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In her essay ‘Cairo, City in Waiting’ (May 2011), Yasmine El Rashidi writes that

"For a few, the story began just seven years ago, when a movement for change, 'Kefaya', was formed; or maybe one day in 2011 when a Google executive created a Facebook page called We are All Khaled Said. For others, the story began on 6 April 2008 when Esraa Abdel Fattah, a 27-year-old moonlighting as an activist, mobilized 30,000 Egyptians into the streets in a protest."[1]

Indeed, though the events of January 2011 remain of monumental significance in Egypt, the Middle East, and beyond, what the term ‘Arab Spring’ might describe extends far beyond this extraordinary 18-day period. As Guatam Bhatia points out in this review of Basma Abdel Aziz's The Queue, debate persists as to whether we are now witnessing an ‘Arab Winter,’ while others question whether the uprisings constitute a revolution of any kind. The term ‘Arab Spring’ has abided, but it has also dated; as Gilbert Achcar indicates, 'the designation "Arab Spring" was most often used sarcastically during the fifth year since the Arab uprising commenced.'[2] It is clear that there remains a need for modes of narration which can navigate the long-standing motivations behind the uprisings, which were founded on a complex intersection between resistance to authoritarianism, public outrage towards state-sponsored violence, and widespread despair over profound socioeconomic disparities. The demand for “bread, freedom, and social justice” must be understood not as a mere slogan, but as a manifesto for a radically different mode of governance which has yet to be fulfilled, and which, moreover, has been repeatedly scuppered by the repressive actions of authoritarian regimes across various parts of the Middle East.[3]

Scholarly research across several fields has worked hard to counter the reification of the 2011 uprisings as isolated events, by locating them as one element of a more extensive process of political and social change both in Egypt and across the Middle East and North Africa more generally. Maha Abdelrahman's study, Egypt's Long Revolution, emphasises by its very title the idea of the revolution as a process, systematic rather than episodic or 'completely spontaneous.' She highlights the widespread protests in Egypt expressing solidarity with Palestinians following the second intifada (in 2000) as ‘a seminal moment in Egyptian opposition politics that continued to shape the political landscape leading up to the downfall of [Hosni] Mubarak a decade later’.[4] In Egypt specifically, it is also crucial to foreground–as El Rashidi does in the passage above–the importance of the murder of Khaled Said in June 2010 as an act which deeply shocked a society otherwise somewhat inoculated against the brutality of Egyptian security forces, galvanising the Egyptian people into widespread opposition to Hosni Mubarak's regime.[5] Considered in this light, the 2011 uprisings are less exceptional than characteristic of increasingly vocalised–and organised–civic dissatisfaction with corrupt regimes of governance in the Arab world throughout the last decade. The moment of collective action in Cairo’s Tahrir Square is indicative not necessarily of a culmination, but of a turning point in a process of transforming the Egyptian political landscape.

Although complex, the motivations of the Arab Spring are relatively clear. The same cannot be said, however, of its precise beginning, or of its proximity towards any kind of ending. One distinctive way in which the challenge to narrate this fraught process has manifested is a proliferation of science fictional texts from across the region, in Arabic and, notably, in translation–particularly into English. More particularly, a number of prominent examples of this recent trend towards speculative fiction are written by Egyptian novelists; this situation is unsurprising, given the country's long-standing reputation as a publication centre within the Arabophone world. Ahmed Khaled Towfik's Utopia, Basma Abdel Aziz's The Queue and Mohammad Rabie's Otared: A Novel each employ narrative strategies of science fiction to interrogate the social and political dynamics leading to and resulting from the uprisings. At the heart of each of these narrowly-fictionalised parallel worlds is the Arab Spring, the causes and conditions of which fundamentally inform the structure and trajectory of each dystopian account. At the same time, the differences between each text indicate significant variation in lived experiences of the uprisings, and the diverse perspectives on its outcomes across the region.

Not What Might Be, But What Is

The fantastic is not new to Arabic literature–indeed, it has been a defining characteristic of Arabic storytelling in the tradition of the Thousand and One Nights. The sheer volume of Arabic-language science fiction is such that Ada Barbaro published a full-length survey study entitled La fantascienza nella letteratura araba ("Science Fiction in Arabic Literature") in 2013.

