Novelist, dentist and defender of democracy

Alaa Al Aswany on his country's democratic revolution

Published December 3, 2011 5:01PM (EST)

Alaa Al Aswany     (AP/Mohamed al-Sehety)
Alaa Al Aswany (AP/Mohamed al-Sehety)

CAIRO -- On the morning of my appointment with Alaa Al Aswany, the Islamists were out in full force. The roar of “Allahu akbar!” rose at 5:30 a.m. from Tahrir Square. The response from hundreds of thousands of agitated men in white jalabiyas and knit caps, filling the square down to the Nile, reverberated through the surrounding Downtown streets.

By late afternoon, the crowd had spilled onto El Kasr El Aini Street, past the Soviet-built Mogamma building (the heart of Egyptian bureaucracy), the Ministry of Transport and the People's Assembly to Al Aswany's office in Garden City. Dozens of bearded men with welting prayer marks on their foreheads — bused in from around the country in the dead of night — slept on the dusty pavements.

Al Aswany's office is in a fairly rundown building on Diwan Street. There is a sign with mismatched lettering hanging from the building over the sidewalk. It reads:

Dr. Alaa EL Aswany


D.D.S (Cairo University)

M.S. University of ILLINOIS

4th FlOOR


Al Aswany's tiny waiting area leads into a slightly larger examining room. The floor was covered in a pinkish Formica, reflecting lines of fluorescent light. In a darkened alcove stood his dentists' chair. An over-sized ashtray was arranged in the middle of a glass coffee table. After a few minutes he walked in, dressed in gray trousers and a striped shirt.

“So the Islamists had their day,” he said by way of a greeting. We moved to his small desk made of the same pinkish Formica in a corner of the room.

Alaa Al Aswany is one of Egypt's best living writers. He's probably the most known Arab novelist in the West since the 2002 publication of "The Yacoubian Building," which was made into Egypt's most expensive film. It tells the story of the thoroughly corrupt Mubarak-era through debased characters who are tortured, sexually harassed and crushed by poverty. It is the story of an aging playboy, a wealthy protagonist longing for the cosmopolitan splendor of pre-Nasser Downtown. The characters live in the Yacoubian -- a once grand apartment block on Talaat Harb Street.

Despite the fame it brought him, Al Aswany continues to fix ordinary Egyptians' teeth. He's caring for patients as he listens to their desperate stories. His latest book, "The State of Egypt," a collection of his newspaper columns, describes in painful detail the coming social explosion against Mubarak and his cronies, whom he eviscerates on every page. The only plausible explanation for why the authorities never arrested Al Aswany is that his international notoriety would have caused Mubarak more trouble than it was worth.

The book disproves a widely held belief in the West that no one saw the uprising coming. In February 2010, 11 months before the January 25th Revolution began, Al Aswany wrote: “We have to move to the confrontation stage. It is no longer any use begging for our rights by appealing to the regime, because it will not listen. But if a million Egyptians went out to the streets in protest or announced a general strike, if that happened, even once, the regime would immediately heed the people's demands. Change … is possible and imminent, but there is a price we have to pay for it.”

Then in April 2010, nine months before Tahrir Square was occupied, he wrote: “I don't know how President Mubarak thinks, though I imagine, based on the theory of 'dictator solitude,' that his conceptions are completely detached from the reality of what is happening in Egypt. The reality is liable to produce an explosion at any moment.”

As it turned out, Al Aswany was in the Square during the crucial — and most violent days — of that explosion. “We participated in this revolution from the very first moment, and I faced myself death, three times,” he told me in his examining room. “Once early in the morning of the 26th, and twice on the 28th. I was about to suffocate because on the 26th they became crazy. They were bombing us with [tear] gas bombs.”

“I ran with the people, but I was really about to suffocate,” he said. “I could stand some gas, but not too much. I smoke and have problems already with my lungs. We were running in Tahrir Square, but they were putting soldiers in our way just to put us again in the field of bombs.”

Al Aswany's intimate knowledge of every warden of Downtown, the setting of the Yacoubian Building, may have saved his life. “I was lucky, because I know downtown very well,” he told me. “I went through a very little street. And I said to myself, 'They don't know the area very well, so probably they did not block this street.' They didn't block it, and that's why I escaped.”

Two days later they brought in the snipers. The killing had already begun around the country, in Alexandria and Suez, but it was the first time live ammunition was used in the capital.

“In Cairo they were shocked at the numbers, and they tried to control it without killing and it didn't work,” he told me. “For the first time I saw soldiers from the Central Security running away because there were 20,000 people coming from Darb Ibn al-Baba — a very popular neighborhood. When they absorbed the shock of what was happening, they began to act at 12:30 a.m. on the 26th.”

As Al Aswany stood in the crowded Square at that moment, a man approached him. “He said, 'You must write about this revolution.' And I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Promise?' And I said, 'Promise.'” The man then stepped away and his head exploded in front of Al Aswany. “I mean it's one bullet,” he said. “They were very professional snipers.”

