The revolution was televised. But the extraordinary uprising that overthrew longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarek was fueled by a broad array of grievances and everyday indignities that rarely made it into the international press before the “Arab Spring.” Egyptian-American journalist Ashraf Khalil has lived and reported from Cairo for 15 years. He offers a unique perspective on the Egyptian revolution, one year after the uprising.


  • Ashraf Khalil Journalist; and author of "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation" (St. Martin's Press)

Protests, Pop Culture And The Egyptian Uprising

The uprising in Egypt caught many inside and outside the country by surprise. But Ashraf Khalil points to a handful of events and developments in pop culture that (in retrospect) offered hints of the upheaval to come:

The Death of Khaled Said
In June 2010, 28 year-old Khalid Said was beaten to death in public by security forces in Alexandria. News of his death, and pictures of his badly beaten body, quickly spread across the Internet, and shocked many Egyptians. His Facebook memorial page “We are all Khaled Said”, became an early focal point of online organizing.

Film And Literature
There were also signs within pop culture of a country reaching a boiling point. Khalil highlights “A Cultural Film” (Film Thaqafi) (2000), a film that “disguises itself as a slapstick farce about libidinous youth, akin to to the American Pie franchise; it is, in fact, one of the saddest portraits of Egyptian despair ever created.” The film tells the story of three friends in their late twenties, consumed by thoughts of sex. But the film is really exploring the lack of opportunities for young people in contemporary Egypt.

Khalil also points to the popular reaction to “The Yacoubian Building”, a 2002 novel by Alaa Al Aswany, a book that offered “lurid descriptions of the capital’s seedy underbelly and…mercilessly accurate explorations of the hypocrisy, corruption, hopelessness, and all-around moral rot that came to characterize modern Egypt.”

Read An Excerpt

From “Liberation Square” by Ashraf Khalil. Copyright 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC:”


  • 13:06:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU at American University in Maryland, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The revolution was televised, but the images of Tahrir Square in January of 2011 only told part of the story of the Egyptian revolution. It wasn't a spontaneous internet-driven uprising. It was the culmination of three decades of simmering grievances and day-to-day indignities. Hosni Mubarak wasn't seen as some jack-booed dictator, like Saddam Hussein. He was more an accidental president whose regime gradually became more and more repressive.

  • 13:07:34

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe protest movement surprised people inside and outside Egypt, but journalist Ashraf Khalil says the signs were all over Egyptian pop culture in the years before Tahrir. And when the revolution did come, the emotions on display ran the gamut from outright rage to surrealist humor and sarcasm. In fact, Khalil says it was, in some ways, the funniest revolution in history. In his new book, he paints a street level portrait of the uprising. Ashraf Khalil joins in studio. He is a journalist and author of "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation." Ashraf Khalil, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:18

    MR. ASHRAF KHALILThanks a lot. It's good to be here.

  • 13:08:19

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. Call us, 800-433-8850, if you have comments or questions or send us a tweet at kojoshow, email at or you can go to our website, This book tells the cultural and political back story that fed into the revolution. It offers a snapshot of what the uprising looked and felt like from a street level, but I'd like to start with current events and the deteriorating relationship between Washington and Cairo.

  • 13:08:50

    NNAMDILast week, seven American election monitors and democracy advocates were prevented from leaving the country, among them Sam LaHood, the son of Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood. Today, we learn that they're being given shelter in the U.S. Embassy. In your book, you note that the Mubarak regime was also extremely uncomfortable with American NGOs and democracy organizations. Why are these groups so contentious?

  • 13:09:18

    KHALILHonestly, it's kind of a mystery to me, the focus, this kind of obsession on foreign funding -- and it's not just American funding. One of the notorious cases of the late period Mubarak era that I get into the book was of an academic named Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who became kind of a very much cause celebrity in that he was arrested for taking foreign funds to, like, basically spoil Egypt's reputation. And really, the smoking gun in his case was in a European Union funded documentary about voter education.

  • 13:10:00

    KHALILSo this obsession has been there for a long time. And there's a kind of a mental disconnect with a lot of Egyptians and that even under the Mubarak era, many Egyptian citizens would say, yes, they're getting foreign money. That's a bad thing. And then, you point out to them that the billions in foreign funds that go straight into the Mubarak government and into the military and still continue to now that Mubarak is gone.

  • 13:10:22

    NNAMDIThe obsession that you pointed out, is this obsession merely an obsession of government leaders or military leaders? Or does obsession also penetrate segments of the Egyptian community in general because there seems to be -- I've inferred that there's some sentiment that says, well, these people seem to think it's their revolution. It's not, it's ours.

  • 13:10:47

    KHALILThe obsession comes from the top, but they've been very effective over a period of years of kind of seeding it down to the grass roots level and that I think their contention that foreign funding and foreign NGOs is somehow sinister has really been effective. And I mean, one of the things - I mean, I know that this story of the raids at NDI and IRI, this is a huge story in America and a huge story in Washington D.C. It gets very little play in Egypt, I can tell you that.

  • 13:11:20

    NNAMDIWell, its aside -- the other side of that story is that the Washington influence industry that we rarely see, a lot of governments and dictators maintain contracts with Washington lobbyists, carry favor in the halls of power of the capital. This weekend, we learned that the Washington lobbying firms working for the provisional government had quit, either that or, according to the provisional government, they've been fired.

