A Prophetic Portrait of Egypt

Review of “Taxi” by Khaled Alkhamissi

The accreditation on the front cover that this is ‘the novel that predicted the [Arab] uprising’ is an accurate one. Alkhamissi depicts an Egyptian society, disparate, but more or less unified in its frustration for Hosni Mubarak’s 25-year-long state monopoly before his downfall in 2011. It is a recording from the backseats of Cairo’s taxis of the whispers of a nascent revolution – the moment that Egypt’s cynicism began to turn much more visceral.

But the novel is prescient not only for revealing signs of the imminent democratic uprising (the ‘Arab Spring’) but also of the ‘Islamist Winter’ that would follow.

A number of the 58 fictitious monologues that comprise Alkhamissi’s novel suggest varyingly a resonant public sympathy in Egypt towards a greater role for Islam in governance, bolstered with Islamic/ Islamist prescriptions from a cross-section of Cairo’s Muslim cab drivers to a variety of problems.

“There would be no bribery or corruption” says one, “if everyone in the country sat and looked at the surface of the Nile and read the word of God.” “We’ve tried everything else” says another  – monarchy, socialism, military dictatorship, capitalism, and “it’s still no good”. “Why don’t we try the Brotherhood and maybe they will work out, who knows?”

Although Alkhamissi does not explicitly state his own position on these prescriptions, the picture he paints of Egypt – a richly diverse society with wide ranging identities, ideologies and interests – is such to suggest it would be much ill-disposed to the establishment of the Salafi-sympathasing Islamist theocracy that eventuated after the uprising. It is unlikely that many of the eventual harbingers of this theocracy, the Muslim Brotherhood, had read Alkhamissi’s rich ethnography before assuming office, but it is fair to suppose that even without doing so they would have had an understanding of Egypt’s complex socio-religious makeup – before ultimately deciding to trample on it.

Liberal secularist, Baha’ais and Coptic Christians feature in Alkhamissi’s tribute to Egypt’s people but were all absent in the making of Egypt’s future. Morsi and the Brotherhood decided instead to pack the committee charged with drafting the constitution with the ultra-conservative Salafis and patsy Islamist legislators.

Though Morsi and the Brotherhood – having won presidential and parliamentary elections, respectively –  had democratic (electoral) sanction, what they had done, ultimately, was turn Egypt’s popular revolution into a tyranny of the majority, invoking thinly veiled democratic justifications to impede real democratic consolidation – smothering a civil society that had only just found its voice from the dark days of Mubarak..

Unfortunately for Egypt, and the future of civilisation, the picture is much bleaker today. If Alkhamissi was to write a second edition of ‘Taxi’, he would now find his Cairo host to many new troubled faces – including an increasingly large population of Syrian and Iraqis heading in to flee the same jihadist battle cry that many young and disillusioned Egyptians now clamour to go and join.

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