* * *

Al Aswany was born in Cairo in 1957, the son of Abbas Al Aswany, himself a celebrated novelist and lawyer. He gave his son a cosmopolitan upbringing. He also advised him to get another job to support his writing habit. Al Aswany chose dentistry, which he studied in Chicago. It became the setting of his second novel. "Chicago" is a story of American race relations and Egyptian conservatism colliding with American liberalism. When Al Aswany returned to Egypt after 17 years practicing in America, he set up his dental clinic in the same building where his father had his law office: the Yacoubian.

“You cannot be a novelist if you are not a storyteller,” Al Aswany said. And the story he was now telling me was about the perilous future of Egypt's ongoing revolution.

In "The State of Egypt," he takes aim at the religious hypocrisy of Egyptians who supported Mubarak's murderous regime. “The doctors and nurses who mistreat poor patients in public hospitals, the civil servants who rig election results in the government's favor, and the students who cheat en masse, most of them are devout about performing their ritual obligations,” he writes.

“It is even more amazing to see what happens on security premises where detainees are tortured to extract the required confessions,” Al Aswany goes on. “In these human slaughterhouses, which belong to the darkness of the Middle Ages, there is always a prayer room where the torturers can perform their prayers at the appointed times.”

He sees the opposite of empty ritual as the bigger threat to the revolution: religious fanaticism. Al Aswany does not put all Islamists in the same basket, making distinctions that may try Western perceptions. For instance, he excludes the largest Islamist group — the Muslim Brotherhood — as a threat because it renounced violence in the 1970s. After it did, two violent groups rejected the renunciation and broke away: the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya. These were the groups that assassinated Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 for making peace with Israel. They also took part in killing 58 Western tourists in Luxor in 1997.

Today nominally nonviolent, these Salafists nevertheless threaten the revolution with their intolerance, he says. They are influenced by the ultra-conservative Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia — the one country Al Aswany is convinced is most responsible for trying to kill the Egyptian revolution.

Egypt was the most advanced Arab country in the early 20th century, while the Saudis were an undeveloped Bedouin tribe in the wasteland of the Arabian Peninsula, he said.

“The difference between us and Saudis is we had a very early democratic experience,” Al Aswany told me. “Our first Parliament was during the 19th century and [among Arabs] we had the first of everything: the first elections, the first constitution, the first Parliament, the first elected government in 1924,” he says animatedly. “As far as the women are concerned, we had very, very early movements to liberate women. And [the Saudis] are fighting now to give the women the right to drive cars. We had the first race of automobiles in Egypt for females in 1927.”

Saudi influence reaches into Egyptian homes via 10 Saudi cable television stations preaching Wahhabism. “They are giving a very fine line of interpretation of religion and preaching against democracy and women,” he said.

Al Aswany repeated what is widely believed here — that Saudi Arabia, with Kuwait and the Emirates, have poured billions of Egyptian pounds into the operations of these seven newly formed Salafist parties, which may represent as many as 10 percent of Egyptians. The Saudis, says Al Aswany, want to suffocate democracy in Egypt lest it spread to the Arabian Peninsula.

“We have evidence that they are absolutely supported by these three countries,” he told me. A local paper, al Wafd, reported that these Gulf countries sent the groups 2 billion Egyptian pounds. “These new parties bought 33 apartments in Alexandria in two months,” Al Aswany said. “For today's demonstration … they used 3,000 buses from all over Egypt. So you are talking about an open budget.”

The Salafists have also shown extreme intolerance to Egypt's sizable community of 8 million Coptic Christians, resulting in several violent clashes and church burnings since Mubarak's downfall. In the bloodiest, on Oct. 9, military vehicles mowed down and soldiers shot dead 27 Copts at the state television building in Cairo during a protest of a church burning in Aswan. A military probe cleared all soldiers of wrongdoing. A result is that the Christian-Muslim unity forged in the early days of the revolution is now threatened by what appeared on that day to be a Salafist-military alliance. Al Aswany fears that if the Salafists were allowed to reach power, the international community would intervene, as it did in Sudan, to give Christian separatists their own state, dividing Egypt. Some Copts have sought an independent state since the early 1900s.

By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood, expected to win the most seats in Parliament short of a majority, “is much more moderate,” and does not pose the same threat, Al Aswany says. Founded in Egypt in 1928 as a reaction against the Western cosmopolitanism of Downtown Cairo under King Farouk, the Brotherhood was suppressed by the Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak military regimes. Though the Brotherhood renounced violence 40 years ago, Mubarak played the Islamophobia card, exaggerating the threat of the Brotherhood (in addition to smaller, violent groups) to squeeze the U.S. for military aid that has reached $1.3 billion a year, Al Aswany says.

It was this exaggerated Islamic threat coupled with keeping Egypt on board with the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, he says, that allowed Washington to violate its proclaimed goal of exporting democracy to instead support an insidious dictator. “The American foreign policy was catastrophic for Egypt,” Al Aswany said. “You have been talking all the time very beautiful words about democracy, and you have been supporting the most terrible dictators on earth.” This dual policy of supporting democratization while underwriting a strongman to his bitter end, came to an excruciating head in Tahrir Square as it had with Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and the Shah of Iran in 1979. Washington lifted its support for Mubarak at the last second, when it became clear he could not survive the wrath of his people.

