Aswany says he’s forced to stand in opposition

BEIRUT: Alaa al-Aswany is unfazed when he is referred to as an eternal member of the opposition. In fact, the celebrated Egyptian novelist who is passionate about politics is so amused by the description he lets out a timid laugh. “I am actually really pleased with the concept of opposition,” he tells The Daily Star during a telephone chat. “What can I say ... every time I am optimistic about a new regime I am surprised that sooner or later it veers toward tyranny and corruption and I’m forced to stand in opposition.”

Unlike Taha al-Shazli – one of the main characters in Aswany’s bestselling novel “The Yaacoubian Building” (2002), who escapes the state’s oppression only to join an Islamist radical group that leads to his tragic demise – the writer is far from reactionary and despises all blind partisanship.

Aswany actually believes that writers must stand at the far-left side of the political spectrum in a bid to defy tyranny and uncover government corruption.

A man well versed in the history of France’s revolutions, Aswany never tires of repeating that he has no political ambitions and is not seeking any official post, and states that the combat against tyranny is a national and moral obligation.

“See, we’re not living in democratic and stable states like the U.K. or France where only those who have political aspirations deal with politics.

“Here, in the Arab world, we are waging an operation for liberation; liberating our countries from dictatorships. This is not playing politics; this is a national duty we should all engage in.”

Although the challenges that lay ahead are numerous and complicated, Aswany will not abandon his optimism, highlighting that the revolution in Egypt is ongoing.

“A revolution is not a coup d’etat whereby a dictator is replaced by another one,” he says. “It takes years and hard work for the outcomes of revolutions to crystallize.”

Even the violence Egypt has witnessed in the past weeks since Islamist President Mohammad Mursi significantly expanded his powers and called for a referendum on a controversial draft constitution has not left Aswany discouraged or afraid of the fate of a revolution that his writings had implicitly contributed to instigate.

The dentist-turned-novelist sees the recent wave of demonstrations as a “healthy sign” and an integral part of the revolutionary process.

“For 30 years the Muslim Brotherhood were used as a scarecrow by the old regime of [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak to justify tyranny,” he adds. “Now that the Muslim Brotherhood have acceded to power and their flaws have flown to the surface, Egypt is once again snubbing religious fascism and this is very positive.”

Aswany says the secular Egyptians who granted Mursi their votes against his contender Ahmad Shafik, a Mubarak regime holdover, were astounded to see the new president serve solely the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood.

He argues that the Brotherhood’s general guide in Egypt, Ahmad Badih, and Khairat al-Shater, the powerful official in the organization’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, have decided to highjack Egypt’s new constitution.

“They want to devise a constitution that will guarantee that no one else but the Brotherhood will win every single time,” he said.

According to the long-term vocal critic of Islamist fundamentalists, Saturday’s referendum on the constitution is “null and void.”

“Regardless of the outcome, this referendum is null and void because it is based on an unfounded text drafted by an illegitimate committee,” Aswany continues.

But Aswany, who ends his op-eds in Egyptian newspapers with the sentence “democracy is the solution,” in contrast to the Brotherhood’s slogan “Islam is the solution,” is still a staunch believer in democracy even if it brings his opponents to power.

The novelist’s devotion to democracy, however, was severely questioned last week.

A tweet dated Dec. 8, in which Aswany wrote that illiterate Egyptians must be banned from voting on the new constitution since they are incapable of reading and grasping its content, created an uproar in intellectual circles in Egypt and elsewhere. Some went so far as to accuse the novelist of racism and elitism.

The 50-something Aswany rejects the charges, saying he never considered those who are illiterate as a lower class. He goes on to clarify that he was talking about a nationwide project to wipe out illiteracy, which “has become totally unacceptable in post-revolution Egypt.”

He adds that during the tenure of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, whom Aswany describes as the “most prominent socialist leader,” those who could not read or write were banned from applying for driving licenses and from running in elections for the House of Representatives, Majles al-Shaab.

“I really don’t understand why the proposal was vehemently attacked and misinterpreted,” he says. “If you want to eradicate illiteracy you have to give these people clever incentives.”

Yet politics, democracy and literature are not Aswany’s sole fields of interests. He is actually one of Egypt’s main lobbyers for women’s rights. It is with intense pride and excitement that he depicts the role Egyptian women played in the uprising.

“Egyptian women stood in the forefront,” he says. “I think the revolution reminded us of the true value of our women.”

Aswany’s promotion of women’s rights is clearly reflected in his writings. In fact, rarely has an Arab writer excelled in painting a real picture of women and succeeded in representing even their most intimate emotions and reactions.

Unlike the vindictive and sexist approach adopted by many Arab authors with regards to women, Aswany’s method of dealing with his female characters is endearing and highly perceptive.

An acute observer of humanity and human beings, Aswany understands that patriarchal attitudes and a misinterpretation of religion stand behind the oppression of women in this part of the world.

Aswany’s female characters are a delicious read indeed. In his novel “Chicago” (2007), the reader is amazed by the power of love that has transformed Shaima Mohammadi from a timid and taciturn medical student into a charming woman.

In “The Yaacoubian Building,” the writer’s meticulous description of Bouthaina’s “large amazed hazelnut eyes” is likely to distract the reader, even if for a very short while, from pitying the crushed young woman who watches her modest dreams shatter, one after another.

Aswany believes that a “flawed yet widely spread reading of Islam” – one that portrays women as a source of temptation and as objects only fit for cleaning, cooking and procreation – has contributed to worsening the conditions of women in the Arab world.

“In the last 20 or 30 years such a backward reading of Islam has spread; it is very ... very alien to Egypt’s reading of the religion,” he stresses. Aswany continues that women in his country were more emancipated at the turn of the century then they are now.

“In 1924, when women stopped wearing the Turkish burqa, revolutionary leader Saad Zaghloul hosted a big ceremony in central Cairo at Midan al-Ismailiya, which is now known as Tahrir Square,” he recounts.

He adds that Zaghloul’s famous adage that Egypt will never be emancipated if its women are not emancipated still stands.

To Aswany, who will submit the final draft of his latest novel, “The Automobile Club,” to his publisher in January, we are living in an era of major change, not only in Egypt but in the whole of the Arab world.

The novelist dislikes the term “Arab Spring” used to refer to the series of protests that swept the Arab world in 2011. “I don’t like this term,” he says. “It was imposed on us by the Western media.”

Aswany argues that change is contagious among Arabs, and says that Arab countries share strong ties and change will sooner or later engulf the Arab world.

“We are witnessing the end of tyranny in the Arab world,” he says.

Aswany maintains that after winning their independence from foreign occupation in the 20th century, Arab countries fell in the hands of dictators. “This is a form of internal occupation,” he adds. “It’s even more tyrannical than foreign occupation.”

Armed with his usual optimism, the novelist considers that the clock is ticking for Arab tyrants.

“We might not get rid of them all at once since each country is a case of its own, but in my opinion, in 20 years democracy will reign in the Arab world,” he concludes on a confident note.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 15, 2012, on page 12.




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