Khaled Alkhamissi (photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)
Interview with Egyptian Writer Khaled Alkhamissi

''We Are Living in a Vibrant Social Era in Egypt''

Best-selling author and journalist Khaled Alkhamissi is one of the sharpest observers of Egyptian society. In his novels Taxi and Noah's Ark he foretold the fall of the Mubarak regime. Bettina Kolb spoke to him about a revolution that is far from over

In your novel Noah's Ark, which was first published in Egypt in 2009 and is now available in German, you write about Egyptians who want to leave the country. It was obviously written before the revolution. What was your intention?

Khaled Alkhamissi: I wanted to express the end of a regime, the end of an era in Egypt. We smelled the stench of a dead body and it was horrifying. Noah's Ark is set in the time when a surge destroyed the foundations of Egypt. I wanted to describe the destruction.

When I wrote the book between 2006 and 2008, chaos ruled, and the storm was so powerful that we lost all sense of direction. We were like birds trying to fly in one direction and being carried away by the storm in another. So leaving Egypt in Noah's Ark was a symbol for not being able to continue as before.

The novel is a dialogue between the narrator and the characters, a mix of fiction and real political events.

Alkhamissi: It is a circle, a novel with a round structure; each character is describing in a simple way how much he wants to leave, how he can leave and why. But on a second level, they are describing the chaos in their minds. On a third level, it is about the dead body.

​​How was the reaction to the novel in Egypt?

Alkhamissi: It was an immediate bestseller in Egypt, the best selling book of 2009.

Did you get into trouble with the regime?

Alkhamissi: The regime was already dead. How can you get into trouble with a regime already buried underground?

Nowadays, artists and journalists are under attack for alleged anti-Islamic comments or for insulting the president. Is this the end of freedom of expression?

Alkhamissi: When you live in chaos – and we still do – you can have a problem of freedom of expression and at the same time you have freedom of expression to the extent of madness. We have neither stability nor a system. Yes, we have problems with freedom of expression, but everyday people are saying things about the president that I doubt Angela Merkel could deal with.

The problem is with the media. They make a big deal about a revolution that began in 2011 and ended in 2011. They created the idea of "before the revolution" and "after the revolution". This is simply not true, because in Egypt and in many countries in the world, there is a revolutionary process, and this process began years ago. In Egypt, it started in 2004 and it did not stop. On the contrary, everyday it gains more power – slowly, but that is natural.

The Muslim Brotherhood have been in power for almost a year. Are they capable of governing the country?

Alkhamissi: They are not. So far, they have not been capable of governing the country. Everyday they make huge mistakes and everyday they lose credibility. I am a leftist person and not even in my dreams did I imagine that they would lose so much credibility so fast. They have no competent people to do the job and that is a social and economical disaster.

The Islamists have only one thing on their minds: how to stay in power. They want to control young people by controlling the education system, something they started to do 40 years ago, and they are quite systematic and good at that. Today, they really control education. Since 2011, they have been trying to get control of the more than 4,000 youths centres in Egypt. Now they are targeting the cultural sector. This war against culture has just begun; they are trying to take control of the cultural institutions and centres and the activities there. Last but not least, they are fighting to control the judiciary.

What is the ultimate aim of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Alkhamissi: In my personal opinion, they don't care about Egypt; they don't care about countries; they want all Muslims in the world to be governed by one law, the law of the Koran. But they are quickly losing legitimacy. Egyptians from all walks of life – even Islamists – say that we will soon see the end of the Muslim Brotherhood era.

Protests in Egypt (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
According to Khaled Alkhamissi, there is no such thing as "before the revolution" and "after the revolution"; Egypt, he says, is in the middle of an on-going revolutionary process


Do any of the opposition parties have programmes to solve the political, economical and social crisis in Egypt?

Alkhamissi: None of the opposition parties is very credible either. This is the main problem. They have programmes but they are not very credible. They need time to develop their tools and, most importantly, we need more time for a political power that can really address the demands of this revolutionary process to emerge.

How do intellectuals and artists contribute to the transformation process?

Alkhamissi: Through a lot of networking and demonstrations. I am part of a group of cultural figures that is working on a new cultural policy for the country right now. We will not rely on the Ministry of Culture any longer as it does not represent our demands.

How can the transformation process in Egypt be completed?

Alkhamissi: You simply have to forget the idea propagated by the media and European politicians, who are speaking about transformation from dictatorship to democracy. The Europeans and Americans finance a lot of organisations that are working towards transformation. We are not in the process of transformation from A to B, as representative democracy is dying everywhere. These were eighteenth-century ideas and these ideas are dead. In Egypt, we are not going to the eighteenth-century ideas that you are living by in Europe now.

What we need now is to properly analyse the revolutionary process that has been going on for almost ten years. Why is it still going on? After that, we need a manifesto of demands. Up until now, we have not written down our demands in a theoretical text, as was done in the French revolution, for example.

What is your outlook for Egypt?

Alkhamissi: We are living in a vibrant social era in Egypt. Everyone has the power to express themselves, to take to the streets and to ask new questions. Yes, it will take a long time, but I am very optimistic about this ongoing revolutionary process.

Bettina Kolb

© 2013

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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