Amongst Arabic authors, the use of the fantastic to address politics, and political satire more generally, is also not novel. However, this recent profusion of contemporary science fictional narratives, and of dystopias in particular, is certainly unprecedented, as is their popularity in English translation. At the same time, the inclination towards the tropes and techniques of dystopia in confronting social and political crisis is not unique to the context of the Arab Spring, despite the particularities of its motivations. A conspicuous example of this is the surge in popularity of dystopian fiction, film and television in the USA following the lurch towards extreme right-wing politics and the ascendance of Donald Trump to the Presidency, to the extent that both George Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale are enjoying a notable upsurge in sales, while Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle has become Amazon's most-watched TV show to date.

Much of the marketing of these dystopian narratives focuses on the perception that they offer relatable visions of a reality which has not yet been realised, or which can be held at arm's length–as indicated, for instance, by this bookseller's retail strategy. Indeed, the critical capacity of dystopia lies primarily in its aptitude to narrate in the conditional tense–the genre's 'what-ifness.' The contemporary Egyptian dystopian narratives I will discuss–by Towfik, Abdel Aziz, and Rabie–differ, however, in that they share a tendency to manipulate existing, well-established dystopian narrative devices to express not 'what if', but what already is. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan argue that 'it is only if we consider dystopia as a warning that we as readers can hope to escape its pessimistic future'.[6] The narratives I will discuss, however, plunge the reader into a bleak present which is normalised within the science fictional world of the text, functioning not as a warning of what will or might be, but what is set to continue. As an event whose effects are felt differently at individual, national, regional, and international levels, the Arab Spring demands a narrative form which can capture the unfolding of the uprisings at various scales. These complexities are dramatically schematised within the constructed worlds of Towfik's, Abdel Aziz's, and Rabie’s texts, suggesting science fiction can potentially offer a particular response to the narrative challenges posed by representing the Arab Spring variously as collective action, heterogeneous experience, and ongoing process. Deploying narrative strategies pivotal to science fiction such as allegory, extrapolation, and estrangement, these novels attempt to work through the complex intersections of social, political, and economic conditions surrounding the uprisings.

Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia

In an opening caveat to his 2008 novel Utopia (published in English translation in 2011), Towfik cautiously repudiates the idea that his novel 'predicts' the Arab Spring. Even this statement, however, reads as proleptic of the uncanny resemblance his text would bear to the events which subsequently unfolded in Egypt:

"The Utopia mentioned here is an imaginary place, as are the characters who live in and around it, even though the author knows for certain that this place will exist soon. Any resemblance to places and individuals in our present reality is purely coincidental." (front matter)

Set in a near-future but radically altered Egypt of 2023, Towfik's Utopia limns a society in which drastic neoliberalisation of the economy has enabled an obscene accumulation of wealth by a small minority of Utopians, at the expense of the extreme dispossession of the majority, referred to as 'Others.' Towfik's basic premise of a society divided into "haves and have-nots" is one of several well-worn tropes of science fiction writing employed within the novel, which alternates its first person narration chapter-by-chapter between one of the Others (Gaber) and a resident of Utopia (ibn Mourad[7]). Thomas More’s original archipelagic vision of utopia is here envisioned as a gated, segregated community not dissimilar to those which have been springing up around real Cairo’s suburbs for several decades[8].

The major factor prompting the transformation of this imagined Cairo’s social dynamics is “biroil”: a synthetically reproducible fuel rendering petroleum obsolete, manufactured in the US, and sold to the Egyptian government. The resulting effect on Egyptian manufacturing and export industries creates a society with a chasm where its middle class used to be, and a yawning divide between those in Utopia, and those forced outside.

The back cover of the English translation evocatively suggests that the book ‘may leave some wondering whether this is a vision of the future that is not too far away’, indicating the very short imaginative leap required from Utopia’s foreboding depictions to present-day Egypt. The novel ends on the cusp of an uprising by the Others, with ibn Mourad steeling himself as a ‘mass of humanity’[9] approaches the gates of Utopia. Concluding without the uprising having yet been realised, the lack of narrative closure in Utopia prevents Towfik’s imagined dystopia from becoming mere escapism, as he abandons Egypt's imagined future in acute uncertainty. The apparent prescience of Towfik's text garnered considerable attention; while some expressed a renewed sense of wonder in the capacity of science fiction to envision the future[10], others have emphasised its proximity to lived quotidian reality in Cairo. Yasmine El Rashidi has gone as far as to say that with Utopia, 'we get a glimpse of what the future may have been had the revolution . . . not happened and the Mubarak regime had proceeded apace, with Gamal at its helm. We also get a sense of what might still lie ahead, as Egypt’s economy continues to plummet'.[11] However, I suggest that the novel’s prescience lies less in its imagination of a potential uprising than it does in its articulation of conditions of economic and social crisis, prompted–and allegorised–by biroil.

