Alaa Al Aswany: Egypt’s Number One Novelist on… Us

Alaa Al Aswany, the best-selling novelist in the Arab world, sticks to his day job in dentistry. We meet in his modern clinical suite where he starts writing before office hours every morning at 6:30. I greet him at 9 in the evening with the thought that he’d written the book that made Egypt’s revolution necessary.

The Yacoubian Building (2002 in Arabic; 2006 in English translation and also a big-budget Egyptian movie) opened a cross section on a Downtown Cairo apartment house, from doorman’s stool to rooftop teeming with poor folk from the country. The links in life and love (gay and straight) inside the building are manipulation, predation, betrayal, heartbreak and vengeance. They’re neatly matched outside in the thuggy, druggy politics of the moment, and in the humiliations that turn an aspiring young policeman into a jihadist. The Yacoubian Building made the private-public connection between torture in the name of love, and torture in the police station. As a chronicle of the Mubarak years in Egypt, it’s a readable shocker, still a call to action.

“Literature and medicine,” Alaa Al Aswany observes in conversation, “are one profession with two aspects, in that novelists and doctors are both interested in understanding human pain.” His job, he says, is feeling people directly — in the dentist’s chair, in the street, in the cafes. He told Pankaj Mishra three years before the Tahrir Square revolution: “I think we are in for a big surprise.” Long ago, he tells me, “I felt Egyptians were going to need to change the situation. And that’s what happened.”

yacoubian dentist 2He is embroiled today in the revolutionary politics of his country — challenging the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi in newspaper columns, also in his long-running Friday open forum on books and public issues, and in a roaring speech to Tahrir Square masses the other day. His signature line everywhere is his response to “Islam is the solution,” the Brotherhood’s slogan. Alaa Al Aswany never fails to say or write: “Democracy is the solution.”

Not the least of what has to change now, he is telling me, is the United States policy that supported Morsi and the Brotherhood in last summer’s presidential election — and that, in the form of Hillary Clinton, embraced Morsi personally on the eve of his reach last month for one-man rule. I am quoting back to Alaa Al Aswany one of the best-remembered speeches in The Yacoubian Building, in which a political fixer in the Mubarak gang explains their theory of rule:

People are naive when they get the idea that we fix elections. Nothing of the kind. It just comes down to the fact that we’ve studied the Egyptian people well. Our Lord created the Egyptians to accept government authority. No Egyptian can go against his government. Some peoples are excitable and rebellious by nature, but the Egyptian keeps his head down his whole life long so he can eat. It says so in the history books. The Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule. The moment you take power, they submit to you and grovel to you and you can do what you want with them.

The parliamentary political boss speaking in The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

The character who spoke that line in the novel is in prison by now, Alaa Al Aswany says with a grim chuckle. But is it possible, I push him, that the American government is still banking on the old theory?

“No,” he begins. “I don’t think so, but…

Of course the U.S. foreign policy to us has been terrible for 50 years. We had the worst moments of our lives because of the U.S. foreign policy. But I’m very proud that Egyptians are absolutely able to see the difference between U.S. foreign policy and Americans. We love Americans in this country. Even during the Iraq war, American people were safe here because people realized that they are not decision makers in their government. The point here is that… America should stand for its principles much more than standing for the interests of the big guys… I’m sorry to say I notice now that America is almost repeating the same strategy with Mr. Morsi. Mr. Morsi has been elected president and has now obviously and in a very visible way decided to be a dictator. He stopped the law. He made the constitutional declaration to cancel the judges… Today the spokesman of the American administration says that the constitutional declaration is an ‘internal issue,’ exactly what they said about Mubarak… What we are expecting but never had from the Western governments is just to leave us alone. We are going to do our democracy for ourselves. But do not support the terrible dictators! That’s what happened with Mubarak. He has been supported by the Western governments for decades, right? Everybody knew what kind of dictator he was. But this question of ‘interests’ — he was ‘okay’; he was doing what Israel wanted; and there was another assumption that he was the barrier against Islamism; but he was not the barrier, he was the reason for the fanaticism in Egypt. That’s clear in my novel… The point here is that what we need from the Western governments is not to support Arab dictators any more…

Alaa Al Aswany with Chris Lydon in Cairo

This man is fascinating across the board: on the strong (but neglected) foundations of Islamic Modernism in the leadership of Muhammed Abduh (1849 – 1905); on two Egypts in the present day — “lucky Egypt and the rest of the pyramid… another Egypt in the dark”; also on Israel’s stake in a real Egyptian democracy; and “the revolutionary moment” still beyond scientific analysis, “when people become different people and are willing to die for freedom and refuse to compromise with dictatorship. This is the real achievement of the revolution in Egypt — that people are no more scared. And it’s irreversible. People will not go back.”

