''The Arab Revolution Is a Cultural Revolution''

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere is an Egyptian novelist, diplomat and academic. In this interview with Ceyda Nurtsch, he talks about the new Egyptian identity and why the Arab revolution is just the beginning of a long process

You wrote your novel "Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge", that was long-listed for the Arabic Booker-Price 2012, during the Egyptian revolution. It is a book about alienation and ultimately about identity. How have the uprisings in Egypt shaped or redefined the identity of society?

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere: I wrote most of the novel before the Egyptian or even the Tunisian Revolution started. When the revolution started I put the novel aside, because most of the time I was on the streets. But then I came back and I finished and published it about six months after Mubarak left. I don't think that the revolution or the Arab Spring changed the identity of the society. I rather think that the revolution is a reflection of a change that took place in the way that Egyptians see themselves and the world.

I'll give you two simple examples: During the uprising days in January and February on the Tahrir square there was no mention whatsoever of "us" and "them". There was no mention of "the West". There was no mention of America or Israel or any of this. What there was in terms of demands was: "We want freedom, social justice and we want bread and dignity". If you listened carefully to what people in the streets or in the media said was: we want the same things as others have. Why don't we have a democracy? What is particular about the Arabs? Why don't we have a democracy as everyone else? Why are we less than the others? We are not.

I think this is a fundamental change in the way we see ourselves. We don't see ourselves as inferior to others or as special, neither in a positive nor in a negative sense. We just want good governance, a functioning society, a reasonable life standard and so on.

A young boy watches from a rooftop as tens of thousands of Egyptians pray and celebrate the fall of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak on Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 18, 2011 (photo: AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Choukri Fishere: "I don't think that the revolution or the Arab Spring changed the identity of the society. I rather think that the revolution is a reflection of a change that took place in the way that Egyptians see themselves and the world."

​​The second is how the rest of the world sees the Egyptians or the Arabs, the stereotypes that were practically shuttered in January and February. At the same time we see what is happening at the moment with the US Embassies in the region, all this outpouring of hatred and fanaticism. These are competing visions of what an Arab is. Competing visions of who we are, what our identity is and what we want. This is a very healthy thing and this is going to shape who we are.

As we speak, the Egyptian and the Arab identity and even Muslim identity are being shaped and there are being shaped on the street. And this is how it should be.

In your novel you tell the stories of a group of immigrants in New York who are all linked to one central character and who are all on their way to a party that in the end doesn't take place - a witty metaphor for the hopes of immigrants that are not eventually fulfilled. Still your book is not only about immigration, but can be read as a tale on identity in a broader sense.

Fishere: I think that the novel is not about immigrants, although I'm happy if immigrants think that it is about them, because then they buy and read it. But ultimately the question of identity is not exclusive to immigrants. The situation of immigration emphasizes and underlines identity, but in the novel, as in reality, I think everyone has questions about identity. What the novel does is it unpacks and questions the received notions about identity. I hope it does this in a subtle way and not like a book in sociology.

In the novel each of the eight characters is telling his or her story in their own voice. So you don't have access to "reality", you only have access to what they tell you. The game between the reader and the text is this: Either you can just believe what they tell you and then you can think that this is about immigrants, about east-west relations and all that. Or you can start questioning.

A protester opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi holds an Egyptian flag as he stands on Kasr El Nile bridge, which leads to Tahrir Square in Cairo, February 1, 2013 (photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Fundamental uprising: According to Fishere, the Arab revolution is a cultural revolution. "It is about the set of values that people have, the norms and the rules, but also the mentality, how you think and how you link things together," he says

​​Do the characters see everything that is around them or are they making a selective reading of their own reality? Does this reading affect their choices and also, does it affect their identity? In the novel there is a lot of emphasis on how the reading we make of our world affects not only our identity and our choices but also on how it affects what happens to us. Do we go through the obstacles or do we lie down in front of them and kind of weep over our destiny?

You once said that the revolution was not merely an overthrowing of dictators but, more importantly, a cultural revolution. What do you mean by that?

Fishere: Let me reassure you, when I say "cultural revolution", I do not mean it in a Chinese sense. But it is a cultural revolution with culture in its very basic definition. It is about the set of values that people have, the norms and the rules, but also the mentality, how you think and how you link things together.

Do you have a pragmatic thinking? Or do you emphasize symbolic references more? How do you operate? Let's say you are confronted with a question. What is the foundation of morality for you? How do you answer the question? Do you have what we call an external foundation, in that sense that you go and consult a book for example? This can be the Bible, the Koran, or even Karl Marx, Das Kapital. Or do you operate in a different way?

For a very long time in Egypt the foundation of morality and the foundation of what is right if you want was external. I don't think this is the case anymore. I think that people's minds and mental operations have changed. Today the foundation of morality is shifting. And therefore the external authority whatever it is – not only books, but people, references, the old, the symbolic, the big, the great – is being contested.

Believe it or not this contestation is taking place not only among the liberals. It's taking place among Islamists. Young Islamists are contesting the authority and validity of what the old Islamists are saying. And this is unheard of. If I am right and this is taking place then you will ultimately see a very different Egypt, even a very different Islamic camp, a very different Islam altogether in the way it is interpreted and practiced.

