Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany explains how a nation rediscovered itself by rising up against dictatorship
Alaa Al Aswany is the author of the acclaimed The Yacoubian Building and other best-selling works of fiction. He is also a longtime political columnist for independent Egyptian newspapers and one of the founding members of the political movement against the Mubarak regime known as Kifaya (Enough). His new book of nonfiction is On the State of Egypt: What Made the Revolution Inevitable. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Al Aswany in Cairo on February 16, 2011.
CAIRO REVIEW: In The Yacoubian Building and Chicago, despite the Egyptian decay and misery you portrayed, your characters contain a spark of hope.
ALAA AL ASWANY: I was always optimistic, I was accused of being too optimistic by some friends. I believed that at some point there would be a revolution in Egypt. I said that in many interviews, including with the New York Times in 2008. I tried to understand the Egyptian people as a novelist. I read carefully the history of this country. The 1919 revolution was not expected. The British embassy [thought] that the Egyptians weren’t going to react to the decision to send Saad Zaghloul into exile, but all of a sudden there was a revolution. Any country at some point is already in a revolutionary state, waiting for a stimulus to make the revolution. That is exactly what happened on January 25. Forty thousand bloggers called for the manifestations. It came at the right time. The whole of Egypt was waiting for any stimulus, and they gave the stimulus.
CAIRO REVIEW: Why now?
ALAA AL ASWANY: There is a critical moment. Egyptians could tolerate poverty. You can live with poverty as far as you think it’s fair, as far as you think it’s going to improve if you work hard. But what is intolerable is the injustice, when you believe what is happening is not fair and there is no hope for the future. I believe that at some point you become really prepared to revolt. Why this revolution? First, because of the masses. We’re talking about twelve to fifteen million people. And second, the demand was not a local or professional demand. They were demanding the end of the whole system.
CAIRO REVIEW: Authoritarian regimes from Iraq to Egypt to Morocco to Libya have been so durable, and you’ve had injustice for so many years.
ALAA AL ASWANY: One deep lesson of what happened in Egypt is that we don’t need an American invasion to get rid of a dictator. We can do it ourselves without all the casualties or occupying another country. And we did that in eighteen days. This is the end of an era of the post-independence dictatorships, which were the model for the region. It’s a matter of time for the other dictators. I could give an exception for the Gulf countries because they have enough money to make their people satisfied or to delay the revolution.
CAIRO REVIEW: After thirty years of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, were there specific factors that helped reach this point?
ALAA AL ASWANY: The situation in the last ten years. I was against this regime from the very beginning. When I wrote during the 1990s, there were people defending the regime. They were saying, ‘Look, [President Mubarak] is doing his best.” But during the last ten years, it became impossible to defend the regime. You have a person who is over eighty years old who is still in power and he doesn’t feel that this is a strange situation. Also, it was really unacceptable to Egyptians that during the last ten years he started to push his son [Gamal Mubarak as a potential successor]. This was very insulting to Egyptians, that they are going to be inherited as if we were chickens. Egyptians are very proud. We felt in the last ten years there was a real deterioration of the value of Egypt, inside and outside. And, the police brutality has become unbelievable. It’s not only for political purposes. Khaled Said [a young Egyptian killed in police custody in Alexandria in 2010] was a very good example. Egyptians are forced to go to work in the Gulf countries, many times in inhuman conditions, and you have no government to look out for you.
CAIRO REVIEW: Were there recent sparks?
ALAA AL ASWANY: Of course, the Khaled Said story was very, very, very significant. The people became angry, like never before. Second, there is network of organizations that was not present during the 1990s. We were lacking the network that could organize all the people together and we could [announce] the schedule of the revolution. This happened through Facebook. The Khaled Said Facebook group reached four hundred and fifty thousand people. [The parliamentary elections] were unbearable. They didn’t bother to hide what they were doing. They are telling you as an Egyptian, you are nothing.
CAIRO REVIEW: Would the revolution have happened if it hadn’t happened in Tunisia with the ouster of President Ben Ali?
ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes. The Tunisia revolution accelerated the Egyptian revolution. It gave you a model and showed to you, yes, it is possible. But the objective reasons for a revolution were present. We began to call for the change of the regime in 2003, so I think it would have happened anyway. But we were inspired by the Tunisians.
"The priority is building a democracy. You must make sure your car is efficient before you think about your destination. We must build a real democratic state and after that I think we will be on the right track."
CAIRO REVIEW: Where were you on January 25?
ALAA AL ASWANY: I knew from the very beginning it was going to be a revolution, from the moment I saw the manifestations. I have a Spanish friend, a journalist who covered the Eastern Europe revolutions. He told me that if you can move these masses—and I could see in their faces how determined they were—the fall of this regime is a matter of time. That day, I knew there would be a manifestation, but I didn’t expect it to be the revolution.
CAIRO REVIEW: When did you realize what it was?
ALAA AL ASWANY: I participated in many demonstrations. So I said fine, I will finish my work on my novel and then after finishing this chapter I will eat and then I will go to salute my friends. I was expecting four hundred people in front of the syndicate of journalists—I know all of them—with ten thousand soldiers. But when I saw them, I realized there was a historic moment, that it was very different. I joined the revolution on January 25 at 5 p.m. I had once written that if we have five hundred thousand protesters in Cairo, the regime will fall. I found myself with one million people.
CAIRO REVIEW: There were hard times after January 25.
ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes, eighteen days. In the first speech of Mubarak, he tried to blackmail the Egyptians emotionally, saying “I defended this land and I will die [in this country].” There were many parents and many other people who became really confused. At 2 a.m. I talked for about thirty minutes [in Tahrir Square], trying to explain to people that we are asking for our rights. We are not acting impolitely with anybody. What was very helpful to the revolution was that the next day, the regime sent the thugs [into the square] and people were killed. So the influence of the speech was erased in a half hour. You can’t say you are the father of Egyptians and at the same time send thugs. Two people were shot to death next to me on January 28. The next speech, the people were really angry. He was very arrogant, like I don’t care about you. People raised their shoes [an Arab gesture of disrespect]. You could see female and male shoes everywhere.
CAIRO REVIEW: That was the end?
ALAA AL ASWANY: It was a matter of time. On Friday [February 11], I heard people crying, “He resigned! He resigned!” That was an unbelievable moment. Everybody was dancing. I was very, very happy. I was very happy, and very proud of the people. I felt that I am in a moment where a new Egypt really begins.
CAIRO REVIEW: But Egypt was left in a bad state after thirty years?
ALAA AL ASWANY: They are trying to blackmail us by the story of the economic crisis. Fine, for thirty years there was no revolution and there were thirty-five million people living under the line of poverty. This is what they did. What we are going to do is much better. The country has been paralyzed by the dictatorship. People who are efficient rarely get the post. You give the post to the people who are loyal. You don’t care if they are efficient or not. They were a bunch of friends of Gamal Mubarak who were the rulers of this country. I think the stolen money is quite enough for a good start for Egypt. We have very efficient people in all domains. If you have a democratic country, a democratic cabinet, and you work hard, we could make out of this country a very strong country in no time.
CAIRO REVIEW: How will Egypt change?
ALAA AL ASWANY: I believe that the revolution itself is an achievement. The political results are very important. But the revolution as a human phenomenon is an achievement. The revolution makes much better people. When you participate in it, you regain your ability to say “no.” You’re not going to accept what you used to take before. You could see the difference between the Egyptians in Tahrir Square from the 25th to the 11th. You see two million people, one third of them are females, and not one single sexual harassment. You have everybody, the rich people and the poor people. The mood was very liberal. When the time of prayer comes, the people who don’t pray gave space for the people who pray. On Wednesday when there were thugs attacking us, the Christians protected the people who were praying.
CAIRO REVIEW: How will Egypt change now?
ALAA AL ASWANY: Egypt regained its identity. One major consequence of dictatorship is that you lose your identity and you’re no [longer] loyal to your country. And you don’t believe that it’s really your country and you become frustrated and aggressive and desperate. And I believe that the personality now of Egyptians is very different. I think we regained what we lost in the thirty years. This is going to be very positive.