  • 13:11:43

    KHALILYes, who broke up with who is kind of a point of debate, yes.

  • 13:11:47

    NNAMDIDo the generals, in general, feel that they have to stay on the right side of American public opinion?

  • 13:11:53

    KHALILI think they feel they have to stay on the right side of American government opinion and the right side of sort of Pentagon, CIA opinion. I do not think the generals had any idea how big of a deal this NGO situation would be inside, in America and inside of Washington specifically. I don't think they judged that right. I don't think they thought they were doing something all that controversial.

  • 13:12:21

    NNAMDIThey didn't think that $1.3 billion in assistance from the U.S. might somehow be threatened if you kept kicking out U.S. based NGOs and the Secretary of Transportation's son or refusing to allow him to leave?

  • 13:12:35

    KHALILBelieve me, we've had a lot of evidence over the last year that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces does not have terribly good political instincts.

  • 13:12:44

    NNAMDIOkay. 800-433-8850, what is your view? You can call us to join the conversation. You've described today's Egypt as being in a sort of best of times, worst of times dynamic. The military has shocked observers with its violent responses to protestors and descent, but the country has held its first competitive elections in a generation. I'm curious, do you think the revolution has entered a new phase or do you worry that it's being beaten back a year after it started? Or does one even know?

  • 13:13:17

    KHALILIt's kind of both and that's the surreal aspect of being in Egypt right now and that you have this unfinished revolution. I mean, I think there is a general acknowledgment that the revolution has not yet been completed and you're getting that not just from sort of young rock-throwing revolutionaries. Essam Sharaf, who was the first post-revolutionary prime minister, and who eventually left office and was kind of regarded by the protestors as being too soft for the job and not willing to stand up to the generals.

  • 13:13:47

    KHALILHe's now a private citizen again and he's making public comments, saying the revolution has not been completed, which is a major thing for someone of the stature to say. But at the same time, you did have a flawed, but pretty good parliamentary election. I mean, I've covered a lot of Egyptian elections and this one wasn't perfect, but it was not insincerely run.

  • 13:14:09

    KHALILAnd it was happening at the same time you would have massive street violence and a week later and three blocks away from that massive street violence, you had a polling station with a line around the block. And then, a week later, there's more massive street violence a block away from that polling station. It's been completely confusing and surreal so basically, yes, Egypt has turned a corner and, yes, Egypt is possibly going backwards. It's both happened.

  • 13:14:32

    NNAMDIAnd quite clearly, Egypt is complex. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Do you think we're getting accurate information about what the situation in Egypt is? You can all also email to For almost 30 years, Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt, overseeing a system that's tightly controlled, dissent jailed and silenced its critics, but in the Egyptian imagination, if you will, for most of his rule, he didn't seem to be seen as a kind of maniacal, bloodthirsty tyrant like a Saddam Hussein or even a Hafez Assad.

  • 13:15:07

    NNAMDIIn Syria, you say he was more like a sort of figure like former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle, a guy who was really blessed over and over again by simply being in the right place at the right time. There's an excerpt you have in the book on page seven about that, that I'd like you to read for us.

  • 13:15:27

    KHALILOkay. Yes, this is the beginning of the first chapter of the book, which I titled "The Accidental Dictator." "Imagine for a moment that President George Bush I had suddenly died in office, leaving Dan Quayle, a national punch line who nobody thought would ever wield any real power as President of the United States. Then imagine that nearly three decades later, that same perceived lightweight was still running the country, that an entire generation of Americans had never known any other leader, that he and Marilyn Quayle were busily renaming public buildings, bridges and libraries after themselves and that president for life Quayle was seemingly grooming one of his children to continue the family business of running the country."

  • 13:16:14

    NNAMDIThat's the kind of comparison that you make, but this comparison, this view of Mubarak seemed also to have manifested itself in the form of jokes. Mubarak was standing right next to Anwar Sadat when he was assassinated. Why could not Mubarak have been the architect of that assassination?

  • 13:16:33

    KHALILI'll tell you this, something I cite in the joke and I went back to that older generation. I mean, I was 10 years old when Sadat was killed and Mubarak came to power, but he was regarded as pleasant and maybe sincere, but just kind of dumb. His nickname was Laughing Cow, which was a name of a popular brand of French cheese that was available, la vache qui rit, and it just speaks volumes about the way that Mubarak was perceived.

  • 13:16:59

    KHALILThat was he, as you said, he was standing right next to Sadat. Sadat's body was riddled with bullets. Mubarak escapes with a minor flesh wound to his hand and there really was not any serious speculation that he was in on it. He was the most obvious and immediate beneficiary of Sadat's assassination, but people just didn't think he had it in him. They didn't think he was capable of pulling it off.

  • 13:17:21

    NNAMDIThey didn't think he was smart enough to pull it off?

  • 13:17:23

    KHALILThey didn't think he was smart enough to pull it off. And I don't think -- and they think he had the job because Sadat viewed him as not smart enough to conspire against him.