Biroil underscores the structure and trajectory of the plot as a constant presence. It serves a defamiliarising function in relation to the novel’s otherwise almost mimetic use of realism, as ‘the low income inequality of contemporary Egypt is only exaggerated, not invented.’[12] Deep-seated social segregation and economic stagnation give rise to a sense amongst the Others of being subsumed by 'one looooo(what are you waiting for?)oooooo(nothing)ooong, grim present'.[13] This sensation of the future as a perpetual continuation of the present is not only shared by Utopians, but recognised as a necessity for the stability of their enclave, and is further exacerbated by the prevalence of the halluncinogenic drug 'phlogistine.' Although ibn Mourad admits that he ‘couldn’t stomach the idea of all this poverty existing’, he says that ‘I didn’t know how things had got to this point, but I knew it had to continue’.[14] The decisiveness with which biroil creates and sustains Utopia recalls Mark Fisher's idea that structures of governance outside of capitalism are unfathomable to the extent that they are fantastic: ‘Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable’.[15] Within Utopia, two different but equally entrenched experiences of this inescapability are depicted. Biroil exposes both the fantasy of capitalism as a phenomenon in which resources and products for consumption spring up fully-formed, ‘right out of the blue’,[16] and at the same time, the sense that capitalism creates a circuitous, limitless structure like ‘Utopia, where looking for a way to pass every minute of your life consumes you’.[17] In doing so, Towfik presciently allegorises the manner in which the seemingly explosive moment of collective resistance of January 2011 is in fact underpinned by the slow violence of neoliberal economic policies on the majority of Egyptian citizens.

Alongside this seemingly eternal present is, however, the acknowledgment of a clearly-defined point at which a change necessarily will occur. In exchange for fifty years’ unlimited supply of biroil, the Egyptians have sold the Americans their national antiquities; as such, Egypt’s national past is the price it pays to sustain a precarious present. In this sense, the novel deftly allegorises the 'framework of global capitalism and dominant neoliberal policies'[18] which really did trouble Egyptian civilians in the decade leading up to the Arab Spring. It is suggested that the dominance of biroil is as finite as it is pervasive: not only relative to Egypt’s national economy, but also on a global scale. Whether with the ending of the fifty-year contract, or the uprising of Others suggested by the novel's conclusion, there is within the text the portrayal of all-encompassing socio-economic inequality, and at the same time, the implication of impending socio-economic change. The genuine utopian move within the narrative is, perhaps, that such an unequal and exploitative structure cannot, even in the imaginative space of the text, remain unchallenged. The novel's anticlimactic ending shifts its focus to the factors creating and exacerbating the polarised society depicted throughout, rather than emphasising the moment of uprising itself. As such, the inconclusiveness of Utopia is instrumental in contextualising the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt as gradual rather than reactionary, and as symptomatic rather than singular.

Mohammed Rabie’s Otared

Where Utopia is focused on the conditions motivating the 2011 uprisings, Mohammed Rabie's Otared: A Novel (2014, published in English translation in 2016) is a bleak contemplation of their aftermath. Rabie's novel shares with Utopia an acerbic stance on the notion of ‘illusory stability’ as 'a fantasy without foundation’[19] in Egypt. Otared oscillates between a nightmarish 2011 and a post-apocalyptic 2025, with a brief spell in 455 AH. The novel recounts the activities of Ahmed Otared, one of a group of several former police officers who have formed a resistance group against the Knights of Malta, who have occupied East Cairo. The occupation itself is depicted as swift and deftly-organised; through a combination of targeted airstrikes and disruption to digital and telecommunications infrastructures, the Knights are described as having taken control of the east side of the city within a single day, 3rd March 2023. Following a lengthy posting in Cairo Tower as a sniper, Otared is enlisted to incite a civilian rebellion against the occupiers by launching a large-scale, unprovoked attack upon civilians in a crowded city-centre location.

The majority of Rabie’s novel takes place in an Egypt in 2025, which is depicted as unpredictable and chaotic, and yet also profoundly lifeless. The seemingly distinct and straightforward divide between West Cairo and the occupied East is rendered somewhat perplexing by the indiscriminate apathy of the people, the vast majority of whom appear to be indifferent towards authority figures on either side. The city itself is likened to a shell, in which 'its celebrated landmarks seemed stronger than people, stronger than time, stronger than anything',[20] and its inhabitants are likened to 'living corpses, incapable of action.'[21] The relationships between the broader resistance group (comprised of police officers like Otared, army members, and occasionally, civilians), the Knights of Malta, and the Egyptian people remain unclear throughout the novel. Though our protagonist is a key figure within the resistance, Otared is patently dispassionate towards the occupying force, and much of the violence he and his companions perpetrate is directed both towards government personnel compliant with the occupation, and towards unidentified civilians. In this way, Rabie’s text reflects Achcar's analysis of the Arab Spring as, quite uniquely, 'a three-cornered struggle':

