Behind the Sun

Behind the Sun

In four books about Syria and Egypt, the narrative arc of revolution bends toward disappointment.


At what point did the revolution in Egypt go off the rails? This was the question that my friends and I spent most of our time discussing in smoke-filled rooms in Cairo, with deepening alarm, in the years following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Islamists swept the elections; protests turned into clashes and massacres; prisons filled with young men and women; and an avuncular, menacing general took over. All the while, the uprisings that had occurred in Syria, Yemen, and Libya degenerated into brutal civil wars. We wondered whether it was all inevitable. Had it been a revolution after all? How does one tell the story?

In July, Amnesty International reported on the Egyptian security forces’ increasingly common practice of “disappearing” civilians: Hundreds of Egyptians have been kidnapped, held in secret locations, and tortured into giving false confessions. This summer in Syria, the rebel-held sector of Aleppo was finally cut off by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which, with Russian assistance, have carried out a relentless bombing campaign (making hospitals a particular target). Residents of the besieged, devastated neighborhoods must choose between starvation and handing themselves over to government soldiers. Those in search of perspective on Syria’s devastation should turn to Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, by the reporter Robin Yassin-Kassab and the activist Leila al-Shami. Their book offers a knowledgeable, empathetic, morally lucid account of the revolt against the Assad regime and an explanation of why—to the horror of many of its supporters—it became a civil war. Burning Country avoids the easy indulgence of indignation; instead, it elicits the voices of many different Syrians involved in the uprising, acknowledging their suffering as well as their courage, intelligence, and humanity, while explaining the terrible choices that have been forced on them. “Pressed on all sides, these are people who’ve truly made history,” Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami write, “enough to compete with and for a moment drown the savage history made by states.”

Their book chronicles the grassroots political and cultural activism of the revolution’s first year. It also charts how the struggle turned sectarian and violent. From the beginning, the Assad regime insisted on “reading the revolution through ethnic and religious categories; largely as a result of its own efforts, these categories would indeed eventually grow in importance until they dominated the field of struggle. The regime’s priority was to refuse any recognition of the non-Islamist civil activists, because these represented the greatest threat.” The regime knew that it would be more convenient, domestically and internationally, to be seen as fighting an extremist opposition—the “terrorists” that it had accused the demonstrators of being from the start.

Assad’s strategy was to throw gasoline on the fire. Peaceful liberal activists were arrested and tortured in nightmarish ways. Protests were met with deadly violence; rape was used as punishment and provocation. Meanwhile, 1,500 Islamists were released from Assad’s jails in 2011.

The regime made clear, Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami write, that it was “willing to go to war against the majority of [the] country’s populace.” Under these circumstances, the uprising quickly became militarized: “Syria’s revolutionaries didn’t make a formal collective decision to pick up arms—quite the opposite; rather, a million individual decisions were made under fire.”

The results are well-known. Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami report that at least 6 percent of Syria’s population has been killed or wounded since 2011. Assad has imprisoned more than 150,000 people. Four out of five Syrians are living in poverty. There are nearly 5 million Syrian refugees today, and millions more have been displaced within the country.

In 2013, Ra’ad Fares, an activist in the now-famous town of Kafranbel, was asked whether he would have joined the protests in 2011 if he’d known what would follow. Fares’s response:

No. The price was too high. Just in Kafranbel we’ve had 150 martyrs. As many as that are missing; they’re probably dead too. As for me, I can’t cry anymore. I don’t feel properly. I’ve taken pictures of too many battles. I’ve photographed the martyrs….

But it’s too late now. There’s no going back. We have to finish what we started.

Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami believe that the revolt against the Assad regime was inevitable: “people revolt when they cannot breathe. Systems fall when they finally smother the people.” Nor was the uprising doomed to fail: If the Free Syrian Army and grassroots organizers hadn’t been “in various ways abandoned and betrayed,” and if Assad hadn’t received such solid economic and military support from Iran and Russia, his regime might have fallen. And if the United States had imposed a no-fly zone, it could have saved countless lives and prevented the devastation of Syria’s cities.

