Popular Egyptian Writer Says Revolution Was 'Inevitable'

Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany was a strong advocate for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. In a new book of essays, Al-Aswany reflects on a revolution, he says was inevitable. Host Michel Martin discusses the future of Egypt with one of the Arab world's most popular writers.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Let's go back, for a moment, to January 25th, when an Internet posting called on Egyptians to go to Tahrir Square to protest the government of Hosni Mubarak.

(Soundbite of protest)

MARTIN: For 18 days, Egyptians raised their voices to demand that Mubarak step down. One of those voices was that of Alaa Al Aswany, one of the Arab world's most popular novelists. In 2002, his novel, "The Yacoubian Building," became an international literary success. His works have been translated into some 30 languages. Dr. Al Aswany, and, yes, he is actually a dentist in addition to his writing, has just published a new book of essays called "On the State of Egypt: What Made the Revolution Inevitable." And Dr. Al Aswany joins us now from Cairo. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us, sir.

Dr. ALAA AL ASWANY (Dentist, Author): Thank you.

MARTIN: And obviously you've written a whole book about what made the revolution inevitable, but if you could just briefly summarize why you think that it was, I mean, given that the stereotype for years was that Egyptians would accept just about anything.

Dr. AL ASWANY: Yes, that's what really kind of misunderstanding, especially in the West. I believe that the Egyptians, they do revolt and probably they do revolt more than other people. But they do revolt in their way. They could stand very bad conditions, because they are not violent by nature. And I think I was kind of expecting that, even my book and my articles and my interviews, I insisted that something that is going to happen, Michel, and it's going to surprise everybody.

MARTIN: Now that the euphoria of the revolution has had a little bit of time to settle in, how do you assess the future? Do you, for example, you know, believe that the military will step aside at the appropriate time? Do you have confidence in the people who are kind of working to set up the mechanisms for transition to a new government?

Dr. AL ASWANY: We must say, I mean, the democracy is not paradise. Democracy is just the right thing. The country has been paralyzed by, I would say, one of the most terrible dictatorships in the human history. And now we got liberated. People began to feel, really, what they are and what they are able to do and it's going to take time, but I think that we are on the right track and I'm very optimistic about the future of Egypt.

MARTIN: One of the chapters I think many Americans will find particularly fascinating was your discussion of the treatment of women and how, you know, your analysis of why it is that women face the kind of harassment that they do, publicly and on the street, something that was brought home to many Americans, when an American journalist was mistreated in the crowd. What role do you see women having in this new Egypt?

Dr. AL ASWANY: First, this story, as I (unintelligible) sexual harassment, is not really our cultural issues. Another culture coming to us. Egypt has had, all the time, a very tolerant interpretation of the religion and a very liberal culture. And accordingly, we had, in Egypt, the first woman in school, in university, in government, in (unintelligible). What happened is they lost (unintelligible) under the dictatorship. That we were invaded by the Wahhabis, another interpretation of the religion, which was really closed and not tolerant.

Some people failed to see the woman as a human being who happened to be female. But they saw the woman as sexual object and machine to produce children. And that's it. So this would make the sexual harassment more acceptable.

MARTIN: One of the points you make your book is that some of these - the sexual harassment of women is a way to take revenge on society or to just vent anger and frustration because the conditions have been such that hard work do not always lead to success. There are a lot of people who can't afford to get married because they can't afford to support families and that this leads people to need an outlet, you know, for their frustrations, and this is one of the forms that it is taking. Do you feel optimistic that these issues are being addressed, and addressed seriously now?

Dr. Al ASWANY: Yes, of course, and I must - I read that in psychology that males don't do sexual harassment to females always for sexual desire, because sometimes in sexual harassment in Cairo there were, for example, 400 young males trying to sexually harass two girls. So practically speaking, we're not talking about sexual desire at all. It is a way to fight back. It is a way to refuse the catastrophic situation in which these young poor people, unemployed, desperate, they try to transmit the negative feelings so (unintelligible) something harmful to others.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with one of the Arab world's most popular novelists, Alaa Al Aswany. He has a new book of essays. It's called "On the State of Egypt: What Made the Revolution Inevitable." And just a couple of more minutes, and we do appreciate your taking the time, it's such a busy time. But I did want to ask about the - one of the things we spoke with our correspondent, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson about a few minutes ago, which is the tension in the South. There's a Christian governor newly elected and there are Islamic militants who are protesting this by sitting in on the, you know, rail station and so forth.

Do you see in the new Egypt a place where people of different religious commitments can coexist peacefully in the absence of this autocratic strong hand, which just sort of artificially suppresses dissent?

Dr. AL ASWANY: No, I have - we have evidence now that this story is done and orchestrated by some element of the old regime. So I don't take this as a sign of any negative thing. I take this as a sign the revolution is still at risk because you have the people who try to fight back because they lost everything because of this revolution.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, one of the essays in your book is a dream sequence. I hope I'm not giving it away, but it's a dream sequence where you find yourself at a dinner with one of the sons of Hosni Mubarak and you confront him. And I wanted to ask, what do you think should happen to Hosni Mubarak? Do you think he should be brought to trial?

Dr. AL ASWANY: I'm very proud of Egyptians, of what is happening with Hosni Mubarak because Hosni Mubarak is going to be brought to justice. We are offering him a fair opportunity for a fair trial and we are doing to him exactly what he did not do to the Egyptian people. But I think the revolution should always be(ph) a good model.

MARTIN: I've been speaking with novelist Alaa Al Aswany. He is one of the Arab world's most popular novelists. He's just out with a new book of essays. It's called "On the State of Egypt: What Made the Revolution Inevitable." And we are speaking with him from his home in Cairo. Dr. Al Aswany, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. AL ASWANY: Thank you.

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