‘Record, splice, upload. No time for artistry. And no need either.’ Omar Robert Hamilton’s storytelling technique mirrors that of his protagonist, Khalil, a young film-maker documenting the convulsions of the Arab Spring and its aftermath alongside other members of an independent media collective in Cairo. The form and structure of this compelling debut novel evoke a sense of real-time reportage, presenting its narrative as a series of taut and urgent date-stamped dispatches. An exchange between two journalists, debating the most effective way of dramatising the upheavals on film, reads like a meta-commentary on Hamilton’s own creative process. When one asks, ‘How do you hold it together without a hero?’, the other replies, ‘Time. Or some theme ties each scene together. And in the end you have forty, fifty scenes that – taken all together – give you the picture.’
The City Always Wins charts the fortunes of Egypt’s democracy movement from the historic Eighteen Days that toppled the dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, through the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to its subsequent outmanoeuvring by the army and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2014. ‘We’re dying to stop the killing and the corruption,’ the narrator declares early on. ‘We’re dying for respect. We’re dying for bread, freedom, and social justice.’ This idealism is tempered by a gnawing anxiety that the movement might simply be replacing one form of dictatorship with another. The rallying cry for social unity implied in the popular slogan ‘The people! The army! One hand!’ would have had a specious ring for many activists, whose comrades had been tortured or murdered by the military.
The movement is beleaguered on all sides, caught between ‘the pro-military’s bullying triumphalism and the Brotherhood’s sanctimonious hypocrisy. And the hectoring paternalism of the international commentariat.’ Hamilton accordingly wavers between poignant celebration of young lives sacrificed in a noble cause – the secular martyrdom of ‘A life that conquers death with memory’ – and hard-headed realism about the limits of popular power. The fraught dialogue between Khalil and his cohorts illustrates the bind that has beset every revolutionary movement down the years: how far should it seek to go, and at what price?
Hamilton is to be commended for his vivid and sensitive depiction of one of the most important events in recent world history. His prose style shifts markedly when describing street confrontations between protesters and police: the terse, brisk syntax gives way to paragraph-length, minimally punctuated sentences held together by a succession of ‘and’s. It is a simple but effective trick, rendering the intensity of conflict with breathless freneticism. Hamilton is unflinching in highlighting the brutality meted out by both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian state. In one of several passages reflecting on the systematic use of sexual violence against protesters, Khalil laments the difficulty of achieving meaningful change in a society rife with misogyny: ‘Remove men and maybe the world stands a chance.’
But the novel’s most salient feature, which resonates far beyond its geographical setting, is its portrayal of the revolution as a communications spectacle facilitated by social media. In the West political activism on Twitter can seem like a giant banter bus, of a piece with our democratic tradition of satirical dissent; in Egypt it was integral to direct action, the difference between a protest happening and not happening. Digital technology is ubiquitous in these pages: tweets, location pin drops, YouTube clips and Whats-App exchanges. Whether helping them to elude capture or drawing attention to arrests and abuse, the internet is the activists’ most potent weapon against authoritarian repression.
The brief, euphoric bubble of digital utopianism that followed the fall of Mubarak has long since been punctured. Likewise, liberal opinion on the merits of the Arab Spring has lapsed into an uncomfortable ambivalence. And yet The City Always Wins is decidedly optimistic. The insurrectionary spirit, depicted here in all its beautiful naivety – ‘each rock in the air an invisible fate, an invigorating fatalism’ – is every bit as timeless and at least as unstoppable as the realpolitik it is up against.