That’s the Revolution??!

I have been to Cairo twice since the Revolution in 2011. I have a car, but I cannot drive. Truth be told, I do not know how to drive. But even if I did, I would never drive in Cairo. Anyone who has been there will understand what I mean. Anyone else would take my advice and hire a taxi.

Hiring a taxi in Cairo is a rich ethnographic experience. You hail a taxi, he slows down nearby. You tell him your destination. Sometimes, the driver shakes his head approvingly; sometimes he asks whether you know the road (which you might not know, in which case you will need to hail another taxi, who will at least pretend to know); and sometimes, he just says no, and drives off. The driver willing, you enter the car; men go to the front, women to the back. After a while driving – a complex skill involving crossing over cars in nearby lanes, speeding past slower cars in one-lane roads, honking in subtle rhythmic variations akin to a Morse highway code, laying one’s arms outside the window in order to signal lane changes – the driver will probably talk to you. I feel a slight awkwardness when a taxi driver spends an entire ride without uttering a single word. Usually, he will engage in conversation, if not in extensive monologue.

Conversations with taxi drivers are strangely similar, and not just because I often tend to repeat myself. There are objective similarities in subject matters, in conversation-making patterns, or in resolving disputed points. One central subject to taxi conversation is al-a7’bar (news), al-ahdas (events), or al-ahwal (circumstances) – all words which are used to denote whatever generally news-worthy event or circumstance takes hold in the country, as seen on television, heard on radio, read in newspapers, watched online, or witnessed in everyday life. News or circumstances are rarely ever discussed in ways condonable by professional news journalists, yet I presume that their reporting in mass media gives some minimal guarantee to their worthiness as topics of conversation. If anything must be said about taxi conversations, especially conversations about news or circumstances, it is that they are formulaic, in two senses. First, they are formulaic in the sense of having no significant bearing on anyone outside the taxi cab. Second, they are riddled with idiomatic phrases, akin to magical formulae, functioning as rhetorical resolutions to insoluble everyday struggles.     

One such phrase, surfacing almost systematically whenever drivers talk about ongoing events or current circumstances, is a provocative question, “That’s the Revolution??!”[1] Taxi drivers will often say it, defiantly, in conclusion to their point in a conversation. “Prices are going through the roof. I can’t even pay for my own car!  That’s the Revolution??!”; “There’s no security in the country. Where are the policemen??! That’s the Revolution??!” Other variants to the question exist, such as “Is that a revolution??!” or “What kind of revolution is this??!” Alternatively, the term “Revolution” is personalized: “A couple of kids are having their way in Tahrir Square. They’re thugs if you want my opinion! Is that your Revolution??!” In short, the phrase mostly concludes a point in conversation, often in rage, in disgust, or in indignation.   

What do taxi drivers mean when they say “that’s the Revolution”? It is evident from the immediate context of the conversation that it is a rhetorical question: it just forcefully finishes a point, while establishing feelings of anger, indignation, disgust, and so on. The phrase might be, in this sense, an empty signifier, a way to express certain feelings about ongoing events without involving any specific reference. Yet the Egyptian dialect is filled with a host of similar expressions which might well perform a similar function. I am inclined to believe, therefore, that this expression is used for a specific reason. The reason, I think, is that whatever events or circumstances currently taking hold in the country are seen to occur after or, in some instances, as a consequence of the 2011 Revolution.

To exclaim “that’s the Revolution??!” makes only sense in a context where the Revolution is a specific historical moment. Yet the limits imposed on this historical moment in ordinary language are unclear. It appears to me that, in most cases, whatever taxi drivers call the “Revolution” designates an ongoing period, not a past one. When they want to refer to the original occurrence of the Revolution, they will most likely use an expression like al-tamantashar youm (i.e., “the eighteen days”, referring to the period from January 25th, 2011, when mass protests started, to February 11th, 2011, when Mubarak stepped down). Otherwise, whenever they say “that’s the Revolution??!” the implication is that the Revolution is a lived reality or, to be more exact, should be a lived reality.

Indeed, most taxi drivers I have met were adamant that the Revolution had failed so far. The failure is not difficult to ascertain: just look at fledgling security, monstrous traffic, soaring gas prices, or even chronic lack in gas, rice, oil, bread, electricity, and so on. The point, I believe, is that a successful revolution, or even any event worthy of being called a “revolution”, would surely provide all these things. And in their manifest absence, there is reason to doubt that the Revolution is successful – or, indeed, that it is a revolution at all. The question, “That’s the Revolution??!”, thus expresses genuine skepticism about the Revolution’s practical effects, which amount to nothing except failure and crisis in many drivers’ eyes.

This skepticism, in my view, does not emerge from a secular understanding of revolutions as political struggles. No doubt, the word “Revolution” is sometimes used as a shorthand for political groups still fighting against ruling elites in order to achieve the January 2011 demands – bread, freedom, and social justice. However, if taxi drivers express skepticism about the Revolution, it is not directly about the revolutionary groups’ ability to achieve political change, or about anyone’s ability to achieve their everyday demands by secular means, but about a general, moral failure in Egypt, rendering any everyday crisis insoluble. The Revolution does not fail given certain economic, political, or social conditions: it fails because some perceived normative conditions necessary to economic, political, or social recovery are absent.

Taxi drivers never literally say what I am articulating here: they use words like al-akhlak (manners), al-adab (politeness), or al-din (religion/morals). All these things are seen to be fundamentally lacking; and contrary to the lack of gas, rice, electricity, or any ordinary commodity, this lack is insoluble by everyday means. The reason follows directly from what I suggested earlier about the drivers’ perception of moral failure. The moral condition of Egypt (as measured in reference to akhlak, adab, din, etc.) determines all secular conditions necessary for its political, economic, or social improvement. As a consequence, Egypt’s moral condition can never be improved by secular means, since those means are entirely determined by prevailing moral conditions. And even if everyday conditions were to objectively improve, it would not alter Egypt’s corrupt moral core – which ultimately means that everyday struggles are genuinely insoluble. This perception, which I think is very common among taxi drivers, implies that Egypt’s moral condition – and, by extension, its everyday living standards – can only be successfully improved by extra-secular means: a divine intervention, in short.

Given what I have said so far, some readers will assume that taxi drivers are just irrational actors. Their worldview seems to be premised on a false belief – i.e., some mysterious moral universe determines ordinary conditions – and, in consequence, their implicit wish for divine intervention is an irrational solution. But taxi drivers are not strictly irrational, since they are fully cognizant of the fact that everyday conditions do have secular, means-to-end, determinants, whose improvement is directly related to concrete improvement in everyday life. However, their worldview involves a kind of ultimate, by-default determination of all worldly things within an inaccessible moral sphere. Thus, the taxi driver can hold a rational outlook on his world, while believing that, ultimately, whatever has happened, happens, or will happen is submitted to God’s moral rule, whose perfection governs our earthly destiny against its inherent moral corruption.

When a driver exclaims “That’s the Revolution??!” then, he is, first and foremost, expressing outrage against ongoing events or circumstances. He is also expressing skepticism about the achievements of the Revolution, while affirming its moral failure. He is, finally, positing a perfect moral universe whose workings are impenetrable, and whose corruption is ultimately responsible for our worldly crisis. God only knows how such a moral universe can be altered. This is, at least, what taxi drivers seem to believe. I do not agree with what they say, but I do not want to upset them – not until I safely reach my destination.    

[1] This expression is translated from Arabic. The original is “Heya dih el-Sawra??!”

This article was initially published in 2013 by the student-run literary magazine Romulus in Wolfson College, University of Oxford