As I settled into my seat at the plush London theatre I was attending that night, I let the first chords of Claude-Michel Schonber’s musical arrangements wash over me in pleasure. I was going to spend the night wrapped up in the bitter lives of the French poor and their fight for freedom from a world of oppressive aristocracy. Victor Hugo’s renowned novel, Les Misérables, transformed into an impressive musical score by Schönberg, Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel, has enthralled audiences across the world for many years. The lyrics have been sung, and re-sung, by amateurs and professionals alike and stamped on the hearts of many aspiring actors and singers. Yet for all those people who sit and enjoy the play, read the novel or love the songs, the lyrics and messages they carry are merely a reminder of a time long ago, a time they have no connection to. Although they may appreciate the passion of each burning lyric and note, it remains little more than a work of musical genius.
Yet on this particular evening as I sat watching the play unfold, I felt more than my usual appreciation for great songwriting. Having lived on the front lines of the Egyptian revolution one cannot help but compare the French and Egyptian revolutions. I am certainly not the first person to notice this as comparisons have been drawn by many writers and political commentators, however on this night I was unsure as to whether the cast was singing about France or Egypt.
Despite the vast gap in decades the parallels between the two revolutions are obvious and not difficult to find. In both cases the common people became increasingly discontented with the ruling and privileged upper class and so aimed to correct the imbalance. Both Louis and Mubarak ruled as absolute monarchs, the only thing missing was Hosni’s crown, although it sat there hypothetically. Both France and Egypt sustained many losses as men and women died for a cause they believed in. The comparisons are many and I could dedicate this entire article to it, however, as I sat listening to the musical it was the empty desolation and hopelessness that rang out in every note that led me to draw such a strong comparison between the two. The Egyptian people finally rose up after thirty years of oppression and bad living conditions and yet they stand, not on the edge of a new dawn, but instead they seem to look towards another thirty years of a similar situation. As the flames of the revolution died down and the people of Egypt started to look towards democracy and a better life, they saw not what they should have, but instead a military council that was determined to never relinquish its iron grip on a country that had served it so well. Instead of democracy they were given rigged elections, even worse living conditions and two presidential candidates that no one wanted, but were somehow the only option. Their hands were forced and so they voted for the lesser of two evils, yet despite their internal struggles it seemed not to have mattered much, as the Army, as always in its supreme wisdom, decided what was best for them, held a few secret meetings, and the deed was done; Egypt had a new president, picked by the capable hand of the unseen ruler, the military. Unfortunately living conditions in Egypt are at an all-time low; food is expensive and scarce, crime is higher than ever and rising every day, sexual hasrsement is out of control and it seems that people have stopped looking for that new dawn. There is an empty desolation that seems to lie across the land and while many continue to hope for a better world, it seems utterly pointless at times.
It is this hopelessness and sorrow that the two revolutions seem to share so well. It was with such passionate hope that they both heard the ‘people sing, singing the song of angry men’, heralding a new day and dawn that was to rise up like the sun. Yet when it was all over, the streets were red with the blood of martyrs and there were indeed many empty chairs at empty tables. As the Egyptian people finally rose up, they were filled with such an ardent hope for a tomorrow that was a world apart from what they had already lived through, yet it seems that day is yet to come. As the army once more cleverly manipulated the political turn of events in the country, the question seems to ring out loud and clear for all those who died fighting for a new world that was to rise up like the sun; what was your sacrifice for? Les Misérables directly translates as the wretched or the poor ones, and what better title to denote to the people of Egypt. Ensnared in the trap of a greedy, wonton man only to finally break free and be trapped once more in the khaki grip of a military that seems reluctant to ever let go. They sit mourning the loss of those that they loved and of a dream that glittered so brilliantly but faded so quickly; they are indeed the wretched ones.