A Portrait of Post-2011 Egypt

In her recently published photobook, As it may be, Bieke Depoorter offers an insider’s look at Egyptian society in the years that followed the 2011 Revolution; a time that saw mistrust invade both public and private spheres.

© Bieke Depoorter, spread from the book As it may be

When Bieke Depoorter arrived in Cairo, Egypt, in December 2011, Tahrir Square was again filled with thousands of protesters demonstrating against the military junta temporarily ruling the country. Photographers were documenting the microcosm gathered on the square amidst large clouds of tear gas and the continuous flying of rubber bullets.

Protesters were calling on Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf) to return the country to civilian rule, and Bieke Depoorter decided to document Egyptian society outside of this micro-bubble. With the help of journalist and arabist, Ruth Vandewalle, Depoorter invited herself into people’s homes all around the country throughout the following years. And this, with no more than two words of Arabic. “I like the fact that I don’t speak the language, it’s very special. I was interested in how you are able to communicate as well without the language”, she says.

© Bieke Depoorter, spread from the book As it may be

In the meantime, Cairo saw protests escalating into massacres, women being victims of increasingly violent harassment, streets transformed into labyrinths, and foreigners becoming a synonym of spies. By the time she finished her project in 2016, it had become almost impossible to convince people to stay at their place. Working on a book, she noticed that she had constituted a fulfilling portrait of Egyptians’ private environments but was lacking some voices.

“I wanted to have an average of the population but many people I stayed with didn’t want to be photographed”, she explains. To include them, she resolved to go back to Egypt, a dummy of her upcoming book at hand, and have people comment on her photographs. “I asked around 50 people all over Egypt, including very conservative but also open minded people, farmers, bankers, girls, men, and even people who were not able to write.”

© Bieke Depoorter, spread from the book As it may be

The result is a series of photographs covered with Arabic scripts and some occasional drawings that read as an ornamentation as much as a well-needed conversation among Egyptians. “At the beginning, I was very scared that people would be angry, steal the book, or call the police, but their reaction has been very positive. The first person I showed the book to was a tuk tuk driver, who started to cry. People recognised themselves in the book, and wanted to comment on previous comments to be part of a conversation that had started.”

The writing gives a sense of people’s concerns, their interpretations of social order and religion, and the changes that occurred in Egypt between 2011 and 2016. “If it were in 2017, this boy would refuse to be photographed like that [i.e. naked]. Education and mentalities have changed”, one of them read. It also offers a glimpse into Depoorter’s experience. “The day you came home was the best day of my life”, writes one of her hosts, the only one to comment on the book.


As it may be by Bieke Depoorter

Co-published by Xavier Barral, Aperture, and Hannibal Publishing

Book design: Mevis & Van Deursen // Text by Ruth Vandewalle

Hardcover // 60 pages // 28 cm x 26.5 cm // €57.50



Bieke Depoorter is a Belgian documentary photographer and a member of Magnum Photos. Follow her on Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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