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In Alaa al-Aswany's new novel, the dictatorship continues to win

Istibdad. That's the Arabic word I remember from the time I met Alaa al-Aswany, the Egyptian dentist and best-selling author of The Yacoubian Building. It means “absolutism” or “dictatorship”, from a root that means “to keep to yourself” – a fitting term for an author who has made a career in the fight against totalitarianism. I was studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo and Aswany was lecturing on politics – berating Istibdad's persistence.

It was a dizzying time. Factory protests and bread riots flared up every week. I watched an Egyptian friend of mine, a photographer for Reuters, have his camera stolen by the authorities. "They would have destroyed it," he said, but he spoke German and convinced her not to be an Egyptian. Anyone in Cairo could have told you back then that something huge and explosive was under construction. Nobody knew it would break out just 18 months later in the 2011 uprisings in Egypt known as the January 25th Revolution.

Istibdad. That's the Arabic word I remember from the time I met Alaa al-Aswany, the Egyptian dentist and best-selling author of The Yacoubian Building. It means “absolutism” or “dictatorship”, from a root that means “to keep to yourself” – a fitting term for an author who has made a career in the fight against totalitarianism. I was studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo and Aswany was lecturing on politics – berating Istibdad's persistence.

It was a dizzying time. Factory protests and bread riots flared up every week. I watched an Egyptian friend of mine, a photographer for Reuters, have his camera stolen by the authorities. "They would have destroyed it," he said, but he spoke German and convinced her not to be an Egyptian. Anyone in Cairo could have told you back then that something huge and explosive was under construction. Nobody knew it would break out just 18 months later in the 2011 uprisings in Egypt known as the January 25th Revolution.

The republic of false truths, Alaa al-Aswany, Knopf, 416 pp., $ 28.95, August 2021

The events that overthrew Hosni Mubarak's 30-year military regime gave hope to millions of Egyptians, including Aswany, who founded the Kefaya grassroots movement and went to Tahrir Square almost every day of the 2011 demonstrations. But the so-called Arab Spring did not bring political freedom, but more oppression and poverty. The buyer's repentance set in quickly, especially after the effective return of the Egyptian military rulers.

These fears haunt the pages of Aswany's latest novel, The Republic of False Truths, which was published in Lebanon in 2018 and in English translation this August. A 10-year review of what happened before and immediately after Mubarak's fall: The book was banned in most of the region; Aswany fled his home country and is now being charged by the Egyptian government with "insulting the president, the armed forces and the judicial authorities".

The novel follows the parallel lives of the people of Cairo who intersect at the nexus of the revolution. Some of them support the uprisings, others oppose it, but all feel the iron hooks of the state that are dismembering the movement. Her fears about the fruits of the rebellion mirror those of Aswany. There is optimism, but it is in short supply.

After 18 days of marches, strikes and civil disobedience, Air Force Marshal Mubarak relinquished control of Egypt on February 11, 2011 and was on trial for corruption, abuse of power and failure to kill peaceful protesters. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the following year the Egyptians elected the Islamist Mohamed Morsi as president. Morsi's supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood won a majority in parliament and gave Egypt's Islamists more power than ever. Morsi gave himself the power to legislate without judicial review and rammed through a hastily written constitution.

In the summer of 2013 protests broke out over such tangible actions demanding Morsi's resignation. A military coup led by Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi removed him and suffocated his supporters during the Rabaa massacre in August 2013, killing around a thousand. In next year's elections, Sisi became president – with 97 percent of the vote. Since then, he has steadily gained power, launched economic mega-projects even though the standard of living is falling, banned public statements of opposition, imprisoned activists and waged war on Sinai. After Sisi's second landslide victory in 2018, the now-released Mubarak said, referring to the events of 2011, "Be warned, what happened seven or eight years ago is not going to happen again."

