Alaa Al-Aswany is a controversial figure in Egypt these days. The dentist-cum-author is best known in international circles for his critically acclaimed 2002 novel The Yacoubian Buildingi (later turned into a big-budget film and television series); but in his native country he is adored and derided in equal measure for his support first for the 2011 Revolution and later for the 2013 military intervention that ousted elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi.
At the time of the military intercession (the word “coup” has proven too politically charged to be used in any meaningful way and has been shunned by Aswany himself), Aswany was vocal in his backing of installed president General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who he claimed represented “the will of the people” against the “fascism” of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. This view, although initially popular in Egypt, proved contentious among Muslim Brotherhood supporters both at home and abroad, especially after the particularly gruesome events in August 2013 that saw at least 817 Morsi supporters massacred by military forces at Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiyah mosque (although some accounts put the figure closer to 1,000).
Aswany’s continued support for the military during the later part of 2013 earned him vocal criticism from Islamists and leftists alike, and in October of that year he was even attacked and forced offstage during an event at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Aswany’s not-unfounded assertions that pro-Brotherhood protests had themselves been violent (he even went so far on some occasions as to label Muslim Brotherhood members “terrorists”) were seen by many as an attempt to justify the Rabaa killings, even though he himself had immediately spoken out against the massacre. For a leftist intellectual such as Aswany, brought up in a pre-Revolution Egypt surrounded by the intelligentsia and educated in a French lycée, it seemed the only political choice available was between an Islamist government and a repressive military regime. He chose the latter.
It came as a surprise to everyone, then, when in October 2014 Aswany publicly retracted his support for the 2013 military intervention, declaring that “there was no revolution in Egypt except the January 25 Revolution”, in reference to the 2011 popular uprising that toppled long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Now, as the fourth anniversary of that fateful day draws close, a new collection of Aswany’s writings translated into English purports to bring together the various threads of the writer’s thought in one complete volume. Democracy is the Answer: Egypt’s Years of Revolution (to be published by Ginko Library on 25 January 2015, the anniversary of the Revolution) is the first comprehensive collection of all 150 of Aswany’s weekly column written for Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm since January 2011. The title comes from Aswany’s trademark signoff to his column: “Democracy is the answer” – a direct riposte to the Muslim Brotherhood slogan of “Islam is the answer” (sometimes translated as “Islam is the solution”). A weighty 650-odd-page tome, the book’s blurb declares it to be “a comprehensive chronicle of over three years of turmoil and upheaval in Egyptian politics from one of the Middle East’s foremost political voices.” And a chronicle it is; though less of political events in Egypt themselves than of the various twists and turns in thought and leanings of the man chronicling them: Aswany himself.
The book itself is truly a testament to Aswany’s talents as a writer, as he transitions seamlessly from dry intellectual commentary to vicious political satire and elegant social metaphors rendered through fictional representation. Particular highlights include his column from 29 March 2011 entitled “What did the monkey say to the lion?” in which he constructs an extended metaphor comparing Egypt to a forest that has been ruled by a despotic elephant (evidently a reference to Mubarak) and his loyal guard the lion who, following the deposition of the elephant, takes power and claims to represent the interests of the other animals while secretly holding meetings with the elephant and continuing to implement his will (seemingly a comparison to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, know as SCAF, who filled the power vacuum immediately after the revolution). While his witty genius shines through in articles such as that from 20 January 2014, in which he chronicles an imaginary disease he calls “chairophilia” (the constant pursuit of power, or of a higher position or “chair”):
“Chairophilia is widespread in Arab, African and many Latin American countries. It has been observed that the disease is most virulent in dictatorial regimes… Its incidence in Egypt is the highest in the world. Statistics prove that one of every three Egyptians has chairophilia.”
But throughout the book, as we move from Aswany’s elation in early 2011 to his cynicism of late 2012/2013 and his conflicted loyalty of 2014, there are two themes that resurface time and again. The first is the writer’s steadfast commitment to the values of democracy and liberty espoused by the Jan 25 Revolution; and the second is his total rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood. More interestingly, read over a period of time, it is possible to see how Aswany’s thought has progressed from a personal belief in the religion of Islam and its applicability to society as a whole (“The only way to bring about a renaissance is to apply the true principles of Islam”, 31 May 2011), to questioning the relevance of any religion in the political sphere (“Practicing politics with religious sentiments… leads to intolerance and attempts to obtain power by any means without considering the rights of others,” 29 March 2012). Although these two positions may seem in direct opposition to each other when placed side by side, it is in the progression between the two that we come to understand the true sentiments of the author.
Such a chronicling of the political and sociological thought also serves to contextualise the various statements and affiliations of the author himself, which are often presented as a fait accompli without the necessary background to give them meaning. It is in this way that Aswany’s recent anti-Sisi stance begins to make sense. As a Western-inspired intellectual and a believer in the concepts of freedom and democracy, it is possible to see how the July 2013 military ouster of Morsi might have initially been welcomed by Aswany, representing in his eyes the triumph of the “people” over what he saw as an Islamist dictator. But as time wore on, and Sisi’s forces tightened their grip on the country, we witness Aswany recant on his initial views, and even go so far as to proclaim in a later column that: “The only thing allowed in Egypt now is to sing the general’s praises and to make remarks which underpin his genius… Some of el-Sisi’s men are trying to turn him into a new pharaoh, and if they succeed Egypt will pay the same crushing price it has paid under every autocratic ruler.” Interestingly, this last remark was published in early June 2014, not long before Aswany resigned his position at Al-Masry Al-Youm, citing a lack of freedom.
This deeper understanding, then, is perhaps the greatest achievement of this book. For a figure such as Aswany, whose thought and opinion had proved so controversial in recent years, it is in the transition between different points of view, not the steadfast commitment to one particular ideology, that the true message lies. Or rather, it is in the transitioning between different polarised positions in relation to Aswany’s continued and vocal assertion that “Democracy is the answer”.