Take two: How author H A Hellyer and satirist Bassem Youssef frame Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution

In H A Hellyer’s book, Tahrir Square acts as a lodestar, a physical place and a representation of a revolution. In Tickling Giants it serves as a backdrop, a place that reminds us to whom Youssef’s satire is addressed.

Egyptians celebrate in Tahrir Square after hearing the news of the resignation of president Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. John Moore / Getty Images
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For the Arab world’s largest country, February 11, 2011, was the moment the 21st-century began. Hosni Mubarak, after decades in power, was finally pushed to step down after millions of people took the streets.

Many things were born in Tahrir Square that day. Hope for the future. A new politics led by youth. A revolutionary current, as H A Hellyer puts in his new book A Revolution Undone. A new relationship between the media and political power, as the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef hoped. Tahrir Square, the historic centre of Cairo, became the cauldron in which a new Egypt would be forged. But life intervened.

Tahrir Square is everywhere in Hellyer's A Revolution Undone, a blend of analysis and memoir of Egypt's turbulent post-revolution. It also appears in Tickling Giants, a documentary about Youssef by American filmmaker Sara Taksler.

Yet Tahrir is subtly different in both. In Hellyer's book it acts as a lodestar, even a motif, returned to again and again, a physical place and a representation of a revolution. In Tickling Giants it serves as a backdrop, a place that reminds us to whom Youssef's satire is addressed. There is a crowd out there beyond the camera, a proud, boisterous, maligned people, pushed around by political giants – and it is Youssef who, on the people's behalf, tickles them. But when you tickle a giant, as becomes obvious in both the book and the documentary, you often get squashed.

Tahrir is the first place we encounter in both. It is there in the very first chapter of Hellyer’s book, albeit at a distance. As the revolution begins, his concerns are more personal. Law and order in Cairo is collapsing and he joins men from his neighbourhood who seek to protect their families by assuming the role of policemen. Already, unwillingly, Hellyer, an academic and analyst by training and profession, is being drawn into the revolution. There is, indeed, something absurd about our narrator, temporarily shelving the books with which he has made his academic reputation for “clubs and homemade weapons” and manning checkpoints. Such anecdotes pepper the book, which stands as an attempt to piece together what happened in the five years since the revolution. Thankfully, there is no major violence in Hellyer’s neighbourhood.

Youssef is not so lucky. Even now, after so many years, the sight of Tahrir in 2011 is still astounding. The way Taksler films it is real and raw – the stench, the chaos, the uncertainty is palpable. And the blood is real. “I’m sorry to ruin your comedy,” a doctor in Tahrir Square tells Youssef at the very start of the film, explaining how a man had died in his arms.

Revolutions by their nature don’t happen from above, they happen from below, in the streets and alleys. Laws collapse and people try to build them back up again. To some degree, this is what both works have in common: Hellyer tries to make sense of what is happening around him, even as the revolution unfolds. Youssef is trying to do the same, trying to carve a space in the society for his brand of comedy – probing to see if this space exists, if it can be kept open. Both come back to the early hope of the revolution, the genuine belief of a generation that things could change, now, in this moment.

Exactly when that hope morphed into something else is a matter of difference. This is perhaps the best aspect of Hellyer’s book. He traces not only his own intellectual reaction to the events around him – his doubts, uncertainties and mistakes – but also the evolving ideas of those around him.

He writes of the transition to Egypt’s first democratic elections as a time of flux, when people were unsure who to vote for and who they were representing. It is now often forgotten that there were almost two dozen candidates for president. It was not merely a contest between an establishment candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, a former prime minister, and Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hellyer spends some time unpicking the different strands of Islam and devotion in Egypt, noting how different parts of Egyptian society – religious conservative, law and order supporters of the military, youthful liberals – tussled with their views in the run-up to the election. There are no binaries in Hellyer’s book: he is much too subtle an analyst to believe voters were motivated by one thing and is profoundly – the casual reader may say too profoundly – aware of the distinctions and divisions within Egyptian society.