But, the authors continue, “American diplomatic policy was fairly constant: to encourage Assad to stand down while keeping the regime—expanded to include a few safe oppositional faces—in place…. The (unrealized) aim was to bring Assad to the negotiating table, never to end his failed regime.” The Obama administration was fearful of what might happen in the vacuum created by Assad’s fall; but by not taking a stance, it allowed an equally dangerous vacuum to open up. The idea that Assad and his foreign backers today will join the West in an alliance against ISIS “isn’t realism at all; it’s unadulterated fantasy,” Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami assert, because ISIS is a by-product of the regime’s brutality and its collapse. It is also useful as a foil and a source of leverage. The policy of the Assad regime has long been “to present itself as the essential solution to problems it has itself manufactured—a case of the arsonist dressing up as a fireman.” Burning Country makes a persuasive case that the “realist” argument that one must deal with Assad is both morally unconscionable and strategically foolish.

Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami are critical of leftist orthodoxies on Syria. They quote the Syrian writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh:

I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle. What I always found astonishing in this regard is that mainstream Western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, its society, its regime, its people, its political economy, its contemporary history. Rarely have I found a useful piece of information or a genuinely creative idea in their analyses. My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate.

Burning Country is dedicated to Razan Zaitouneh, a human-rights lawyer who defended political prisoners under Assad. She helped found the Local Coordination Committees that worked underground in the early days of the uprising to help organize protests. She lived in hiding for two years before settling in Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. She documented the regime’s starvation siege and sarin-gas attack on the area. Zaitouneh and other activists were kidnapped there in December 2013, probably by an Islamist militia. Their whereabouts remain unknown.

The authors believe that Assad—dependent on foreign backing, weapons, and troops—will eventually fall. But they engage in no wishful thinking about what will follow; they admit that “Building a free and socially just society out of Syria’s wreckage…will be an almost impossible task.” Why? Because “A people who dared to demand freedom received annihilation instead.”

* * *

The Egyptian people haven’t faced annihilation, but their aspirations for change have been brutally curtailed. Yet Jack Shenker, the former Cairo correspondent for The Guardian, doesn’t see their disappointment as the end of the story. “We stand at the beginning of a long and deep-seated revolutionary moment, looking out over a hurricane that will cause Egypt to shudder for a very long time,” he writes in The Egyptians: A Radical Story.

Shenker declares his solidarity with the Egyptian uprising, connecting it to global struggles against economic and political disenfranchisement, and focuses on the many ways that Egyptians—before and after the 18 days in which they called for Mubarak to step down—have challenged a social order he describes as “Neoliberal. Ahistorical. Static. Old. Male.” The book’s most valuable contribution is a discussion of the economic underpinnings of the uprising. Starting in the 1990s, Egypt underwent a series of “structural adjustments” recommended by the International Monetary Fund that involved privatizing many state-owned businesses. “Across the twenty-year privatization program,” Shenker writes, “the total market value of all the assets sold by the Egyptian government to the private sector was estimated by experts at $104 billion. The actual amount received by the state was $9.4 billion, less than a tenth of what the Egyptian people were owed.”

In the late Mubarak years, Western diplomats and business newspapers celebrated the emerging “Tiger on the Nile” while dismissing a wave of strikes and the gradual impoverishment and growing dissatisfaction of millions of people. According to Shenker, in the era of “structural adjustment,” the number of Egyptians living on less than $2 a day jumped from 20 to 44 percent. Meanwhile, the rollback of Nasser-era land reforms resulted in evictions that left 1 million families without land. The state didn’t actually withdraw from the market, but rather acted as a broker in deals that concentrated wealth in the hands of well-connected businessmen, the ruling family, and the upper echelons of the military and the security establishment, all of whom expanded monopolies based on their exclusive access to state resources.

Throughout Egypt’s recent turmoil, Western governments and institutions stayed focused on the importance of the country remaining “open for business.” At an international economic summit convened soon after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi assumed power in 2014, the message, Shenker writes, was that “Egypt must get back to economic growth: to do so the country needs more debt, its assets need more privatization, its citizens need more austerity, its dissenters need more muffling in the name of security and stability.” In short, economic liberalization, democracy, and security would go hand in hand. The reality, as Shenker shows, is that the latter two goals were undermined, if not rendered impossible, by the first. It takes significant state repression to impose unpopular economic measures. Egypt is now poised to take out a new $12 billion loan from the IMF, and Sisi has already warned that new austerity measures will be required.