". . . not a binary confrontation between revolution and counter-revolution, as in most revolutionary upheavals in history, but a triangular conflict between one revolutionary pole and two rival counter-revolutionary camps–the regional ancien régime and its reactionary antagonists–both equally inimical to the emancipatory aspirations of the “Arab Spring.”[22]

Otared wonders whether those resident in unoccupied West Cairo live under ‘liberalization or law of the jungle’, whether it could be described as ‘a socialist state or a capitalist one’, and whether the efforts of the resistance group constitute ‘a revolution or a military coup.'[23] He is also quick to acknowledge the paradoxically stabilising effect which the occupation has had, relating that

". . . nearly half a million Maltese Knights had showed up and put an end to all this confusion, all this unintelligible back and forth, these debates and discussions, and everybody stopped raising questions, even though we’d heard not one clear answer in decades. What we got was a frank and open and real and honest and beautiful occupation. Unarguable."[24]

Unarguable, and, it seems, unalterable; ‘stability is like a prison’ Otared observes, ‘yet we prefer it because, unlike a maze, it’s simple.’[25] To oppose the occupation is not, however, to advocate revolution. In fact, Otared and the other senior members of the resistance movement deride the 2011 uprisings, supporting their renaming to the ‘January troubles’ and recalling the revolutionary spirit of the people with unrestrained sarcasm.[26] Revolution in the novel is not understood to imply a paradigm shift, but is rather interpreted in its other sense-a rotation, and a relapse. The word acts largely as a placeholder for the transition of power from one authority to another, which is depicted as a necessarily savage process: ‘we [the resistance group] would kill people, there was no doubt about that. We’d been killing them for years and it no longer bothered us. We would kill them and nothing would happen. We would kill them and they would not rise up.'[27] It is perhaps little wonder that the novel is pervaded by a sense of inevitability and populated by civilians who are utterly desensitised to even the most extreme and gratuitous violence, and for whom any feeling of hopefulness is considered a ‘torment’.

Otared’s initiation of the resistance group’s murderous plan marks a precipice from which the text plunges into complete and unrelenting devastation. As with Towfik's Utopia, the hallucinogenic drug “karbon” is ubiquitous throughout Rabie's imagined Cairo, and Otared begins his mission by immersing himself in its seductive ‘nothingness’ only for it to subsume him entirely: ‘I knew that I was nothingness, like the nothingness around me—I was nothing at all—and I tried recalling what had happened that day, where I was and what I was, but I had forgotten language and memory.' [28] Adopting the role of an angel of death, Otared stations himself with his rifle at the top of a large dome. He shows some trepidation as he happens upon a noose on his ascent up the staircase leading to the dome, which causes him to freeze ‘motionless before it for quite some time’;[29] it is an image which recalls an iconic scene in the closing pages of Emile Habiby's The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, which sees Saeed impaled alone upon a blunt stake, afflicted by nightmares he can neither fend off nor wake from.[30] Otared's hesitation is merely momentary, however, and the following pages contain nothing more than an overwhelmingly long list of Otared’s victims and their fatal injuries. Though each is named, individual casualties quickly recede into the sheer scale of the attack, conveying the desensitising effect of cumulative violence which appears to have overwhelmed the characters into apathy. Otared—Arabic for ‘mercury’—embodies the dual meanings of his mythological Roman namesake, regarding himself as facilitating the journey of hopeless souls to the underworld, while also perceiving his pursuit as a kind of political commerce; to him, his role is perversely vocational. Tellingly, Otared reverts from 2025 back to 2011 immediately following this episode, and a sense of the future as a recurrence of the past pervades the narrative. Instances of prolepsis and analepsis disrupt any sense of linear time within the text, and Rabie generates a suffocating atmosphere by which the novel seems to rehearse a knowingness of its own futility, as the narrative descends erratically into abject and unthinkable horror.

