The café is synonymous with Egyptian society and, more generally, the Arab world. Unlike their European counterparts, Egyptian cafes are chaotic places of informal and raw discussion. Café Riche, once the intellectual and literary hangout of Cairo, awoke from its long slumber as a tourist attraction, with what seemed like eternal appeal, during last year's revolution. The wood paneling and white tablecloths speak to a forgotten Cairo era; one unashamed of its colonial pedigree, catering to foreign journalists replete with a selection of imported alcohol. These days, in post-revolutionary, perhaps revolutionary Cairo, Egyptian intellectuals and activists once again filter in for interviews in various languages beneath the high ceilings of the cafe.
During the height of the revolution that forced out former President Hosni Mubarak, Café Riche reestablished itself as a space where revolution was observed, unpacked, and understood. A stone’s throw from Tahrir Square, the physical embodiment of current Middle Eastern Revolution, the café even became a makeshift hospital for injured activists fleeing the street battles engulfing Cairo.
While Café Riche served as a hub of activity during the most intense moments of the 2011 revolution, the early planning of revolution didn't rely on cafés as much as other such moments of upheaval in Egypt's storied history. Hosni Mubarak's ambitious modernization of Egyptian telecommunication opened, somewhat ironically, an entirely new space for Egyptians to gather and sow revolution: The Internet.
With the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate Mohammed Mursi, Egypt has opened a new chapter in the country's most recent revolution. Yet, as is all too often the case in Egyptian history, the veneer of revolution conceals the deep power of the military.
In the interim period between the two phases of this summer's landmark presidential election, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF, as it is commonly referred to in Egypt and in the media) announced, without the slightest hint of irony, that the country's parliament was to be dissolved and the powers of the incoming president would be severely curtailed. The reason for these overtly anti-democratic and deeply anti-revolutionary measures is simple: The military fears for its lucrative control of the country's economic structure (for example, control of American aid totaling almost 2 billion dollars per year). Additionally, fear of prosecution for crimes committed against the Egyptian people during the uprising has compelled the generals to enforce an iron grip on the country.
The image of shadowy dictators and corrupt military men running the country from smoky offices overlooking a filthy, polluted Nile is a well-known trope in Egyptian literature. One work stands above the rest in its depiction of this discharge of society and how it is currently manifesting itself. Karnak Café, a short novella written by Nobel Prize winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, captures the angst, uncertainty and disillusionment which all too often accompanies political transition and revolution in Egypt and beyond.
In Karnak Café, a cafe loosely based on Café Riche serves as the backdrop onto which Mahfouz unpacks the implications of Egypt's 1952 revolution, which saw the ouster of dictator King Farouk. Mahfouz tracks the period following Nasser's 195...