Book Review: ‘On the State of Egypt- The Issues that Caused the Revolution‘, Alaa Al Aswany (AUB Press 2011)
David Lynch is currently based in Cairo reporting on post-Mubarak Egypt and the Arab Spring. He is blogging at Arab Spring in My Step.
Massive social phenomena are not easily predicted.
The CIA for instance, was pumped full of billions of dollars from the US exchequer for decades. Its primary task was to spy on, study and make judgement calls about the Soviet Union. Stuffed with highly paid Kremlinologist, with almost unlimited political support, this massive institution failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet State, the very thing it spent decades obsessing about.
(It should be noted, in fairness, as I know readers would want me to be scrupulously fair to the CIA, the organisation actually disagrees with this assertion.)
Similarly, very few people predicted the Arab Spring.
General statements on the inherent unstable nature of despotic regimes, do not count. People have made them since at least Percy Bysshe Shelley penned ‘Ozymandias’ in the early nineteenth century. In fact this predictive tradition goes back much further than Shelley- so nobody gets kudos for just saying- ‘this too shall pass’.
But specific, and successful, predictions about a revolutionary event, a political crisis, or social upheaval are very rare.
On the basis of the wonderful ‘On the State of Egypt – The Issues that Caused the Revolution‘ (AUB Press 2011), Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany can claim with justification that he foresaw the Egyptian revolution in detail.
The book comprises a series of articles written by the author (‘The Yacoubian Building’) and political activist (and working dentist) during the period 2005 until late 2010. All published in oppositional Egyptian newspapers. The articles touch on a myriad of themes, corruption and despotism in his country, the role of women, the nature of freedom, the position of Copts in Egypt, Israel and economic inequity in the Arab world.
In the clarity and relentless nature of his arguments, Al Aswany’s style is reminiscent of Israeli dissident journalist Gideon Levy. Like Levy, there can be repetition of content (not a bad thing in itself, ‘The Fall’ for instance, have built a wondrous music career utilising a whole load of repetition), but the sharpness of the prose cuts across each page, each article ending with the credo ‘Democracy is the solution’.
With the recent massacre of Coptic Christians on the streets of Cairo, Al Aswany’s musings on the minority Christian community is interesting. Undoubtedly discriminated against, the author sees pitfalls in the Coptic religious leadership strategy of courting the Mubarak regime. He dismisses claims by the Coptic leadership that they need to support the regime, because it protects the minority community from Muslim extremist’s attacks.
“Egyptians are all persecuted. Millions of poor people in Egypt are deprived of freedom, justice, dignity, and the right to work, housing and healthcare. It is true that the Copts suffer a double injustice, once as Egyptians and again as Copts, but the legitimate demands of Copts cannot be met separately from the demands of the nation.” (Page 134)
Al Aswany may strike some as the type of “Muslim liberal” that the US state department would be praying comes to the fore as the Egyptian revolution continues. However, on at least one issue (although there are others) he is certainly not a voice that would be welcome in the large American Embassy here on the east bank of the Nile. The author is scathing about Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. He slams the Mubarak regime for essentially collaborating in these crimes (particularly in Gaza) by aiding the Israeli blockade.
“Egyptians like Palestinians, are completely surrounded by a steel wall of despotism, injustice and repression, a wall that is strangling them and depriving them of their most basic human rights. The wall is the same, the distress is the same and the deliverance is the same.” (Page 126)
But it is issues within the borders of Egypt and the minds of its people that most concern the author. Discrimination against women, in particular private and public sexual harassment is discussed. The author particularly blames Wahhabi TV preachers funded by Saudi money for spreading a negative, (and somewhat ironically, a highly sexualised), attitude towards women. Al Aswany claims, “A civilized view of women as human beings prevailed in Egypt until the beginning of the 1980s when the country was swept by a wave of powerful fundamentalist Wahhabi thinking that offered a completely different view of women” (Page 80).
This argument is vulnerable to charges of reductionism, but the author is strident in his anger against the affects of some radical interpretations of Islam. He worries the “understanding of religion that now prevails in Egypt is ritualistic rather than behavioral, in the sense that it does not present religion as synonymous with morality but sees it as confined to the performance of a set of procedures, the completion of which qualifies one as pious” (Page 104). Ireland in the 1950s and 60s anyone?
