Alaa al-Aswany walks with anti-Mursi protesters as they chant anti-government slogans in Tahrir Square in Cairo November 27, 2012 (photo: Reuters)
The Writer Alaa al-Aswani

A Desperate Citizen of Egypt

"We will topple Mursi, just as we toppled Mubarak": A few years ago Alaa al-Aswani wrote what is arguably the most successful novel ever to be written in Arabic, now he is fighting for democracy in his homeland. By Tim Neshitov

Alaa al-Aswani, Egypt's most widely-read author, is sitting in a small hotel in central Stuttgart, Germany, and tweeting. "Egypt does not have a legitimate president. We've elected someone that has turned out to be an employee of Murshed, a bloody dictator." Murshed is the name given to the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Aswani has long, groomed fingernails and an iPad with a black protective sleeve. His tweets are aimed at Mohammed Morsi, a head of state whose Islamist constitutional blueprint is pushing Egypt to the brink of civil war.

It's Thursday morning, St. Nicholas day in Germany. In Egypt, state television reports five deaths in the latest street battles. Mursi's supporters, most of them Muslim brothers, and Mursi's opponents have been attacking each other with stones and firebombs overnight in front of the presidential palace. 55-year-old Aswani, a thickset man with size 12 shoes and short, still very black hair, doesn't usually miss a demonstration. Following a knife attack on his life on Tahrir Square last year, he is protected by a group of well-built supporters, most of them soccer ultras.

But since Monday, Aswani's been in Germany. He was awarded the Johann Philipp Palm Prize for Freedom of Speech and the Press in Schorndorf near Stuttgart. Johann Philipp Palm was a bookseller in Nuremberg who published a pamphlet against Napoleon in 1806, titled "Germany in its profound humiliation". Palm was executed.

"These 2,000 votes are being manipulated"

Alaa al-Aswani stayed in Germany following the award ceremony, although in Egypt the bloodiest national crisis since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak looms large. Aswani took his wife to the doctor, she works as an accountant and suffers from arthritis. He was himself also examined by two Swabian doctors. He's been a chain smoker for decades.

Protest against Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi in Cairo (photo: Reuters)
Alaa Al-Aswany was one of the few prominent faces of the leaderless revolution. Now he is one of the most vociferous critics of the Islamist rulers. Pictured: anti-Morsi rally in Cairo

​​"The doctors said my lungs are surprisingly healthy," he says, laughing like a truant who's passed an exam. His voice is deep and chalky and at the moment, it can be heard on Egyptian television on a daily basis. A private broadcaster calls him in Germany for telephone interviews. As far as Egypt's state television service is concerned, Aswani doesn't exist. Blacklisted under Mubarak, he's also become too critical for the country's new rulers.

Before Aswani flies back to Cairo on Monday ("I'll throw my suitcase into the apartment and run to Tahrir!" he says), he plans to try and mobilise Egyptians living in Germany to take part in a demonstration. 60,000 Egyptians live in Germany. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, only 2,000 of them have been registered for the planned referendum on 15 December, the day President Mursi wants to put his constitution to the public vote.

"These 2,000 votes are being manipulated and portrayed as representative, just like during the Mubarak era. Our bureaucracy is very experienced at this," says Aswani. "The people here should take to the streets and raise their voices against this farce. But it's not easy to convince them of that."

A Christmas tree twinkles in the cosy lobby, Adele's "Someone Like You" is playing on the local radio station, the news bulletin begins with a report from Egypt. The presidential guard has deployed tanks in front of Mursi's palace. "Mursi, Mursi," sighs Aswani. He's drinking black coffee without sugar and nibbling on a chocolate Santa. His wife is out in the snow buying a few German jackets for the couple's two daughters. Earlier, Aswani spoke on the telephone to the Nobel laureate Muhammed ElBaradei, the former UN weapons inspector and a key opposition figure. Now Aswani tweets: "We will topple Mursi, just as we toppled Mubarak."

Aswani has more than 630,000 followers on Twitter. Anything he writes soon appears on Arabic news sites. And he can see the reactions immediately on his screen.

"You're stupid," tweets a pretty woman. "You don't really know anything, but you're still talking."

Aswani's critics, most of them Islamists, like to disguise themselves as beautiful women on the Internet. Another such beauty asks whether Aswani has already had his morning whiskey. "They don't find it difficult to insult me, because they've obviously not read my books. Otherwise they wouldn't claim that I'm writing against Islam," says Aswani.

"He asked: And who might you be?"

Aswani came to the world's attention in 2002, with the publication of his novel "The Yacoubian Building", an ironic, contrast-rich panorama of everyday life under Hosni Mubarak in the early 1990s. It was a work that broke with many taboos. He described how Egyptians sleep with each another, how they look for work, give and receive bribes, clean steps, drink champagne, smoke dope, pray, falsify elections, and become terrorists. The book was translated into 27 languages including Hebrew and has sold more than a million copies worldwide.