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  • Ley Westcott

    Excellent report, Chris. Disturbing, confusing and hopeful, all.

    Mubarak was the reason for Egypt’s radicalism/fanaticism? A contribution, yes — after the fact. I admire Alaa Al Aswany’s dedicated engagement with his country and history, but have we forgotten who assassinated Anwar Sadat — and why? The one man, to me, willing to step outside the course of history to create a new one — and who paid the ultimate price for it.

    Egypt was radical – violently so – before Mubarek, before Sadat — and in large measure why bringing democratic ideals and practice to the Middle East has been difficult if not impossible. And it does have antecedents in 20th century European efforts to resolve nationalistic claims after both WW I and WW II. It’s a cycle of uncompromising violence: Assassinations begetting repression and oppression lest more freedom begets more violence/assassinations. All this entwined with and inflamed by the ancient competing religious claims to Territory.

    Compromise with Israel is the litmus test: Will it – can it – be done? If so, there should be no reason why the Egyptian people cannot reason and compromise with themselves. I hope Al Aswany is right, that democracy can take root in Egypt if America will let it. And I agree that we should allow the process to unfold internally, within Egypt itself, and not support dictators.

    But internal order is a requisite condition for stable world order among nations, there being much disorder at present in this most inflammable region of the world. Both order and freedom are at risk when there is no stability. And we’ve yet, after 2,000+ years, to resolve the fundamental territorial issues which have destabilized the Middle East since its historical beginnings.

    That places the question of Israel squarely within the problem of democracy in Egypyt. Can Egypt sustain a ‘democratically’ established peace with Israel while the Palestinian question remains unsettled? While there is Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and so much other antipathy to Israel? Within the radicalized extremist Islamic political elements comprising the populations of Egypt and other nations?

    With moderating voices such as Alaa Al Aswany we may hope so. He is surely right to believe that the American people hope for the freedom of the Egyptian people. We pray for it, as it is our freedom as well.

  • Bill Lawrence


    Bravo ‘alik. This is very special and unique reporting from Cairo. You can’t find a much better window into contemporary Egypt than the one you flung wide open in this interview.

    Of course, as on Talaat Harb street, when you fling a window wide open you find a lot of pollution wafting up, but you also find the incredible vibrant city that Cairo is and that Alaa brings out in his groundbreaking work. A writer that brought down, or played a central role in helping bring down, a Prime Minister in a televised debate. Powerful stuff.

    I love the comparison between literature and medicine. The discussion of the sociological breaking point in the revolution. The discussion of two Egypts and the comparison of personal and systemic torture.

    I also agree with Ley that Mubarak was only part of the problem, but I don’t agree that there is anything historically endemic about Egyptian violence, any more than the fact, as Alaa would say, that violence is part of the human condition–violence is in all of us, as Hermann Hesse evoked in Steppenwolf. We are all half wolf and half human, and life, in part, is about understanding ourselves enough to rein in the violent, predatory parts of our nature, as Alaa also evokes in Yacoubian Building.

    I would also flip Ley’s argumentation a bit. By the same logic, it is only internal stability in Israel/Palestine that allows it to live peacefully with its neighbors. Every person, every nation, must rein in violence and violent tendencies and predatory behaviors, and as Ley says for the converse, can’t depend on its neighbors a priori.

    Like Alaa and Ley, I pray for peace, moderation, democracy, although they don’t always fit exactly together (imposing democracy, from the grassroots, or from above, or from the outside, can be violent, for example). We learn in this interview and from literature that part of that search for democracy and peace is understanding absolutely everybody’s humiliation and pain. And acting accordingly…

  • Robert Zucchi

    Dr. Al Aswany speaks critically but without rancor about the legitimacy of America’s claim to be pursuing democratic objectives in Egypt, referencing what happened in Iraq: You “kill one million people, kill your own soldiers, and destroy the whole country: I don’t think this is the best way to achieve democracy.” He is conciliatory, drawing a familiar, possibly rhetorical, distinction between the presumed good intentions of the American people and the equivocal actions of their leaders, and he goes on to speak of the respect in which our country is held in Egypt in light of America’s (I would insert here “checkered”) history of promulgating democratic values throughout the world.

    Dr. Al Aswany’s discussion is measured, lucid, and, so it seemed to me, grounded in realism; and his belief that Tahrir Square both reflected and hastened a change in the Egyptian people’s mentality of subservience is fortifying, especially given President Morsi’s recent retreat from the liberalizing reforms expected of him. It is bracing to have a man of Dr. Al Aswany’s stature speak so optimistically about Egypt’s future in a worrisome time of continued upheaval.

