Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 February - 2 March 2011
Issue No. 1036
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Deepest of depths

Gamal Nkrumah speaks with Egypt's Maxim Gorky -- Alaa El-Aswani on the country's state of affairs

Internationally acclaimed author Alaa El-Aswani is a writer who hit the right note at precisely the most opportune revolutionary moment. On Sunday, the American University in Cairo Press celebrated the reopening of its Tahrir Square Bookstore with a book-signing extravaganza of the best-selling author of The Yacoubian Building (AUC Press 2005) and Chicago (AUC Press 2007) -- two novels that shook the Arab world.

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El-Aswani who has most conveniently now turned his attention to the political arena with the publication of his latest bombshell On The State of Egypt: A Novelist's Provocative Reflections grapples with the vexing questions concerning the moral ambiguity of appointed politicians in a fundamentally undemocratic society buttressed by police brutality. His focus is on political corruption on a disconcerting scale. Ominously, he expresses doubts about the suitability of radical democratic reforms in a predominantly Muslim society.

The problem is not with religion per se but rather the social injustice and economic deprivation that drives the dispossessed and disenfranchised to seek succour in the "opium of the masses".

"The level of corruption in government circles was unprecedented in the history of Egypt. A small group of businessmen, mostly friends of Gamal Mubarak, had complete control of the Egyptian economy and were running their own interests. Forty million Egyptians, half the population, were living below the poverty line, on less than $2 a day. Egypt was in decline on every front: from health and education to the education to the economy and foreign policy. A few rich people lived like kings in their palaces and resorts, moving around in private planes, while poor people were committing suicide because they could not support their families or dying in the crush to obtain cheap bread or bottles of cooking oil. The vast police apparatus that cost billions at the expense of Egyptians was one of the worst instruments of repression in the world," El-Aswani mused.

For their part, the Armed Forces purport to have put the nation's interests above their own specific concerns. El-Aswani is not so sure. A lasting solution to the question of military intervention in the political affairs of the army must rest on a recognition that a thorough separation of the military from the political dynamics of the country is prerequisite for a stable, steadfast, and viable multi-party democracy.

"The army, or at least the upper echelons, was misled by renegades of the Mubarak regime. Why are they in a hurry to hold presidential and parliamentary elections? If you hold elections too quickly, the results will not truly represent the aspirations of the Egyptian people," El-Aswani told Al-Ahram Weekly.

According to El-Aswani, renewal is the essence of democracy and it is imperative that the new revolutionary dispensation relegates the Armed Forces to the barracks eventually. "Yes. I am proud of the positive role the army played in the 25 January Revolution. However, it must be made absolutely clear that they must step down as soon as the people elect a civilian administration. It remains to be seen if this earthquake shaking the Egyptian political establishment will lead to fundamental political reform where the army will be confined to the barracks." El-Aswani says that Egyptians are not yet ready to form political parties that can embark on free and fair democratic elections. They need time to mobilise.

"Those who work in the theatre know the moment when one scene ends, the state goes dark, and the stage hands move in at speed to remove the set from the previous scene and replace it with the set for the next scene. This process, known as changing the set, calls for training and skill but first of all precise knowledge of what the next scene requires," notes El-Aswani in his very timely collection of newspaper columns that expose the causes of the country's 25 January Revolution On The State of Egypt.

"Fathi Sorour, speaker of the dissolved parliament, and Moufid Shehab, former state minister for legal and parliamentary affairs, are playing their usual games behind the scenes," El-Aswani told the Weekly.

Such Machiavellian schemers have not yet crawled into their holes or joined their colleagues behind bars.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, according to El-Aswani, was unequivocally right to point out on Egyptian television that the retirement of ex-president Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh constitutes a mortal danger to the smooth transition of power to the democratic forces that spearheaded the 25 January Revolution. "Heikal is more informed than I am. Heikal is a seasoned political writer. One thing for certain is that Mubarak is in hiding in Sharm El-Sheikh precisely because a foreign power is backing him, is all out behind him. I believe this theory of Heikal's is most plausible. It is very obvious and clear to me."

This bombshell was dropped on Egyptians in Heikal's first appearance on Egyptian state television since the Arab world's premier man of letters was banned in the 1970s. It caused a sensation. And El-Aswani commended the Arab world's foremost political writer for his forthrightness.

Of course Heikal never lost touch with his devotees on Al-Jazeera. But on Egyptian television he triumphantly bombarded the ancient regime like a loose cannon.

"No one acquires political legitimacy from a military battle as Mubarak did. Heikal warned that he suspects that a counter-revolution might be in the making, orchestrated in Sharm El-Sheikh and masterminded by foreign powers, implying Israel."

Prophetically, El-Aswani observes in his On The State of Egypt that conditions in the country have reached "rock bottom in the full sense: poverty, disease, oppression, corruption, unemployment, lack of healthcare, and deteriorating education."

"Would anyone have imagined that Egyptians would end up drinking sewage water?" El-Aswani asks rhetorically. "The number of people who died on the ferries that sank, on burning trains, and in collapsed buildings is more than the number who died in all the wars Egypt has fought."

