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Egypt Writer Alaa Al-Aswany’s work as a perpetual ‘opponent’ highlights aspects of dictatorship

Alaa Aswani

Alaa Al-Aswany is probably the most famous living Egyptian writer in the world. Since the success of The Yacoubian Building in 2006, which told us about the life of people in Cairo and the various afflictions of Egyptian society, Al-Aswany has divided his work between dense novels about his homeland and political commentary. In his short book The Dictatorship Syndrome (2019) he tries to understand the social, cultural and obviously political symptoms of a dictatorship.

The figures speak for themselves, as the Egyptian author points out. In its 2017 report, the American NGO Freedom House stated that only 39 per cent of the world’s population live in free countries, 25 per cent live under authoritarian regimes and 36 per cent live in dictatorships. Al-Aswany has been able to observe this reality in his own country, yet he believed in change and participated in the 2011 revolution. Since then, though, the water of the Nile has flowed over the same frozen landscape: the president is dead, long live the president. In his book, Al-Aswany takes the political pulse of societies under dictatorship through nine chapters, breaking the code of the syndrome in great detail and with historical anecdotes.

The idea was born out of a long conversation on the subject of dictatorship, central to Al-Aswany’s novels, with one of his publisher friends. The result should have been published in the form of an interview, but the conversations eventually led to a book. “I chose to give it the form of a medical examination of a society under dictatorship because it seems to me that dictatorship is precisely a disease,” he tells me. “I am a dentist by training, so I have a scientific eye.” Al-Aswany poses the principle of the dictatorship syndrome, a syndrome being understood as a set of symptoms that are always repeated together.

Le Syndrome de la dictature (the Dictatorship Syndrome) by Alaa Aswani

Le Syndrome de la dictature (the Dictatorship Syndrome) by Alaa Aswani

How can we avoid falling into the trap that there are social or cultural bodies more willing to develop the dictatorship syndrome? Cultural essentialism is not far off. This is a question that the author reflected on: “I obviously do not think that certain people are by nature condemned to undergo dictatorship. But there are times in history when a dictatorship can be established.” However, he says that culture remains an important element that would explain the possibility of a dictatorship. “Religion too,” he explains, “because it implies a blind submission to a higher authority, making it easier to accept dictatorship.”

Is this a particular bias from someone who grew up in a bourgeois, socialist and intellectual family in Cairo? “I am talking about a way of interpreting religion. Because religion can indeed be a revolutionary force just as much. Everything depends, once again, on how it is interpreted. All religions, in their beginnings, were revolutionary. The concern is that these religions later become institutionalised and have a structure, what I call an ‘establishment’. They lose their revolutionary dynamic and become a reactionary force.”

Alaa Al-Aswany is certain that “political Islam is a reflection of the middle class crisis.” According to him, history teaches us that “religion + politics = fascism.” Quite simply, religion “is absolute and a democracy cannot work on the basis of absolute truths. Political Islam, carried by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt from 1928, was not mainstream in Egypt. Indeed, until Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in 1952, not all the elections organised in a fair and clean way were victorious. The Islamists lost these elections and the Egyptians voted for the liberal Wafd (Delegation) Party.” He goes on to say: “Political Islam cannot dominate in a democratic regime. As early as 1952, with the cancellation of the democratic system by Nasser, Egypt found itself caught between military fascism and religious fascism. The country gets rid of one fascism only to fall into the other.”

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Al-Aswany has never hidden his opposition to any Islamist regime in his country, to the point that he was accused of supporting the military coup of 3 July, 2013 which overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, who had been elected a year earlier at the end of the post-revolution transition period. The coup led to the presidency of General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. His support for the coup has long been held against him.

Dictatorship is therefore a syndrome that questions the people and the dictator; their beliefs and their fears. Al-Aswany does this through anecdotes and general reflections and uses different characters: a journalist who is forced to cover rigged elections and make laudatory and false reports; or a young man whose only obsession is to risk his life and flee Egypt, because “I am already dead in this country anyway”. Shouldn’t, though, we also question the support for dictatorships from some Western countries in the name of cynical realpolitik? How many dictators would have remained in power otherwise?