  • 13:17:31

    NNAMDINot threatening. Here, let's go to the phones. We'll start with Nancy with in Fairfax, Va. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:17:41

    NANCYHi, Kojo, thanks for taking my call. I just have a question for your guest about the Coptic Christian community in Egypt now. And we've already seen some violence that's happening after the revolution and, you know, there's been in the news kind of the pointing the finger at some of staff and some other government folks that might have either been involved or perpetrated the whole thing. What are his thoughts on that and what does he see happening with the Coptic Christians in Egypt now after all of this?

  • 13:18:20

    NNAMDIAs I was mentioning before the show, we're going to get a lot of calls that they seem to bounce the conversation around because Ashraf Khalil was on the ground in Egypt so people are going to want to know a lot of things. Feel free to call, 800-433-8850. What do you say to Nancy about the Copts?

  • 13:18:34

    KHALILI think Coptic Christians have been nervous since well before the revolution. It's not a post-revolutionary phenomenon. If you'll recall, there was a major bombing at an Alexandria church on New Year's Eve a year ago, a month before the revolution and there had been violent incidences before that. So this is a community that has felt under siege for a decade plus. Moving forward, I genuinely do fear -- one of my greatest fears in the short-term moving forward with Egypt is some sort of Coptic exodus from the country, something that really kind of changes the fabric and the demographics of the nation in a way that's hard to undo.

  • 13:19:16

    KHALILThey're generally acknowledged as around 10 percent of the population, although nobody really has conducted a census. It might be higher and there is great deal of nervousness ranging up to outright panic among the Coptic Christian community. And some of it, I think, is exaggerated, but I don't really feel I have the right to judge what they should be worried about. I do fear an exodus from the country.

  • 13:19:48

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Nancy. You know, I grew up in Guyana, South America, where there was a significant Coptic Christian community in that country. You find Coptic Christians all over the world.

  • 13:19:58

    KHALILEthiopia, as well, is a major sort of branch of that particular strain of Christianity.

  • 13:20:02

    NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, the ones who were in Guyana related more to Ethiopia than they did to Egypt. I'm glad you brought that up. For most of Mubarak's presidency, you say he was actually relatively popular with most Egyptians in a sort apathetic way. But in a sense, this actually is a sign of how truly awful his regime was that it made Egyptians apathetic?

  • 13:20:25

    KHALILThe way I characterize is that Mubarak and his regime, I mean, it started out on a pretty good note. I was surprised in going back and talking to people of the older generation how well regarded he was. I think part of it is just that Sadat was so mercurial, was so prone to kind of, literally, temper tantrums. I mean, you can't have a president who has temper tantrums, it just doesn't work. And he would throw thousands of people in jail on a whim. The Coptic Pope Shenouda was under house arrest for, like, the final year of Sadat's reign.

  • 13:21:00

    KHALILSo there was all his -- so Mubarak comes in, maybe he's not that bright, but he's kind of a stabilizing presence. And so he had that going forward. Over the next 10, 20 years, he successfully kind of depoliticized most Egyptians. I think people were demoralized. They were not brainwashed. Egyptians were never brainwashed. They always knew. It's a very politically savvy population. And they knew the system was rotten. But they didn't think anything -- they didn't think they could do anything about it. They felt helpless. They felt there was no point in trying.

  • 13:21:32

    NNAMDIIt's an open question about exactly when and how the Mubarak regime became so oppressive. You flag a couple of major turning points. And I want to get to those after this short break. In the meantime, you can call us, 800-433-8850. We're talking with Ashraf Khalil. He's a journalist and author of the book, "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of A Nation." 800-433-8850. If you'd like to know what the Egyptian revolution look like from the ground or in the halls of power, call us, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:24:05

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Ashraf Khalil. He's a journalist and author of the book, "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of A Nation." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you have any questions about the Egyptian revolution? You can also send us email to You can also go to our website,, ask a question or make a comment there.

  • 13:24:28

    NNAMDIOr simply send us a tweet @kojoshow. We were talking about what might be a couple of major turning points in the march towards repression on the part of the Mubarak regime. There was a massacre, Luxor massacre. Talk about that.

  • 13:24:45

    KHALILThis was November 1997. And it's very memorable to a lot of people. And for me, it came two weeks after I moved to Egypt, to kind of set up shop as a journalist. And it was, you know, hundreds of foreign tourists were killed at Luxor Temple, at the Temple of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut, which is down in southern Egypt. And it was one of those things that really exposed the incompetence of the security state in that the killers, once they overwhelmed the guards at the temple, basically had about 45 minutes to just, you know, kill tourists at leisure before there was any kind of significant security response.

  • 13:25:27

    KHALILAnd the reason I point to this as a turning point is that it led to the ascension of a new interior minister, Habib el-Adly, who was the head previously of something called Mabahith Amn ad-Dawla, State Security Investigations, which was kind of this elite force within the Interior Ministry. And el-Adly and his administration kind of became symbolic for a decade plus of excesses and lawlessness within the Interior Ministry, within the police state.

  • 13:25:58

    KHALILI think at that point, the way it is described to me and the way that I describe it, that at that point the Interior Ministry was just given a brief to control the country and I'm not asking too many questions. And they became just kind of lawless. There was no accountability. There was no way to weed out a bad officer. And it really got -- it had been going bad for a while, but this is when it really started to go rot, the internal culture of the Interior Ministry and the people's relationship to the police forces.

