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Tag Archive: circling the square

  1. “People felt like something fundamental had shifted,” says Shenker. “But they – and we in the Western media – didn’t have the language yet to describe it.”

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    Tahrir Square: Five Years On

    Jack Shenker and Wendell Steavenson

    It’s five years since Cairo’s Tahrir Square erupted with the clamour of Egyptians wanting change.  Over the period following this remarkable expression of civil unrest, Mubarak fell, Morsi was voted in and then ‘removed’ from power, and Sisi has risen.  But the legacy of the revolution is still undetermined and uncertain.  The world waits and watches to see what will happen next: whether Egypt’s fate in the wake of revolution will set a precedent for other countries in the region struggling to emerge from the shadow of the Arab Spring is anyone’s guess.

    For lack of a template, a popular leader, an idea going forward that focused the force and tumult of the revolution, the new beginnings that it promised, a strike against an authoritarian, military-backed and patriarchal regime, has lost its impetus to produce meaningful change of the status quo.  As Guardian writer, Jack Shenker, author of The Egyptians: A Radical Story says: “We’re at a crucial historical moment, but it’s difficult to identify the contours of the political movement.”

    Experienced journalists, Jack Shenker and Wendell Steavenson, witnessed firsthand the occupation of Tahrir Square.  So firsthand was Shenker’s familiarity with the fervent protesters that he was arrested, smashed about a bit and driven on a truck out of town, but had the good fortune not only to have his Dictaphone to hand on which to record the testimony of his fellow captives, but also to manage to escape.

    Where his book begins with a detailed track back through the history of modern Egypt in an attempt to evaluate what led the country to its current schizophrenic state, Steavenson’s Circling the Square is a more immediate account of what she saw on the streets.  It’s a smorgasbord of conversations held with ordinary citizens while the foundations of their country came crashing down around them, and puts across forcefully a sense of the very “uncertain mosaic of causes” that brought Egypt to the point of implosion.

    Steavenson was interested less in the idea of attempting to offer “an authoritative” version of the revolution, choosing to eschew exposition altogether, and more in the process of subverting the idea of the journalist as being the first witness.  “Maybe I was too lazy,” she jokes.  But her instinct to place her reader right in the middle of the “chaos and inchoateness… to pay respect somehow to the confusion of it all” by recording the dialogue, anecdote and stories of the people in the street has produced a vivid portrait of the country from the ground up.

    “People felt like something fundamental had shifted,” says Shenker.  “But they – and we in the Western media – didn’t have the language yet to describe it.” Just as any attempt to predict how the Middle East will be re-shaped and re-configured politically, socially, economically and culturally in the early twenty-first century is near impossible to say the least, so the language of revolution by which its demands and hopes and fears might be fully articulated is still in its infancy.  But for those interested in one of the most significant episodes in modern history – and who could not be – there is no better place to begin than in reading what Shenker and Steavenson have to say.

    Claudia Pugh-Thomas

    The 21st Independent Bath Literature Festival continues until Sunday 6 March view the full programme here
    Bath Box Office 01225 463362

  2. 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 track

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    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.

    circling the square

    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.

    The Egyptians Front 300dpi

    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: