As a historian, I am often struck by a particular misconception about history, widely held both in Egypt and abroad. This is the sense that, once written, history is fixed or finished – that, once a historian has “covered” Asyut in the 1860s or Alexandria in the 1940s, there is nothing further one can say about those subsections of the wider story of modern Egypt.
In fact, history is written and rewritten by each successive generation of historians. What makes this writing and rewriting possible and, arguably, necessary, is not the discovery of once hidden documents or the refinement of the historian’s analytical frameworks. What makes this writing and rewriting necessary is the changing context in which the historian lives and works. At the end of the day, historians are interpreters of the past. Their role is to help people make sense of the past. And in order to accomplish this, they need to “translate” the past into a language people in the present can understand. They need to use today’s priorities and reference points as tools to liken the past to the present, and thus make the past relevant in the present.
For all these reasons, the January 25 Revolution has made rewriting the history of modern Egypt essential. Under the military dictatorship, the chief milestones of Egyptian history were 23 July 1952 and 6 October 1973 – the overthrow of the monarchy by the Free Officers and the breach of the Bar Lev Line, respectively. These were milestones made by the Egyptian military.
The revolution demands a history oriented not to the victories of the Egyptian military, but to the struggles of the Egyptian people for liberation. A revolution whose bywords were “silmiyya, silmiyya” (“peaceful, peaceful”), demands a history whose focus is not triumph by force of arms, but triumph by force of numbers, argument, and civil disobedience.
In much the way that the revolutions of 1968 inspired American historian Howard Zinn to write his People’s History of the United States – a history less concerned with statesmen than with slaves, soldiers, and suffragettes – the January 25 Revolution must yield a history of modern Egypt that examines the manifold ways in which Egyptians have defied the central authority that has, for centuries, sought to control them.
In a post-revolution Egypt where 1952 and 1973 no longer resonate as milestones, 1919 and 1968 may come to the fore. Indeed, in looking back at photographs of the demonstrations that convulsed Egypt throughout 1919, I am often stunned at the likeness they bear to the marches and sit-ins that have convulsed Egypt these past two years. And while rejection of colonial rule was integral to their movement, the revolutionaries of 1919 were as much concerned with “bread, freedom, and social justice” as the revolutionaries of 2011. Further, in witnessing the courage of the protesters who took to the streets these past two years, Egyptians dare not forget the arguably still greater courage of the students who, in February 1968, demanded an end to the Nasserist dictatorship. However, these are but two possibilities among a multitude of episodes of protest and resistance that may take on a novel resonance in the wake of the January 25 Revolution.
One of the most durable tropes of the January 25 Revolution is that the “barrier of fear” finally fell away that day, permitting the formerly quiescent Egyptians to rise up against the Mubarak regime. In shifting the focus away from the regime and to Egyptians themselves, the new history that I am proposing will reveal that this “barrier of fear,” this purported quiescence was always a myth perpetuated by a narrow elite in Cairo – a myth that sought to deny agency to Egyptians by declaring them unfit to rule themselves.
During the past two years, Egyptians have made history. The myth of the quiescent Egyptian masses has suffered repeated blows, as millions upon millions of Egyptians have flooded into the streets, at great personal risk, to stand up and protest injustice. All I am proposing here is that historians of modern Egypt follow their lead.