On any given evening Cairo’s Tahrir Square creaks under the weight of its own recent history: trinket-sellers flog martyrs’ pendants, veterans of the uprising hold up spent police bullets recovered from the ground, and an ad hoc street cinema screens YouTube compilations of demonstrators and security forces clashing under clouds of teargas. This is collective memory by the people, for the people – with no state functionaries around to curate what is remembered or forgotten.
Less than a week after the fall of Mubarak, professor, Khaled Fahmy received a phone call from the head of Egypt”s national archives asking him to oversee a unique new project that would document the country’s dramatic political and social upheaval this year. The Committee to Document the 25th January Revolution is staffed by volunteers and drawing on everything from official records and insurrectionary pamphlets to multimedia footage and updates on Twitter and Facebook, the project aims, in Fahmy’s words, “to gather as much primary data on the revolution as possible and deposit it in the archives so that Egyptians now and in the future can construct their own narratives about this pivotal period.” The project will also collect hundreds of hours of recorded testimony from those involved in the struggle to bring down Mubarak – whether they supported the revolution or not.
“The question of access to information and archives is political, because reading history is interpreting history, and interpreting history is one way of making it,” adds Fahmy. “Closing people off from the sources of their own history is an inherently political gesture, and equally opening that up is a political – even revolutionary – act.”
Fahmy’s committee is not the only group attempting to pry open a long-held tradition of official concealment. Within a few weeks of Mubarak’s fall, protesters had ransacked the headquarters of Egypt’s notorious state security service, looting thousands of classified documents and placing many of them online. Last month the country’s first freedom of information law was drawn up, though there is no guarantee it will make it on to the statute books…