Shenker is a vivid writer. Early in the uprising, he was arrested along with protesters. As he recalls,

a vehicle nearby was engulfed in flames and something had shifted; a human wave was rolling out from the square and crashing towards me, and before I could move it had swallowed me up and there were shouts and bodies everywhere, and then the briefest, eeriest emptiness as it thundered past and left me standing alone on the tarmac. Then, suddenly, two men—burly, leather jackets—were on me, a blizzard of punches and kicks. They hauled me from the ground and frog-marched me behind police lines, slapping the back of my neck with metronomic regularity.

But Shenker sometimes strains to measure every facet of Egypt’s complex social, historical, and cultural reality according to his theoretical yardstick. All social ills are traced back to the regime and, when possible, to its embrace of neoliberalism. One gets little sense of the genuine support for the status quo and the Egyptian Army that was evident during the 2013 coup against the Muslim Brotherhood, or of the interplay between society and the regime. When Shenker describes how the authorities use sexual harassment and violence to intimidate dissenters, he doesn’t emphasize that these techniques work because they exploit prevailing social attitudes: Female activists who are sexually assaulted or humiliated often face the opprobrium of their own families and communities.

Shenker also barely acknowledges religiosity and political Islam as forces in Egyptian society, and provides a cursory account of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its relationship to the security establishment and business elites. He portrays the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 as payback for his economic policies, without considering as a motive the anger of Islamists over the peace treaty that Sadat had just negotiated with Israel. He discusses the Kefaya movement—a precursor of the anti-Mubarak protests—but not its focus on avoiding tawreeth, the inheritance of power by presidential scion Gamal Mubarak, a prospect that was also distasteful to many leaders in the military. And he depicts the clashes that took place between protesters and police in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in the fall of 2011 as much more significant than they were. At the time, several thousand protesters fought the police in downtown Cairo for days in an attempt to reach the Interior Ministry. It was an impressive display of courage and rage, but futile and tragic as well: Many protesters were killed or maimed, to no avail. Shenker rightly condemns the Muslim Brotherhood for its lack of solidarity—the organization was focused on the upcoming elections—but I don’t see any way that, even if the protesters had broken through police lines, their victory would have sounded “the death knell for the police state.”

In discussing the different outcomes in Egypt and Syria, the authors of Burning Country mention the work of the Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar, who distinguishes between “neo-patrimonial” regimes like Egypt’s—in which the military-industrial complex is “more devoted to its own interests than the chief of state’s” and is willing to sacrifice presidents to uphold the status quo—and fully patrimonial regimes like Syria’s, in which the identification of the state with the person of the president is total, and the “head and body cannot be separated.” The belief that all that was needed in Egypt was a change at the top, rather than the toppling of an entire system, may have been shared by many Egyptians. Shenker rightly emphasizes the depth and breadth of resistance and dissatisfaction in Egypt, but he also sees every act of disobedience as a “revolutionary” one. Yet how many Egyptians were “trying to dismantle the state as a whole, breaking down those core networks of elite authority and neo-colonial exclusions they are built upon”? How many agreed on what they should build in its stead? Shenker doesn’t say. The very economic conditions that made so many Egyptians desperate and angry are, in fact, what limited their ability to commit to open-ended opposition—it’s hard to support protests when you have to eke out a living day by day in the informal economy—and what made them amenable to the promise of a quick return to “stability,” with some curbs on police brutality and corruption.

Of course, the Sisi regime hasn’t honored even this basic bargain, resorting instead to increased repression and virulent propaganda. As Shenker writes, the Egyptian government has historically tried to inculcate “an assumption of fear and dependency; prerevolution and now, it relies not on a stable system of governance but on the perpetuation of mental shackles, on a belief that nothing more is possible.”