As to be expected from a renowned novelist, there are wonderfully crafted personalised tales about those who suffer because of despotism. He meets a young Egyptian graduate on the sidewalk in New York, who is now selling hot dogs. He says he misses home- but he had to leave because of what he calls the “three no’s theory”. “No job, no marriage, no future”. Many young Egyptians can no longer afford to get married, thus reluctantly living lonely, childless, frustrated lives as a result of economics and social taboos.
There is much about police brutality, election rigging and the general dirty dealing and bloodletting that goes on under a dictatorship all, (the reader must continually remind themselves) bravely penned by the author while living under this tyranny. It can be speculated that it was Al Aswany’s fame as a bestselling author that provided him some protection from the full force of the former regime.
The author finds refuge from gloom by celebrating the rise in protest that swept the country in the past decade. He perceptively sensed something big was coming. In April 2009 he wrote;
“When a regime becomes solely dependent on oppression, it fails to realize that the apparatus of oppression, however mighty it may be, consists of individuals who are part of society and who share the grievances and interests of the rest of the population. As oppression deepens, these individuals will find they are unable to justify their crimes to themselves. Then the regime’s iron grip will be broken and meet the fate it deserves. Where Egypt is concerned, I believe that day will come soon” (Page 164)
Readers searching for a systematic socialist or class analysis of the Egyptian revolution will be disappointed. This is not ‘Ten Days that shook Cairo’. There is little economic analysis; labour disputes during the final years of the Mubarak regime are referred to in a general sense but not in great detail. The vital growth of an independent trade union movement is not addressed. In attempting to contrast the hypocrisy of Mubarak’s dictatorship with functioning democracies, Al Aswany paints a somewhat too rosy picture of western politics (reminiscent of Michael Moore and his love of Canada). His heroes are people like Mohamed Mustafa ElBaradei, whose arrival in Cairo Airport in 2010 is described in breathless detail. But ElBaradei, although undoubtedly an impressive individual, is hardly a figure that would satisfy the more radical demands of the revolutionaries.
The Egyptian revolution emerges onto the world stage, just when international capitalism is going through its biggest crisis since the 1930s. The western capitalist model is not in a great position to offer ready fit answers to the economic crisis and inequalities faced by the Egyptians. Despite the great achievements of early 2011, the military remain in power here in Egypt, the time line for the “civilian transfer of power” is unclear, and civilians face military trials in their thousands.
For Al Aswany ‘Democracy is the solution’. Indeed this is a credo that few can disagree. But there comes a point when you begin to discuss the parameters of democracy. For some of us, democracy should not stop in the ballot box every four or five years, but should look beyond this traditional horizon and begin to aggressively colonise the economic sphere as well. Such a movement would establish citizens as the masters of the international market, rather than helpless subjects- Insha’Allah.
The Egyptian people and their brave revolution continue to pose fundamental questions about the nature of democracy. And the magnificent democratic conversation begun in Tahrir Square earlier this year has inspired movements from Wall Street to Spain, movements that radically question the very economic fundamentals of our iniquitous society. But these debates remain, for the most part, outside the bounds of this book.
But it is churlish to complain about what the book is not. For ‘On the State of Egypt’ is a searing attack upon despotism, ignorance and inequality, and an often touching defence of democracy and human rights. And all of this flows from the pen of a wonderful writer, who wrote under the dark shadow of the Mubarak dictatorship. Al Aswany is an exemplar of intellectual and practical bravery- this book is a must read for anyone inspired by the continuing Egyptian revolution.
David Lynch is an award winning journalist and author. His work has appeared in numerous publications and he has reported from the occupied Palestinian territories and in the wider Middle East. ‘A Divided Paradise: An Irishman in the Holy Land‘ (New Island 2009) is his second book; his first was a historical study that focused on the early political life of James Connolly ‘Radical Politics in Modern Ireland: The Irish Socialist Republican Party 1896-1904? (IAP 2005). www.davidlynchwriter.com
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