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By Maurice Chammah


The Montréal Review, January 2012


"On the State of Egypt: What Made the Revolution Inevitable" by Alaa Al Aswany (Vintage, 2011) 


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I first saw Alaa Al Aswany's On the State of Egypt sitting in a bookstore in the U.S. in July 2011. The 'revolution,' as we were still calling it-'uprisings' is the more popular term now -was only six months old. The American University in Cairo Press and Random House, I assumed, had cobbled together a quick, dated collection in order to capitalize on hunger for the triumphant narrative of the Arab spring. I have now lived in Egypt for six months, and reading Al Aswany's writings while following the spins and falls of the country's political situation has proved educational in a way far more disturbing than I would have imagined back then.

Al Aswany, a dentist who still practices, became internationally known for his debut novel The Yacoubian Building in 2002. The 2006 film version was one of the highest budgeted and grossing film in Egyptian history. Its account of intersecting characters in Mubarak's Egypt attempted a handful of political critiques, but buried them in a tapestry of more newsworthy cultural taboos like homosexuality, Islamic fundamentalism, and prostitution. One character, for example, is unjustly denied entrance to the police academy, turns to Islamic activism, is tortured by state security, and avenges his humiliation through violent Islamism. The regime's injustice is evident, but softened in its tragic dance with radicalism.

On the State of Egypt is a collection of Al Aswany's columns from 2005 to 2010 in two newspapers, the once-fiercely oppositional al-Dustur (whose editor Ibrahim Eissa Mubarak threw in jail numerous times before having fired) and the less severe al-Shorouk . In these columns, Aswany does not bury his criticisms in the life trajectories of fictional characters, but charges head first into the Mubarak regime's litany of injustices.

And it is a litany; you have to sift through a lot of repetition, both in terms of arguments and examples. The effect of the repetition, however, is the slow accretion of outrage as Al Aswany furiously digs into various members of the Mubarak regime and their apologists, which range from lowly policemen to Western governments, religious leaders to businessmen.

These columns enter Al Aswany into a long Egyptian tradition of novelists as public intellectuals. Throughout the twentieth century, Egyptian literary figures like Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Sonallah Ibrahim, and Yusef Idriss wrote openly on political subjects in national newspapers. Since the January uprisings, younger writers like Egyptian Khaled AlKhamissi and Libyan Hisham Matar have emerged as major spurs for public conversation in both Western and Arab publications.

Al Aswany, due to the success of The Yacoubian Building and his second novel Chicago in the U.S. and Europe, was primed to emerge as the most well-known among these novelists turned political critics, a position solidified by the rushed publication of On the State of Egypt. He has backed up the position through his public appearances, and in March appeared on TV with then Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who he lambasted, resulting in Shafiq's resignation the next day.

Jonathan Wright's excellent translation of On the State of Egypt gives the novelist's language the verve of a Western columnist, while preserving a literary spark that finds metaphors and examples in unlikely places. For Al Aswany the horror of Mubarak's rule is found not only in the obvious mechanisms of torture, corruption, and brutal political repression, but is subtly seen as well in the way a culture of dictatorship and subservience has trickled down and soaked slowly into all areas of Egyptian society.

In late 2009, we learn, Minister Aisha Abdel Hady kissed First Lady Suzanne Mubarak's hand in a show of obvious, culturally gauche groveling, and Al Aswany spins out of this simple moment a long-winded critique of the same minister's failure to protect Egyptian workers in the Gulf from exploitation. "Someone who is willing to kiss people's hands in public," he concludes angrily, "cannot defend anyone's dignity."

The ills of Mubarak's thirty years in power emerge as an interrelated tangle of branches rooted in autocracy. The rise of Salafism, or ultraconservative Islamic doctrine, including the niqab (full face veil) and an obsession with Islamic ritual, for Al Aswany, is part of the ruling classes efforts to turn religion into a superficial set of codes, rather than a fuel for social justice. Covering women in the veil, he argues, allows men to see women as less than human, paving the way (along with frustration from a lack of economic opportunity) for endemic sexual harassment throughout Egypt. It is this same emphasis on superficial ritual, he contends in other columns, that allows for security officers to torture, humiliate, and even kill prisoners of the regime while still praying five times a day and professing to be pious. The same culture of repression allows different groups, like the Coptic Christians, to seek special protection from the government rather than join in a national, and patriotic call for freedom.

Throughout these diatribes, the United States-Al Aswany lived in Chicago while studying dentristy-serves as a place where even if the people are not necessarily more moral than Egyptians, the structure of laws is set up to protect the underdog and check power. When a racist professor gives him a poor grade on an exam he felt he had aced, he threatens to take the matter to the university administration and she relents. If the same situation happened in Egypt, Al Aswany believes, he would have simply been at the mercy of her open racism.

Al Aswany's literary background constantly gives him an arsenal of rhetorical techniques that construct a sense of outrage as if it were a plot device. At the beginning of a 2009 column called "Nora and the National Squad," he admits: "I wanted to write about an Egyptian woman by the name of Nora Hashem Mohamed, but the great victory of our national soccer squad over Algeria cannot be ignored."

He proceeds to switch back and forth between the story of the game, which Mubarak and his friends cheered from the stands while "our players displayed the highest level of self-control," and the story of Nora, the wife of a "simple laborer," who "suddenly felt ill." Nora's husband Hani takes her to a doctor, who says she needs to get to a hospital immediately, and then takes her from hospital to hospital, where doctors demand bribes and superficial papers of official documentation while Nora's condition deteriorates.

