Egypt. When the future seemed within reach

Words by Omar R. Hamilton for the Institut du Monde Arabe · The following is the speech given by the Anglo-Egyptian writer Omar Robert Hamilton on 24 October 2018 at the IMA on the occasion of the 2018 “Arab Literature Prize”, which he received for The City Always Wins (Gallimard, March 2018). Story of an Egyptian revolution experienced by a whole generation now muzzled.

Cairo, 21 November 2011. — Chanting against SCAF

Good evening.

First, let me say that this is a tremendous honour and I have to thank my publisher, Gallimard, my editor, Marie-Pierre Gracedieu and my translator, Sarah Gurcel. Working with her on the translation was a pleasure and an intellectual challenge of the best kind—and it’s clear that she has kept the text very much alive in French.

Since the announcement of the prize the question has been posed about whether a book written in English can qualify as Arab literature.

When I began writing the novel in 2014, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I just knew I had to write something about the three years in Cairo that had passed, and to write before I forgot. Over time it became clear that I was writing a novel and that its purpose would be to translate an experience—to transmit it to the reader, to the outside world, to the future. It did not need to be an encyclopaedic accounting of history, but rather an immersion into the psychological and emotional flow of it.

I had no choice but to write it in English and I chose not to translate—what was a very Arab experience—with a rigid faithfulness but to give myself space to work within an English vernacular. The dialogue had to feel alive, contemporary and urban in English—so I tried to craft a dialogue for my characters that was—I hope—something of a cross between Downtown Cairo and a London pub.

Anyone who has lives in multiple places—who moves between the space of the coloniser and colonised—finds themselves doing this work. That of the intermediary, the translator, the interpreter: working against misinterpretation, against Orientalism, against the cultural structure of modern economic imperialism in the Northern world.

One of the most liberating things about the Arab revolutions was the break to this flow. “Translation” to the Northern world, for once, was not essential. In Egypt, it felt like the revolution would be won or lost within national boundaries. At first, there was no geopolitical Great Game being played out over the country. The battle was domestic. And my role within that battle was domestic.

Along with a collective of friends we established an activist media in Cairo. We documented what was going on in the streets and put out regular videos online. We were part of an information war in which a good video, quite simply, brought people out on to the street. Violence became a cornerstone of our work. When the state denies it is killing its citizens, it is politically powerful to prove they are lying.

Sisi changed everything. The Rabaa Massacre, in which 900 supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi were killed, was conducted live on television. It was designed to be seen and to terrify the populace. The state’s violence was no longer to be denied—but amplified.

The battle became international.

Sisi, today, is celebrated by the International Community, his regime is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, he has initiated a strategic alliance with Russia—buying weapons and a nuclear power programme—and he has bought political cover from France and Germany with purchases of weapons and electrical power plants. We are now enmeshed in global politics and our colonial power relations are as dynamic and binding as they were before decolonisation.

But the role of the translator, the interpreter, the person-of-two-places have changed profoundly.

With the election of Trump, the world woke up to a fact that had been brewing for a long time: country by country the Right is successfully hijacking the levers of democracy and cementing a new international regime of hyper-wealthy elites.

In the media they call this a “crisis of democracy.” In the media this crisis is blamed on racism, tribalism, lack of education, social media manipulation, uncontrolled migration.

But none of these explanations actually help anyone understand what’s going on.

The fact is: there have always been two parallel crises running through the history of liberal democracy. The first is the very concept of suffrage—that there are people who can be excluded from democracy . . . and women, the enslaved, the colonised, the under-educated and the impoverished have to fight for their rights to become self-evident. The second is its relation to capital—that wealth can be a bulwark against tyranny. That becoming wealthier and become free-er must be intertwined.

In English a continual confusion arises from the word “liberal.” Is a liberal democracy a progressive moral system in which anyone can find acceptance and representation? Or is a liberal democracy an anti-hereditary power system in which fairness is ensured by competitive, open markets?