Arabic Book Cover 'In the Eye of the Storm' by Ezzedinie Choukri Fishere
Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere's new book, "In the Eye of the Storm", analyses political conditions in Egypt since the revolution, deploying the analogy of the perfect storm and warning of more possible tumult ahead

​​In my book "In the Eye of the Storm" my point is: The real and most important change in Egypt and the Arab world is a cultural change. It is a change in the mentality of people, in how their minds function and how they operate. But again, these things take time and they are done through conflict, trouble and confrontation and then they unfold. So it is a bit unfair to expect things to happen right away.

You argued that for change to come the layer of the old mental set needs to be pushed away so that there is room for the younger. Is this all it takes?

Fishere: Obviously it is a simplistic way of putting it. The cultural change I'm talking about is not just about age. It is a mentality. Then again, not all the old are of the old culture and I am not very young either. But it is also true that you will find more young people on the new culture side. When I say that the old basically need to be exfoliated and removed I mean that Egypt is ruled by men who are above 70.

There are very few women and the women who are there are being masculinized. I don't just mean politicians, but all areas: the state institutions, the cultural scene. Those are basically suffocating this change and are trying to stop it.

We saw in January and February that the political system exploded because the pressure in it couldn't be repressed anymore. I expect you would see more systems exploding if those old mentality people who are in charge would leave us alone and let us breathe a little bit.

In your book "In the Eye of the Storm", in which you analyze the political conditions in Egypt since the revolution, you deploy the analogy of a 'perfect storm' and warn of more possible tumult ahead. What are we to expect?

Fishere: The book is not a prophecy. Basically I am saying that some people see this revolution as if it were a plot, a conspiracy which is organized by the Muslim Brothers or the Americans or whoever. Or even as a project that is lead by a youth movement. I say that this is not a helpful way of understanding neither revolutions nor the Arab Spring. I am presenting a different model.

Think of storms, the phenomenon known as the 'perfect storm'. We have a number of little storms joining each other. What we have been going through as a country and a society is this: the educational system collapsed; there was frustration, basically all of the state institutions were not functioning, as well as many other factors. All this came together and with a little ignition you had the uprisings.

It could have happened earlier or later or it could have been avoided if some of the storms had not joined each other. But now you have that big explosion. You can expect to have more of them if you don't deal with the sources of the storm, there is no change in pressure, the winds don't slow down and you don't solve any of the problems.

Protesters take part in a march during the second anniversary of the resignation of veteran President Hosni Mubarak, at Tahrir Square in Cairo, February 11, 2013 (photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Protagonists and victims of the revolution - Egypt's Islamists: "Young Islamists are contesting the authority and validity of what the old Islamists are saying. And this is unheard of."

​​The main question of the revolution is, is this the end or the beginning of some deeper and longer process. I am of the view that it is a deeper and longer process because the change is deeper and it is not been dealt with yet. Not much has changed in the official discourse. I don't mean just the state, but the media, the way fathers talk to their daughters and all this nonsense. There is a huge gap between the young and the old ones. The old ones don't understand what the young ones want and they and the young ones are pushing forward. In my book I address some of the challenges ahead.

Your latest novel, "The Exit", is kind of a political science fiction, in which you picture different scenarios of what could happen if one of the groups participating in the revolution took over power. How optimistic are you that a horror scenario can be avoided?

Fishere: You can call it science fiction, but I claim that it is a real novel with drama and tragic issues, fundamental questions about freedom and so on. "The Exit" is a letter written by someone who is about to commit what will be perceived as a major treason to his son. He writes the letter to his son in 2020. The person explains to his son why he is doing what he is about to do and in that process you learn about what happened in Egypt in the eight year between today and the date of the letter.

The political side in the novel is the opposite of "In the Eye of the Storm". It is a description of what would happen if we continued to do what we are doing. Basically it is a description of the unfolding of the perfect storm. It is a picture of what happens if we don't deliberately do something to face the challenges successfully.

You have an Islamic government, which does crazy things, and then you have the leftists, the liberals and a military coup. It is a panoramic view of the unfolding disaster if you want. But ultimately there is an unexpected hope that shows itself in the end and the new comes out of the ashes.

I am optimistic, still I don't think that all pieces will fall in place and everything will be harmonious. Things will be messy, difficult and a bit ugly at times. But this is a healthy struggle that probably we should have been through some time ago and we were kept from it by this authoritarian regime. Now we are having it. I am confident that in a number of years the new will come out of the ashes but there will be ashes I am afraid.

Interview: Ceyda Nurtsch

© Qantara.de 2013

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere is a former diplomat and currently teaches political sciences at the American University of Cairo. So far he has published five novels – among them "Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge" (2011) which has been long-listed for the Arabic Booker Price 2012 – and a political analysis about the Egyptian Revolution, "In the Eye of the Storm" (2012). Recently, he was appointed by Egypt's transitional government as Secretary-General of Egypt's Supreme Council for Culture in April 2011. Fishere resigned four months later and returned to teaching and writing.

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de