Aswani's novel "Chicago", published six years ago, also became an international bestseller. But in times of crisis, Aswani's literary clout appears to be outweighed by his political influence.

Alaa al-Aswani (photo: AP)
"Autocracy is like cancer," wrote Aswani. "It spreads from the presidential palace over society as a whole. Repressed people turn into little autocrats themselves. As soon as they encounter people who are weaker than they are, they reproduce the repression that they've suffered themselves"

​​In a heated television debate last February, he grilled the Prime Minister at the time Ahmed Shafik, a man from Mubarak's old guard, so intensely that Shafik stepped down two days later.

"He was most infuriated by the fact that I addressed him like an equal, and not like some kind of demigod," says Aswani. "He asked: And who might you be? I could have said: I'm the most successful Arab author of contemporary times, but I said: I'm a citizen of Egypt and you'll have to get used to being asked questions by citizens of Egypt."

Ask questions, don't kowtow to those in positions of authority – this is a subject that has long been close to Aswani's heart. He studied dentistry, absolving his Bachelor degree in Cairo and his Masters in Chicago. In a column for the newspaper Al Masry al Youm he recently described his time as an assistant doctor at Cairo University in the early 1980s as "the worst days of my life". There was a professor there who addressed his assistant as a "donkey", and the assistant didn't mind, he said the professor was like a father to him.

"Autocracy is like cancer," wrote Aswani. "It spreads from the presidential palace over society as a whole. Repressed people turn into little autocrats themselves. As soon as they encounter people who are weaker than they are, they reproduce the repression that they've suffered themselves."

Aswani still works as a dentist two days a week, although he makes enough money from his writing – a rare situation in the Arab world. "My practice is the window I need to observe society," he says.

And what Aswani observes through this window these days fills him with mixed emotions. His patients complain on the one hand about how they are bullied by their superiors. Conditions at Cairo University, for example, haven't changed since the 1980s, he says. "As a student, you were and you still are a helpless creature. You're brainwashed into asking no questions." So Egypt remains a country of little autocrats.

On the other hand, in January 2011, Egypt experienced a "mysterious moment of the revolution". "People who were not even conscious citizens suddenly became heroes. Dictators can only govern because people, no matter where they are in the world, are not heroes by nature."

A pitiful sight for non-Egyptians

Egypt, two years after the end of the Mubarak era: for non-Egyptians, it's a pitiful sight. But Aswani thinks the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mursi will have a positive effect on his country in the long term. "Of course it's good for Egypt, not for the Brotherhood. It's like an immunisation. For decades, Mubarak demonised the Islamists, which boosted their popularity enormously. Now people are turning away from them because they're realising what fascist fanatics they are. Once the whole nightmare is over, Egypt will be immune to such organisms."

Aswani talks of Islamists in derogatory terms, but up to now he's held regular meetings with them. During his last conversation with President Mursi, he appealed to the leader's conscience for a quarter of an hour. "You can be very open with him, he listens quite politely," says Aswani. "I said: You represent an organisation that is funded from unknown sources. Your constitutional reform has no legitimacy. And he smiled the whole time and said he agreed with me on all counts. He said: Many thanks, let's have our photo taken together."

Aswani grew up in a liberal family, his mother was religious, his father a lawyer and writer who neither prayed nor fasted. The family's circle of friends included Copts, Egyptian Christians. Aswani says he is a person that needs God. He goes out and lights a cigarette in front of the church opposite the hotel. "I can walk down this Guttenbergstrasse, and return to the hotel a different way. Many roads lead to God too," he says.

A religious person tweets back: "God supports the President"

Mursi's Islamist constitution proposes that statements by Copts against Muslims should carry no legitimacy in court. Or that Christians who drink alcohol in Egypt should receive 80 lashes. Aswani tweets: "How can a constitution that ignores the will of the Copts be legal? Haven't they also fought for freedom? Don't they also pay taxes?" A religious person tweets back: "Two thirds of Egyptians support the President. God supports the President."

The mysterious moment of the anti-Mubarak revolution, a moment that briefly united the nation, wouldn't that be worth a novel?

"Sure," says Aswani. "But writing a novel is an organic process, like falling in love. I can't say OK now I'll write a book about the revolution. Just as I can't say: This week, I'm going to fall in love with this woman."

Instead, Aswani has written an historical novel. It is scheduled for publication early next year and is titled "Egypt's Automobile Club". It is set in the 1940s, when cars were becoming an increasingly common sight on Egypt's roads. But in the first chapter Aswani relates how in Germany, Carl and Bertha Benz once had to battle against resistance from opponents of motorised transport. "There were horse fanatics who said: God created horses, not engines. These fanatics really remind me of our Muslim brothers," he says.

Tim Neshitov

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / 2012

Translated from the German by Nina Coon editor: Lewis Gropp

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