The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton

The City Always Wins captures, in form and content, the frenzied optimism and the violent, reactionary turn of the Arab Spring as it unfolded in Tahrir Square, Cairo. We witness the action through the eyes of a group of young revolutionaries and citizen journalists known as the Chaos Collective. They are on the frontline of the Tahrir uprisings, frantically documenting the victories, the backlash, and the many cycles of murderous, state-backed violence. Omar Robert Hamilton is uniquely placed to write what will come to be regarded as the definitive novel of the Arab Spring; he was there, active in political struggles from Cairo to Gaza; and his cousin is currently a political prisoner in Egypt.

Hamilton’s experience on the ground feeds into the novel in a visceral way; The City Always Wins crackles with authenticity and has the feel and pace of a grainy live-feed video. The City, especially in the first third of the narrative, emphasises the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Part of the optimism of the first uprising against Mubarak was a naive faith that a new kind of leaderless resistance, facilitated by social media, would disrupt the revolution/reaction/dictatorship cycle that has been the tragic endpoint of so many grassroots revolutions.

This seemingly predetermined cycle of power was acute, brutal, and unexpected in Egypt after 2011. For the characters in Hamilton’s debut novel, this revolution was meant to be different. And so we deeply feel the characters’ every moment of despair and rage as their revolution is co-opted first by the Muslim Brotherhood and then by the military under Sisi. By the time Sisi’s rule is enshrined and legitimated by the majority, Hamilton’s characters descend into a collective depression devoid of all hope and direction. This is an excellent, vital debut.

Michael Skinner works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.