Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Whither Tahrir dreams?

Tahia Abdel-Nasser reflects on two to 20 years of liberation in the work of Ezzedine Choukri Fishere

Al-Ahram Weekly

At the start of the 25 January Revolution, Tahrir inspired poetry and an abundance of other art forms; it made and remade genres, which underwrote the revolutionary movement throughout 2011 and 2012. Tahrir, and the national desire for tahrir (or liberation) inspired collective art forms: the mass ceremony of poetry recitations; poetic improvisation; and the communal elegising of martyrs of the revolution in murals. Abdel Rahman Al-Abnudi’s poem “Al-Midan” honoring revolutionaries became both the obituary of Mubarak’s regime and a revolutionary anthem from 2011 onwards. Even the memoir became a collective effort to document the revolution as it included the voices of revolutionaries, workers, sloganeers, intellectuals, poets, and street vendors who assumed primary roles in the national movement and contributed to turning the revolution into narrative. Indeed art, song, poetry, jokes, slogans, memoir and later fiction, in and through the space of Tahir Square, were reflections of the community of Tahrir in 2011 and 2012 with all the political crises that ensued.  
One of the revolution-themed novels that emerged in 2012 from the 25 January Revolution and that continues to haunt the present is the widely read and powerful novel by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, Bab Al-Khuruj (The Exit: Ali’s Letter of Unexpected Joy). The future setting of the novel offered Fishere the space for the political evaluation of the revolutionary present and the fictional plotting out of national futures. For many readers, the novel was read as prophesy because it imagined the future of the 25 January Revolution and was published while it was being written in the uncertain context of 2012.
The novel, concerned with ‘Ali Choukri, a translator and secretary in the presidential palace in Hosni Mubarak’s regime before the 25 January Revolution, imagines Egypt’s future from 2011 to 2020. In October 2020, Ali writes a letter to his son about the years of the revolution that he had observed as a regime translator before 2011 then as a translator in a series of failed governments. He remembers the revolution during the rule of President Al-Qattan, a formerly retired military general from Mubarak’s regime and his father-in-law. The long letter chronicles waves of revolution from 2011 to 2020 and the state’s collapse after an Islamist regime then military rule up to the moment when he prevents President Al-Qattan’s catastrophic plot to launch a nuclear attack on the US and Israel. In the rest of his letter, he remembers the escalation of violence in the build-up to the moment in which he writes to his son his testimony of nearly a decade of revolution – the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood Bayoumi, skirmishes in Gaza, a military coup, the rise of youth groups, and the new president’s plans.
The story of the writing of the novel is a telling statement on the influence of revolutions on fiction and the collaborative forms that were a feature of Tahrir art.  In April-June 2012, Fishere serialised his revolutionary novel in Al-Tahrir newspaper for sixty-eight days, publishing chapters during the process of writing. Fishere drew on political developments in the present and his readers’ reception in the online Tahrir venue to imagine the future of Egypt’s revolution in fiction. Real developments in Egypt’s revolution were threaded through the novel’s imagined future beyond the present in which he wrote. In writing the novel as he published the days’ installments, Fishere had to contend with the challenges of producing fiction inspired by real events, which were unfolding dramatically, and with the novel’s reception. Later, when the novel was published after being serialised, Fishere acknowledged his readers who had followed and commented on his installments online as “co-writers.” The novel’s publication story reveals the writer-reader collaboration in creating a national narrative in an uncertain context and the importance of collaborative work to the story of revolution.
The serialisation of the novel predated the June 2012 elections, and the novel invited considerable speculation about Tahir dreams and national futures afterwards. In June 2012, Fishere wrote that the military generals and the Muslim Brotherhood had followed his novel’s script. His observations were contextualised in a power struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, specifically the “soft coup” of June in pre-election Egypt, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated parliament and limited the future president’s constitutional powers.
In what was then a context before the June 2012 presidential election, the novel attended to political crises on the national stage since 25 January, 2011 and imagined political developments up to 2020.  In the novel, Ali revisits the 25 January Revolution that he had observed and writes to his son: “I the translator who had spent most of his life in the presidential palace. . . I knew as I sat there on the morning of 29 January, 2011 that it was all over and that Egypt had exploded and would never be the same.”
After the revolutionary fervour of 25 January, 2011, Ali’s narrative evokes disharmony, loss, and defeat. In the novel, post-2011 Egypt is portrayed as a military then Islamist state followed by a Mubarak-inspired regime. After the Port Said massacre of 2 February, 2012, the novel builds on this real event with the fictional civilian presidential council formed by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. A second wave of revolution convulses Egypt in the novel after clashes between police and street vendors in an informal settlement. Curiously, there were parallels between national developments and fictional plots in the novel.
The novel’s events rest between revolutionary dreams and prophesy by which Fishere juxtaposes Egypt’s national aspirations in 2011 with its extended struggle for democracy.  Ali the translator in the presidential palace “before our January revolution” and secretary devoted to his work “after the revolution” is an observer of the fall of governments and political unrest.  It is in this context that we read about Ali’s growing disenchantment with the 25 January Revolution as he observes the failure of the revolutionary left led by his fellow revolutionary Mahmoud Bashir and his friend the liberal Ezzedin’s rise to power. During the rule of Ezzedin, the liberal-turned-dictator,  Ali observes the horror of revolutionary tribunals: Ezzedin signs an order for the execution of their friend Mahmoud Bashir and, ironically, he is later also sentenced to death during the second wave of revolution. The turn of events in the novel with Ezzedin’s campaign of terror explores how democracy can become dictatorship.
Ali lives through the authoritarianism of Mubarak’s regime, a military dictatorship, a failed left-wing government and other provisional authoritarian governments that move the state towards collapse.  Throughout, the translator is fittingly a mediator between revolutionaries and regimes, dreams and futures. The novel illuminates a future, with all the forces that write the nation’s future – the military, Islamists, leftists, liberals, and revolutionaries.  Through an infernal future – which is fictional history in the novel – Ali’s letter offers us the unimaginable community.
Ali’s letter offers a dystopian history (future, for readers) yet paradoxically it contains “unexpected joy.”  In 2020, the promise of revolutionary and democratic youth appears. As a revolutionary history haunts the present, Ali tells his son, “It took us long years to come to this point” and Egypt’s youth have “inspired a revolution the likes of which we never saw before.”  They have been lost in nine years of wandering, chaos and murder, but they now have a way out of a labyrinth. After rule by different forces, the novel offers the promise of a youth coalition – revolutionaries, liberals, leftists, and Islamists. Although the novel tells a story of betrayals and failed governments, it captures the hope and promise associated with the start of the movement. Ali offers new solutions in the form of alliances to prevent a war. The novel recounts the future of the revolution yet Fishere reopens the door to Tahrir dreams through youth activism and community. From the moment of its appearance, the power of the novel has been in how it moves beyond the power struggles and the political scene in the context in which it was written and continues to haunt a community of readers with the future of the revolution.

The writer is visiting assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the American University in Cairo.

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