At the heart of the recurrent violence which drives the novel is a profound disjunction between the state and its people. Regime change is not productive in and of itself in this imagined environment, because civilians are merely a currency bandied back and forth between opposing regimes of authority. ‘We’re planning to take back the state from the occupier’ announces Suleiman Madi, a former detective within the resistance, ‘and if killing citizens is permissible in order to safeguard the state, then it is a positive duty when you’re setting out to reclaim it.’[31] In this way, the novel reflects bitterly on the years immediately following January 2011 in Cairo, during which one nefarious regime after another has taken advantage of the political vacuum created by successful large-scale civilian defiance. The disparity between the conception of the state by those in power and the people it should supposedly represent is expressed stylistically in Otared, throughout which the protagonist distances himself from civilians in detached and deadpan prose. Coming into contact with them primarily via the scope of his sniper’s rifle, he perceives them as indistinct ‘pedestrians described without colour, or shade, or surface’[32] and refers to entire groups of teenagers as ‘cockroaches.’ The brutal ideology of the resistance group envelops its proponents, to the point that the individual identities of its supporters become obscured. The masks which the group members wear to conceal their identities function as metaphor for this engulfing effect:

"All the faces were covered with masks, or paper bags, or the tail of a headscarf. A few, as I did, wore specially made masks, and these people were somehow different, as though their masks were not really hiding who they were. Wearing the same easily recognizable mask all the time is essentially pointless: you swap your face for your mask, and it becomes part of your identity."[33]

The uncanny effect of this cyclical structure is that by the novel’s conclusion, it becomes clear that the extreme violence which occupies the majority of the text is a mere symptom of much more entrenched issues of political and social inequality. The destructive effect of 'decades of improvisation'[34] by those in power is symbolised by a recurrent motif of a putrid smell, which fashions an abject link between 2011 and 2025 throughout the text. Amongst the Egyptian citizens, there spreads a mysterious disease which causes the skin to grow over the face, symbolising the ruinous effect of this environment, as well as gesturing towards the metaphoric facelessness of Otared and his fellows, as they act without accountability. In the closing lines of the novel, Otared eventually ‘saw everything: how I had tormented people and been tormented by them.’[35] The text concludes immediately lines after this revelation, however, with Rabie evidently unwilling to placate his readers by offering platitudes about the future of an Egypt imagined as ‘hell forevermore.’[36] The (actual) 2011 uprisings can be understood as a large-scale popular movement around the claiming of rights, but they can and should also be conceived as a moment which highlighted a lack of consensus about the future. This lack of collective resistance is ominously dramatised in Rabie's narrative, which does not outline a process of revolution, so much as a cycle of political corruption and social decay. Otared can be considered a darkly dystopian exploration of an ‘eternal and unbroken, changeless and undying’[37] future for an Egypt in which 'hope robs us of our sight.'[38]

Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue

While these novels register a very specific context of recent social and political upheaval in Egypt, they do so through formal strategies which have been distinctive of dystopian writing for decades. Each opens ‘in medias res within the nightmare society’, and ‘cognitive estrangement is at first forestalled by the immediacy and normality of the location.’[39] Another prominent recent example which employs these techniques is Basma Abdel Aziz’s Orwellian dystopia The Queue (2013; published in English translation in 2016). To an even greater degree than Towfik's and Rabie's novels, The Queue elaborates a critique of the hegemonic order by fostering a growing divide between the protagonists and the society in which they are immersed.

Abdel Aziz's The Queue is inspired by an actual queue of Egyptian civilians outside a government building spotted by the author in 2012, which did not seem to progress or change throughout the course of an entire day. Where Rabie's imagined Egypt is one in which leadership is snatched from one ruling authority by another, Abdel Aziz's novel is marked by an authority which is all the more unsettling for its ostensible invisibility. This authority is vested in 'The Gate', which is both a physical boundary and a system of control. It issues decrees and regulations which gradually envelop every aspect of the lives of Egyptian citizens. Like metal filings around a magnet, an ever-increasing number of people wait in 'The Queue' for the Gate to open and process their documentation.

The novel opens with the aftermath of a thinly-allegorised version of the Arab Spring uprisings referred to as the Disgraceful Events, during the course of which a young man called Yehya comes to hospital with a bullet wound to be treated by the doctor Tarek. The Gate has, however, issued a decree which outlaws surgeries without first obtaining a permit. This predicament sees Yehya wait in the Queue for the duration of the novel as his condition steadily worsens; his companions cast around desperately for ways to help him, while Tarek wrestles with his commitment to the Hippcratic oath. As with many dystopian narratives, conflict and resistance in the text are played out through language itself, as the Gate develops a revisionist lexicon around the uprisings, in which protesters are referred to as the Riffraff, and only those most strictly adherent to the Gate's ordinances can obtain a Certificate of True Citizenship. This euphemistic quality lends a sense of unreality to the uprisings, as the characters' lived experiences of the events become as difficult to grasp as these obscure neologisms. Indeed, the eventual explanation the Gate offers for the Disgraceful Events is that they were in fact staged, as part of a big-budget blockbuster; that it was 'one of the biggest action films in world history, explaining that this was why a few citizens had believed that there were bullets, tear gas, and smoke, even though there clearly hadn’t been anything like that, nothing except for standard special effects.'[40] The level of control the Gate achieves is such that it is perceived to have the capacity to alter both the natural and the built environment. The Gate is almost animate, operating its own circadian rhythm:

"The old man said the area had changed a great deal since the Gate appeared, and even more so after it had closed and the queue formed nearby. As time passed, he told them, people said the weather in the area was always strangely stifling – but only around the Gate – and that sometimes the sun both rose and set over the Northern Building, perhaps bowing to whatever went on in there. People passing by it became increasingly wary and didn’t even act like themselves when they were nearby, especially after the Disgraceful Events."[41]

The Gate is less a barrier than an enclosure, and this is reflected at the level of narrative form. The novel begins and ends with Tarek's perspective, a framing technique which successfully highlights both the expansiveness of the Gate's oppressive control, and the questionable level of autonomy an individual may or may not possess in the face of rampant authoritarianism.

The stasis of the Queue is such that it is the characters’ streams of consciousness which drive the novel; assorted characters are drawn ineluctably into the events that unfold while at the same time, nothing really happens. Narrated in the third person by a different character in each chapter, the narration retains an omniscient quality which speaks to the tentacular reach of the Gate's influence, and its asphyxiating each of the characters' lives. As the pace of the narration accelerates towards grim realisation that Yehya’s demise is dictated by the Gate's obstruction, there is the sense that the Gate itself takes charge of the narrative. Observing the blank box in his medical file entitled ‘the Gate’s Response’, Yehya ruminates that

"The box merged with the Gate in his mind, the resemblance overpowering. Vast and vague, able to contain so much. Everything in his world was determined by the Gate, bound to its decisions."[42]

Tarek later notices that Yehya's medical files are being inexplicably updated, and the novel ends with the doctor literally writing against these mysterious updates in the form of his own handwritten notes, vying for Yehya's fate on the space of the page.

Over the course of the novel, the Queue generates its own microcosmic society, such is the protracted wait of the city's inhabitants. Amidst the host of personalities to which we are introduced, a few remain unnamed, including ‘the man in the galabeya,’ a Sheikh who preaches unbending and dogmatic religious orthodoxy, and ‘the woman with the short hair’ who opposes him—at a personal cost. The environment of the Queue aligns seamlessly with the activities of the Sheikh, an indication of another form of totalitarianism inimical to the goals of freedom and social justice so central to the Arab Spring. 'The woman with the short hair', then, allegorises the forceful suppression the Gate undertakes not just of such demonstrations of resistance as the Disgraceful Events, but of the participants themselves. Through this form of characterisation, Abdel Aziz also turns the critique inwards, towards the apathy of other characters. The woman’s acts of micro-resistance carry the potential to expand to a coherent act of protest, but the fear of others in the Queue causes them to isolate her. That the Gate relies so heavily on this lack of consensus is signalled by the manner in which it co-opts the rhetoric of resistance and protest, as it supports the 'boycott' of all those who would controvert its decrees.

In contrast to the explicit violence of Otared, Abdel Aziz's novel focuses heavily on implicit violence, and the manner in which political authoritarianism is consolidated through social and linguistic hegemony. There is no individual figurehead representative of the Gate; rather, it communicates its regulations through television broadcasts and the newspaper 'The Truth'. Furthermore, the Gate conducts a mass surveillance operation under the guise of its telecommunications network Violet Telecom, offering its citizens free mobile phones through which it records their conversations. In this way, Abdel Aziz highlights the fact that though social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook certainly played an indispensable role as organising tools for those participant in the 2011 uprisings, it remains a fact that the infrastructures which support these networks are controlled by the state. This frictionless system of control takes its most severe form in the solitary confinement of Yehya's girlfriend Amani, who is imprisoned in a sensory deprivation chamber after attempting to evade the Gate's decree regarding surgery. A chapter entitled ‘Nothing’ describes the psychological torment Amani endures, and the novel makes recourse to the vocabulary of otherworldliness to articulate her experience:

". . . was it possible that they’d taken her off the face of the earth, out into space, and had left her naked on a dark, uninhabited planet? What had happened to her before she’d woken up and found herself here? She opened her eyes, first one then the other, prying them open with her fingers, then she touched her thighs and her breasts and between her legs, checking they hadn’t . . . She shouted and shouted, she swore she would never oppose them again. . ." [43]

Amani is released via a tunnel, without having to encounter a physical person responsible for her imprisonment. Unlike Yehya, Amani's suffering is not visible upon her body; it is clearly manifest, however, in her inability to complete even the most basic tasks. The narrative shifts from referring to Amani by name to the unspecific 'she', a signal of the destabilising effect the episode has on her sense of self. Although their injuries takes different forms, Yehya and Amani are neither killed, nor are they allowed to live; the actions of the Gate force both into an unliveable life.