Driving the point home, El-Aswani gets down to basics. "That is why protests and strikes have proliferated in a way that Egypt has not seen since the 1952 Revolution.

"The apologists of the regime say these protests do not reflect a real desire for radical reform but are aimed at achieving narrow professional demands. It escapes those people that most revolutions in history started out with protest movements that did not fundamentally seek revolution, because revolution is not a slogan or a prior objective but a stage a society goes through at a certain moment when everything becomes liable to ignite. We are definitely at such a stage."

An astounding insight when in retrospect one realises that this particular quote in his newly released and timely book is from an article written in November 2009 and not on the eve of the 25 January Revolution.

"A million Egyptians came out on the streets calling for the downfall of the regime and Mubarak's departure. I dressed hurriedly and joined the Egyptian revolution until the end. I lived 18 days in the street except for a few hours when I slept and checked in with my family. The people I saw in Tahrir Square were new Egyptians, with nothing in common with the Egyptians I was used to dealing with everyday. It was as if the revolution had created Egyptians in a higher form," El-Aswani extrapolated.

"Every night I spoke in front of a million people, and I will never forget their eyes, full of anger and determination, and their united chant that roared like thunder: 'Down with Hosni Mubarak.' Tahrir Square became like the Paris Commune. The authority of the regime collapsed and the people took its place."

The 25 January Revolution was conceived in flush times as the least we could do for restoring the dignity of the Egyptian people and it was brazenly nurtured under worsening economic circumstances.

The public lost patience with the powers that be. The Mubarak regime, according to El-Aswani, appeared to have collapsed of its own hubris and illogic.

El-Aswani, however, cautions against the adoption in desperation of militant Islamist ideology in face of social frustration, unemployment and economic deprivation. "As oppression and poverty grew more severe, many preferred to escape, geographically and historically. Geographically, they moved to the oil-rich of the Gulf to work, usually in humiliating trades, so that they could come home with enough money to live a reasonable life.

"Others chose to travel in time, hanging on to the past and living in their imaginations in what they thought was the golden age of Islam. They wore galabiyas, grew long beards, and adopted the names of early Muslims in order to escape from the cruel reality of the present to the glories of the past. The use of Saudi oil money and with the blessing of the Egyptian regime, there was an aggressive campaign to promote the Wahabi interpretation of Islam, which orders Muslims to obey their ruler however iniquitous and corrupt he may be."

El-Aswani makes no bones about the dangers of militant Islamist ideology taking hold of the Egyptian masses. "In the 1960s there was an Al-Azhar sheikh in my family by the name of Sheikh Abdel-Salam Sarhan, a man of awesome appearance with his great stature, his Al-Azhar garments, and his stentorian voice. When people needed his opinion on any legal matter, he would receive them hospitably in his home and explain the rules of Islam to them. It would be out of the question that Sheikh Abdel-Salam would ever charge any fee for his efforts. What I learned from Sheikh Abdel-Salam was that making people aware of the precepts of their religion was the true vocation of preachers and religious scholars."

"Egypt has changed and a new generation of preachers has arisen, different in every respect. Egyptians are naturally devout and increasingly resort to God because of the poverty, injustice and humiliation they face in this world. There are millions of illiterate people and even the educated find it hard to access the original sources of Islam. As a result, these new preachers have become the main source of religious learning for millions of Egyptians, and hence play a decisive role in shaping public awareness."

El-Aswani notes that the new preachers lack proper academic training in religious sciences and rely on their own machinations of persuasion and personal appeal. Like politicians, they also rely on exciting religious feelings "and this climaxes when the preacher starts weeping and makes the audience weep in fear of God," as he aptly put it. It is reminiscent of the crude Commedia dell'arte.

The award-winning writer is equally dismissive of the political position of the Coptic Christian Church. "For years I worked in the same clinic as a Coptic dentist and we quickly became friends. He was a good man, honest and was completely detached from public affairs and was not aware of most political events. Then the last elections came round and I was surprised to find him away from work. When I asked him why, he said that he had gone to vote for Mubarak. I thought that strange and I asked him why since elections were rigged. After a brief pause, he answered with his usual candour, that the Church asked him to vote for the ex-president and they organised buses to take the parishioners to the polling stations. So it became clear that the Coptic Church endorsed the idea that Mubarak's son, Gamal, should have inherited the presidency."

El-Aswani, however, on a more upbeat note, referred to the symbolic appearance of Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi when he preached the Friday sermon to millions during Friday prayers in Tahrir Square 18 February. This was an unprecedented event. The former mufti of Qatar and a distinguished Egyptian Islamist preacher widely respected throughout the Muslim world, like his secular counterpart Heikal long banned from addressing his compatriots, El-Qaradawi spoke in conciliatory tones about the solidarity of the Egyptian people in face of repression.

El-Qaradawi praised columnist and political commentator Ahmed Ragab who described how a Christian woman poured water for a Muslim to perform ablutions before prayer. "This was a thrilling experience for us all," said El-Aswani quoting El-Qaradawi.

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