  • 13:26:30

    NNAMDIThere was also a major undercurrent of discontent about how Mubarak was publicly grooming his son Gamal as his successor.

  • 13:26:39

    KHALILThis was big. This was big. This really brought the un-politicized to the cause. This created new movements of thought. There were -- Egyptians who were willing to put up with a lot. But the thought of sort of turning Egypt back into a monarchy really enraged people. And I think really enraged the military. That's one thing. That's one of the hidden dynamics in this, in that the military was never on board for the Gamal Mubarak succession project.

  • 13:27:10

    KHALILAnd a lot of people think that what started with the revolution and in 18 days later in a palace coup, basically providing the military with a chance to end this whole Gamal Mubarak project and toss the whole family overboard while trying to maintain the rest of the architecture of the regime.

  • 13:27:30

    NNAMDIIt's one of the questions we've dealt with here before -- and I didn't plan on raising it in this conversation, but you brought it up again -- the relationship between the military and the government in Egypt seems to be a very complex relationship that is very hard for people in our political culture to understand.

  • 13:27:48

    KHALILYeah, because I think people in our political culture are accustomed to civilian oversight over the military. I mean, there's a lot of ways, I mean, as we've seen any number of times in Iran-Contra, et cetera in that there's ways that the military can kind of get things done.

  • 13:28:02

    NNAMDIPakistan, yes.

  • 13:28:03

    KHALILYes, without necessarily running it past the civilian leadership. But at least they have to work hard at it. In Egypt, the military was just its own kind of separate creation and they are an economic force onto themselves. They're one of the largest land owners in the country. They own a very diversified range of businesses. And you can't even really find a proper breakdown of it. I know journalists that have really tried to get into the economics of the Egyptian military and it just -- it's too hard. There's too many closed doors and nobody's really pulled it off. And so they have massive economic interest to protect. And I think that's really their priority going forward. They don't want to run the country, in my opinion.

  • 13:28:48

    NNAMDIThey just want to make sure that no civilian government can intrude on their economic interest.

  • 13:28:54


  • 13:28:55

    NNAMDIOn to Eileen in Washington, D.C. Eileen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:29:00

    EILEENHello, thank you very much for this. It's a wonderful show. Thank you for having this. I had just listened to an interview with President Marzouki of Tunisia on Al Jazeera. And he made such an interesting statement. He said that the way that they foresee going ahead in Tunisia in becoming successful is that the Islamists that is the moderate Islamists and secularists have agreed to put aside their differences for the time, to forget about it.

  • 13:29:32

    EILEENTo forget about their differences, to create a new constitution, to put the economy and jobs first, that is their sole priority right now. And he said that is the way that they are going to go forward and they are going to succeed. And they have to. And I'm wondering how this philosophy, which he stated so clearly, can possibly be translated or is being translated in Egypt, which is a much larger size, as we know, and much more complicated, but I'm just wondering how that might work.

  • 13:30:03


  • 13:30:05

    KHALILIt's a good question. And one of the realities of -- one of the sad realities of the last year is that the Tunisian post-revolutionary transition is flat out going better than the Egyptian one. And one of the reasons that -- and I've asked this question a couple of times. And I don't want to lay everything at the feet of the Egyptian military, because at a certain point, it just becomes too easy to blame them for everything.

  • 13:30:29

    KHALILBut one of the big differences between Tunisia and Egypt is that Tunisian army was tiny, did not have massive economic interest. And after Ben Ali left, they went back to their barracks and let the civilians hash it out and with some successes and failures. If you'll remember, the first post-revolutionary Tunisian government fell very quickly because it had too many former regime members. And the people took back to the streets and said, no, bring us something else.

  • 13:30:56

    KHALILAnd, you know, they're allowed to succeed or fail on their own esteem. The civilians are figuring this out. They don't have this warping influence of a military. And right now, what we're seeing in Egypt is rather than Islamists and the secularists kind of working with each other, the Islamists are kind of the implicit threat. The Islamists will just cut a deal with the military, giving them some sort of immunity, giving them their little fiefdom that they want in exchange for a time -- in exchange for basically control of the political process.

  • 13:31:30

    KHALILSo, if there was no military presence in Egypt, I would hope that the Islamists and the secularists would just be forced to deal with each other and come to some sort of a culmination.

  • 13:31:42

    NNAMDILife is not that uncomplicated however in Egypt. Eileen, thank you very much for your call. You know that social networks like Twitter and Facebook played an important role in helping protestors organize across the Arab Spring. They were also a sort of early warning system of popular discontent before the uprising took hold. Tell us about Khaled Saeed.

  • 13:32:03

    KHALILKhaled Saeed was a major turning point on the road to the Egyptian revolution and he was regarded as the emergency-law martyr. And I spoke of the excesses of the police state in the last 15 years of Mubarak. And these were kind of allowed by this never-ending, constantly renewed package of laws called the emergency laws. That was essentially a state of de facto martial law that had existed from the beginning of Mubarak's reign, and they just kept renewing it constantly.