* * *

In the decade before Mubarak’s fall, much Egyptian art and literature explored the feeling of going nowhere, of being stuck in an inescapable rut. Stasis returns as the theme of the new Egyptian novel The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz. She’s a psychiatrist and activist who volunteers with the El Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an association created in the early 1990s to counsel those who have been tortured by the security forces. The authorities have recently ordered the center—which in February 2016 alone reported eight deaths in police custody, 77 cases of torture, and 155 forced disappearances—to be shut down. The center’s staff have refused to comply.

The novel is set in the near future, or a parallel version of the present. An unspecified Middle Eastern country that greatly resembles Egypt is run by The Gate, whose authorization is required for everything and whose imminent opening is eagerly awaited by tens of thousands of citizens camped outside it day and night. One of them is Yehya, who needs to obtain a Certificate of True Citizenship and a special permit to have a bullet removed from his body. The bullet is a rare piece of evidence proving that the police fired at protesters during the recent Disgraceful Events. Most such bullets, and the people in which they were lodged, have mysteriously disappeared.

Yehya is dying as he waits in line. His doctor, Tarek, hesitates to operate without permission, but he regularly reads his patient’s file, from which information disappears and to which updates are added every day by an unknown hand.

This dystopian novel hardly needs to conjure absurdities and cruelties beyond what has happened in Egypt in recent years. Bullets did disappear from hospitals; doctors did refuse to treat wounded protesters, whom they accused of being criminals; families did get blackmailed into signing off on fake autopsies when they tried to retrieve their loved ones’ bodies from the morgue.

In one harrowing scene, Abdel Aziz portrays the detention of a young woman, Amani, who nearly loses her mind while being held in total darkness and silence. The scene is a representation of being put “behind the sun,” the Egyptian expression for being disappeared by the authorities. In another scene,

A grizzled, stubble-chinned driver swore to a group of people in the queue that with his own eyes he’d seen a barefoot young man so wounded his leg was about to fall off, his hand fiercely clasped around a clear plastic bag. Inside, the driver said he could make out small silver pellets, covered in a dark red liquid. The driver said that a plainclothes officer had offered to buy the bag and everything in it, but the young man had grimly refused. A violent struggle ensued, which ended with the officer stealing the bag and sprinting away with it before he could be stopped. The young man tried to chase after him, but his leg failed him, and he sat down on the ground and wept.

The book’s best passages are like this, full of mysterious and troubling detail. At other times, The Queue sags under slack plotting or allegorical obviousness (many characters in line outside The Gate represent, rather schematically, certain forces in Egyptian society).

But Abdel Aziz delivers a striking portrait of an authority that claims all power while rejecting all responsibility, that forces people to hear and speak untruths and to embrace their own oppression. In one scene, a mother petitions an official at the Gate of Maladies, hoping to use the death of one of her daughters—who never received the medical treatment she needed—as “leverage” to save her remaining sick child. But the official

pursed his lips again and told her that the cause of death written on her daughter’s death certificate was inappropriate. The girl died because her time was up, he said; she couldn’t expect doctors to alter fate. Even if medicine could perform miracles, the doctors couldn’t have extended her daughter’s life, not even by a moment. “You do believe in God, don’t you, ya Hagga?” he asked. She said nothing, and he carried on, telling her there was no need to go around blaming other people for her own woes.

* * *

The question of who is to blame for one’s woes, familial or national, and whether it’s possible to overcome them is also addressed in Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer. The novel’s opening pages find the young narrator and her mother living in a fallen haut bourgeois paradise in 1980s Egypt:

Our house was Granny’s house. Mama was born in it. It was two floors and like a castle. The garden was filled with trees. We had mangoes, figs, tangerines, sweet lemons. There was also a tree that grew from the seeds Mama threw out of the window when she was a little girl. Custard apple. We even had a coffee tree that Mama’s friend brought us from Ethiopia. Under it was a wishing spot. Any wish you made would come true.

The narrator’s mother used to walk to the river with a book under her arm and read with her feet dangling in the water. The narrator can still see the Nile from the balcony; but like everything else in their lives, it’s a vision of shrunken grandeur: “All we could see now beyond the sliver of Nile and the bushes of the garden were miles of a sepia city and, past that, in a horizon marked by a chalk line of rust red, the informal settlements.”

