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Alaa al-Aswany : Egyptian novelist hails revolution as a 'great human achievement' PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ian Black-guardian   
Saturday, 21 May 2011 15:06

The country's most celebrated writer, Alaa al-Aswany, was inspired by the Tahrir protesters, but fears a counter-revolution

  •, Friday 20 May 2011 18.01 BST
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  • Alaa al-Aswany
    Alaa al-Aswany: 'When you participate in a real revolution you become a much better person. You are ready to defend human values.' Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

    On 28 January a young Egyptian man was urging the novelist Alaa al-Aswany to write a book about the revolution that was gathering momentum in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Just minutes after their brief conversation the protester was shot dead by a government sniper from a nearby roof.

    Aswany never learned his interlocutor's name, but that and other killings, along with the sheer bravery of revolutionaries motivated by "an untameable anger and a profound sense of injustice", are seared into the memory of Egypt's most celebrated living writer as he articulates his feelings about the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and what it means.

    "The revolution was a great human achievement," Aswany says in a booming voice that amplifies his evident emotion. "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 though, like other Egyptian democrats, he fears a counter-revolution led by old regime loyalists fomenting violence and sectarian attacks, precisely in line with the finger-wagging warning by Mubarak of the "chaos" that would follow if he were forced from the presidency.

    Uncertainties abound, Aswany admits, smoking furiously between appointments in his dental surgery in Cairo's Garden City district, its leafy streets a haven from one of the noisiest urban spaces on the planet, and whose fading charms and human 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's Jeremy Paxman may be another inspiration. In March Aswany's combative 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 chatshow 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 gone, replaced by Essam Sharaf, whose first act was to visit Tahrir to acquire some popular legitimacy.

    Aswany's most recent TV debate was with a Muslim Brotherhood leader, many of whose followers strongly 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. "Egypt has been giving the political lead to the Arab world for 100 years. We had the first parliament, the first constitution, the first revolution, the first democratically elected government in 1924, so things begin here. This could explain why the Gulf regimes are so absolutely against the revolution and defended Mubarak.

    "It's not surprising they 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. These people still believe the ruler is the father, the symbol, the chief of the tribe, so it is absolutely unacceptable for them to criticise the father. Now the president is just a public servant."

    In a recent book of essays, On the State of Egypt: A Novelist's Provocative Reflections, Aswany gave a brilliant though perhaps unintentionally hilarious illustration of the lack of freedom and accountability in Egypt when he recalled the then prime minister Gordon Brown's encounter with a disgruntled voter who he was overheard complaining was a bigot before 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, Aswany insists, is the only solution – a deliberate riposte to the Muslim Brotherhood slogan "Islam is the solution" – and everything else will flow from that. "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".

    Between media interviews and dental patients Aswany is close to finishing a new novel, The Automobile Club, and it would be surprising if the revolution did not put in an appearance beyond a promised dedication to the Tahrir activists.

    He remains optimistic about the uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world even if in Syria, Libya and Yemen their struggles will be longer and bloodier. "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."

Last Updated on Sunday, 12 June 2011 11:18

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