  • 13:32:33

    KHALILKhaled Saeed was a young 28-year-old Alexandrian who was beaten to death by plain clothes police officers in public and in front of witnesses in June 2010. And he became a real catalyst for outrage. His name became synonymous with kind of a referendum on the behavior of the Interior Ministry and a referendum on the behavior of the security apparatus under the emergency laws.

  • 13:33:02

    KHALILAnd the real key with him, there was a lot of class dynamics involved with the Khaled Saeed case. I had people that I talked with the book that very much got into that that said that the key wasn't -- there was a picture of Khaled Saeed on the autopsy table where he just looked like he'd been run over by truck.

  • 13:33:18

    NNAMDISo they couldn't, as the authority explained, believe that he had died, quote-unquote, "from ingesting drugs."

  • 13:33:24

    KHALILRight. They said he swallowed a packet of marijuana when he saw the police coming and he choked to death. And then there's this damning picture of him on the autopsy table. But the picture when he was still living, and it looks like just the picture of middle class Egyptian youth, you know. And the fact that he was a middle-class kid, that really scared the middle class and the upper class.

  • 13:33:45

    KHALILThat it's like, okay, it's now getting to the point where it can happen to anybody. So there was a lot of class dynamics in that. But that -- his death really galvanized people and touched a much deeper and raw accord than any police brutality case before that and really started this wave of enhanced or increased protest activity that didn't stop until the revolution.

  • 13:34:09

    NNAMDIThe protesters who arrived in Tahrir were using new technology, but they were also engaging in a sort of dialogue with the country's history of its religious traditions. One of the more interesting icons of this uprising was a woman named Asma Mahfouz who became a sort of YouTube star. Why was she important?

  • 13:34:29

    KHALILAsma was amazing. Asma was really amazing, because she kind of took to the YouTube airwaves. And admittedly, this is only really accessible to those who are getting online. But there was a lot of people online. And Asma made a series of passionate kind of YouTube manifesto. She was a longtime activist. She's a young woman. She's veiled. She looks -- she doesn't look like some sort of -- someone you can't relate to if you're a mainstream Egyptian, some sort of westernized woman wearing Gucci or something. She looks like your sister or your cousin. And she's speaking in just normal Arabic.

  • 13:35:06

    KHALILAnd she just basically laid out a challenge in advance of the revolution, in advance of January 25th that's just saying, you know what, if you guys think you're men, come out on the 25th and protect me. If you think women shouldn't be protesting, I am going to be there. Are you going to be there? And if you think that a protest is no place for a woman, then prove your manhood to me. Come out and protect me and my sisters because we are going to be there. Where will you be? And it was just a fireball. It was amazing. I get chills looking at it.

  • 13:35:38

    NNAMDITheir version of the Million Man March, if you will, that is. She shamed the men into participating. What effect did it have on women?

  • 13:35:45

    KHALILI think it was a galvanizing force on both sides. And it was something that after the fact talking about it, I had so many people mentioned her specifically to me as she's the reason that I came out. So that one was huge. And it's amazing to -- she did several videos over the course of the revolution and it was amazing to watch her pre-25th because there she's angry. She's fed up with her fellow Egyptians.

  • 13:36:08

    KHALILShe's much -- she's almost disdainful of her fellow Egyptians. She's more angry at the people than she is at the government. And you talk to her after the 25th when that huge turnout came, she's so touched. She's so impressed. They -- these people that she was so disdainful of have proven themselves to her and she's really looking forward to what comes next.

  • 13:36:28

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Ashraf Khalil. He's a journalist and his book is called, "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of A Nation." He saw this revolution on the ground. And we are thinking that you might have some questions or comments for him. So, call us at 800-433-8850 if you'd like to know what the Egyptian revolution looked like from the ground or, for that matter, in the halls of power. You can also send us email to Send us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website,

  • 13:37:00

    NNAMDILet's turn the conversation a little bit here, because within the Middle East, Egyptians are known for having a very dark sense of humor. The Egyptian movie industry has long exported a stream of comedies across the Middle East, but this comedic tradition isn't always understood outside the region. You describe this uprising as the funniest revolution in history. What on earth could you mean by that?

  • 13:37:25

    KHALILI tell you, Egyptians are the comedians of the Middle East, the natural comedians of the Middle East. And most of the television, most of the movies dating back comes from Egypt. And for me, as a journalist, it's been fantastic because it means I can go anywhere. I spent two years living in Iraq, you know, after the fall of Saddam. And for a couple of weeks, I didn't understand what anyone was saying.

  • 13:37:48

    NNAMDII heard about that, yes.

  • 13:37:49

    KHALILBut I could speak Egyptian Arabic. And it was not only understandable, it was kind of comic to people. It was disarming because I sound like their favorite comedians that they grew up on. When the revolution came, the sheer inventiveness of the Egyptians really came to the forefront, the signs, the chants. There was a guy who kept showing up every day. And there was almost like this surrealist edge to it in that, you know, people would come with sign saying, please leave already, my arms hurts from, you know.

  • 13:38:21

    KHALILOr please leave, I miss my fiancee. You know? It's like this is an evolution. And guys are -- one guy insisted on showing up every day wearing a referee's uniform, a soccer referee's uniform and holding up a red card. It was like performance art. I mean, it was...

