“Counter-revolutions emerge when revolutions lose strength, and we Egyptians made a serious mistake in 2011,” said Alaa al Aswany, the best-known Egyptian writer and one of the most important Arab novelists of the last 30 years. “We left Tahrir Square too early, right after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. We should not have left that place until we elected representatives of the revolution in every part of Egypt.”
More than six years later, Aswany continues to reflect on those days back in January and February 2011, which put an end to the rule of “Pharaoh” Mubarak — “those were the best 18 days of my life,” he says — and the reasons for their failure. After the brief presidency of the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, the military coup of 2013 led to the birth of another authoritarian regime, which culminated in the rise to power of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
A dentist by profession and writer by vocation, Aswany is the author of fascinating novels translated into dozens of languages, such as The Yacoubian Building, Chicago and The Automobile Club of Egypt. In 2013, Aswany rallied for Morsi’s removal: “The Muslim Brotherhood in power was a danger to Egypt, but I never supported violence and massacres.” Now he deploys his criticism against the regime. “I never called for el-Sisi to be president,” he told me by phone from New York. “And I wrote that his election was not democratic. For these positions, I’m no longer allowed to publish my articles, I am under attack in the media and I’m prohibited from television appearances.”
Aswany is temporarily in the U.S., where he’s teaching Arabic literature. Upon his return to Egypt this summer, he will release his new novel, whose theme will be the Tahrir Square revolution.
Former President Mubarak was condemned for the repression he ordered in 2011. Now the judges say he was not responsible for those massacres and are preparing to free him. Yet many protagonists of the revolution remain in prison.
All this is very sad, but it’s not a surprise. The regime in power in Egypt today is counter-revolutionary, and one of its tasks is precisely to punish those who participated in the revolution. Mubarak’s culpability has been established. Some of those who were part of his entourage testified that Mubarak himself gave the order to shoot and kill protesters during the popular uprising. Yet we are close to his release, which perfectly explains the reality in which Egyptians live.
Before 2011, everyone was against Mubarak. Now many Egyptians have sided with el-Sisi, despite the fact that the brutality and abuses of his regime are no different from Mubarak’s. How do you explain that?
After every revolution, society splits into three groups: the true revolutionaries who remain faithful to their principles, the supporters of the old regime and, between these two parts, the passive masses. This social segment, the most consistent, does not have a well-defined (political) consciousness, is not ready to pay the price that a revolution involves and indeed fears the profound changes. So the chaos in which Egypt remained for a long time and the widespread anti-revolutionary propaganda in the media have had an easy job of conditioning the opinion of so many Egyptians. Are people who have lived under a long dictatorship willing to accept the upheaval the revolution proposes? Giving a complete answer to this question means explaining why so many Egyptians support el-Sisi. Anyway, I’m optimistic. Young people created the 2011 revolution, and I am convinced the youth will return to challenge the current regime.
In Italy, the brutal killing of Giulio Regeni over a year ago in Cairo remains in the foreground. The Italian judiciary recently accused the Egyptian authorities of not providing the necessary cooperation to find those responsible for his murder.
I am not in possession of evidence to accuse the Egyptian services of assassinating Giulio Regeni. At the same time, security apparatuses have been and continue to be responsible for heinous crimes, and many crimes in Egypt, and this makes them among the main suspects in the killing of the young Italian. For my part, I can only express sympathy and solidarity to the Regeni family and join those who emphatically demand clarity about the whole affair.
You are writing a novel about the revolution, which, apparently, doesn’t spare any accusations against el-Sisi regime. You’re not afraid of reactions from the authorities on your return to Egypt?
I’m already paying for the consequences of my opinions. Am I concerned? Sure, I am. As a human being, I cannot be comfortable in this situation, but I’m not afraid. I will continue to express my opinion wherever possible about Egypt under the el-Sisi regime.
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