Protests on Tahrir Square on 20 April 2012 (photo: Reuters)
Interview with the Egyptian writer Baha Taher

''Modern Egypt was built on the shoulders of intellectuals''

He played a decisive role in the movement to topple the Mubarak regime. In interview with Karen Krüger, Egyptian writer Baha Taher talks about censorship, literature and the presidential elections

Baha Taher, born in 1935, has been involved in all major periods of upheaval in Egypt over the years, firstly as a journalist and later as a writer with political ambitions. He was a co-founder of the grassroots movement Kifaja which called for the end of the Mubarak regime and laid the foundation stone for the January revolution. We meet in Leipzig, where Taher is presenting his book "Sunset Oasis" just published in German. The novel won him the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008. (The book was published in English in 2009 by Sceptre, UK.) Mr Taher is very friendly and polite, we go for a stroll and then to a café as his leg is causing him a great deal of pain. To his great regret, after waiting for this revolution for so long, vein problems prevented him from going to Tahrir Square every day as he would have liked.

***

Mr Taher, Egypt is electing a new president these days. The campaign included a televised debate for the first time in the history of the nation. Did you see it?

photo: Unionsverlag, Switzerland
Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and pre-revolution revolutionary: the Egyptian novelist Baha Taher (*1935)

​​Baha Taher: Of course, the entire nation tuned in. The cafés were full to bursting, people are greedy for political transparency – after all there's never been anything like this in Egypt.

There were a total of 13 candidates in the electoral race. Why were the television debate slots given to the liberal Amr Mussa and the Islamist Abel Futuh?

Taher: They said the two were at the top of the list, but that's not correct. Perhaps the duel was arranged to make them into the most important candidates.

Would you like to see either of them as president?

Taher: No, my choice would be Hamdeen Sabahi. He's secular and has always fought against the Mubarak regime. My wife doesn't speak Arabic, but when she saw him talking once, she said: Look at his gestures and his facial expression, he's a good person. But he won't win, because he's not rich.

Is that a criterium?

Taher: Of course! There are election posters plastered all over Cairo, but I really have to look hard to find Sabahy's face anywhere.

Who pays for the Muslim Brotherhood's posters?

Taher: That's something we'd all like to know. They say the money comes from voters. Well I've not yet paid for a Sabahy poster!

The Saudis, perhaps?

Taher: The rumour is out there. And there's another claiming that Mubarak supporters are spending a lot of money on their candidates. In these elections, no one knows whether the money is coming from home or abroad. That has an unsettling effect on people.

Mahmud, the protagonist in your novel "Sunset Oasis", is frustrated at the political situation. He wants to change it, but he doesn't succeed. You wrote the book in 2008, and it appears almost prophetic in view of current events.

Taher: That may well be, but isn't literature always prophetic?

In any case, initial revolutionary enthusiasm has since given way to a strong sense of disenchantment. Are you disappointed as well?

Taher: No, after all every revolution in history has its highs and lows, and Egypt is no exception.

Sabahi campaign posters in Cairo (photo: AP)
Baha Taher: "My choice would be Hamdeen Sabahi. He's secular and has always fought against the Mubarak regime"

​​We're still in the midst of our revolution, and one shouldn't be passing constant judgement on it. Otherwise one suffers terribly with every setback, becomes pessimistic and is deliriously happy about every little success – at least that's how it is with me.

You've been political all your life, but it still affects you like that?

Taher: I was so incredibly happy when the revolution broke out, I've experienced enough joy over the past few weeks to last me 10 lifetimes. I'm not exaggerating. Then the problems started, because the revolution didn't have the momentum to carry things through.

Because there was no clear leader?

Taher: That was on the one hand positive, post-modern actually. But then many people jumped on the bandwagon and tried to take over the reins: Islamists, the army, anarchists. Fortunately, the revolutionaries who were there from the start are still there. As soon as anyone attempts to steal the revolution from them, they put up a fight, even if they pay for it with their blood.

Blood is again being spilled on the streets. Are people still organising demonstrations over the Internet?

Taher: Not exclusively, because we now know that enemies of the revolution are posting on relevant forums under a false identity. You can no longer be sure who is writing what. Another important point is that Europe and the US should leave us in peace.

Why?

Taher: They've interfered in every revolution that's ever taken place here and destroyed everything.

Cover of "Sunset Oasis" (source: publisher)
"Almost prophetic": Baha Taher's "Sunset Oasis"

​​When the current revolution first began, the US and Europe initially sided with Mubarak. When it became obvious that the wave was unstoppable, we suddenly received support. What is the West's true position? What exactly are its interests? For my part, I can't answer that.