As far as the Egyptian writer is concerned, we must question the motives of Western governments — are they defending their interests or principles? — to which the answer is simple: their interests, obviously. “The term ‘enlightened dictator’ has been coined, which I find ridiculous. There is no such thing as an enlightened dictator or dictatorship. This expression simply indicates that this dictator is useful to Western interests. Then oil remains such a central issue. Look at Mohammad Bin Salman. He had a journalist [Jamal Khashoggi] killed and cut into pieces, but nothing happened to him because he has the support of some key countries. I’m obviously talking about Western countries, not Western people. The French people supported our revolution when, at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy supported Hosni Mubarak. I don’t expect much from Western governments, but I expect a lot from Western people.”

How does Alaa Al-Aswany, who has lived in exile in New York for the past two years, position himself now? In The Dictatorship Syndrome he states that, “The problematic position of an intellectual in a dictatorship is one of the most widespread symptoms [of a dictatorship].” He admits that his own position is one of the most questionable. He provides details of the strict controls that he is exposed to when he enters or leaves Egypt, and how he hid the USB stick containing his manuscript in his tube of toothpaste.

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“I will forever be an opponent. I was opposed to Mubarak. I supported and participated in the revolution. Then I opposed the Islamists. Now I’m opposed to Sisi. When he came to power in 2014, I was banned from television and newspapers after two weeks.”

He accepted invitations to teach creative writing in US universities, but he regularly returned to Egypt until the publication of his 2018 book And I ran to the Nile. “That’s when the Egyptian authorities said that they would prosecute me before a military court. My friends and lawyers advised me not to return. My wife and two daughters are living with me in New York, but my son stayed in Cairo. He’s a mathematician and an actor, although he no longer gets any roles, after a promising debut. He was told clearly that it was because of his father. The problem in any dictatorship is that those who disagree are considered enemies who must be destroyed.”

The Dictatorship Syndrome was an opportunity for the writer to revisit two contrasting figures from his childhood. His father, Abbas Al-Aswany, was also a writer and a socialist, and an opponent of Nasser, and not only taught Alaa, but also “trained” him. “As an only child, I spent all my time with him, and he took me to political meetings with his friends. I was 19 years old when he died. It was he who saw my desire to write and advised me to have a profession that would make me independent. He said that a writer in a dictatorship should have a profession that would make him financially secure. He was right and I became a dentist. That was how I earned my living and I was able to write freely.”

Al-Aswany Senior paid dearly for his political commitment. “He was put in prison for disrupting public safety. It was this experience that allowed him to dissect Nasser’s regime. He said that Nasser had achieved projects for which others had fought for years. But he felt that this would not hold because, because according to him, no change was possible without freedom. He was told that he was exaggerating when he announced that everything would fall once Nasser was gone. That is exactly what happened. As soon as Nasser died in 1970, everything fell apart; all the projects he had been working on fell apart. It was predictable because these projects were not carried by the people but totally by the Egyptian President.”

The other figure of note in the book is Nasser himself. For Al-Aswany, Nasser is the founder of the dictatorial machinery in Egypt. “Before him, there was obviously no absolute democracy in Egypt, but there was a democratic project. The country was under British occupation and the king tried to monopolise the power. But there was an important struggle for independence and democracy. Nasser undermined all this when he came to power in 1952, after a coup which was certainly supported by the people, but which remains a coup nonetheless. In 1954, he annulled the democratic system and monopolised power.” This was accompanied by the imprisonment and torture of political opponents. “Under Nasser, torture was no longer a means of extracting confessions. It became a way to punish. People were tortured before and after they confessed. It was a way of creating the machine of fear.”

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Nasser thus created the blueprint of a strong man who relies on the army to stay in power. “The army was everywhere. Nasser distributed the ministries to his military colleagues according to their loyalty and not according to their skills. Thus a kind of military bourgeoisie was formed. People connected to the army became a social class. This phenomenon can be found in Latin America. The man in power today is a dictator like Nasser, who also practises torture. But if, economically speaking, Nasser was a socialist, Sisi is a liberal. Politically, though, it’s the same thing: dictatorship.” This observation is irrefutable.

Nevertheless, Alaa Al-Aswany remains optimistic. He analyses the situation in the so-called Arab Spring countries, again as a scientist, according to his syndrome method. “These troubles are temporary. History will decide and take side with the revolutions. The weapons of the revolution are moral: courage, conscience and justice. But the weapons of counter-revolution are real weapons that can and do kill: the army, the police and the judges. The revolution must win.”

This optimism makes him delve into Egypt and its society and culture; his homeland is the central character of his writings. His next novel will be set in Alexandria — his mother’s city — in the 1960s. As a perpetual “opponent”, I wonder what his treatment of it will be.

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