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  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

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