The Revolution in Context: Alaa Al Aswany's On the State of Egypt

08/23/2011 05:41 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

After almost six months of uncertainty, Hosni Mubarak has found as of August 3 a residence befitting his dignity: the dock of an Egyptian criminal court, where he faces charges of killing demonstrators during the revolution leading to his ouster, using his power for personal profit during his reign, and exporting natural gas to Israel at prices below international market value. The penalties for these crimes range from five years in prison to the death penalty. Also facing charges are his sons Alaa and Gamal and former Minister of the Interior, Habib al Adly. The legal accountability of heads of state is one of the last, best inventions of the liberal tradition. This chapter in the ongoing Egyptian Revolution thus reminds us that many of its actors have liberalizing aims.

Alaa Al Aswany has long voiced those aims. Like so many of his writings, On the State of Egypt provides a critique of despotism both distinctly Egyptian and universal. A case in point is his reference to Chekhov's short story 'A Chameleon.' A police superintendent strolling across a public square comes upon a goldsmith who has been bitten by a dog. He imperiously declares that he will strangle the dog and make an example of the owner. After making inquiries, he is informed that the owner is in fact the brother of an army general, so he promptly praises the dog's lively spirit and sharply rebukes the man who has been bitten.

Apply and re-apply the story to anyone holding anything resembling a position of authority, from a police officer to a landlord to a schoolteacher, and one senses what half a century of military rule does to a country. In Al Aswany's novel Chicago, the president of an Egyptian-American student organization -- as inconsequential a position as one could imagine -- uses his modicum of influence to curry the favor of the security police and interior ministry. Militaries are institutions demanding absolute obedience to individuals of exceedingly limited ability. When an army becomes a nation's core political institution, the key political virtues are cunning, muscle, and sycophancy.

It should be no surprise that Egypt's 1952 military coup, the Free Officers revolt, overthrew the monarchy and achieved independence from British colonization, but in the same stroke set back the kind of liberalization of Egyptian institutions for which Saad Zaghloul's 1919 revolution strove. Zaghloul and his Wafd party forced the British to grant fuller independence and implemented reforms leading Egypt to become a constitutional monarchy. Though the Wafd enjoyed popular support for a time, its internal divisions allowed it to be swept out of power with relatively little fuss by the Free Officers. And that Cromwell amongst the Free Officers, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, would become something of a folk hero on the back of his socialist land and education reforms and his aggressive brand of Arab chauvinism, which at its best produced Pyrrhic victories and at its worst led to the humiliating defeat of the Six Day War.

As Egypt's political allegiances shifted West under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, the neoliberal economic reforms urged especially by the United States succeeded in creating a perfect climate for corruption, making cozy bedfellows of a wealthy business elite and an absolutist ruling party apparatus. We get a sense of how that relationship works in observing Hagg Azzam, the self-made tycoon of Al Aswany's acclaimed novel (and now film) The Yacoubian Building, who tries to augment his success in business by bribing his way into a seat in the Popular Assembly. When Azzam secures a lucrative contract for a dealership selling Japanese cars, he is forced to relinquish significant profits to a secretive 'Big Man' who lives in a mansion that sounds very much like the presidential palace. The many able and educated Egyptians on the outside of this incestuous world of privilege and power have been left in a situation desperate enough to make life in the Gulf seem inviting. And traffic with the Gulf during these decades of neoliberal economic reform, by means of employment and satellite television, has had the further effect of importing the barbarous tribalism passed off as Islamic observance by that region's despots and their stables of doting imams.

Such are the conditions that Al Aswany describes as making inevitable the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The techno-soteriology current in our own culture has given much attention to the shabab al-Facebook (the 'youth of Facebook'), but Al Aswany makes it quite clear in an introductory essay that this was a full-fledged popular uprising, more than a youth revolution and certainly much more than a Facebook revolution. With this brief first-person account from Tahrir Square in place, On the State of Egypt turns to a collection of Al Aswany's essays in the years leading up to the revolution, first appearing in the dissident newspapers al-Shorouk and Ibrahim Eissa's al-Dustur, which ran afoul of the regime for reporting on Mubarak's declining health (in the semiotics of despotism, the health of the dictator is a synecdoche for the health of the nation, so implying that he will enjoy anything less than the longevity of a biblical patriarch is a form of treason). Aligning themselves with the Kefaya ('Enough') movement that began in 2004, the likes of al Aswany and Eissa represent a generation of intellectuals who have long urged reform and are still active. Encouragingly, Eissa has recently founded a new daily, named (what else?) al-Tahrir.

Gathered under three broad themes -- 'The Presidency and Succession,' 'The People and Social Justice,' and 'Free Speech and State Repression' -- these essays cleave closely to the social and political concerns animating Al Aswany's novels. The prospect of Hosni Mubarak handing rule over to his son Gamal -- passed down "as though the nation were a poultry farm," in Al Aswany's oft-repeated phrase -- becomes a rallying point for democratic reforms. Against the regime's assertion that Egyptians take naturally to authoritarian rule, Al Aswany reminds his Egyptian readership of the nation's history of democratic activism: 'Democratic experiments began in Egypt earlier than in many European countries, when in 1866 Khedive Ismail set up the first advisory council of representatives.'

The effects of military rule ripple throughout the society that Al Aswany describes. He blasts religious observance that is only formal, pointing to the contradictions of a State Security officer who fasts during Ramadan but spends his working days as a professional torturer and rapist. Formal worship is encouraged by a regime endorsing the Wahhabi ideal of obedience to tyrants, an ideal carrying with it regressive attitudes toward women. This point on the natural complicity of Mubarak's security state with religious fundamentalism complicates significantly the autocrat's self-branding as the last bulwark against zealotry; the regime is in fact directly responsible, Al Aswany argues, for stifling Egypt's traditionally tolerant interpretation of Islam. Lamenting Egypt's significant brain drain -- of which one senses he very nearly became part after earning his master's degree in dentistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the 1980s -- Al Aswany shows how cronyism and corruption marginalize the most accomplished Egyptians, including Nobel laureates like Mohamed ElBaradei and Ahmed Zewail.

These essays typically end with a sentence that might seem a trite and superficial remedy for the problems they describe: 'Democracy is the solution.' We who are perpetually disappointed with our elected representatives might have an eyebrow raised by the glowing accounts of American and British government offered here. But Al Aswany is too subtle a thinker to be blind to the shortcomings of democratic government, even if the activism of these essays does not allow that subtlety fully to shine. The unflinching realist gaze of his novels suggests that he is not given to simplistic utopianism. But it also suggests a deeply felt humanism: while the villains of his fiction are those directly involved in state repression, the characters for whom we feel affection are certainly not immune from a less sinister brand of sexual foible, self-interest, and meanness of spirit. If democracy is the solution for Al Aswany, it is not out of naive optimism so much as out of the recognition that we are never less human than when we have unchecked power over others.

The above is cross-posted from the website of Dissent Magazine.