  • 13:38:35

    NNAMDICome and bring your sense of humor.

  • 13:38:37

    KHALILYeah, it was so great. It was so Egyptian. One of the biggest challenges as a journalist covering this was how to translate some of these chants and sights in a way that came across and captured their humor, because a direct translation just doesn't do it.

  • 13:38:51

    NNAMDIYou had to get the nuance of the humor, otherwise people would get the wrong impression. There were other signs within pop culture that Egyptians were beginning to get fed up with the regime. You write about books and about films that were suddenly exploring how unfair, how rigid the system had become. Tell us about "Cultural Film."

  • 13:39:09

    KHALILThis is one of my favorite Egyptian films of all time. And because it's this -- A, it's super funny, but there's some really deep sociology. On the surface, it is basically kind of this farce about horny youth. It's almost like an "American Pie" kind of franchise or "Porky's" for the older folks. And it's about three friends who spent the entire movie trying to find a place to watch a porno. And it's set right before the Internet came into Egypt, really rare, when everybody's living at home,

  • 13:39:43

    KHALILAnd that's the subtext, in that it's very slapstick-y, but at the same time, it's one of the saddest movies ever. And it doesn't hide from that sadness, because these are three guys. They're all 28 years old. They have university degrees. They have no jobs. They live with their parents in a state of sort of suspended childhood. They will never make any money, which means they will never be able to save up for an apartment, which means they will never get married, which means they will never get laid.

  • 13:40:08

    KHALILAnd they know this, and they see no hope for themselves. And so all they're doing, they're spending all their time just trying to find, okay, who's got the porno, okay. Who's got a VCR? Then where do we watch it, because everybody lives with their parents?

  • 13:40:22

    NNAMDI(laugh) I love it.

  • 13:40:22

    KHALILIt's a great movie.

  • 13:40:24

    NNAMDIBut it was really not just slapstick comedy.

  • 13:40:27

    KHALILIt was super, super sad. And the way I theorize in the book, it has a huge cop-out ending, because these guys spend an hour and a half trying to find a place, trying to find a place, and they ultimately fail, and it ends with this weird sort of -- they're, like, they don't know what to do with themselves. And then, suddenly, like, a famous actress appears in this weird random cameo and they all sort of laugh about it.

  • 13:40:50

    KHALILIt has this very jarring nonsensical non sequitur happy ending because the only honest way to end this movie after the look we've gotten at these young men's lives, is for them to either kill themselves or join some sort of insurgence cell and start a revolution. Like that's all that was left for these guys.

  • 13:41:09

    NNAMDISo this was really a movie showing the emptiness of the lives of Egyptian youth and the lack of opportunities in their future?

  • 13:41:18

    KHALILI cannot tell you how many times during the revolution I met someone who reminded me of one of these characters from this movie. Twenty-eight years old, educated, university degree, but doesn't have any connections, doesn't have any influence, doesn't have anyone to hook them up with a job and they're just living at home with nothing to do.

  • 13:41:35

    NNAMDIAshraf Khalil is the author of the book "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation." We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we will talk with former Congressman Tom Perriello who is now the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund about what he experienced in Egypt. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:43:40

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Ashraf Khalil. He is author of the book "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation." He's also a journalist who saw the Egyptian revolution from the ground up so to speak. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Joining us now by telephone is Tom Perriello. He's a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Democrat representing Virginia's Fifth Congressional District. Today he is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Congressman Perriello, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:44:14

    MR. TOM PERRIELLOIt's great to be back and great to be here with Ashraf.

  • 13:44:17

    NNAMDIAt the -- oh, Ashraf, you want to say hi to the Congressman?

  • 13:44:19

    KHALILHi, Tom.

  • 13:44:20

    PERRIELLOHey, good to see you again.

  • 13:44:21

    NNAMDIAt the beginning of this broadcast, we referenced the ongoing showdown between Cairo and Washington over American democracy NGOs. Right now seven American advocates are being prevented from leaving the country, including secretary of transportation Ray LaHood's son. At this time last year, you were part of a similar group that traveled to the country to observe the uprising, and you were detained and prevented from leaving. Tell us a little bit about your experience and how you view this current controversy.

  • 13:44:50

    PERRIELLOWell, you know, I don't know how fair the parallel is. I was there, did try to make it during the original 18 days that inspired the world. And the security forces did detain and interrogate me and kicked me out, but, you know, these folks were there under official auspices. This is a strong relationship and an ongoing relationship. And I do think it's, you know, an affront to the relationship with the United States, but I also think it's quite important not to see this in isolation, but to see this as indicative of how they're treating Egyptians and Egyptian NGOs.

  • 13:45:24

    PERRIELLOThere's a core issue there about how much anticorruption, how much transparency effort there will be, and I think that -- that see that they're willing to do this to high-ranking Americans in the country, imagine what they're doing to Egyptians who are standing up for democracy and for the true spirit of the revolution who don't necessarily have that embassy to come in behind. So I think we need to very much understand the NDI IRI Freedom House dynamic, but also see that in the context of some very courageous Egyptians that are continuing to demand what this revolution was about.