By its conclusion, The Queue suggests the Gate's comprehensive control of the population, as even Amani begins to adopt the Gate-issued version of the Disgraceful Events. Nonetheless, the novel elaborates a sustained critique of ongoing physical and psychological violence imposed by the state authority, as well providing an account of individual acts of resistance and grassroots protest. Abdel Aziz's anonymisation of the novel's setting is gossamer-fine, rendering her text all the more amenable as an imaginative environment in which to reflect upon the actual Arab Spring uprisings, and their social, economic, and political demands which are yet to be met.

Dystopia and the Arab Spring: Narrating the Present

Though these narratives each adopt a very different narrative approach, they share several key characteristics of dystopian fiction. One of these is the dismal ambiguousness of their conclusions, as each text deserts its protagonist(s) in a state of uncertainty. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan argue that a resistance to narrative closure is crucial to maintaining a sense of hope within dystopian narratives, and that ‘[the] ambiguous, open endings maintain the utopian impulse within the work.'[44] However, it is this most marked attribute of dystopian science fiction which these contemporary Egyptian science fiction writers unsettle through their narrative structures. The admittedly unclear but decidedly hopeless endings of these novels is less a gesture of optimism than a plea. Although the protagonists in each case become noticeably alienated, each remains subsumed within the social and political environment as delineated in the narrative. I suggest that this is crucial to the science fiction of the Arab Spring, which demonstrates the vast incongruence between individual acts of micro-resistance and the immense scale of the structures of power of they aim to contest. In doing so, these narratives assert that the Arab Spring is an ongoing and necessary process, one with as much urgency now as in April 2008, January 2011, and many other significant moments which have crystallised the social and political demands of the people throughout the region.

Baccolini and Moylan argue that the estrangement between the individual and the subjugating society ‘opens a space of contestation and opposition for those group . . . for whom subject status has yet to be attained’.[45] This dynamic is skewed, however, not only by the pessimistic attitude conveyed in these texts towards the potential for just such spaces of contestation, but by the alienating quality of the narrators themselves. Related by protagonists who are neither discernibly heroic nor utterly villainous, it is often unclear towards whom or what the reader of these texts should direct his or her empathy. The motif of an alienated non- or anti-hero can be considered a science fictional iteration of a technique widely deployed in modern Arabic fiction, in which ‘the nonhero is more engaged than the hero of the nation or the party.’[46] These are dystopias in which hope features, but is dashed; apocalypse happens, but the world does not end; bodies are destroyed not by bullets but by state-issued documentation. These novels narrate the sense of an ending while resisting closure; they are not warnings about the future, but rather a narration of the present, offering a critique but stopping short of envisioning an alternative.

The equivocal quality of these dystopias is, however, perhaps their ultimate achievement. Pervaded by surrealist and hallucinogenic episodes, elements of realism, different linguistic registers, and multiple narrators, these texts demonstrate the capacity for dystopian narratives to ‘blur the received boundaries of the dystopian form and thereby expand its creative potential for critical expression.’[47] Indeed, though each offers a dystopian world, these novels diverge significantly in register, form, and structure. In this sense, we can group these texts into a discernible and coherent 'body' of dystopian science fiction without foreclosing the 'creative potential for critical expression’ the genre can offer these authors.

Antonio Gramsci is well-known to have claimed that 'no social or political activity is ever completely spontaneous’, and these texts work hard to demonstrate that no deep-seated, transformative social or political change can be spontaneously achieved, either. These novels assert the capacity of the genre to go beyond the status of a ‘warning’, lending weight to the idea that a kind of generic instability is central to the capacity of the dystopian mode to motivate social change. Revolutionary activity in Egypt remains, however, somewhat in limbo–a state signalled, perhaps, by the lack of progressive futurity in these texts. Otared's purgatorial fate, the half-life of Abdel Aziz's Yehya, and the unrealised uprising against Utopia serve as science fictional appeals for these bleak visions to be rendered impossible.

