Home » What the Egyptian Revolution can Teach us about Storytelling

What the Egyptian Revolution can Teach us about Storytelling

Published February 13, 2011

For the last three weeks, I’ve been living on Egyptian time. The human drama and the twists and turns of this incredible conflict transfixed myself and millions of others, who stayed glued to their Al-Jazeera feeds as Egyptians rioted to topple their thirty year dictator. I literally woke when Egyptians woke, ate when Egyptians ate, and slept when Egyptians slept, intent not to miss a single moment of one of the most enthralling dramas in living memory.

Life mimics art, and art mimics life. What made the toppling of Hosni Mubarak such compelling news is the way it resembled a drama. Namely, it had characters with high stake goals, surprises, complexity, and a resolution — and no one had to suspend disbelief to enjoy any of it. Let’s go into depth:

Every story focuses on the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist – in this case, the pro-democracy protestors versus Hosni Mubarak. The protestors had a clear goal: bring the dictatorship that has oppressed them down. Hosni Mubarak and his regime also had a clear goal: stay in power. Because Egypt is the center of the Arab world, and change there not only affects its 80 million citizens but every country in the region, the stakes were high. Victory for the protestors could mean greater freedom for all the people of the Middle East, while Mubarak staying in power would only reassure the region’s tyrants, and this added an epic sense of history to the conflict.


And this conflict was full of surprises, with many twists and turns, the protestors staunch in their resolve to bring Mubarak down, and Mubarak staunch in his resolve to stay. The dictator’s first move was to dispatch thousands of police to douse the riots, which only emboldened the protestors. When the protest grew into the millions, Mubarak appeared on TV and offered a host of surprising concessions, including that he would not run for re-election. But the pro-democracy supporters continued protesting, because their goal hadn’t been met. And then, in one of the most shocking things I’ve ever witnessed live on TV, Mubarak sent plainclothes police to fight street battles with the protestors using rocks and knives. It was incredible to watch these plainclothes police, some on horseback and camels, launch themselves at the protestors. While the pro-democracy supporters never wavered from their tactic of non- violent resistance, Mubarak used a variety of surprising strategies. You can’t predict life, and you shouldn’t be able to predict good fiction.

Because this is the real world, there’s going to be inherent complexity. Aside from Mubarak and the protestors, there were other major actors involved, such as the Egyptian military and the United States. During the conflict, it was often pondered who the military would support, and whether Barack Obama would ally with the protestors. The complexity became apparent when the military made statements that indicated they backed the people, but acted in a way to defend the regime. It was clear that while the military did not want to erode their popularity with the people, they were comfortably in power anyway and didn’t desire a change of the status-quo. The best political thrillers will mimic the complexity of a standoff such as this, which gives them an aura of authenticity necessary to make fiction believable.


Many things in life don’t have a resolution, but this did. The Israel-Palestine conflict has been going on for seventy years, and we’re all jaded from it. The Egyptian Revolution, on the other hand, started and ended in seventeen days. The night before he stepped down, Mubarak appeared on TV as defiant as ever, stating he was the father of the Egyptian people and would not be told to go. You could feel the situation reach a climax as millions more took to the streets the very next day. A few hours after the largest Friday prayer in Egyptian history, Mubarak finally resigned. The catharsis was incredible. After seventeen days of intense, high stakes, and surprising conflict, a resolution had arrived. The protestors had won, and their jubilation was indescribable.

After suffering for decades under the boot of various dictators, it took the Egyptian people only seventeen days of struggle to win their freedom. In life, struggles don’t always pay off, but fiction has to provide hope that struggles are worth it and that people can change their lives in meaningful ways. We hoped and hoped it would end well for the protagonists in Egypt, and it did, and this is also the hope of every reader who picks up a book, and of anyone struggling for something.