As history records, Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president. The aftermath, writes Hellyer, was “a slow moving train-wreck”, as the Brotherhood, so long excluded from politics, let alone power, suddenly find themselves governing Egypt. Hellyer judiciously allocates blame – the Brotherhood certainly made themselves easy to dislike, making enemies at home and abroad. But the army, now the other pillar of power in the country, also mishandled the transitional period and had no real idea how to handle Morsi.

In this regard, Hellyer is perhaps too much the analyst and less the memoirist.

His attempts to dissect exactly where Morsi went wrong, what other political paths he could have travelled down are intellectually interesting, but miss the drama of real life. The mass movement that eventually pushed the army to intervene was too big for politics. It existed above it, beyond it. Political actors like the army may well have ridden that wave, but the wave was coming from the people.

A similar tide sweeps over Youssef in the film, but it comes later, after the army intervenes and Abdel Fattah El Sisi becomes president. Youssef had an arrest warrant issued against him by the Morsi government for making fun of the president. When the case collapses, he returns to the TV studio a hero.

In Taksler’s film, these are the best days for Youssef’s show. The public is behind him and the young Egyptians who staff the show are buoyed and excited. As protests gather against Morsi, he offers a pithy explanation of their origin: “People value their personal freedom over freedom of expression. They hated being told what to do.”

In the next chapter of Egypt’s transition, there is a palpable change in mood. Taksler’s film shows how the public mood shifted and the networks, themselves under pressure from the government and the public, shifted too. Some of the film’s most moving moments come when Youssef’s staff are celebrating a birthday in their offices, while outside protesters chant slogans against them. The reality of the mob so close by is both frightening and surreal.

Once again, in some form, Tahrir intervenes. Once Youssef was on the right side, on the ground with the people. Now he is the one in the tower, watching as the mob calls for him to go. As the situation spirals out of control, he drives to the airport and escapes into exile.

By the end of his book, Hellyer is deeply disappointed with Egypt’s trajectory. Not even Egypt, indeed, but Cairo itself. Hellyer is intimately attached to the city, its people and its politics, and as he feels the city changing and emptying, he writes as if it is leaving him personally behind.

In his last chapter, Hellyer writes of his relationship with Bassem Sabry, a young Egyptian journalist who died suddenly in 2013. “We talked about the prospects for a new Arab political ideology, one that would be true to the Arab world’s heritage, but which would be vibrant and dynamic, beyond the failures that Egypt had already seen and experienced.” Sabry, of course, would never get to witness such a resurgence. But Hellyer also wonders if Egypt’s youth ever will.

In exile in the United States, Youssef ponders these questions. “That moment of history will always remain,” he says on film. “The show, with all the difficulties we went through, was a short glimpse in time, where people can look back and say, you know what? It’s possible.”

Some nostalgia for those days of hope seems inevitable. Neither Hellyer nor Youssef wants to let it go. In that regard, Hellyer is different because, though disappointed, he stayed in Egypt, while Youssef, despite the lingering note the film sounds, went on to forge a successful media career in his adopted home in the US.

Yet it is hard to avoid the sense that the moment has passed. How did a revolution born of such hope fall so far of expectations? Taksler wisely confines herself to charting Youssef’s rise and fall and doesn’t offer any explanation. But Hellyer does.

“I used to view the eighteen days as a ‘something’ that could be realised – a political force that was real, genuine and capable of taking power in some shape or form. I matured from that,” he writes.

The revolutionary moment, so full of hope, was unequal to the task ahead of it. Remaking the state, bloated from years of political and economic mismanagement, could not be done in a year or two. Marrying the vast discrepancies between what those who voted for Morsi and those who supported El Sisi wanted was just too much.

Borne out of politics, the revolution was eventually buried by it. A city as old and as grand as Cairo moved on, leaving journalists and comedians behind.

Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for The National