Interview. Egypt’s most famous writer expresses sympathy for Giulio Regeni’s family and says the Egyptian revolution is far from over.

Alaa Al Aswany: Egypt state security seeks ‘revenge’ for revolution

Alaa Al Aswany is the most successful Arab writer of recent decades. The Yacoubian Building and his other novels have been published in dozens of countries. Al Aswany is also known for his long opposition to Hosni Mubarak, the president-pharaoh forced to resign under the pressure of the 2011 Tahrir Square revolution. Later he staked out controversial positions during the early stages of the 2013 coup against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, which helped the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi regime surge to power. Il manifesto reached the writer by phone in London, where he’s participating in the Book Fair.

Let’s talk now about the brutal assassination in Cairo of Giulio Regeni and the attitude of the Egyptian authorities.

I think Italy’s commitment to get to the real perpetrators of this murder is totally understandable. For my part I can only express my deepest sympathy to the family of Giulio Regeni.

The Egyptian authorities have blamed common criminals. But Italians and even many Egyptians are pointing the finger at the state security services.

Without evidence, it’s not possible to make direct accusations, but I cannot help but recall the human rights violations by the Egyptian security. Many people [Egyptians] have vanished into thin air. We know about the use of torture, and we have thousands of [political] prisoners, many of whom complain of having suffered violence. And do not forget the law regarding demonstrations, which provides long prison sentences for those who participate in [unauthorized] marches. I’m not a detective. I have no evidence to affirm the involvement of the security apparatus in the assassination of Regeni; however, this apparatus is responsible for serious human rights violations.

Some time ago you said that Egyptians have changed, and those of today are not equal to those of the Mubarak period. But the men of the security services have remained the same.

Unfortunately, yes, and they were enraged in particular by the instigators of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. They have a desire for revenge and keep a negative view of the revolution. According to them, it was triggered by a group of hotheads and was something that the Egyptian people did not want. They do not understand that our country wants to move forward.

The hopes of Tahrir Square were betrayed. Today we have the Sisi regime, similar to if not worse than that of Mubarak. What went wrong in the last five years?

So many things did not go the right way. But history teaches us that a revolution needs time to establish itself, to transform a state. A revolution is based on the courage and the hearts of revolutionaries, while a regime has everything on its side: power, money, force. And if the revolution fails to completely undermine all this, the old regime emerges like a wounded tiger. We must keep in mind that the players of 2011 were not able to complete the revolution and oppose the counter-coup after the departure of Mubarak. However, it is not over, and what we experienced five years ago in Tahrir Square can and must be repeated until the finish.

Among the things that went wrong were, first of all, the military coup of July 2013. Hundreds of civilians were killed the following month in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Like many Western leaders, intellectuals and members of the Egyptian left are hiding behind the choice between the “lesser of two evils” — that is, between the power of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Morsi. You were accused of having chosen the alleged “lesser evil.” Don’t you think this has helped to give the Sisi regime the freedom of action it then used to impose a brutal system?

There was bad information at least as far as I’m concerned. Morsi was elected [in 2012]. I boycotted in the second round of the elections because I could not and I did not vote for the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time I said Egypt should respect Morsi’s victory, that he should remain in power for four years. But Nov. 22, 2012, Morsi, with a presidential decree, annulled the Egyptian [election] law. His move reminded me of what had happened in Peru, in the time of Fujimori, who negated democracy with a decree. So I gave my support to the organization of the strike on June 30, 2013, [against Morsi, organized by the Tamarod movement that paved the way for the military coup] and collected signatures for early presidential elections. I am convinced I did the right thing on that occasion. I have never supported what happened afterward and the return to power of the old regime. The army had to limit intervention to preventing the civil war into which Egypt was falling. Fifty years ago it had done the same with the French Army but did not come to power then. In Tunisia the revolutionary armed forces intervened to protect the democratic system. It could not leave power to an Islamist [Morsi] who deleted a central part of Egyptian law in order to give birth to an Islamic state.

But one must raise his voice against the Sisi regime.

Of course. I try to do that in every way and as often as I can. I remind you that I’m not allowed to publish my articles in Egypt. We are only at the beginning of a historical process, and the road to success of our aspirations is long, as the French and Russian revolutions taught us. But I am optimistic. I know that the Egyptians will reach the finish line.

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