Now, al-Aswany is under attack for articles he wrote in the Arabic language version of the German news outlet Deutsche Welle. In particular, a column titled “Why don’t we understand what the whole world understands?”, which criticizes the nomination of military officers for civil political positions, has drawn the ire of the state. His latest novel, “I ran to the Nile”, published in 2018, which looks back on the 2011 revolution that deposed former President Hosni Mubarak and the abuses committed by the government and the army, has also put him in hot water.
Al-Aswany now lives in New York, and recently spoke to L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) about the current situation in Egypt and why authorities in the country consider him a threat.
The international success of your books and your popularity beyond the Arab world provided you with some kind of immunity from the Egyptian authorities, but ever since the arrival of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, you do not benefit from this protection anymore. Why are they after you today?
I have been banned from writing for the past five years, since Sisi came to power. I was not allowed to appear on television nor to write in Egyptian newspapers. Then, the authorities stopped the cultural seminars I had been organizing for twenty years. But with what has just happened, we are in the worst of situations since it’s a military tribunal which is accusing me.
Would it be impossible for you to return to Egypt because of these lawsuits?
When they forbade me to write, I started accepting offers to go teach in universities abroad. So for four years, I would spend a few months out of the country then get back – not without difficulties, since each time I arrived I would be held up at the airport and given a hard time. This time it is different as I have to follow the advice of my lawyers.
How can a writer be a threat to a regime?
This is typical to any dictatorship, regardless of the country. A writer is independent and has the right to disagree, and these are unacceptable things in a dictatorship which doesn’t even tolerate the idea of free expression. Either you agree, which means you love your country, because the dictator considers himself the country, or you are in disagreement, which according to them, makes you a traitor or an agent of some foreign country.
You draw a parallel between the control of the media by Nasser’s regime, and the one of today. How is it possible in the actual context to silence all the dissonant opinions?
The Egyptian authorities banned my French novel, “I ran to the Nile” (Actes Sud, 2018). It is quite incredible to do this in the 21st century knowing that my novel is available on the internet. Dictatorship is a way of thinking and an outdated vision of the world.
Do you think that the current situation in Egypt is worse than it was under the regime of Hosni Mubarak?
It is worse than ever. It is even worse than under Nasser. To give you an example: Khaled Loutfi, a young librarian, who isn’t mentioned enough in the press, was tried last February by a military court and sentenced to five years imprisonment for having sold one copy of a banned book by an Israeli researcher Uri Bar Joseph, “The Angel: The Egyptian spy who saved Israel”.
What is your view of your country today after all that it has gone through since 2011? Do you have any grounds for hope? And can we expect a resurgence of the popular revolution?
I am definitely optimistic simply because I know history, and this situation follows the classical pattern of all the precedent revolutions. The French Revolution is a great example: after the fall of Louis XVI, the Terror followed then later Napoleon arrived, and the Old Regime resurfaced. But in the end, the revolution transcends all barriers since it’s fueled by human change. This human change will continue in Egypt.
In an interview with “L’Orient Litteraire” in 2006, you said that the “main uneasiness of the Arab world is the dictatorship and the absence of real democracy”. Thirteen years after this statement, this disease is still spreading. How do you explain it?
I can only have the same opinion today, especially that I am originally a doctor. In medicine, we should not mistake the symptoms with the real sickness. We must look for the disease; in this case the disease being the dictatorship. Terrorism, corruption, hypocrisy, be it religious or not, are all symptoms. But I remain optimistic. We often hear that the Arab Spring is over, but look at what is happening in Sudan and in Algeria. There is a whole generation that has a dream, that is determined to see its country change. So it will continue.
But there is also the return of the strong man, and not only in the Arab world…
Yes, but this has always been a battle between the revolution and the old regime, and it is not a fair battle. The revolutionaries have only two means at their disposal: dreams and courage. Whereas, the old regime has really everything: the army, the police, the media and the businessmen. So, he is starting as the winner, but at some point it is impossible for the counterrevolution to go on for the very simple reason, which is the age of the revolutionaries, who are between 20 and 30 years old, and that of the opposing camp, which varies between 60 and 70. In ten or fifteen years, the latter will be gone.
(This interview was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 22nd of March)
Alaa al-Aswany is one of the most renowned writers in the Arab world, in large part due to the success of his international bestselling novel “The Yacoubian Building”, published in 2002. He has also been a critical commentator on Egyptian affairs, an increasingly dangerous position since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2014 and ushered in a new era of repression.