The exploitation of this grey area was central to the colonial project: as new markets were opened with terrible violence in the name of progress.

In Egypt, Mubarak was the ideal colonial satrap. De-industrialising, liberalising and de-regulating the country to the point of collapse. In the years leading to 2011 he was celebrated by international liberal financial institutions while a bubble economy grew and grew until it burst into revolution.

Part of the intoxication of the Arab Revolutions was the opportunity for a historical corrective. The part of the world most shackled by contemporary colonialism would be where the new one would be born. For people of my generation their principal political experiences had been of defeat: the invasion of Iraq, the ongoing colonisation of Palestine, the crash of 2008 and the subsequent disappointments of Obama.

The Arab revolutions were not going to be defeats. They were going to remake the very concept of democracy for the 21st century: a democracy that does not need colonies for its markets, a democracy that does not need borders for its citizens, a democracy that was built on universal principles of “bread, freedom, social justice” and not on the shifting sands of economic theory.

Is it any wonder that the world’s Powers, those most benefiting from the status quo, were ranged against us from the start? Is it any wonder that Sisi has been celebrated from Washington to Moscow as a guarantor of “stability?”

History is not a series of events that you win or lose. It is a river that swells and turns, or an avalanche that suddenly and completely overtakes you, or a swamp in which you can no longer tell which way is forward.

This book exists to record a time when we had a certain future within our grasp. It was written after that future was lost, in the hope that we can still have a chance at it again.

Which brings us back to today’s crisis in democracy.

I believe it is more than a crisis of democracy that we are experiencing. The central propulsion of civilisation has always been progress. Humans build, they plan and tomorrow is supposed to be better than today.

We are a generation for whom this is not the case. A generation not just in Egypt, but a global generation facing a lifetime of political hopelessness and economic austerity.

We live now in a world in which communications technologies have deleted time, jet propulsion has negated space and the ecological cost of capitalism is quite simply cancelling the future.

It is not simply a crisis of democracy that we are experiencing.

Rather we are going through a crisis in our very purpose as a species.

And just as the crisis was born of a failure of democracy—so must we find the solution within democracy. We must remove the contradictions that have been allowed to run within it for so long. We must no longer accept governments that adopt a language of moral liberalism as a front for economic plunder.

France has long been a supplier of weapons to Egypt—Renault’s Sherpa vehicles were instrumental in the Rabaa massacre. And since the massacre there is no country whose weapons sales have increased as rapidly as France’s. Egypt, in fact, now buys more weapons from France than even the USA. This is in direct contravention of EU law that requires member states to—I quote—“deny
an export licence if there is a clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used for internal repression.” This hypocrisy is, unfortunately, nothing new—it is a continuation of the double standards that have always applied between coloniser and colonised. The justification of our era is the creation of jobs, the war on terror and the endless quest for stability.

But stability can only come with justice.

And the truth is that the space between the coloniser and the colonised is collapsing.

Colonial spaces have always been used as sites of experimentation for tactics of control that can be used in the motherland. From the aerial bombardment of Ethiopia to neoliberalism’s testing grounds in Pinochet’s Chile to the currently booming international market in Israeli surveillance and drone technology—experiments in the periphery do not stay in the periphery.

The future is designed, tested and refined in the colonies.

The clearest example today is the Internet agency Cambridge Analytica. They came to global prominence with the election of Donald Trump—but it was in Trinidad & Tobago that Cambridge Analytica developed their method and perfected their pitch.

There is no periphery anymore. The world is too interconnected. The role of the cultural translator is no longer to bring information from one language to another, from the colonised fringe to the metropolitan marketplace—instead it is to synthesise local struggles into a shared understanding of our one unifying struggle: the struggle against the ever more globalised elite, the struggle between right and left that has run through history. The battle for democracy in Egypt is the same as the battle for democracy in France. We must all face this crisis together and find a new democracy—one that is liberated from the market and free from the empire’s