Artistic Director’s Festival Pick: What’s Happening in Egypt? Tahrir Square Five Years On Viv Groskop on two foreign correspondents who have the inside trackLeave a Comment
Is it really five years since the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo? Security forces killed 1,000 supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Over a quarter of a million took to the streets in protest, spawning slogans such as: “Lift your head up high: you’re Egyptian.” Outside of Egypt, millions followed the protests on social media for the first time, suddenly able to see for themselves both the possibilities of “citizen journalism” and the limitations of using hashtags to understand complex ideas.
Political demonstrations are not easy to understand on the ground. They’re even tougher to follow from a distance. I have to confess: I’m not sure I understand exactly what happened at the time or what has happened since. There are so many news events which capture our attention in the moment and then the months pass and are we really any the wiser about how these things fit into the grand scheme of things?
Thank goodness, then, for two dazzlingly brilliant foreign correspondents coming to Bath at the end of this month. One is a firm favourite of mine: Wendell Steavenson, the author of a book which changed my life in 2003. Her first book, Stories I Stole, an evocative, moving memoir about post-Soviet Georgia, inspired me to make a series of trips to the capital, Tbilisi, and to report on the country’s political difficulties. (“Our government is more corrupt than any other in the world,” one man told me in 2008, when I was reporting for the New Statesman.) Now several Georgians are amongst my closest friends.
Steavenson is one of these people who can jet into a place and just immerse themselves instantly. She’s tough, intelligent and sensitive. And she is great at relaying the nuances of a country and its culture to a wider audience. Having reported extensively from Moscow, Tehran, Baghdad and Beirut, she arrived in Cairo in January 2011, four days after young Egyptians had taken to the streets in the protests that would bring down president Hosni Mubarak. Her new book Squaring the Circle is about what happened next – and how hard it was to figure out what was going on. “I began to realise that witnessing something did not give you any good sense of what had really happened,” she writes. “A person bearing witness was the most unreliable narrator of all.”
Joining her to discuss Egypt’s fate since then is former Guardian Egypt correspondent Jack Shenker, whose book The Egyptians: A Radical Story uncovers the roots of the uprising and explores a country now divided by two irreconcilable political orders. The international media may have moved on from Egypt’s explosive cycles of revolution and counter-revolution, he argues, but the Arab World’s most populous nation remains as volatile as ever.
Shenker’s work is truly impressive: Paul Mason, Owen Jones and Noam Chomsky are fans and this book has already been listed as one of the most important non-fiction reads of 2016. He was also one of the first to write extensively about the deaths of African migrants in the Mediterranean in 2012, which earned him an award for News Story of the Year at the One World media awards, where he was also shortlisted for Journalist of the Year.
Often we need “translators” to explain these events, bring them to life and keep reminding us why they’re important: Steavenson and Shenker couldn’t be better placed.
Tahrir Square: Five Years On with Jack Shenker and Wendell Steavenson is on Monday 29 February at The Guildhall, Bath, at 8pm. Tickets: http://bathfestivals.org.uk/literature/event/tahrir-square-5-years-on/