Aspden clearly loves her characters, but she unflinchingly recounts their flaws too. One of the most surprising is Amal, a woman who breaks all taboos to leave her family and village to live on her own in Cairo. Amal finds that political activists and male peers aren’t interested in her kind of struggle for freedom. Her story exposes the sordid mechanics of control and the individual cost of rebellion. At one point Amal, who is Muslim, receives help from a Christian church congregation and is detained by authorities, who suspect her of converting. Back in her village, her family locks her up to stop her from making an independent career as a teacher. She manages to run away and assuages her relatives by sharing some of the money she earns. Ultimately, she marries a foreigner and prepares to emigrate.
Other young Egyptians invite Aspden to meetings of “Life Makers,” a self-improvement group founded by a charismatic Islamic televangelist. They are touchingly earnest and ambitious, perplexed by their secular peers but open-minded enough to nurture friendships with non-Muslims like Aspden.
Still, most of Aspden’s friends are willing to entertain change only in limited areas, like the man who sleeps around in a coastal resort but hopes to marry a virgin. She presents the sometimes distasteful choices of her characters with empathy. Mazen, a wealthy Muslim secularist with some enlightened ideas, unexpectedly oozes bigotry and intolerance for Christians.
Aspden’s reporting is always fascinating, if not always artfully or lyrically delivered. She cheerfully and honestly confronts her own outsider status and newcomer’s naïveté (as when she enjoys a respite from Cairo’s endemic sexual harassment at a cafe that turns out to be a rendezvous spot for prostitutes). Yet her prose can also be frustratingly chatty. In order to profile a wide cross-section of Egyptians over an extended period of time, Aspden has sacrificed depth and focus. Some characters flit in and out, disappearing for years on end. In her tableau, Tahrir Square is but a single inflection point in a long history of national atrophy (the 18 days of the revolt are awkwardly inserted mid-narrative in dated journal-entry format). It’s nice putting the uprising in context, but there’s not quite enough of it.
“Generation Revolution” is at its strongest when describing the thicket of its characters’ personal struggles — with faith, family, friendships and sex. The author introduces us to conversations about existential subjects that reveal character, like Islam, virginity and romantic dreams about marriage. For instance, we catch a rare if fleeting glimpse of atheism, a crime in Egypt, in the person of the young doctor Abu el-Hassan, a critical thinker who begins as a religious fundamentalist and ends up rejecting religion.
Aspden’s Egyptians are evolving people trying to balance faith, family, ambition and personal happiness against the broader imperatives of authoritarian leaders (at home, in the mosque or church, in the government and military). A diet of hypernationalism, propaganda about foreign conspirators and security paranoia imposes limits even on freethinkers, who often end up mirroring official intolerance in their own lives.
One of the saddest elements of the July 2013 coup that abruptly ended Egypt’s experiment with democracy and civilian rule was the popular acclaim that ushered Abdel Fattah el-Sisi from army intelligence to the presidency. A great swath of the public was actively complicit in the new dictatorship that killed the revolution it had unleashed in the first place. Aspden brings to her reporting enough insight to make sense of the public’s conflicting attitudes, and enough critical distance to acknowledge how Egyptians contributed to their country’s sad fate.
“Generation Revolution” is billed as a book about youth, or, as the subtitle puts it, the “front line between tradition and change in the Middle East.” In Aspden’s telling, the young, not yet ground into submission, have posed the greatest challenge to Egypt’s intolerable yet adaptive state. But the young can sustain resistance for only so long. The Tahrir Generation of 2011, she writes, may already be over the hill, though a new crop of restive Egyptians are reaching a boiling point, and they may not submit in the same way their grandparents did when the first military strongman took power in 1952. Nonetheless, Aspden notes, an empowered populace armed with education, modern communication tools and high expectations can repeatedly be dominated by an equally modern coercive state. Her conclusion is dispiriting, but she backs it with evidence. Youth alone, it seems, does not suffice to change tradition.
As Aspden demonstrates, all the well-intended characters in her book planted some of the seeds of their own downfall. Amal joined a popular protest movement unaware that it was being manipulated by intelligence agencies to bring Sisi to power. Islamists may have been willing to die opposing the coup, but they were uninterested in the fate of secular dissidents or democracy in general. Part-time revolutionaries mindlessly parroted state propaganda or the bigotry of Egypt’s religious establishment. Almost none were willing to defy their families for very long.
“Generation Revolution” is an excellent social history of Egypt’s persistent pathologies, as well as a universal story about the difficulty of changing deeply ingrained societal attitudes. The ambivalent Egyptians who struggle between radical modern aspirations and conservative community mores bear a more than passing resemblance to their American counterparts trying to reconcile Donald Trump’s vision for their country with Barack Obama’s, and no explanation for any of this can be complete without the kind of social history Aspden provides. The cumulative choices of millions, whether in protest, in voting or in docile compliance, are the indispensable ingredient.
So what did happen to Egypt’s revolution? Aspden, like most of its chroniclers, was rooting for it to succeed. Yet it failed, she says, not only because the police state adapted so efficaciously but also because the people who sparked the revolt ultimately remained faithful to too many reactionary ideas.
The character studies of “Generation Revolution” point to a single conclusion: Revolutionary Egyptians sought radical change only in the narrow lane of their relationship to the government and police. They did not reject the profoundly conservative mores of family, village, neighborhood and religious hierarchy, whose webs of control emerged relatively unscathed from the revolutionary period. Lasting change, however, cannot occur in isolation. Egyptians have proven remarkably inventive and good-humored at finding ways to circumvent or adapt to the state’s abuses, but less so at finding ways to stop them.