All of Aspden's (authentic, even if necessarily disguised) cast of characters survive, though it was a near thing for several Islamist teenage women who took to the barricades in support of the one freely elected leader, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi. Others among them organized to depose Morsi and cheered their new army boss. Most just tried to keep their heads down and get on with life. This is not about heroics; the best of it is simply about everyday life.
The Cairo that Aspden found herself in, a city of 15 million people, was a place where "the idea of 'privacy' barely existed, while social bonds and social judgments were everything." And, though a foreigner and carrying the stigma combined with privilege of former colonizers, she was a woman.
She did meet a woman -- she calls her Amal -- who had escaped, literally, a strict upbringing in a Nile village, made her way as a teacher and lived on her own in the city, owning her own car. Other Egyptian women were not inspired by Amal's story.
By the end of the book, Amal has indeed married -- to an Irishman and they are emigrating.
The demands of a patriarchal society also weighed heavily on the young men, with paradoxical results. Aspen describes Abdel Rahman, who entered college with romantic dreams of choosing a perfect mate among the brilliant Egyptian girls he studied alongside. Those dreams were dashed because the father of the object of his hopes pointed out he was still penniless.
Abdel Rahman turned to his parents to arrange a marriage but the process disgusted him.
Abdel Rahman wanted social approval, to make choices that would be endorsed by family and the state. Being a man, that option remained to him. At the book's close, he was still a respectable man about town in Cairo media circles.
Aspden's explorations of her friends' political participation in the Tahrir Square insurrection and in the subsequent flailing and failed democratic project seems less perceptive than her social observations. She came to realize that some friends brought to these events (or learned from them) what she found an unfamiliar source of stability.
Ayman adopted ultraconservative Salafi Islam for awhile, then turned toward studying comparative religions and writing a novel about how different religions treat women. Mazen landed as a cog in his family's business, cynical and disappointed about all enthusiasms, but conventionally Egyptian in believing that ISIS is a creation of Israel and the US meant as cover for a Western imperial plot to seize oil.
Most of Aspden's people end up disillusioned and frustrated or bent on emigration. Insofar as Aspden's story in Generation Revolution tries to draw any conclusion, it is that for diverse reasons, most Egyptians she knew between 2003 and 2015 came to crave stability above all. Before judging them, I think we need to ask ourselves whether our deepest wishes are any different.
I came away from this intriguing little book unsure whether I'd been exposed to any truthful insight into Egyptian society and events. There are so many social filters between how I understand the world and how Aspden's people do. And she sits in the middle, not always helping much. There are limits to the explanatory power of this kind of participant observation of an unfamiliar society. But this is an interesting attempt to share the realities of people she obviously cares about. It was worth reading, though not for me deeply illuminating. Someone with a less instrumental intelligence might feel differently.