  • 13:46:02

    NNAMDIAshraf, can you talk about that?

  • 13:46:03

    KHALILThat is a fantastic point. I'm really glad you made that, and that it's not just -- obviously, it's understandable that NDI and IRI and Freedom House that's getting the most attention...

  • 13:46:14


  • 13:46:14 in America, but that same day, a whole host of longstanding Egyptian NGOs were also raided, and they don't have anybody speaking out for them this loudly or this internationally. And my fear is that eventually all these people from NDI and IRI are going to be permitted to leave the country, or even permitted to go back to their offices and resume their work, and I don't know what's gonna be left of these Egyptian NGOs that are being sort of devastated in the background of all of this kind of noise over the American NGOs.

  • 13:46:48

    NNAMDITom Perriello, before your career in politics, you worked for the special court for Sierra Leone and did a whole bunch of things in the sphere of International Law. Are there any implications in international law for what's happening right now with people being prohibited from leaving the country in Egypt, if they happen to be based with American-based NGOs?

  • 13:47:11

    PERRIELLOI think you have a number of issues here. One of the biggest ongoing debates in Egypt is whether or not to raise the -- get rid of the State of Emergency law. You have many, many protestors who remain detained without charge, those who have not been brought before a civilian tribunal. When I was last there for the days before and during the first round of elections, there was just a massive take-down of reformists in the square, including a couple friends of mine who were detained without charge. And, you know, you continue to see that problem so you have basic issues of human rights and civil rights that are at play here.

  • 13:47:52

    PERRIELLONow, you have, in addition, the complication over whether or not the sovereign authority right now is the military, which it is, but under a strange process which is that many of the original revolutionaries feel that the outcome of the first 18 days ultimately was popular support for a military coup, more than it was a true popular coup in the sense the power was handed over to the military which continues to control that process. Now, others saw that as an important step of stability, and I think that there are some very difficult challenges staff in the military have had.

  • 13:48:31

    PERRIELLOI don't want to downplay those. But ultimately, the question right now is where sovereignty will lie in the country, both in terms of popular versus military versus Islamists. And second is the core of issue of balance of power between the military, the executive and the parliament. And, you know, we read about these things in history books. We continue to debate them today.

  • 13:48:53

    PERRIELLOThese are absolutely core issues right now and the extent to which the new Egypt is gonna look an awful lot like the old Egypt, or is it gonna be something truly new. And I think while these were pro-democracy movements, in many ways there were anti-corruption movements or pro-dignity movements, and I think that anti-corruption is one that ultimately comes up against the military's authority in this case.

  • 13:49:18

    NNAMDITom Perriello, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:49:21

    PERRIELLOThank you for having me.

  • 13:49:22

    NNAMDITom Perriello is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He represented Virginia's Fifth Congressional District. Today he's president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Back to our conversation with Ashraf Khalil. One of the big questions from this whole process is always focused on the Muslim Brotherhood. It's an Islamist Group. It was banned for decades. Many outsiders wonder whether it will become a legitimate governing party and give up all of its past links to militancy and to terror.

  • 13:49:52

    KHALILI do genuinely think that the links to militancy and to terror have been severed. I think that happened a couple of, you know, more than a decade plus ago. The question now is -- and it's a question hanging over Islamist groups all across the Middle East is how will they govern. And frankly, nobody outside of Turkey has been given a chance to prove how they will govern. They have proven a popular mandate. You can certainly argue that they had an advantage because they've been building their grass roots network for decades, whereas many of the post-revolutionary non-Islamist forces were kind of starting from scratch.

  • 13:50:32

    KHALILOkay. Fair enough. But that does not mean that they did not have a popular mandate. So they're there. They're in. I think it is up to the west and foreign observers, you have to let them govern. I mean, it's a democracy. They won the election, and that -- if that doesn't mean something, than nothing means anything.

  • 13:50:51

    NNAMDIMona in Washington has an interesting question about the Muslim Brotherhood. Go ahead, Mona.

  • 13:50:57

    MONAHello. It's actually a comment. I'm Egyptian, and you're talking about humor and Egyptians are very savvy politically. And one of the jokes, unfortunately, is how Americans don't know what their country is doing and how they supported a dictator all these years, and really what's happening in Egypt is still going on. For example, members of the Republican party, like McCain, is supporting the -- ironically, the Brotherhood because of their conservative values as opposed to the liberals, and there's still a big game happening in Egypt with influence of American State Department and Israelis as Israeli government.

  • 13:51:37

    MONASo things are all a free-for-all, and we're having these elections and everything is now a democracy. There's still a big game that's being played in Egypt, and the people don't want that. They really want true democracy.

  • 13:51:50

    NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you mentioned that the allegations that members of the GOP support the Muslim Brotherhood because you, Ashraf, use an American analogy to explain who the Brothership is and what it's doing. You liken it to the moral majority.

  • 13:52:05

    KHALILBack in the days of the Christian coalition, that they're coming from -- they're building from the bottom up. They've been building this grass roots network for a long time, the same way that the moral majority and the Christian coalition were working through school boards and city councils and all across the country. And it produces kind of the same effect among the liberals, for lack of a better term, in that when they prove the power of that, on the liberal side, there's this kind of like who are these people, where did they come from.

