On January 25, 2011, Ahdaf Soueif, who was attending the Jaipur Literary Festival, switched on her hotel TV and realised that CNN was reporting from her native Cairo - the picture on the screen, which she instantly recognised, was Midan el-Tahrir. She boarded an airplane the next morning and was soon in the centre of the Arab Spring. Over the next 18 days Soueif inhaled tear gas, dodged hurtling stones and wore layers (not a fashion statement but a strategic move that makes it easier to escape if someone grabs you), toured the city's pharmacies to get supplies for a makeshift hospital and interviewed numerous people. Cairo: My City, Our Revolution is her account of those events and some of the more recent developments in Egypt.
Without claiming any prophetic powers, Soueif expects the reader to be better informed of the state of things than she is at the time of writing, in October 2011, and refers to this gap to stress that the process she and Egypt are involved in is ongoing. An experienced journalist, she provides an objective day-to-day report of the uprising, describing the facts, the circumstances that drove people to the barricades, and the emotions in the crowd. The grief of bereaved families, the allure of street art that emerged during that time, the attitude of revolutionaries and their opponents - all those details are there, down to the slogans translated into English with their chanting rhythm intact, the better to recreate the atmosphere of Tahrir. The passion with which Soueif threw herself into action seeps into her writing, allowing her to capture the spirit of the moment.
Coming from a family with strong liberal traditions, Soueif is no novice in political activism and, while aware of the difficulties faced by any democratic movement in Egypt, she has a lot of faith in her people. She is especially enthusiastic about the nation's youth and proud to see them taking a stand against the regime: "We, the older revolutionaries, have been trying since '72 to take Tahrir. They are doing it [...] We follow them and pledge what's left of our lives to their effort." Talking about the government's corruption and poverty most of the country is pushed into, the lack of basic freedoms and the brutal rule of the security forces, the author does not mince her words, adding to her narrative the testimonies of people from all walks of life, from shopkeepers to academics. In her view, uniting people in their struggle is one of the main challenges of the revolution that flared in a country so big and so divided: economically, religiously, culturally.
Egypt's security apparatus is often in Soueif's crosshairs as she talks indignantly about its methods, which include sending truckloads of hired thugs to fight anti-government demonstrators. The army, on the other hand, is an institution that has long been part of society (although that perspective may be undergoing something of a re-evaluation): on previous occasions soldiers have refused direct orders to attack their fellow countrymen, and the crowds in Tahrir Square hope, at least initially, for their support, shouting "The People! The Army! One Hand!" No such sentiments are shown towards the notoriously corrupt parliament. The message for the government that appears most frequently on huge banners reads simply "Irhal! [Leave!]" In the country where everything, from stretches of the Nile to lenient sentences, is up for sale, some are resigned to it to the point of indifference, while others try to wake everyone up with their cheering: "Prices up and no one cares / Next you'll sell your beds and chairs."