“I must be frank,” journalist Thanassis Cambanis writes very early on in his new book about the 2011 uprising in Egypt. “I fell in love with the Tahrir Revolution, but this love didn’t blind me to its faults.”
It’s a bland introductory declaration, easily forgotten by a reader eager to experience Tahrir Square. But it is one Cambanis, a regular columnist for The Boston Globe’s Ideas section, convincingly elucidates in “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” which is both a warm, deeply human chronicle of the people who drove the revolution and a cool, withering analysis of why they failed — or, as Cambanis prefers, were “defeated.”
The story follows a handful of activists, especially Moaz Abdelkarim, a 26-year-old “schlumpy pharmacist,” and Basem Kamel, an architect and family man in his early 40s. Abdelkarim grew up in the Muslim Brotherhood, has a fierce independent streak, and is impulsive. Kamel had avoided politics and is punctual, pragmatic, and shrewd. Together, Cambanis writes, they represented, respectively, the revolution’s id and ego.
The first 50 pages intertwine Abdelkarim and Kamel’s personal histories with the revolution’s roots before the two activists join the same cell marching to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011. For the casual observer, the uprising could seem to have come out of nowhere or been inspired by unrest in Tunisia. Cambanis explains it had been brewing since at least 2002 and boiled over the previous summer, when police in Alexandria beat to death an apolitical young man.
This background helps us understand how Abdelkarim and Kamel behave during and after the revolution. Kamel’s knack for retail politics is logical because we remember how, as an architect, he loved managing projects while interacting with “men of every social class and background” on job sites. Abdelkarim’s difficulty thinking beyond the moment fits a pattern, such as when he nobly questioned President Hosni Mubarak’s regime on state television years earlier in a segment that was edited out and only resulted in expanding his state security file.
As the Tahrir demonstrations escalate, there are, of course, moments of elation and euphoria as Islamists and secularists unite in common cause. But they were unable to sustain a coalition, which left liberal reformers ill-equipped to challenge the old regime’s “deep state” apparatus or the Muslim Brotherhood’s political machine. And Cambanis faults the revolutionaries for not trying to seize Egypt’s state television headquarters — despite its being surrounded by tanks — thereby forfeiting the main source of information for most Egyptians.
“Even at Tahrir’s pinnacle, the seeds of future divisions had already taken root,” Cambanis writes.
As the military overtly asserts control after Mubarak’s fall and again when President Mohamed Morsi falls out of favor, the reformers prove unwilling or unable to unify around tangible political goals, further alienating themselves from the masses. In one rambling, smoke-filled meeting, they “talked out of turn and rarely took their eyes off their smartphones.”
“The coalition’s loyalty to revolution was unquestionable,” Cambanis writes. “In practice, however, the revolutionary leaders behaved like teenage boyfriends with noble intentions and truncated attention spans.”
Anecdotes like this — from beyond the square — are when “Once Upon a Revolution” is most illuminating. In one moving episode, traumatized Muslims and Christians heatedly debate, fight, and comfort each other at a morgue after a deadly military crackdown. At Tahrir’s peak, rich kids drink expensive coffee at fancy cafes while complaining about traffic; poor people worry about their livelihoods. “These people in Tahrir Square represent only a minority of Egyptians,” a pastry shop manager tells Cambanis. Cable news and social media do not easily capture such enriching details.
Egypt today has reached “an impossibly sad juncture,” led by the popular Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who in his first year of control killed and arrested more people than the ousted Mubarak had in nearly three decades, Cambanis writes. But the revolution still happened, and its true impact could take decades to assess, he says. Underlining Cambanis’s many criticisms is intense admiration for the risks revolutionaries took and their accomplishments.
“They contributed something invaluable to the moral fiber of the universe, and, less abstractly, they learned to organize and command substantial power,” he writes. “They might well find a way to change their country.”Bernard Vaughan is a New York-based journalist.