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Surviving young

Book Review: 'Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East' by Rachel Aspden

In 2011, amid massive street protests against the junta that had taken power in Egypt following the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak, an army general named Mohsen el-Fangari took to the nation’s television screens and wagged his finger. It was the gesture, unmistakably, of a disappointed father reprimanding his wayward children, and it has since been repeated in one form or another by all of Egypt’s post-Mubarak leaders — from the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi to the military strongman who overthrew him, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Every time these ageing patriarchs attempt to chide Egypt’s youth they are met with a barrage of mockery and contempt: from Facebook memes to satirical graffiti.

El-Fangari’s finger doesn’t make it into Rachel Aspden’s fascinating study of the lives of several millennial Egyptians as they navigate the most tumultuous period of their country’s modern history. But her book is nonetheless a deep dive into one of the revolution’s most critical faultlines: the ongoing struggle waged by Egypt’s youth to articulate their own voices within a state that wags its finger in response and goes to great lengths to ensure that they are never heard.

The presidential palace is only part of the problem. Aspden’s varied protagonists are forced to confront those seeking to limit their agency and proscribe their dreams in the family sitting room, the university lecture hall and the church or mosque as well. “I feel like someone has tied my hands and feet together,” complains one character, Amal, after losing an argument with her parents over “acceptable” clothing.

Along the way this young cast develop nuanced and radical strategies for survival. Outward compliance is blended with surreptitious disobedience, gender norms are both challenged and reinforced. Some embrace piety as a form of rebellion, others view religion as the very thing they are rebelling against. In all cases we are peering into a messy and thrilling world in which traditional forms of authority feel slippery and, as Aspden points out, “the old rules were only part of the story”.

What makes Generation Revolution so interesting is its weaving together of national political unrest with the micro-level dramas of daily life — awkward dates, two-bit “bikini movies”, the farcical elements of compulsory military service — at a time when social and cultural mores have been undergoing rapid shifts. Aspden, who is never afraid to acknowledge her own role as a subjective narrator, takes us from folk healing ceremonies to the slick production sets of contemporary Islamic televangelism, from mass public rallies to the byzantine universe of web forums and private blogs.

The revolution has always been about so much more than formal politics: its greatest promise was to bestow individuals and communities with a sense of autonomy and an ability to shape the world around them for themselves. Egypt’s elites have long sought to keep young people’s “sense of possibility and solidarity in check” through its twists and turns; Aspden’s book ultimately shines a light on the fightback.

But if this is largely a tale of young Egyptians refusing to remain on the margins and muscling their way onto the map, then its final chapters, charting the unprecedented levels of repression under Sisi’s brutal dictatorship, are the most dispiriting. Aspden’s characters and their friends now find themselves in the shadows once more, be they in jail — the current regime has incarcerated tens of thousands of political prisoners — or on the migrant boats of the Mediterranean, or in a state of exhausted psychological withdrawal. “I feel like persona non grata in my own country,” Amr, a software engineer who is attempting to abandon Egypt, says bitterly. And yet even in the darkest moments a belief that something fundamental has altered, and that the finger-wagging fathers know that they are on the wrong side of history, prevails. “We killed fear and laughed in its face,” one youth tells Aspden. “I will never be afraid again.”

-Published in The Evening Standard
-June 2016