Khalid Abdalla Has His Eye on Egypt

I interviewed one of the stars of <i>The Square</i> at his apartment in Cairo. Outside, bomb blasts had just killed six people. The city was nearly deserted, save for small groups of pro-government demonstrators. Helicopters thumped low overhead.

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Feb 26 2014, 4:25pm

Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla is one of the chief protagonists in the documentary The Square, which was nominated earlier this month for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. His new film, In the Last Days of the City, is going to be even better. Last Days tells a story that roughly echoes Khalid's own life: It's the tale of a documentarian who is trying to make a film about his city, Cairo, and according to Khalid, "a group of friends of his from Iraq and Lebanon come to visit and spend nights out talking to each other about their cities and growing up in instability and living and creating art in those circumstances." 

Born in Scottland and educated at Cambridge, Khalid quickly became a succesful actor, with roles in United 93 and Green Zone. He divided his time between Egypt and London, but when his native country erupted in an uprising against dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, he returned to Cairo and formed a media company called Mosireen, which he's used to document the ups and downs of the Egyptian revolution from the front lines.

A few weeks ago, on the eve of the third anniversary of the revolt against Mubarak, I headed to downtown Cairo to speak with Khalid about his films and his activism. It was a dark moment in the long arc of Egypt’s uprising. Earlier that day, four bomb blasts killed six people. The downtown area was nearly deserted save for small groups of pro-government demonstrators. We sat in an apartment as the sun set. Helicopters thumped low overhead.

VICE: When you returned to Egypt from England in 2011, at the height of the uprising, were you conscious at that time that you were about to participate in a revolution?
Khalid Abdalla: I remember when I got the news that [the occupation of Tahrir Square] happened. ‘Can they keep it? Can they keep it?’ That was the question. When the square was forcibly evicted that night the real question was, tomorrow, would people continue?

There was the sense that this was an opportunity that we either take or don’t. And people heard the call and responded to it, and as ever it was state brutality that fanned the flames. And I remember meeting at Mustafa Mahmoud—the mosque, that was the point of departure that I left from on January 28—and I remember this slow collection of people, and remember before that evening the extraordinary collection of police everywhere.

And then these trickles appeared. A woman and her daughter who were in a car saw us and said, "Are you going to march?" And we said yes. And she said, "Do you think it could really work?" And we talked to her, and she said, "I’m going to park my car and come with you." She came, and she was pretty much with us the whole way up until the first major dispersal on Qasr al-Nil Bridge.

That night, there was this kind of apocalyptic, dark scene, all these burning cars, the smokiness, the tear gas, small groups of people going around chanting. You’ve got government headquarters in flames, and these tanks moving around. And also this big question mark: What is the army going to do?

A lot of people talk about that moment as one of transformation. Do you think you changed during that time?
Absolutely. There is no doubt that there is something miraculous about revolutions. It’s a moment, in one form or another, of epiphany within a national psyche. It’s a moment in which the sense of the possible completely shifts, and at that moment you also encounter your own sense of responsibility toward what you now believe is possible, and I think all of us, whether we’re pro-revolution or anti-revolution or indifferent, are living the consequences, either in our personal lives, or as political forces, as ideologies, of that moment.

This is the beginning of an era. You’ve got a vast population. You’ve got two thirds of the country under the age of 30, who have come of age at a moment of revolutionary possibility, who, at least for the next 40 to 50 years, will be living under the shadow, or under the shade, of that experience, and the sense of how that moment righted itself, and also how that moment is written about.

It’s one of the sources of great optimism, for me, because I find it ludicrous that any revolution could succeed or fail in a matter of a few years. It’s a struggle, and it’s a struggle whose point of beginning is the attempt to thwart complete disaster. A revolution doesn’t begin because people are happy. A revolution begins because you have an entire state mechanism that is corrupt, dysfunctional, brutal, that does not give its people the smallest promise of a life they deserve.

And Egypt is in one of those moments now?
Undoubtedly. And we’re at one of those moments, but it is also matched with absolute frustration, with a deep national antipathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood and a great deal of fear. On top of which the polarization of the country has made it difficult, intellectually, to exit from the polarization of discourse. You’ve got two sides that are against each other [the Muslim Brotherhood and the military].

That’s a space that’s very hard to open. If we can succeed at this stage, and undoubtedly it will take some time, that will be the true beginning of the collapse of Mubarak’s state, because Mubarakite ideology is built on the idea of "Either it’s me, or it’s chaos. It’s the police state, or it’s the Brotherhood."

The idea that a false, brutal, enforced stability is preferable to the brutality of a fascist, Islamist state—unless we can break out of the mindset that those are the only two alternatives, then we’re still living under the ideology of Mubarak. I believe very firmly that this revolution was begun by people who want neither.

Part of the major misapprehension internationally about what is happening here comes from bad ideas about how change happens. I think there is this projection of political frameworks that exist in the US or in Europe onto an Egyptian context, and this reading of the decisions that take place here as if we had a system of checks and balances, and as if we had a multi-party system, and as if our infrastructure worked.

One of the major breaks internationally in terms of people understanding what’s happening occurred at the time Morsi was deposed. Morsi made himself the sole executive authority in the country. Theoretically, if that happened in the US or elsewhere, you could impeach. We don’t have that. Eventually, the only place left for you is the street.

Watch the trailer for In the Last Days of the City here.

Follow Jared on Twitter @Jmalsin.

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