    Mr. Lydon spoke up to say that the Arab Spring has not addressed, especially in Egypt, the challenges of poverty and the urgent need for major economic reform, necessary changes to the neoliberal rules of investment, the issues of equality and economic fairness, and “a better way to manage a nation’s prosperity.”

    I found the above topics as covered in the discussion insistently pertinent to our own situation. In a supposedly mature democracy such as our own, is it really possible to separate the behavior of our leaders from the electoral choices made by our citizens, even if some choose abstention? And, even allowing for the huge disparity in wealth between Egypt and the U. S., is not every point raised by Mr. Lydon in the above quote, painfully and inexorably relevant to our country this very day?

  • Ley Westcott

    Terrific counterpoint from Messrs. Lawrence and Zucchi. The challenges are monumental, and contradictions implicit – now explicit with the Internet, instant media, Wikileaks, etc. – in governance and realpolitik. Our politics and governance are a reflection of who we are as human creatures, fundamentally instinctual-emotional creatures in process of trying to become rational. The courses of European and Middle Eastern histories, though entwined and from a common source, have had a different direction and development, religion, belief, science and technology having profound influence on these different courses.

    Mr. Zucchi is right, the very criticisms levied against Egypt are relevant to our own country, the remaining disparities of wealth and poverty emblematic of the human condition, and America’s failure to resolve this human problem. And I am deeply disturbed by it. Still, economic reform and prosperity are the best guarantors of freedom and democracy, and they cannot be sustained without them. And while I believe our political economy deeply flawed, it has provided enough stability to enable debate of democratic principles, however flawed our economic policies.

    This is, I believe, the economic enfranchisement to which Chris Lydon refers. Without it – without ability to support a decent standard of living for a majority – no country or government is stable. There can be enforced stability through oppression, dictatorship – a contradiction in terms – but not a democratically maintained one.

    Controlling the ever-atavistic irrational elements of our natures is difficult, if not impossible, without basic economic prosperity, so the priority of economic enfranchisement cannot be overemphasized. Tolerating poverty or starvation is not rational. Egyptians must have patience, but the government must appear to be making substantive progress in these directions. Otherwise the fragile hold on order and compromise may evaporate.

    With births there are often labor pains. And the gestation of democracy in Egypt has had a largely dormant 6,000-year history, the people in sway to Pharaohs,kings and dictators of one form or another. As perhaps a consequence of this, one measure, culled from the BBC, reported that only 30% of Egyptians turned out to vote, and those that did were largely Islamist. While reports are that the majority of Egyptians hold secular beliefs. A rich culture and civilization – civilization’s origins, in large measure – Egypt’s people need to know that our government, as well its people, will support their movement toward political self-realization.

    In realpolitik terms this is a very difficult and fine line to walk for the U.S. Principles of liberty and democracy are one thing, but as our own country’s evolution has shown, as well history, principles often – and usually – take a back seat to the very real struggles for political and economic dominance. And every political order in history has been dependent on alliances of nation states.

    It is to be hoped that after so long, Egypt may finally grasp freedom democratically, and join an alliance of democratic nations. European history, if it serves as a model, is a cautionary one, our own course violent, religion and ideology central in that struggle. The last century the most violent. But America is, after that bloody century of conflict, in a unique position to help support Egypt’s emergence into the free world. It’s not a perfect world with perfect freedom. And we will need all the skill and understanding of history we can bring to that challenge.

  • Potter

    I think Obama’s policy towards Egypt is very cautious and respectful of the fact that there was an election and that this is a slow revolution and that the powers in charge at the moment have to be dealt with. So I don’t think that those who are guarding the revolution so admirably should waste their energy hating us or complaining about our cautious policy or the history. (They want us; they don’t want us.) We have different administrations and the neocons are not pushing policy as they were. Our foreign policy is, though, absolutely distorted with regard to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in need of repair generally. I think our policy vis a vis Israel is the keystone for the well-being of all our relationships in the Middle East including and maybe especially Egypt, an Egypt increasingly (hopefully) democratic.

    Alaa Al Aswany, seems to me right about most everything else he spoke of, and is a brave man.

  • Potter

    Ley Wescott : “Mr. Zucchi is right, the very criticisms levied against Egypt are relevant to our own country, the remaining disparities of wealth and poverty emblematic of the human condition, and America’s failure to resolve this human problem.”

    Right and so we cannot speak loudly. You know, people in glass houses…..

    What I never considered (or forgot I did) before listening, Al- Asway mentioned in passing the notion that the treatment of women, the repression and abuse, has something to do with fear- fear of allowing women to emerge, what that would mean or look like.

  • Carl

    Christopher, another extraordinary conversation. The world is fortunate to have Alaa Al Aswany. Thank you for finding a way for us to hear a genuine hero and sage. Hope increases.