I needed a place to stay for the summer, somewhere that I could hole up and finish the graphic novel that I’d been working on for more than a year. The art and script were finished and it was almost ready to shop around but needed some final touches that I couldn’t get done at home. That’s how I wound up in Cairo during the revolution—looking for a quiet place to write.
An old friend needed someone to watch her flat for the summer so I flew to Cairo towards the end of June and set up shop with a stack of copies of the nearly finished pages, a few pens, and a plan to spend the next few months in monastic isolation focused on my work.
I lived in Cairo before the revolution that brought down Mubarak and it was the freest I’ve ever been. As an American man, even one without much money, I could do nearly anything I wanted. It was freedom built on the backs of the poor, and it could certainly bring out the worst in people, but you could also understand why the old colonials were so desperate to hang onto their privilege.
I considered going back to support the uprising against Mubarak but I’ve grown distrustful of the urge to get involved in foreign affairs, so I watched from abroad and hoped for the best. And watching events unfold I came up with an idea for a comic book with my friend Tasos. Something that dealt with the tension we saw in protests in Cairo, Athens, even in Oakland to a lesser extent. Political protests put two notions of sovereignty into sharp relief: consent of the governed on one side and the monopoly of violence on the other, vying for control.
A week after I landed in Cairo the largest political protest in history began, with millions of people calling for the military to depose then-president Morsi.
Like most expats, when I was first living in Cairo I spent a lot of time with other foreigners and liberal Egyptians. The only Islamist I got to know even remotely well was one of my Arabic tutors, a woman named Marwa who was teaching me media Arabic, literally how to read the newspaper. Naturally I asked her opinion on whatever we discussed, and at first she gave me fairly bland answers, but eventually she opened up and told me that she was an Islamist, that she supported the Ikhwan (as the Muslim Brotherhood is known in Egypt), Hamas, the Taliban, any form of political Islam. She thought bin Laden was a hero and a great man, and that the Israelis had framed him for 9/11.
She hated Mubarak and looked forward to his death so that Egyptians could finally elect their president, which was a common sentiment at the time. Once when we were talking about Iraq, which we did plenty of times, I asked her if she thought the US could at least claim credit for bringing about a new democracy, despite everything else it had done wrong. She told me she didn’t believe in democracy.
Government should be run according to sharia, Marwa told me, not by letting people pass laws that go against Islam. She thought the US, if it was going to be a Christian country, should explicitly base its form of government on the Bible, whatever that might look like. So I asked the obvious question, how could she look forward to elections and oppose democracy? She told me that, as with a person, once a nation embraces Islam it should not be allowed to turn away, and that once the Ikhwan won the presidency there would be no need for further elections.
One person can’t speak for an entire movement, but Marwa’s hope for the future were exactly what non-Islamist Egyptians feared, that if Morsi and the Brotherhood were given three more years to consolidate power there would never be another election. Hamas, which is essentially the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, won its first election in Gaza in 2006, and there hasn’t been one since.
So the Egyptian army supported an anti-Brotherhood movement, forming a strange alliance where the monopoly of violence and the consent of the governed kicked out the interloper, and bristled when outsiders called it a coup.
The Brotherhood pushed back with an interminable protest in Rabaa, and Sisi, the military General who led the coup and took power over the Egyptian state, turned the notion of protest on its head when he called for people to come out in large numbers to rally for the killing of their political opponents. And they did. On August 14, the military raided Rabaa square, killing hundreds and injuring thousands.
Looking over the early version of my graphic novel, while the revolution and counter-revolution exchanged gunfire, I realized that I’d had it all wrong. The key moment of Mubarak’s overthrow hadn’t been when the people took to the streets; it was when the army decided not to fire on them. Force had never lost control, it had only bided its time long enough for people like me to believe otherwise.
I tried to tell the same story in my comic that I’d imagined before arriving in Cairo, but when I finished at the end of August and looked back at what I’d done I saw that it had changed. What started as a story of the people versus the regime had become more cynical, ‘the people’ had become more sinister. Instead of learning to trust one group over the other, the protagonist was trapped between them.
It hadn’t been intentional, but a dozen small changes in wording had radically altered the feeling of the book, from a call to action to a call for skepticism.
I left Cairo for Thessaloniki in early September, finished comic in hand and ready to start looking for publishers, but also slightly uncomfortable with how the story had ended up.
A week later the anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered by members of the Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that controls about 6% of the Greek parliament. Anti-fascist protests sprung up in Athens and Thessaloniki, and the leader of the Golden Dawn was arrested, just as the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood had been. There’s already been retaliation, two Golden Dawn members murdered in Athens, and people are worried there will be even more violence this Sunday during demonstrations planned for the 40th anniversary of the Athens Polytechnic uprising.
Greece has a long history of public protest, and the left here is better organized than anything I saw in Cairo, but when I found myself drinking with a group of anarchists, hearing stories of state violence and corruption, I couldn’t shake the similarities. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them about what I’d written or about my growing unease, not because I didn’t want them to be rid of their corrupt government, but because I wasn’t convinced they could control what came next, or that what came next would be better. The story I’ve been carrying, in search of a quiet place where I can find its ending, keeps leading me to scenes of power and violence, dreading their resolution.