The house and the narrator’s mother are steeped in disappointment. “I asked her who would teach me about life being unfair. She said time.” The family’s decline began during the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, when most of the mother’s social set were driven out of the country by nationalizations. The narrator’s father has also disappeared. Later we learn that he’s fled the country to avoid the corruption charges leveled against him in retaliation for not giving someone powerful in the Mubarak regime a cut from his business.

The early section is the book’s best and most evocative, coming to life with details of the young girl’s days: the British school where colonial attitudes linger on, her modest meals of subsidized food, her forlorn independence. Later sections are set in her university years, when she studies to be a filmmaker, and during the 2011 uprising, though there are no scenes set in Tahrir Square. The uprising and its aftermath are largely skirted, alluded to but not directly depicted.

This is typical of the novel. When the narrator’s father returns in the final section, his daughter shies away from learning the truth, changing the subject when he mentions his years abroad. The protagonist is portrayed as constantly observing her surroundings, jotting down musings in a journal. “I felt deceived, too, cheated out of a life,” she writes, “but I wasn’t sure why, or by what. I wondered. Was that also inherited, our listlessness, our sense of resignation?” But she never articulates an answer or assumes a stance.

A few memorable scenes explore the narrator’s class privilege, such as when she ignores a clingy beggar child or observes the cleaning lady laboriously mounting the stairs. As a university student, she feels compelled to justify her lack of political engagement, especially in the shadow of her cousin Dido, whose activism lands him in jail. But Dido’s idealism and “intransigence” are ultimately portrayed as self-defeating. The novel can be taken as a study of the paralysis of Egypt’s former elites, sidelined by new postcolonial regimes and caught between their desire for and their deep fear of change. “We have lived it all before, we already tried it,” the narrator’s father tells her. Failure seems to be a cyclical, generational phenomenon.

El Rashidi is concerned with what can’t be said, with the difficulties of finding one’s voice; her book is the story of a child surrounded by secrets and an aspiring artist looking to express herself. When, as a university student, the narrator tries to interview passersby on the streets of Cairo, “people walked away. They looked at me skeptically. They asked who was asking. They asked who was really asking. They said they couldn’t answer such questions. They put their hands up and shook their heads.” She describes her own feeling of “being muted.”

This is a different world from that of Burning Country and The Egyptians, which contain moving descriptions of the moment when an individual first defied authority, overcame fear, raised his or her voice. As Shenker writes: “Of the scores of young people I have interviewed since 2011 about their experiences of the revolution, the vast majority began their tales of the eighteen days with an account of how they confronted, persuaded or outfoxed their parents in an effort to escape the house and join the demonstrations: my notes are littered with blazing rows, defiant messages pinned to bedroom doors, inelegant clambers out of first-floor windows.”

Burning Country contains this account by one Syrian student, Joly, of his first protests:

At first I was scared to join in. But one day there was a very big demonstration…when I heard the chanting…and the singing, I started crying. Suddenly I was filled with courage and I picked myself up and walked out to join in. My mother tried to stop me but I went anyway. It was a beautiful experience. I felt at last I was participating in the effort to lift the oppression off us. Before that I used to be scared to talk even in front of my friends. I even cheered for Bashar at the university, during his first speech at the People’s Assembly. Can you imagine? It’s something I regret very much now.

“The irrepressible urge to speak is perhaps the revolution’s greatest legacy,” Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami write in Burning Country. At the time of the uprising, that urge found expression in poems and songs celebrating the moment. Now it appears in novels that cast a mournful glance backward. The narrative arc of revolution bends toward disappointment.

In Chronicle of a Last Summer, the mother—depressed, proud, disapproving—is the strongest presence, and it is she who finally makes a decision, renouncing the lovely but haunted family home. The narrator’s own voice remains “muted,” hesitant; the novel is a coming-of-age story whose protagonist never quite seems to come of age, whose outlook remains hazy. Similarly, after a series of failed attempts to help the wounded Yehya—efforts stymied by the authorities, but also by the hesitations of the people around him—The Queue reaches an ambiguous (if most likely tragic) ending: The Gate remains closed, the people still waiting. But in these times, in these stories, a lack of resolution may be the next best thing to hope.

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