Values of revolution must be utilised, says Egyptian writer
IAN BLACK in Cairo
ON JANUARY 28th, a young Egyptian man urged the novelist Alaa al-Aswany to write a book about the revolution then gathering momentum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. minutes after their brief conversation, the protester was shot dead by a government sniper from a nearby roof.
Such killings, along with the bravery of revolutionaries motivated by “a profound sense of injustice”, are seared into the memory of Egypt’s most celebrated living writer, as is clear when he articulates his feelings about the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and what it means.
“The revolution was a great human achievement,” Aswany says. “It means people are willing to die for freedom and justice. When you participate in a real revolution you become a much better person. You are ready to defend human values.” Now, like other Egyptian democrats, he fears a counter-revolution led by old regime loyalists fomenting violence, in line with the warning by Mubarak of “chaos” that would follow if he were forced out.
Uncertainties abound, Aswany admits, smoking between appointments at his surgery in Cairo’s Garden City district (he is also a dentist), its leafy streets a haven from one of the noisiest urban spaces on the planet, whose fading charms and vibrancy he captured in his best-selling novel The Yacoubian Building .
“The revolution succeeded in Egypt, but there is someone else taking the decisions,” he muses. “The army is seen very positively . . . but we have to keep up pressure [on it] to take the decisions of the revolution. It needs a lot of effort . . . and then, at some point, they respond.”
The novelist counts Naguib Mahfouz, Gabriel García Márquez and Ernest Hemingway among his literary heroes. The BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman may be another inspiration. In March, Aswany’s combative, Paxman-like questioning – a sharp shift from Egyptian cultural norms – triggered the resignation of the prime minister appointed by the army after Mubarak’s departure.
Live on a TV chat show, he politely but insistently asked Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force general, just how a loyal servant of the deposed dictator could be a minister in post-revolutionary Egypt. Shafiq finally snapped, ranting that Aswany had no right to speak to him like that. The next day he was replaced.
Aswany’s most recent TV debate was with a Muslim Brotherhood leader, many of whose followers disapprove of the liberal sexual mores portrayed in The Yacoubian Building and his last novel, Chicago. “In a real democracy you must not exclude anyone,” he argues. “They have the right to express themselves and form a political party. The influence of the Muslim Brotherhood was exaggerated by the old regime to send a message to the West: either you accept the dictator Mubarak or prepare to see fanatics in power.”
Egypt’s changes have echoed widely across the Middle East, he believes, and none more than the arrest of Mubarak and his sons.
“It’s not surprising they [other regimes] really feel threatened. When you put your president, your ex-dictator, in jail and investigate him like any Egyptian citizen, you change the concept of political power in the whole area.”
In a recent book of essays, On the State of Egypt: A Novelist’s Provocative Reflections , Aswany gave a brilliant, unintentionally hilarious illustration of the lack of freedom and accountability in Egypt. He recalled the then UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s encounter last year with a disgruntled British voter, his subsequent complaint that she was a bigot, which was overheard, and then his being forced to make a humiliating apology.
“If Gordon Brown ruled Britain by fraud and emergency law, he would not have apologised to Gillian Duffy,” he wrote. “In fact, he would probably have had her arrested and sent to the nearest state security office, where she would have been beaten, strung up by her legs, and electrocuted in sensitive parts of her body. Maybe Duffy would be tried in a state security emergency court on charges of causing trouble, insulting a symbol of state, and endangering social peace in Britain.”
Democracy, he insists, is the only solution – a deliberate riposte to the Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the solution”. “In medicine we have disease, symptoms and complications. Our disease is dictatorship, and you have very severe symptoms and complications: there is injustice, people become frustrated, or fanatics.” Corruption is another complication.
The alternative to democracy? “Chaos.” The trick now, he has said, is to “institutionalise the values of the revolution”.
Aswany is close to finishing a new novel, The Automobile Club, and it would be surprising if the revolution did not feature, beyond a dedication to Tahrir activists.
He remains optimistic about the Arab uprisings. “When you overcome the barrier of fear it is irreversible,” he says. But other countries must learn lessons too. “To justify the invasion of Iraq the Americans said it was the only way to liberate the country from a terrible dictator,” Aswany recalls. “We proved in our revolution that you could really oblige a dictator to step down peacefully.” – ( Guardian service)