Many people in the West believe that Islam is not compatible with democracy.

Taher: That's rubbish, just look at Turkey and Malaysia. We should all convert to Buddhism, that would make everything simpler.

Has the revolution changed the way writers are working?

Taher: Listen, I've lived under three censorship systems, each worse than the last. During the rule of King Farouk, things the censor didn't approve of were simply whitewashed. That could be a sentence, but also an entire page. Under Sadat, the rule was: Publish what you like, but suffer the consequences – in other words, go to prison – or you won't be paid for your work. So that meant having to give up your profession for a while.

You went to Geneva at the time to work as a translator, but returned after eight years…

Taher: … and experienced the most perfidious form of censorship, namely that of the masses, and it still exists to this day. This was Mubarak's instruction: Let them say what they want. But if you interfered in politics, then potentially you could pay for it with your life. So that makes you your own censor, you have to decide yourself how far you can go, and that is the worst.

Think of Nagib Machfus, he was attacked with a knife by an Islamist in 1994. You can survive prison, you can also survive not being paid for your work. But censorship of the masses can be fatal. It's a battle, and that's why I support Hamdeen Sabahi, because he defends the values of civil society.

What is off limits at the moment as far as writing is concerned?

Taher: I write everything, I won't bow to pressure, I would rather die. But I know that several writers are very, very conscious of this danger, they receive death threats in the mail. That has an effect on their work, they change.

How do they change?

Taher: They become more religious, at least they suddenly pretend to be.

Are there any books that were important for the revolution?

Alaa al-Aswany (photo: AP)
Painting a scathing picture of Egyptian society: Like Baha Taher, the writer Alaa Aswany was one of the co-founders of the opposistional Kifaja movement during the Mubarak era

​​Taher: It's about writers more than books per se. The young people of Tahrir Square have faith in particular writers and poets. For the revolutionaries these are the nation's only credible individuals, people who share their ideals. They perceive themselves as in the same boat as these writers.

Who are they?

Taher: Amal Donkol, a poet of my generation who died in the 1980s. People recited his verses about freedom on Tahrir Square. Al-Abnoudi and Sayed Hegab were also important, and of course Nagib Machfus.

But let me mention something else, I'm not sure if there really is a connection but it's certainly interesting: in the five years before the revolution, book sales in Egypt trebled and have remained high, although reading books is not that popular in the Arab world. Evidently people are finding a truth in literature that is otherwise being withheld.

What about new literature?

Taher: There aren't that many contemporary writers shedding a critical light on Egyptian society. One exception would of course be Alaa al-Aswany.

… the author of "The Yakoubian Building" …

Taher: Yes, the novel paints a scathing picture of Egyptian society, names political scandals and exposes religious commandments as a pretext for crazed actions. Al-Aswany was also one of the co-founders of the Kifaja movement and was a regular visitor to Tahrir Square during the revolution.

Have you been there too?

Taher: I was one of the first to demonstrate against Mubarak. But when things really started hotting up my leg scotched all my plans. I was barely able to walk, and that's why I only went to the square two or three times.

photo: dpa
Victim of the censorship of the masses: Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1911– 2006)

​​The reception was very warm, each time. Many books that have since been written about it begin by mentioning the importance of my role within the opposition movement in the years before the revolution.

Believe me, it would have been a very great honour for me to have been able to play a larger role once the revolution finally began. But it wasn't meant to be. My leg wasn't playing the game, and I didn't want to pretend otherwise.

How were you received on Tahrir Square?

Taher: Very warmly, and that was a great relief to me. It would have been hard for me if the youngsters had thought I wasn't on their side. I still feel guilty though, because I couldn't really be there with them. I can't forget that.

The Muslim Brotherhood is very strong in Egypt at present.

Taher: That's also the fault of the West.

Of the West?

Taher: Yes! Many members of the Muslim Brotherhood went to Europe and the US in the 1960s. They were against Nasser and the nationalist movement. The Gulf States and the West were happy about this, and they were received everywhere with open arms. The Muslim Brotherhood was able to amass a great deal of money, and now they're very rich. They are using their assets to finance the counter-revolution.

Which brings us back to the election posters.

Taher: Yes, maybe.

And if the presidential office goes to a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Taher: Then things will be awful, because the army won't cooperate. There's only one cake in Egypt, and both sides want it. It would be a real tragedy.

What will happen to writers then?

Taher: We will continue to put up resistance, even though we have already lost several martyrs to the cause. There's no going back now. Modern Egypt was built on the shoulders of intellectuals. You can't rescind that, it's already cost too much blood.

Interview: Karen Krüger

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung / Qantara.de 2012

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp

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