His “Yacoubian Building” has toured the world. Propelled as one of the most popular contemporary Arab writers, Alaa el-Aswany was forced to leave Egypt after the handover of the country by the military, ambushed behind President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in 2014 Previously, Alaa el-Aswany had actively participated in the Tahrir Square movement, which would signal the departure of Hosni Mubarak and become an emblem of the Arab Spring which will shake the entire region. Ten years later, from New York where he teaches literature at the university, the writer takes stock of his disillusions and his hopes *.
The Weather: Egypt, like much of the region, today gives a feeling of desolation. Ten years later, should we proclaim the failure of the Arab revolutions?
Alaa el-Aswany: On the contrary, I am really optimistic. We must be careful not to confuse political change with revolution, which is a much deeper thing. It is true that we have not succeeded in transforming Egypt politically, and that the situation, in this respect, is worse than ever, in terms of oppression and violation of human rights. But the revolution is fundamentally a cultural change. People today see the world in a different way, they have gained a consciousness that they lacked before. Now this is something irreversible. I insist: the Egyptians, now, are not the same as those before the revolution. Political change will take time, but revolution continues to exist, right now.
You talk about repression. Opponents were killed, or embastellated. How can we believe that the flame remains alive?
Power is trying by all means to pretend that this revolution does not exist, to erase it, to crush it. But it is inevitable: at some point it will translate into politics; the result will be the state for which we revolted. The flame you speak of is a flame of consciousness. People can no longer demonstrate now, or at the risk of languishing ten years in prison. But fortunately, there is no law capable of preventing people from dreaming; there is no law that prevents people from thinking. It is for this reason that it continues, even if the revolutionary signs no longer emerge on the surface. In Egypt, no more than elsewhere, one cannot kill ideas.
Looking back, do you think the crowd in Tahrir Square also made mistakes?
Our most serious fault is to have trusted the army. We should have stayed in the streets, despite the promises. Among revolutionaries, there is always an element of idealism which leads them not to seek to take power, to keep their distance. This prevented us from seeing that from the start there was a clear alliance between the Islamists and the military. In the West, in particular, it is still difficult to really understand the fact that this alliance did exist from day one. The army was telling the Islamists: “Stop the revolution and we will give you power.” This is exactly what happened.
However, it is these same soldiers who then dismissed the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi?
Revolutionaries were slaughtered by the army on several occasions, and Islamists applauded. The reward for this market, for the Islamists, was Parliament, it was victory in the presidential elections. The version that Morsi was the first democratically elected president is nonsense. The Muslim Brotherhood was buying the vote of the poor as the army turned its head. These are two sides of the same fascism. The idea that the army would then come to attack a democratic system does not make sense.
Shouldn’t we have carried out the experiment to the end and let Morsi sink in on his own?
No no no. I think another mistake was to confuse the organization of presidential news with personal support for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Here we are no longer really talking about the people who participated in the revolution, but rather what I call the Sofa Party.
That is to say ?
I also call them “good citizens”, and that is exactly what any dictator wants. The good citizen must take care of his children, his wife and possibly his mistresses, but not politics. Football and religion – which leads the believer to wait for the next world to obtain justice – are enough. Unfortunately, this figure of the “good citizen” is very widespread everywhere, and particularly in the Arab world.
Back to the Islamists. Was there no possible agreement with them?
The problem with the Islamists is that they use democracy to obtain a state that is not democratic. They may, at some point, have the same political positions as us, but their objectives remain different. In turn, they let themselves be used by the dictator to come to power. They really believe they got a message from God – come to think of it, it just sounds amazing, but it is so. However, when you receive the message directly from God, you inevitably feel superior. In fact, as Egyptians, we have been stuck between the Islamists and the military since the 1950s. However, the 2011 revolution represented a third way, if you will. From the second day, the slogan was “revolution for a secular state, neither Islamic nor military”.
Beyond Egypt, is the situation comparable in the rest of the Arab world?
A revolution takes time! We have always taken the French revolution as a model. However, after 10 years, France was in a catastrophic state. But the revolution never stopped for all that and it was able at a certain point to establish the state for which the French had revolted. It is for this reason that I do not worry too much: like you, I read the story.
Added to this is the fact that Arab countries are not all the same. In some of them there is still a tribal culture, while others have been further modernized. Egypt is not Saudi Arabia, like Tunisia is not Kuwait. It’s difficult to apply the same rule everywhere, and I think it makes more sense to take each country separately. The fact remains that we have a model, since Tunisia, despite all its own problems, is still on the right track. If only by the role played by civil society, much more important than in Egypt.
The problem with Egypt, as we often say, is that it is too important to be ignored. The influence of this country on the Arab world, the Suez Canal, the question of Israel make it a very strategic country. Far too strategic.
Do Arab intellectuals have a role to play?
Lenin said that intellectuals are the first to betray the revolution. Why? Because they are much better equipped than others to defend treason. Some of these intellectuals think that they deserve more than to lose their life in prison, that they are entitled to privileges. It’s a dramatic, but very common choice that I have sometimes described in my novels.
You have more than 3 million “followers” on Twitter, probably many Egyptians. What do you tell them?
I ask them for example to question their imams. With this question: “How does the imam earn a living?” This is a major question. I, who have been a dentist for thirty years, can say that without any problem. But imams cannot explain who is providing them with the money, and for what reason. In Egypt, we can see that they often live like kings. Believe me, it is thanks to the revolution that these questions can be asked in this way today.
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* Latest work published in French: Le Syndrome de la Dictature, Actes Sud, 2020.