affected me. To be open about this felt like the most natural, honest way of writing the piece.
As a foreigner in Tahrir, I was just a witness to, not a participant in, the euphoria and the communion that Egyptian people experienced. But I have many female Egyptian friends for whom being in Tahrir, camping out there, sleeping there overnight, feeling that sense of safety and freedom and belonging in public space, was a life-changing experience—and then being robbed of it was devastating. Which is why they fought so hard to maintain their right to be there. I think what I felt as the square became less welcoming to women was mostly sadness and indignation and disappointment on their behalf. I remember covering a small protest in Tahrir on International Women’s Day, just a few months after the uprising, and men showed up to yell at and heckle and harass the women. It was the beginning of my realization that the openness of Tahrir was fragile, maybe exceptional, and that society at large hadn’t changed that much.
Being in Tahrir was never easy. There was violence and intimidation from the regime, the army, the police, thugs, infiltrators; later on supporters of the army and the old regime and fundamentalist Islamists staged their own protests. It was always a space that people had to fight to claim. It was this hugely symbolic and strategic national stage, and the process by which it was overtaken by violence and reactionary forces was gradual and unpredictable. Making it hostile to women was a turning point, in undermining its promise as a liberatory space. But that turning point—like so many others—wasn’t clear at the time. Those years after Mubarak’s ouster were so eventful, so fast-paced, that one was always reacting without having the time to reflect. When I stopped going to the square out of fear of sexual violence, it barely registered as a decision.
I’ve walked through Tahrir many times since, on later visits back to Egypt. It’s been “cleaned up,” and it is heavily policed. For the Sisi regime it is a dangerous place over which control needs to be exerted, from which the memory of the uprising needs to be erased. It belongs to the state now, and no one else.
In your review of Peter Hessler’s book of reporting on the revolution, you wrote, “During those first eighteen days of protest, boys and girls defied their parents to go sleep in tents in the street together, and elderly people tearfully apologized to young people for not daring to do this sooner.” What did you learn from those first few weeks of the revolution?
I spent a considerable amount of time in Tahrir Square—I lived very close. I learned that there is an element of utter surprise to moments like these; they are unpredictable by definition (otherwise they could be averted), and everyone involved is acting as they have perhaps never done before. I learned that it is nearly impossible for reporters not to get swept up in the excitement of such enormous historic moments. I think that’s only natural, and it happened to almost all the journalists who were there.
And I wasn’t just covering it as a journalist. I was a very sympathetic bystander; I had lived in Egypt for a decade, and practically everyone I knew was in those protests. Later I wondered if this lack of distance made me too hopeful, too celebratory, too romantic. On the other hand, it may have given me a better understanding of what Egyptians felt. It’s a question I still wonder about.
Which brings me to the last thing I learned: that at moments like these there is so much else going on that is not visible, not articulated, or purposely hidden, and that it is worth being on the lookout. It has certainly made me look at other subsequent protests and social movements differently—I am as impressed as ever with people’s courage, as convinced as ever of the validity of their demands, but less optimistic about their chances, more aware of what an enormous task it is to change a society or challenge state power. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.