[1]  Yasmine El Rashidi, ‘Cairo, City in Waiting’, in Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus, ed. by Matthew Cassel, Layla Al-Zubaidi, and Nemonie Craven Roderick (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013), 48–65, 59.

[2] Gilbert Achcar, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (California: University of California Press, 2016), 1.

[3] Clear examples of this, for different reasons, are Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's presidency in Egypt and Bashar al-Assad's leadership in Syria; the outcomes of the uprisings across the region vary significantly according to national context, however.

[4] Maha M Abdelrahman, Egypt’s Long Revolution: Protest Movements and Uprisings (London; New York: Routledge, 2015), 31.

[5] In June 2010, a twenty-eight year old Egyptian man named Khaled Said was arrested at an internet café in Alexandria and escorted to the outside of a nearby building, where he was beaten to death by the policemen. It is reported that he had posted a video online which depicted officers dividing the contents of a drug bust amongst themselves. Images of Said's disfigured face and skull subsequently circulated on the internet, provoking widespread horror and rage in Egypt and beyond. The Facebook page We Are All Khaled Saeed was soon thereafter created and monitored by Wael Ghonim, and became a key digital platform for the vocalisation of public opposition to the police brutality attendant to Mubarak's regime.

See, for instance, <>.

[6] Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan, 'Introduction. Dystopia and Histories' in Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, ed. by Baccolini and Moylan (New York; London: Routledge, 2003), 1-12, 7.

[7] This character does not offer his name within the narration; this moniker is derived from his father's name. There is precedent for this choice of naming convention, which is also adopted by Cheryl Morgan in her commentary on Utopia:


[9] Ahmed Khaled Towfik, Utopia, trans. by Chip Rossetti (Doha; London: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation; 2011), 156.

[10] See, for instance, <>, <>,

[11] Yasmine El Rashidi, 'Review of Towfik's Utopia',  <>.

[12] Ian Campbell, ‘Prefiguring Egypt’s Arab Spring: Allegory and Allusion in Ahmad Khālid Tawfīq’s Utopia’, Science Fiction Studies, 42 (2015), 541–56, 543.

[13] Towfik, Utopia, 52.

[14] Ibid., 92.

[15] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester: O Books, 2009), 8.

[16] Towfik, Utopia, 21

[17] Ibid., 10

[18] Abdelrahman, Egypt’s Long Revolution, 34.

[19] Mohammad Rabie, Otared: A Novel, trans. by Robin Moger (Cairo: Hoopoe Fiction, 2016), 136.

[20] Ibid., 17.

[21] Ibid., 315.

[22]Achcar, Morbid Symptoms, 10.

[23]Rabie, Otared, 137.

[24] Ibid., 137.

[25] Ibid., 136.

[27] Rabie, Otared, 135.

[28]Ibid., 133.

[29]Ibid., 143.

[30] Emile Habiby, The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, trans. by Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Trevor Le Gassick (London: Arabia, 2010), 157-60.

[31] Rabie, Otared, 72.

[32] Ibid., 109.

[33]Ibid., 45.

[34] Ibid., 315

[35] Ibid., 341

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 120.

[39] Baccolini and Moylan, 'Introduction' in Dark Horizons, 1-12, 5.

[40] Basma Abdel Aziz, The Queue: A Novel, trans. by Elizabeth Jacquette (London: Melville House, 2016), 210.

[41] Ibid., 48.

[42] Ibid., 140.

[43] Ibid., 153.

[44] Raffaella Baccolini, ‘The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science Fiction’, PMLA, 119 (2004), 518–21, 520.

[45] Baccolini, ‘The Persistence of Hope', 520.

[46] See roundtable discussion with on 'Iraq +100 and Arabic SF' with Anoud, Guattam Bhatia, Ali Bader, Marcia Lynx Qualey, and Robin Yassin-Kassab <>

[47] Baccolini and Moylan, 'Introduction' in Dark Horizons, 7.

Sinéad Murphy is a PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Comparative Literature in King’s College London. Her research is an AHRC LAHP-funded project on contemporary Arab speculative fiction in English. She completed her BA and MA degrees in University College Dublin, Ireland and was awarded UCD's Patrick Semple medal for academic achievement. She is the organiser of the King's Speculations seminar series, and is the Conference Coordinator for the 2018 British Society for Middle Eastern Studies conference. Her work has been published in Science Fiction Studies journal, The Literary Encyclopedia, UCD's postgraduate journal Emerging Perspectives, and various online platforms including Arabic Literature in English ( Her primary research interests include science and speculative fiction, contemporary Middle Eastern literature, postcolonial theory, and theories of comparative and world literature. Twitter: @S1nead_Murphy
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