The Anatomy of Revolution

Egypt’s long and winding road towards democracy

01 September 2017
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IN ONE OF LAURA EL-TANTAWY’S PHOTOGRAPHS of Egypt, a person’s shadow looms in the foreground, hovering above a massive crowd of banner-waving protestors. The shadowed figure dominates the frame in an ominous way, like a dictator commanding the crowd below.

El-Tantawy captured this photo on 26 July 2013, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square—a place that made international headlines during the Arab Spring two years earlier, when millions of protestors gathered there to call for an end to the rule of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-reigning dictator. Although the protests did result in Mubarak’s ouster, the years since his fall have not brought the peaceful democracy that some had anticipated. Instead, Egyptians have experienced, among other things, rigged elections, the rise of extremist outfits and the appropriation of power by the army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, under whose rule the repression of dissent has been, by some accounts, higher than it was under Mubarak. The 26 July protests shown in El-Tantawy’s image occurred shortly after the military deposed the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, and el-Sisi, then the minister of defence, called upon the public to take to the streets in a demonstration against terrorism and violence.

Laura El-Tantawy returned to her native Egypt in 2005, after she had lived away from the country for two decades. Her return was prompted by the unexpected passing of her grandmother; “It seemed like time was telling me I should be going back home to be with my family,” she said. In an effort to deal with her grief and grapple with her own sense of belonging and identity in relation to Egypt, El-Tantawy started photographing scenes on the streets of Cairo. This began a decade-long journey that culminated with a book, In the Shadow of the Pyramids, published in 2015.

Although Pyramids depicts historically momentous occasions, it does not follow traditional photojournalistic language, instead adopting a more impressionistic form. El-Tantawy said that her impetus for making the work was to “create a life document for my own memory,” allowing the political history of Egypt to intersect with her personal memoir. The photographs in the book are not presented in a chronological order, and the dates on which they were captured are hidden behind folded-over pages. This strategy allows the work to not seem like a catalogue of high-profile flashpoints, but instead like an interpretation of the revolution as an evolving moment. Pyramids’ narrative is driven by the emotions of individual protestors—including Tantawy’s own—as well as the energy of the movement’s collective voice.

While making the book, El-Tantawy often felt torn between being a photographer and a protestor, sometimes wanting to put down her camera and take part in the chanting. “I would like people to bring their own history and story into the images as well,” she said. “The work is mine but it can belong to anyone.”

Pyramids traverses multiple genres—documentary images of protests, pictures from El-Tantawy’s family albums that show her childhood in Egypt (including one where she is riding a camel with her sisters in front of a pyramid), and portraits of protestors that rest somewhere on the cusp of documentary and fine art. These “faces of the revolution,” as El-Tantawy calls these portraits, take the viewer uncomfortably close to the protagonists who made Egypt’s revolution, providing a window into their, as well as the photographer’s, mental states. “In their faces I see my own,” she said. The book also includes short pieces of writing by El-Tantawy, some of which have a stream-of-consciousness, poetic feel.

El-Tantawy uses various strategies to communicate with different audiences. For example, she produced a book printed on newsprint titled The People, specifically for Egyptians. This book, unlike the more personal Pyramids, has Arabic text based on interviews with Egyptians, and images that focus specifically on the chaos and violence of the protests. El-Tantawy takes copies of The People to distribute every time she goes back to Cairo, and even gives free copies to Egyptians she encounters on her travels. Her work is also showing in an ongoing exhibition at the Art Heritage gallery in Delhi, where she presents the narratives of the book as a multisensory experience. The exhibition incorporates different types of media, including recordings of her reading out passages of her writing from Pyramids, excerpts of Egyptian newspapers from before Mubarak stepped down, and video footage from the run-up to el-Sisi’s assumption of power.

In her work, El-Tantawy resists the urge to simply label Egypt’s movement for democracy as either successful or unsuccessful. “I believe revolution encompasses a deep and significant meaning beyond the act of protest itself,” she said. “Protesting is somehow the beginning and the end. Revolution is long-term. I believe Egypt remains in a state of revolution right now. On the surface, it seems stale, but it is not. People are still aspiring for bread … freedom … social justice.”