I was paging back through Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi, trans. Jonathan Wright, which is crammed with observations of and insights about contemporary Egypt. The prose here is not elegant, but it’s a valuable read for its humor and for the sympathetic ear it gives to a broad range of Egyptians. And, of course, one reads it and regrets that Anwar Sadat wasn’t “overthrown properly.”
“You know what was the beginning of the end?”
“The 18th and 19th of January,” he said.
I was stunned by this answer, which I was hearing for the first time. I had expected many conventional responses, but the 18th and 19th of January! This was new, and I wondered whether the driver knew that the demonstrations on those days, which President Sadat called “The Uprising of the Thieves,’ took place in 1977. I don’t know for certain why this stupid question came to my mind but I put it to him anyway. “What year was that?” I said.
“In the 70s, I mean about 1979,” he said.
“And why was that the beginning of the end?”
“Those were the last serious demonstrations on the streets. In the 1960s we did many protests and in the 1970s before the 1973 war they were very frequent. After that Sadat, God curse him wherever he goes, issued decrees that put up the price of everything. The world turned upside down. People understood politics and they went out on the streets and made Sadat go back on his word. At the time we heard he’d taken fright and fled to Aswan and was saying that if he was overthrown properly, he’d flee to Sudan, the coward. My God, anyone could have seized power that day, but there wasn’t anyone, just a bunch of wretches wanting prices to come down.
“In Abdel Nasser’s time we went on demonstrations that made a real impact and suddenly we would find him there among us in Tahrir Square. He hadn’t gone off to Aswan or even gone home. That’s what happened after the Defeat, can’t remember exactly when.”
“I still haven’t understood why the 18th and 19th of January were the beginning of the end,” I interjected.
“After that the government realised that it had to get its act together, and that these demonstrations had become a serious danger to them. The 18th and 19th of January were not just anything, that was the start of a revolution, but you know what, it wasn’t completed. And since then the government has planted in us a fear of hunger. It’s made every woman hold her husband by the arm and say to him: ‘Mind you don’t go out. The kids will die.’ They planted hunger in the belly of every Egyptian, a terror that made everyone look out for himself or say ‘Why should I make it my problem?’, so that’s why the 18th and 19th of January were the beginning of the end.’
Note: I hear Bloomsbury Qatar has picked this title up from the now-defunct Aflame and will re-issue it (tidied up a bit, I’m sure). So glad to hear it!