Alaa El Aswany *: "I miss Egypt, but I don't miss the dictatorship"

Alaa El Aswany in studio at RFI (September 2018) © RFI

Text by: Tirthankar Chanda Follow

10 mins

Fervent support of the Egyptian revolution of January 25, 2011, the novelist Alaa El Aswany is very critical of the military regime in place in Cairo.

The writer is part of the intellectual avant-garde which prepared the ground for the popular uprisings of 2011. Censored in his country and prosecuted by the Egyptian military court, the Cairo novelist now lives in New York.

Reached by telephone on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the "Egyptian Spring", he recounts his commitment and his hope for the democratic future of his country.



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RFI: What do you think of the tenth anniversary of the popular uprisings that took place in Egypt from January 25, 2011?

Alaa El Aswany:

You know, I didn't just write about Egypt, I also participated in the protests.

During the revolution, I was in Tahrir Square in Cairo every day, which had become the epicenter of the protest.

I took the floor regularly to say all the good things I thought about this movement.

It was essentially a movement of Egyptian youth.

I was able to see closely the courage of these young people who did not hesitate to challenge the heavily armed police forces.

I have seen kids barely out of their teens collapse next to me.

They were being shot.

Among the demonstrators, there are people who recognized me and they told me that if they were there it was a bit thanks to the political novels that I, as well as other Egyptian writers, (had) written to denounce the dictatorship. , corruption and the abuses of the country.

These words touched me a lot because it was the best reward a writer could receive.

From my point of view, it is more important than all the prestigious literary prizes that have been awarded to me.

In retrospect, those revolutionary days were the greatest moment of my life.

I will never forget the fraternity, the solidarity, the enthusiasm that I witnessed during those days of revolt and anger.

What were the demands of the demonstrators?

They demanded the end of the dictatorship, a new Constitution ensuring equality of opportunity, the establishment of a republic worthy of the name.

The regime's propaganda services stormed the media, the press, to make them say that these demonstrators, mostly from the working classes, had been instrumentalized by intellectuals educated in the West, who had put concepts in their heads. such as "


" and "


" which were far from the concerns of the common people.

As if we need a doctorate to become aware of social injustice, to claim freedom and dignity or to cry out that we are hungry!

The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square were moved by the deprivations that were their daily lot.

So they had stormed the places of power to make their voices heard.

During the revolution, the street had become stronger than the regime, leading to the fall of President Mubarak on February 11, 2011. These events made the Gulf monarchies tremble.

It's not nothing.

When did the balance of power change?

With the alliance between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The country found itself caught between the military and the Islamists.

At first, the Islamists had the wind in their sails and succeeded in electing one of their own,

Mohamed Morsi

, to the presidency


When the Muslim Brotherhood loomed over the country with the threat of a river of blood, the army took matters into its own hands, but instead of promoting democratic elections as it had promised, it confiscated the revolution, electing

Abdel Fatah al-Sissi

, former head of the army

, to the presidency


We have seen a step backwards, with the restoration of the military regime in power in Cairo since 1952.

The street revolution failed in Egypt ...

No, I wouldn't call it a failure.

Personally, I remain optimistic for the future because ten years later more and more of us are hoping for the advent of democracy, of a secular civil state, which is neither religious nor military.

This development seems inevitable to me for two reasons.

I remain optimistic at first because I read the story.

In the past, after every revolution, there was a counter-revolution.

The model in this area is the French Revolution, the mother of all revolutions.

Ten years after 1789, France found itself with an emperor in the person of Napoleon.

This is not quite what the French revolutionaries had hoped for.

They were then treated to a return to the old regime, to a bourgeois monarchy, and then to a Second Empire, before the new vision could truly take hold, embodied in the form of a republic.

Finally, I remain optimistic because I do not forget that 65% of Egyptians are under 35 years old.

They were in the majority among the 10 to 20 million people, according to figures given by CNN, who demonstrated in Tahrir Square in 2011. They are the ones who will build the future of Egypt.

