″I write to defend democracy″

Best-selling novelist Alaa Al Aswany was one of the main protagonists in the 2011 Egyptian uprising and remains a high-profile government critic. Interview by Sabine Peschel

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Sabine Peschel

You've always been optimistic as to the future development in Egypt. In 2013 you said, "I believe in people and in the revolution." Do you still feel the same today?

Alaa Al Aswany: Absolutely. I'm not happy with what is happening in Egypt, but I'm optimistic. And I'm optimistic for objective reasons. Because I have read about the history of revolutions and I know that it takes time.

Take a classic example: the French Revolution. After five years nothing had been achieved and the situation was absolutely chaotic. Everybody was killing everybody in France, but in the end the revolution did overcome. So, I still believe in the Egyptian people and I still believe in the revolution.

As co-founder of the Kifaya (Enough!) civil rights movement, what do you think in retrospect? Where did the Arabellion go wrong?

Al Aswany: Our major mistake was that we left Tahrir Square after the resignation of President Mubarak without establishing a committee of revolution representatives. We should not have left the square before electing revolution representatives for every region in Egypt.

You have called President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi a new Mubarak. Has Egypt once more become a military dictatorship?

Tahrir Square demonstration against the Mubarak regime in 2011 (photo: Reuters)
A new political epoch on the Nile: during the 2011 revolution, Alaa Al Aswany spent practically every day demonstrating on Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Many Egyptians regard the author as one of the ″original revolutionaries″. He was spokesman for the "Kifaya" civil rights movement, which began targeting the Mubarak regime with demands for political reform as early as 2004. He was awarded the Johann Philipp Palm Prize for Freedom of Speech and the Press in 2012

Al Aswany: Since 1952, we as a people have been torn between two terrible choices: a dictatorship backed by the army or a dictatorship of religious fanatics. The revolution is an attempt to find a third way: to build up a democratic state which is neither religious nor military.

In 2013 you supported the downfall of President Mohammed Morsi and called the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists. But today, there is still less room for a free civil society. Hasn't the al-Sisi military regime exaggerated the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Al Aswany: No. Calling the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists is absolutely justified. After the military intervention in 2013, they burned around 200 churches and killed many people. That was the context in which I said they were terrorists. The reason I and many millions of Egyptians called for an early presidential election was Morsi's decree in November 2012, which cancelled the democratic system and Egyptian law, turning Morsi into a kind of Ottoman sultan. And that was not acceptable to anybody. I'm absolutely against the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood members and I'm against the repression by the current regime. But I'm also against the decree made by Morsi, because that was the act of a dictator.

In 2013 you supported the military, but now many of the revolutionaries you stood with are in prison. Are you yourself under attack?

Al Aswany: Yes, I have been under attack from the beginning. Egyptians asked for an early presidential election, there were millions of people in the streets, because they didn't trust Morsi – nobody trusted him. At the time, there were thousands of Islamists calling – you can watch it on YouTube – calling for the killing of the other side, killing the millions who are against the Muslim Brotherhood. There were speeches by these people, saying they would create rivers of blood. The military intervention to prevent a civil war, in my opinion, was the duty of the army. But the military intervention should not have meant that the army could rise to power.

Cover of ″The Automobile Club of Egypt″, published by Knopf
In his new novel "The Automobile Club of Egypt", the best-selling Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany paints a picture of a deeply divided, bigoted society and recalls the oriental despotism of the 1940s under King Farouk

I have never supported al-Sisi as president. And I wrote – at that time I was still allowed to publish in Egypt – I wrote that the election of al-Sisi was not democratic and I gave examples. That's why I'm under attack. For the last two years, I have not been able to publish my articles. I am under attack in the media, banned from TV appearances. I don't feel comfortable at all.

Have you ever considered leaving Egypt?

Al Aswany: I do have various other options. But I'm not going to leave Egypt unless obliged. I want to stay in my country like anybody else. But at some point, if I feel I have to, I will leave.

How does censorship in Egypt work?

Al Aswany: We have official censorship for show business: for TV, for theatre and for the cinema. But even for books and newspapers, there is strict – if unofficial – censorship. All the TV channels and newspapers in Egypt that aren't state-run are owned by businessmen. And these businessmen, they don't want any problems with the regime. Just one phone call from anyone linked to security to any businessman in Egypt is enough to cancel a writer's contract, or to ban any speaker from a TV appearance. I have friends who were banned and it's happened to me too. The newspaper owner did all he could to get me to leave and he has never asked me to write again. Censorship is indirect. It's not visible, it's not official, but it's very powerful.

Foreign NGOs are under pressure in Egypt. How do you see Europe's role in Egypt and its claim to stand up for human rights?

Al Aswany: To tell the truth, I don't expect much from Western governments when it comes to supporting democracy in the Arab world. Because Western governments – including the American government – have always supported the interests of multinational corporations, of industry. I'm sorry to say that, but I honestly believe that most Western governments are prepared to support any dictator if it means more money for Western companies.

As for people in the West, that′s different. Western governments supported Mubarak for 30 years – and they knew what a terrible dictator he was. But populations in the West supported the revolution. Many European intellectuals were very understanding of our struggle for democracy. I don't put Western governments and their citizens in the same basket.

Cover of ″On the state of Egypt – What made the revolution inevitable″, published by Vintage
Alaa Al Aswany: "Writing is basically a kind of artistic defence of human values. You write to defend freedom, to defend human rights. It's part of your duty to be in the struggle for democracy"

You're a best-selling author: in Egypt alone, your novels ("The Yacoubian Building," "Chicago: A Novel" and "The Automobile Club of Egypt") have each sold more than 100,000 copies and have been translated into 30 languages. "The Yacoubian Building" was even made into an internationally acclaimed movie. How do you divide your time as an activist and a writer – and are you still working as a dentist?

Al Aswany: Yes, I still work as a dentist.


Al Aswany: Yes. I cannot write fiction more than five to six hours a day. And I only write in the early morning, I cannot write late. So I wake up at 6 a.m., then by 6:30 I'm at my desk – I've been doing this for years – and I write for five or six hours. The rest of the day, I am a dentist. I have my clinic in the same house and I go downstairs to see my patients. It's very useful for a novelist to have contact with people every day.

Do you remain politically active?

Al Aswany: In Egypt, there are no politics because we don't have a democracy. It's a struggle for democracy, not politics. For that reason all writers, not just myself, are committed to take part in this struggle. Writing is basically a kind of artistic defence of human values. You write to defend freedom, to defend human rights. It's part of your duty to be in the struggle for democracy.

I believe writing itself is a commitment. I write because I disagree. I write because I'm angry. I write because the distance between what happens and what should happen is very big. I write to defend freedom, to defend democracy, to defend the dignity of the helpless. I write to struggle against the dictator. And that's why I write.

What are you working on at present?

Al Aswany: I'm working on a new novel, which I hope to finish by the beginning of next year. I've been working on this novel now for about three years. It always takes me three to four years to finish a novel - it's a lot of work, a lot of research.

Does it already have a title?

Al Aswany: Yes: "The Republic As If." The idea is that in a dictatorship, the only truth is the dictator. Everything looks as if it were true, but it's fake.

Interview conducted by Sabine Peschel

© Deutsche Welle 2016

Alaa Al Aswany, born in 1957, may well be Egypt's most prominent living writer. His novels are extremely successful in the Arab world and beyond. Between his work as a dentist and novelist, Al Aswany remains a high-profile critic of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.