* * *

Al Aswany reserves his deepest suspicion however for the military council, which has run the country since Mubarak was deposed on Feb. 11. It did not take long for him to attack it with the same vehemence as he did the Mubarak regime.

Al Aswany condemns the military for arresting bloggers, using violence on protestors, for not having yet lifted the old regime's state of emergency and for manipulating the electoral law and the constitutional process to favor the continuance of its own dominance and the survivors of Mubarak's clique. He finds it ironic that Mubarak, a military man, is on trial in a civilian court, while civilians stand before the military. Since Jan. 28, 12,000 civilians have been tried in military courts and 8,000 have been sentenced, including 18 to death. Most of these are activists, journalists and demonstrators protesting military rule.

“The revolution is at risk because of the military council,” Al Aswany said. Instead of protecting the revolution, they have continued the repression and instituted only piecemeal reforms that he says are designed to preserve the existing regime — minus Mubarak.

“When you reform in a time of revolution, you put the revolution in very high risk. Why? Because a revolution is the final battle for the old regime. The remnants, the counter-revolution, know very well that they must fight once more desperately. Either they win and they abort the revolution, or they fail and they will be in jail.”

* * *

During their first months in power, the military called in intellectuals to gauge the mood of post-Mubarak society. “They invited me once to listen to me,” Al Aswany said. “I explained to them for three hours the difference between a revolution and reform. How it is very dangerous to not protect the revolution with revolutionary decisions. I gave them examples in every domain of Egypt: with the police, with the judges, the economy. And they did nothing. We had a wonderful dinner.”

Fears that the military will not relinquish power even with an elected civilian government are reflected in the process for writing a new constitution that the council has proposed. Instead of the elected parliament picking a 100-member council to write the constitution, the military proposes that it pick 80 of the members, and the Parliament only 20.

In an atmosphere of this political intrigue, it's little surprise that theories about impending conspiracies are rife. Al Aswany is not immune from such speculation. “I believe that behind closed doors there are some deals or some games going on,” he said.

A rumor hatched over the summer and still current is that the military council, working with the corrupt judges who fixed Mubarak's elections, would allow the Islamists to win a majority, after which the Americans, Saudis and Israelis would tell the military council they must ignore the results and stay in power to prevent an Islamist takeover.

That's exactly what took place in Algeria in 1992. It led to seven years of civil war that killed 150,000 people. There's no indication that would happen in Egypt, but Al Aswany, in an understatement, said, “That is a very bad scenario.”

U.S. and Israeli officials have relied for 30 years on the Egyptian military, more interested in business than war, to uphold the Camp David accord. An Islamist government, even with the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood at the helm, would create uncertainty on the Egyptian-Israeli border. For Washington and Tel Aviv, military rule might in that case be preferable to democracy.

* * *

Being a realist doesn't stop Al Aswany from dreaming about the Egypt he wants to see. In a country of 80 million people with 17 percent living below the national poverty line and 26 percent illiterate, it is fanciful to imagine a Swedish-style social democracy. So Al Aswany looks back for a starting point to Downtown Cairo's golden age, the one his protagonist in "The Yacoubian Building" also yearned for.

Started from a boom in Egyptian cotton prices caused by the embargo on the American Civil War South, Downtown Cairo, with its wrought-iron balconies, elaborate pilasters and grand marble staircases was mostly completed by 1919, the year a popular revolution established a constitutional monarchy. The next 30 years brought a functioning parliament, independent judiciary, highly acclaimed, critical newspapers and tolerance of foreigners. But there was also mass poverty, illiteracy and corruption. And legendary Egyptian pride built on centuries was still pierced by British political interference.

A strong measure of that dignity returned with the ouster of Mubarak. “This is an irreversible phenomenon,” Al Aswany said. “This is part of what the old regime can't understand.”

“Our heritage is huge, over 6,000 years, so we have a stratified identity,” he said.

“And this is part of our problem with the Islamists. You cannot subsume our identity in Islam, which is a mere component. We have been Muslims for 1,500 years, but for 4,500 years before that we were part of the Roman, Greek and Persian empires, and before that we were ruled by the Pharaohs.

“You have everything in the Egyptian identity,” he said. “But most importantly we have a very early — and this is the difference between us and Saudis — democratic experience,” one Al Aswany and millions of other Egyptians are risking their lives to recapture and build on.

“My country will never be fanatic,” Al Aswany said -- “will never be ruled by the Saudis. Egypt, the Egyptian formula, has been for centuries, and that means everybody is accepted: Jews, Armenians, Italians, Muslims, Copts. This is the Egyptian consciousness. The real Egypt."

By Joe Lauria

Joe Lauria is United Nations correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He is writing a book on the Arab uprisings. He can be reached at

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