CAIRO REVIEW: What are the demands of the revolution?
ALAA AL ASWANY: Wanting Mubarak out was a very relevant point. The president here is the regime. Now you have remnants of the regime, and they should really be kept away. You must build a new country with new concepts. Even the police are going to be very different after what happened. We will have a new country, a democratic state where the rights are preserved and where you get really what you deserve.
CAIRO REVIEW: You refer to the remnants. How do you translate the victory in Tahrir to a democratic state?
ALAA AL ASWANY: I’m talking about the heads. I mean the ministers. These people are dangerous. These people were appointed by Mubarak. They believe in the Mubarak regime. They were absolutely defeated, so I can’t really ask them to apply the reforms. That’s a joke. And also many of them are accused of corruption and committing crimes. The army made a very good start. By insisting that [they] are not ruling, [they] are not in power politically. [They] are trying to maintain the security inside the country and abroad. During the transition, this is the role of the army and it’s very important because if you don’t have such a power you could have real troubles during the transition.
CAIRO REVIEW: How do you ensure that the power of the people is translated into democracy?
ALAA AL ASWANY: We have our plans. The most important thing is to keep your ability to go to the street. You were able to make manifestations and Mubarak was obliged to step down. This is your real power. If you lose this power, you are going to lose everything. I know personally the leaders of the revolution. There are many. They are confident that at some point they can make the same manifestations, and even more, if they find what has been done [is] not satisfactory to them.
CAIRO REVIEW: Who are the true leaders of the revolution?
ALAA AL ASWANY: If you’re talking about a kind of historical political leader, we don’t have one. But you have leaders of groups and these leaders are very significant. You have the leaders of the workers, the leaders of the bloggers, many people. When they call for manifestations, they know what they are doing.
CAIRO REVIEW: What role do the old political parties have in Egypt’s future?
ALAA AL ASWANY: Conventional parties like Wafd and Tugamma are very badly viewed because they were manipulated by the government. Other parties are decoration, fabricated by the security state to be used at some point.
CAIRO REVIEW: What about the Muslim Brotherhood?
ALAA AL ASWANY: They have acted since they acted in 1928. One of the best results of this revolution is for Western analysts to finally know that the Brotherhood is not really a threat to Egypt. I answered this question at least five thousand times: don’t you think if you have democracy the Brotherhood will take over? It’s unbelievable. I am very happy I won’t have to answer this question anymore. They participated like anyone else but they were not controlling. They are Egyptian citizens and despite the fact that I disagree with their ideas, they have the absolute right to practice their political rights in the democracy. They are mysterious, sometimes they compromise too much, but they are sincere.
CAIRO REVIEW: What are the revolution’s priorities?
ALAA AL ASWANY: To get the efficient people [into the government] and study the potential of Egypt, which is tremendous. You are going to see the difference. The priority is building a democracy. You must make sure your car is efficient before you think about your destination. We must build a real democratic state and after that I think we will be on the right track. Egypt is going to regain its role.
CAIRO REVIEW: How do you hold the former regime to account?
ALAA AL ASWANY: The day before yesterday, you could smell the odor of burning papers all over the state television building. They took out the documents and burned them. There were fights because the employees tried to prevent them from doing it. There is a group of lawyers. They are gathering documents. Money is stolen from the Egyptian people and we are going to bring this money back.
CAIRO REVIEW: What role have artists played in preparing for this revolution?
ALAA AL ASWANY: Art by nature is a defense of human values. If you see a movie, or read a novel, then you will find in the core of the art the human values of freedom and equality and justice. You don’t create art for nothing. I don’t think the art is separated from the revolution. I believe that art is revolutionary by nature. We have the most important generation of writers and filmmakers in the history of Egypt. The revolution makes a sort of renaissance for the whole nation, and artists are no exception. I believe this is going to be a real inspiration. I was inspired. I have many ideas to write about the revolution.
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