- - Tuesday, July 28, 2015



By Wendell Steavenson

Ecco/Harper Collins, $26.99, 366 pages

It’s always a little worrisome when a reporter prefaces a book-length, on-the-ground account of real events with the qualifier, “I would need to be a novelist to write a better truth than these glimpses offer.” But that is what Wendell Steavenson does, and, although there is much to praise in her evocative, impressionistic sketches of the stirring events in Egypt during the 18 months between the fall of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak and the deposition of his elected Islamist successor, Mohammed Morsi, one is never quite sure where keenly observed facts end and novelistic imaginings begin.

Ms. Steavenson’s task is not made any easier by the fact that, once the dust had settled, the “Egyptian Revolution” of her title turned out not to be much of a revolution at all. A dramatic, often heroic burst of long pent-up public emotion; a major disruption of urban centers that was at times violent, at times exuberant, but mostly just confused; a possible portent of things to come as generation succeeds generation: what started at Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011 was a major moment that lead to only minor results.

In her more reflective and less reflexive moods, Ms. Steavenson seems to understand this. On the first anniversary of the “revolution,” she confesses that, when her editors asked what had changed since Mr. Mubarak’s fall, “I would grope for an answer because I didn’t want to admit that nothing had changed.”

If what you are looking for is a clear, cogent explanation of how what started as a peaceful demonstration in a park ended by toppling a dictator — but not the dictatorship behind him — you need go no further than page 4 where, with a few succinct bullet points, Ms. Steavenson accurately sums it all up: an aging dictator with no clear succession plan (and fear that Mr. Mubarak’s reputedly corrupt son Gamal was being groomed to take over); shamelessly fraudulent recent parliamentary elections; outrage at widely publicized atrocities committed by state security, including clean-cut young middle class victims; ever more blatant corruption and, most telling of all, “a bulging youth demographic” and “widespread use of social networking.”

That’s about it, if cause and effect are all you’re after. On the other hand, if you’d like to learn more about the lives, aspirations and interactions of a fascinating set of real-life characters, all playing out their passions, hopes and delusions in the most interesting, complex and strategically important of all Arab countries, Wendell Steavenson is your ideal guide. As one would expect from a contributor to The New Yorker (among other distinguished publications), her actual writing is first-rate. She cares deeply about her subjects but her critical acuity and keen sense of humor see through their foibles and contradictions. Not to mention her own; although she risked bodily harm time and again in the thick of violent marches and demonstrations, she also spent much of her time observing the revolution from the balconies of four star hotels and the luxury apartments of friends among Egypt’s wealthy elite. To that extent she was, herself, a member of the “Couch Party,” the derisive name given by activists to the vast majority of middle-class Egyptians who had followed the “revolution” on television from the safety of their living rooms.

One of the most entertaining chapters in the book — and one that tells a lot about the corrupt workings of what passes for a legal system in Egypt — is only peripherally concerned with the goings on in Tahrir Square. Instead, it chronicles an upper-class family feud centering on attempts to grab a coveted flat in an elegant old Cairo apartment house. It reads so perfectly that it could have come directly out of the pages of “The Yacoubian Building,” the internationally acclaimed 2004 novel by the distinguished Egyptian author, Alaa Al Aswamy.

“Circling the Square” ends on a rather somber note. “It is a very miserable thing to have witnessed such a joyous cacophony of national excitement during the turbulent years after Mubarak’s fall,” Ms. Steavenson writes, “and then to see all this possibility quashed with the installation of President Sisi [like Mubarak, another military man abruptly turned politician]. I guess I hope that at least this new phase will bring stability, which is the next best thing (and not a small thing, frankly, considering the neighborhood) to proper, pluralistic, ballot-box democracy.”

Journalism has been called the rough draft of history. “Circling the Square” is both something more and something less than that: the vivid, often moving personal impressions of an intelligent but highly emotional writer riding the crest of a wave that rose, crashed and then receded, leaving a tired old country much as it was before … at least for now.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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