They embody a more progressive vision of the country and of how power works.

But ten years after the popular uprisings, the government in power in Cairo seems more repressive than in the days of Hosni Mubarak.

You yourself have stressed the brutality of the regime established by President Sisi and his acolytes ...

There is an explanation for this.

The soldiers who govern Egypt were confronted ten years ago with an unprecedented revolution.

They made a promise to the ruling class and their outside allies that such a situation will not happen again.

I compare the current power to a wounded tiger, which, as we know, is more dangerous, more aggressive, more brutal.

My fate perfectly illustrates the growing brutality of the regime.

As a novelist critical of the regime, I am ostracized.

I cannot express myself in the media, my books are banned in Cairo, as well as in the whole Arab world.

You have never been in the odor of holiness with the power in Egypt.

It is true, but it is clear that the situation is worse than before.

Under President Mubarak, I had a certain leeway, I had what I call a "

freedom of gossip


If I can summarize the attitude of the government under Mubarak, I would say: "

write what you want, me, president, I will do what I want!"

My critical portraits of the government were tolerated, however, and I was allowed to organize the literature seminars that I led for over twenty years.

Not only today am I banned from publication, I cannot even express myself in the media or in the press.

Even more serious, since 2019, I have been prosecuted by the Egyptian military justice for "

insults towards the president, the armed forces and the judicial institutions


In question my last novel,

I ran to the Nile

(Actes Sud, 2019), interviews that I gave abroad.

Would you say that today there is no freedom of expression or intellectual freedom in Egypt?

The regime controls all media.

You cannot express yourself on television or publish anything without the blessing of power.

Even under Nasser, who was a dictator, the margins of freedom for intellectual creation were great, as evidenced by the openly critical novels of the regime published at the time by a man like

Naguib Mahfouz


The latter was reportedly banned from publication under President Sisi.

When my friends in high places wanted to intercede on my behalf with generals close to power, they heard that I should not expect any mercy because my writings only create problems in the government.

Paradoxically, this answer rather filled me with pride because I believe that the mission of any writer is to be a problem, to be a thorn under the feet of the powerful.

But the price to pay is very heavy.

You had to leave your country.

What is your personal situation?

Indeed, I had to make my arrangements.

Since 2015, I have been teaching at American universities where I give creative writing courses.

I also created my own

creative writing



Until recently, I traveled regularly to Egypt to visit my relatives.

I was having more and more trouble at Cairo airport when I returned to the country.

From 2019, since the legal proceedings were launched against me, I have not returned to Egypt, on the advice of my lawyers.

I miss Egypt, but the dictatorship not at all.

Your books are read, admired all over the world.

Particularly in France where your books are bestsellers.

What relationship do you have with France?

A privileged relationship.

I consider France as my second homeland.

I studied at the French high school of Bab El-Louk in Cairo where I learned the language and where I was introduced to culture and especially French literature.

I am happy that my books have found a readership in France.

I am less happy to note the privileged links that the French government maintains with the tyrannical regime in Cairo to which it sells arms.

These weapons are then used to suppress the demonstrators who fight the dictatorship.

I understand that the actions of governments are motivated by interests and not by principle.

I had the opportunity to say this verbally to President Hollande during his visit to Egypt.

I could say it again to President Macron if I have the opportunity to meet him.

I have been told that he likes what I write.

I would tell him that the France of culture, human rights, and democracy that I love is greater than this France which is arming dictators around the world.


Le Syndrome de la dictature

, a collection of essays, is Alaa El Aswany's latest book, published in French in 2020, published by Actes Sud.

The novels and chronicles of this master Egyptian storyteller have also been published by the same publisher and are available in the Babel collection, in pocket format:

L'Immeuble Yacoubian

, Babel n ° 843),


(Babel n¨941,

J ' would have liked to be Egyptian

, Babel n ° 1004),

Chronicles of the Egyptian revolution

(Babel n ° 1170),

Automobile Club d'Egypte

(Babel, n ° 1344).


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