The future of Egypt lies not in the hands of political leaders and members of the elite, writes journalist Jack Shenker in his new book, The Egyptians: A Radical Story, but in the hands of ordinary Egyptians: Bedouins fighting for their land, DJs producing underground music in garages, and, especially, in Cairo’s youth. In one scene from an excerpt published at the Guardian, Shenker visits Zawyet Dahshur school, where young children spend their lunch breaks playing games of revolution:

A man emerged from a door on the edge of the playground and walked across to ask what we were doing there. He was a young maths teacher, and after we explained that we wanted to see the school where the video had been shot, he invited us to the staffroom for tea. “You have no idea how obsessively the children throw themselves into it,” he confided. “That video became a bit famous but it was just one minute of footage — they’ve been playing like that since the revolution started, during every break time and again when classes finish at the end of the day. Sometimes they do it 20 times in a row, pretending to attack the police, miming being shot and gassed, then picking themselves up again to carry on fighting.” I said that it was brave of them to chant so openly against the army, and the teacher shook his head and laughed.

“They’re braver than that,” he replied. “The sound on the video is very crackly so people didn’t realise; everyone who watched it thought the children were calling for the downfall of the musheer [field marshal], but actually they were yelling ‘el‑sha’ab, yureed, isqat el‑mudeer’ — ‘The people want the downfall of the headmaster.’ They weren’t just copying what they saw on television, they were changing it to carry out their own mini-revolution right here at the school!” He poured out more tea and shovelled a small mountain of sugar into each glass. “The children are completely different now. Within two minutes of the revolution starting they had begun speaking out in class, challenging things the teachers said, asking us about what was happening on the streets and what it all meant. Some of the staff, including me, had participated in the protests in Tahrir, and the students wanted to know everything, they wanted to know how it felt to have a voice at last. We changed, and they changed with us.”

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Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.