Al Aswany's clever, vicious prose positions the two stories as jump cuts out of a film. Just when the minister of health "leapt from his seat" in joy over the soccer victory, Nora dies in the hospital due to the same minister's corruption . Al Aswany has mastered the tone of the official, buck-passing language that he believes has sunk Egypt into moral decay, and uses it sarcastically. "Congratulations to Egypt for reaching the World Cup and may God have mercy on the soul of Mrs. Nora Hashem Mohamed," he concludes.

If Al Aswany, always the doctor, sees dictatorship as a disease that infects all social classes with superficiality, subservience, and moral decay, then the cure is to be found in the few Egyptians who refuse and might inspire the rest to join them. "Democracy is the solution," is the last sentence of most of the columns, and Al Aswany heaps hope onto Mohamed ElBaradei, who rose to the influential position of director of the International Atomic Energy Agency before moving back to Egypt in 2010. "What Egyptians are asking for is not a limited adjustment in policies but comprehensive, radical reform," reads a 2010 column. "Egyptians look forward to Dr. ElBaradei sticking to his principled position, rejecting any kind of negotiation or compromises."

Since these columns were first published in Egyptian newspapers, Egypt has undergone a major upheaval that continues in frenetic spurts until today, nearly a year since it began. The major force behind the injustices in Al Aswany's writings, the rule of Hosni Mubarak, has been taken down, and yet, over the past year, activists have come to feel as though the regime is still very much in place, in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Before I read On the State of Egypt, a new d isillusion had been creeping over the protest movement. Activists continued to be killed by state security and sentenced by military courts, an anonymous women had been very publicly stripped and beaten, elections were grinding through their three phases as the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the more conservative Salafi Nour party trounced the parties formed by the former revolutionaries, and protests every Friday were failing to bring out any numbers.

"With all the creativity and energy that went into bringing Mubarak down and is currently going into plans to transform Egyptian society," wrote Steven Cook in Foreign Policy, "there has also been much narcissism and revolutionary navel-gazing." Blogger Mahmoud Salem, who had run for parliament and lost, spun pity in his first blog post in months. "We clashed with the military," he wrote of the protest movement, "and we forgot the people, and we let that small window that shows up maybe every 100 years where a nation is willing to change, to evolve, to go to waste."

Around the same time, in mid-December, Al Aswany told journalist Robert Fisk that " the biggest mistake of the revolution was that overthrowing Mubarak was too good to be true." He meant that the January uprisings cut off the head of the system, in the figure of Mubarak, but left the body, in the form of the state security apparatus. "One of the goals of the revolution was to bring these criminals to justice," he told Fisk. "Nothing happened. Now we have the security state working at full power."

Reading On the State of Egypt in this context, it is clear that nearly all of the more subtle, immersed troubles of Mubarak's rule remain firmly in place. Activists like Salem and commentators like Cook are realizing that the illness Al Aswany diagnosed goes far deeper than a single leader.

Looking back at my own experience, the list of personal anecdotes I can muster to illustrate this idea grows by the day. The anecdotes are superficial and deep, direct and indirect, and always interconnected. Two months ago, my friend was asked to volunteer teach a course in English to a group of Egyptian students, organized by a local NGO. Our friend, telling her about the opportunity, referred several times to a "teaching certificate" she would receive after four sessions.

The first session went well, with twenty students. The second session was cancelled, though she only found out when she arrived at the school. The third coincided with a national holiday, and the fourth had six students. In the end, she had spent about six hours teaching.

Over the course of the next few weeks, she received numerous calls about the teaching certificate, whether she wanted it framed, how to get it to her, etc. It seemed like the trouble of the certificate was more complicated than the effort it was supposed to represent.

I kept thinking of this story as I read Al Aswany's criticisms of the way an emphasis on meaningless benchmarks of success, which the certificate represented, are a symptom of a cultural condition not endemic to Egyptian society, but produced through decades of autocracy. Rewards on paper become more important than actual achievement, Al Aswany contends, because promotion based on competence rather than loyalty would undermine the foundation of favors and loyalty upon which dictatorship is built.

My friend was not dealing with a government institution, nor a group of people that was in any way corrupt. Everyone was in fact eager to help her, and the certificate was meant as a sign of gratitude. And yet, the fact that that no real accountability was ever needed from her or provided by her colleagues feels to me to be symbolic of a broader, deeper, issue facing Egyptian professional life a year after its revolution.

These kinds of problems are always hazy, hard to pinpoint, and open to accusations of cultural chauvinism when made by naïve expatriates like me, but they are undeniably present. They go far deeper than who specifically is president, and will likely take much longer to cure. Al Aswany and the revolutionaries have realized this, and their responses currently range from complete disenchantment to renewed calls to rebirth the revolution on January 25th, 2012.

The incisive columns collected in On the State of Egypt are less important for understanding why the uprisings in January and February happened, though they certainly do so, and more helpful as a picture of why they failed and what kinds of broad social therapy are needed to produce a real revolution in Egypt. I'll be among those waiting for Al Aswany's diagnosis.


Maurice Chammah is a writer and journalist currently on a Fulbright research fellowship in Cairo, Egypt. In addition to research on media and journalism, he writes a blog, Adrift on the Nile, and articles on culture and politics in the Huffington Post, Daily News Egypt, and other publications. Originally from Austin, Texas, he is a member of the band Mother Falcon.


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