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.