  • 13:52:39

    KHALILIt's like, well, they've been here. They never left. They have been doing the work for a long time. And I do think, at this point, we have to see what the Brotherhood does. I think they have earned their place at the table, and I don't think they're fundamentalists. I, you know, I am not a supporter of them politically. I did not vote for them as an Egyptian citizen, but I respect their right to get in there and let's see what they do. I think they're actually very pragmatic. I think they're politicians for better or worse. I think they're quite cynical in their politics sometimes. These are not fundamentalists. Let's see what they do.

  • 13:53:16

    NNAMDIWell, speaking of who the Muslim Brotherhood is. Let's talk a little bit about who Ashraf Khalil is. You're an Egyptian-American. You're watching these events unfold through a very interesting lens. You have two advantages working for you that other American reporters don't. You can blend in, and you speak and understand Arabic. Do you think that gives you a unique perspective on what's happening in Egypt?

  • 13:53:37

    KHALILAbsolutely. I think it's something that has really helped me on both sides of it, in that I can shift back and forth. It enables me, A, being able to sort of pass a visual, enables me to get into positions that a westerner would not be able to. And one of the examples of that is in the November 2010 parliamentary elections. I was covering a polling place, and everything seemed to be going well, and then I noticed that all the voters seemed to be coming from this youth center around the corner.

  • 13:54:07

    KHALILAnd so I put my notebook away and I just walked with the crowds into this area and ended up in this massive area where thousands of civil servants were being bused in by the government and told to go vote for the government candidates around the corner. And you couldn't do that if you didn't pass a visual. And then, when it comes to actually writing the articles, I'm able to kind of use analogies and parallels that make sense to western readers.

  • 13:54:37

    NNAMDIThat gives you, again, another inside perspective, because when people talked about this as a sort of social media driven revolution, the assumption tended to be that the protestors were voicing the grievances of everyday Egyptians, but that may not be the case. In fact, when the military now says that protestors are not speaking for the people, some people think they might be right. How representative was the protest movement?

  • 13:55:02

    KHALILThat's an excellent question. I think the protest movement was representative of a great number of Egyptians during the revolution itself, but I do think that it has always been a minority. You can't really think of these things in a way like, oh, do they represent 53 percent of the country, because I think the protestors are perfectly comfortable being in the minority. They think that an active minority is the only thing that gets anything done.

  • 13:55:28

    KHALILOne of my favorite social commentators in Egypt is a novelist and columnist named Alaa al-Aswany. He wrote a book called "The Yacoubian Building" that is very well known and that everyone should check out, frankly.

  • 13:55:39

    NNAMDII was gonna ask you about that, but go ahead.

  • 13:55:41

    KHALILI attended a seminar that he was giving, and he basically said that all you really need to have a revolution is 10 to 15 percent of the population that's willing to go to jail for their beliefs, that's willing to die, if necessary, for your beliefs, and that's what we had a year ago. So I think the street clashes that happened in November and December were hugely unpopular, but you know what, they produced a massive concession. The SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, moved up their deadline to leave by eight months and actually set a date for the presidential elections in June 2012, which they had refusing to do.

  • 13:56:14

    KHALILSo they won, they worked. And I think the protestors now, the people that are planning to stay in Tahrir, they're perfectly comfortable with being in the minority. They're totally fine with it. They think they were never in -- they thought were in the minority, went, they toppled Mubarak.

  • 13:56:28

    NNAMDILet me complicate it a little more, because as we know, the future in Egypt right now is very cloudy. Everyone anticipated that the Muslim Brotherhood would do well in recent elections, and they did.

  • 13:56:37


  • 13:56:38

    NNAMDIBut one of the surprise results was who finished second, the Nour party, which is a very conservative Islamist party. What does that mean?

  • 13:56:44

    KHALILHuge shock. They really are the surprise performers because they had not gotten into politics. I mean, part of their ideology is actually kind of stay away from the affairs of men. This is not our doing. But when -- come the revolution, they kind of very quickly and in a very nimble way, took that grass roots mosque network and turned it to politics. I am surprised by how well they did, and frankly, I personally would not use the word fundamentalist on the Muslim Brotherhood.

  • 13:57:15

    KHALILI would use the word fundamentalists on the Nour party and on the Salafists. They are fundamentalists in the purest sense of the word, and I'm kind of looking forward to seeing how they do, because these are guys that are -- they don't debate things. They really don't. You either agree with them or you're pretty much going to hell. So I'm kind of looking forward to them having to form coalitions on live television, frankly.

  • 13:57:38

    NNAMDIAshraf Khalil. He's a journalist and author of "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation." "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Tayla Burney, with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. The engineer, Timmy Olmstead. A.C. Valdez is on the phones. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. You're at Busboys at Poets tonight, aren't you?

  • 13:58:04

    KHALILFifth and K, come out.

  • 13:58:05

    NNAMDIWhat time? What time?

  • 13:58:06

    KHALIL6:30. Come on out, everybody.

  • 13:58:07

    NNAMDI6:30. And he'll be reading from the book "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation." Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:14

    KHALILThank you. It's been a pleasure.

  • 13:58:15

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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