One evening last December, I strolled through the busy streets of the Cairo neighborhood known as Downtown to the new offices of the independent publishing house Merit. Just around the corner from the Café Riche, where young revolutionaries secretly printed pamphlets promoting the 1919 uprising against the British, and where the novelist Naguib Mahfouz held court in the 1960s, I turned onto Mohamed Sabri Abu Alam Street. Between the Armenian church and the Ministry of Religious Endowments, a striking neo-Islamic structure completed in 1929, I walked into a grand old apartment building that had seen better days.
I found several hundred young Egyptians spilling out of a renovated flat and down the building’s curved marble staircase. Inside the apartment, there were paintings on the walls, tables covered with Merit’s brightly designed, inexpensive paperbacks, and an atmosphere of joyful pandemonium. Vain attempts were being made to squeeze a few more chairs into the space. Greetings and exhortations filled the air. Mohamed Hashim, Merit’s publisher, lurked in the background in a straw hat, refusing to give a speech. But several authors spoke up, praising Merit for being “a model of freedom,” for “pushing the boundaries” and creating “a feeling of community in these very bad times,” and for being a place where one could still talk of “our oppressed revolution that…isn’t over.”
Merit’s old office had been at the end of Kasr al-Nil Street, just a stone’s throw from Tahrir Square. In January and February 2011, it served as a crowded, informal base camp for protesters during the 18 days it took to depose President Hosni Mubarak. Long before that momentous time, I had gotten into the habit of dropping by Merit. In the late afternoon, I’d join the company of friends and writers sitting on ragged couches in the office’s cramped quarters and bantering with Hashim, his voice hoarse from years of smoking and his thin face often creased by an impish smile. There was never any talk of business, and I often wondered how this ridiculously casual operation continued to publish books by some of Egypt’s most promising new talents.
Cairo has always had a lively literary scene, which since the early 20th century has been anchored in the bars, bookstores, offices, and smoke-filled cafés of Downtown. The district adjoins Tahrir Square, a belle epoque wonder created by Khedive Ismail Pasha in 1865 to rival the glory of Paris. Its elegant apartment buildings, old palaces, and passages have slipped into charming dilapidation, but it remains the city’s cultural epicenter. In the novel The Yacoubian Building, a best seller during Mubarak’s twilight years in power, Alaa Al Aswany indicts the regime’s corruption and describes its repercussions on the lives of the residents of a historic Downtown building. Merit published the first edition.
Two years after Mubarak’s downfall, Hashim and his friends were in the street again. In 2013, they backed the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood’s post-Mubarak government and the military intervention that ousted Mohamed Morsi from the presidency that July. Headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has since become president, the regime outlawed the Brotherhood and arrested thousands of its members. When security forces cleared Morsi supporters from Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in August 2013, they left at least 1,000 people dead.