CAIRO — Alaa al-Aswany, one of Egypt’s most famous novelists, talks to visitors in a dental surgery room. Aswany, 56, was (and still is) a dentist by trade before, in middle age, rising to fame and controversy as a writer both of novels (The Yacoubian Building and Chicago) and opinion (long running columns in the independent and opposition press). He was dressed in a grey jacket and black shirt and, unusually for a dentist, smoked throughout the interview we conducted over the weekend.
Genial and expansive, he’s also angry — most of all at the Muslim Brotherhood, whose year-long government was, to his joy, cut short by the army last month. But he’s also fuming at the West, especially the U.S.: he thinks America has “no credibility left” in the Middle East’s most populous country because of its hypocrisy and naiveté.
What Aswany says matters. He’s a world literary figure, routinely listed among the world’s most influential Muslims. He had his own part in bringing down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak thanks to a confrontation on television between the writer and Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister Mubarak appointed. It was the first time Egyptians had seen a government figure chastened on live television, prompting Shafik’s resigned the next day. Shafik went on to become a presidential candidate but lost in runoff elections to Mursi.
He rejoices in the end of the Brotherhood government, and refuses to condemn the army for the many deaths it caused when breaking up Brotherhood protests two weeks ago. That combination is a popular attitude among those who would call themselves liberals and secularists. This broad swathe of citizens now also believe that the ruthless squashing of the protests cleared the way for the real revolution, a democratic revolution, to come into its own.
Long a critic of the Mubarak regime and of the short-lived Mursi presidency, he is now consulting with the new army-backed government on the shape of the future constitution and on the “road map” that, he believes, will lead Egypt to democracy. He dismisses the once-popular view that Egyptians were submissive with an impatient wave: “These were the ideological and political assumptions of the Mubarak regime. I never believed it. The Egyptian revolution swept all that away. Egypt is ready for democracy.” He confessed he felt “frustrated” that Mubarak was released from prison last week — but added, “It hardly matters now.”
Aswany, however, remains incensed by the West’s condemnation of the army takeover and the consequent bloodshed, and by what he sees as its past support of the Brotherhood government. “Why are people (abroad) saying that what happened was a coup d’état? Mursi in November 2012 issued a constitutional declaration where he halted the democratic process and placed the decisions of the president above the law. That is called a coup.”
This is the paradox of Egypt right now: those with whom most Westerners would feel most comfortable — relatively liberal, broadly supportive of a separation between mosque and state — are now irritated at the West for not seeing the Brotherhood government as authoritarian. “Fascist” is the word often used, including by Aswany.
Egyptians, he said, “love Americans as a people, but the U.S. administration is hypocritical. They stayed 30 years supporting Mubarak and shutting their eyes on the crimes of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now when there are armed terrorist groups striking Egypt everywhere and killing people everywhere, and burning churches, they consider them peaceful protestors because they want to support the Brotherhood. In truth American foreign policy has no credibility as a result of these contradictory positions.”
For Aswany, much of what the U.S. and Europe calls for — “national reconciliation” — is pure naiveté. “I do not know what reconciliation in this sense means. When people are killing innocents and shooting rocket-propelled grenades into police stations and slaughtering officers, I don’t understand how I can reconcile with them.”
The absence of regret that several hundred Brotherhood supporters were killed by the army on August 14 is widespread and unsettling, posing the question, at least to a foreigner, as to how far a new democratic settlement can be built on such suppression. Aswany admits to a doubt, but it is small: “I am upset for the victims, I am not upset for the terrorists that have fallen. You are in a war. I defend breaking up the sit-in by force [but] I am not defending the way it was broken up because I do not have an investigation that tells me that the use of force was justifiable.”
Aswany has been asked to comment on the new constitutional process that is now under way: once it has had broad approval from a committee representing the country’s main interest groups, it will go to a referendum. Then, after approval, elections. “The country will not be completely stabilized without an elected government. When will we get back to work? When you have a parliament and a president who is truly elected.”
Most of the intelligentsia, the middle and working classes presently think the military — which they had excoriated only a little over a year ago — is the country’s, and democracy’s, savior. Indeed, Aswany believes that Egypt is ready for democracy in large part because people feel secure in the protection of the military. “Egyptians will not again tolerate dictatorship. A part of the popularity of [defense minister and first deputy prime minister] Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is, first, his courage, and second, he said that the army will protect the people. I met him twice: I had a good impression of him. But of course, I don’t trust anyone forever. I have just written a column criticizing the government, and will do so again.”
“Egyptians will not again tolerate dictatorship.” This is the gamble Egyptians are taking by rallying behind the military and putting their trust in the enigma which is General al-Sisi. Whatever the general’s ambitions and the military’s preferences, their future actions will be largely determined by how far the populace continues to demand a government responsive to its wishes, capable of reforming a sclerotic economy and tolerant of the diversities of an argumentative people. If their demands remain firm, we may yet see an Arab Spring.