That is the grim backdrop to The Republic of False Truths. The Arabic title, Jumhuriya Kaan, could be translated directly as “A So-Called Republic” or, based on the American slang of the 1990s, “A Republic — As If!”. It is reminiscent of Ben Franklin's famous joke when, on leaving the Constitutional Convention, he was asked what kind of government the American colonists now had: "A republic, if you can keep it." This uncomfortable refrain hangs over Aswany's characters, all of whom, for or against the revolution, are fighting to keep Mother Egypt. Opposite the uprisings are General Ahmad Alwany, who heads the terribly titled "Apparatus" (al-Jihaz) and oversees the torture of dissidents; Nourhan, a devout but seductive television presenter who uses her charm to prop up the regime; Sheikh Shamel, a clergyman trained in Saudi Arabia who railed against the protests as un-Islamic; and Essam Shaalan, a factory manager who cracks down on labor strikes.

In Aswany's account, those on the other side are closely linked to the enemies of the revolution. Alwany's daughter Danya resists the rioting but changes her mind after meeting Khaled Madany, son of Shaalan's chauffeur. Mazen, a worker at Shaalan's factory, leads the labor strikes and falls in love with Asmaa, a protester who exposes the regime's torture of women. Ashraf Wissa, a wealthy, hashish-smoking playboy from Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, is drawn into the simmering protests near his building. Each plot unfolds in alternating chapters, a hallmark of Aswany's polyphonic style that conveys the tangled web of life. And in another sense, his characters don't read like real, idiosyncratic, individual men and women.

The American screenwriter Aaron Sorkin once described his creative process for smash hits like The West Wing and The Social Network: In search of “intention and obstacle” he composes a scene by playing all the characters himself and out loud from one side of a debate argued and then switch to the other side. "The fun part for me is going back and watching this tennis match," he said. "It's not that I'm interested in the subject of the debate or that it ends up declaring a winner." The resulting repartee in his work has generated both criticism and praise – every movie or episode finally sounds like it really is: Aaron Sorkin argues with himself. But one man's deductible is another's wisdom. The director of the social network, David Fincher, loves the Sorkin brand precisely because “you watch a person navigate the jungle of their self-doubt, the jungle of their thought process”.

Reading all of Alaa al-Aswany, including The Republic of False Truths, is like a Sorkin show. Narrative energy flows mainly from debates between characters – or, in other words, from Aswany's debates with himself. Will the revolution benefit the country? Is Torture Against Human Ethics? What sexual practices does Islam allow? What role do women play in society? And what is perhaps most frustrating for those involved in the region: Are the citizens of the Middle East ready for democracy?

"The Egyptian culture we inherited from the pharaohs is the culture of obedience to the pharaohs," says factory manager Shaalan, reflecting his own lost idealism after being tortured in prison. “But dictatorships have emerged in Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Argentina,” replies the worker activist Mazen, and none of these countries is Islamic or Pharaonic. Your view is unfair. ”Mazen's bold response echoes Aswany's own view, expressed in a New York Times comment,“ Is Egypt Doomed to Autocracy? ”One of several he made as a contributing writer from 2013-2014 wrote. However, as an unconscious excuse for dictatorship – since tyranny, as European history shows, is a universal pastime, Mazen's reply could explain what has been the most disappointing legacy for some Aswanys: a wholehearted cheer for the 2013 military coup that drove Mursi away and replaced by Sisi.

"There was a warning and Morsi refused to resign," Aswany Negar Azimi said in an interview for the New Yorker in late 2013. “The army stepped in to protect millions who were already on the streets. This is not a coup. ”(Morsi died in a questionable criminal case in 2019). Most of the liberal elites in Egypt share this enthusiasm for the military state from a gripping paranoia about political Islam and its followers like Morsi. The late novelist Gamal al-Ghitani – whose residency semester provoked a harsh comment from faculty member Ahmed El Shamsy during my own student days at the University of Chicago – had similar beliefs. They betray the military-statist basis of Egyptian liberalism, which turns religion into such a specter that the sins of secularism become black.

But on a more fundamental level, Aswany's hostility to Mubarak's autocracy and support for Sisis betrays a burning internal conflict of which The Republic of False Truths is a living record. Aswany doesn’t strike a blow when criticizing the army, but he prefers the devil he knows to the one he does not know. Many in the Middle East, like him, think there isn't much to choose from; it is plausible, if unsettling, when they give in to cynicism. As for the novel, readers watch in horror as the machine devours all of the characters and lets them choose between torture, complicity, or exile. The story ends with a breath of retribution, which, like the aftermath of the Arab Spring, only repeats the cycle of blood rather than escaping it. Every happy ending, although still possible, has been postponed.

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