By ABDALLA F. HASSAN
Published: March 9, 2011
CAIRO — Alaa Al Aswany is not afraid to speak out and to use his international fame as a best-selling writer to back calls for political change.
While his novels, “The Yacoubian Building” and “Chicago,” and his short story collection, “Friendly Fire,” have exposed systems of power and corruption, Mr. Aswany entertains no illusions that literature itself can affect change.
“The function of literature is not to change the political realities in Egypt or anywhere else,” he said in an interview. “Literature is not a political strategy. If you want to change the political reality, be involved in activism.”
He was out with protestors from the first day of the revolution and witnessed first-hand the state’s brutal response. On Jan. 28, he saw two young men killed by snipers near Tahrir Square.
“Egypt was in what we call a ‘revolutionary moment,”’ Mr. Aswany said. “Egypt was absolutely prepared for the revolution.”
“The stimulant came on Jan. 25 with the call for manifestation.”
Mr. Aswany works within an Egyptian tradition that has long linked literature with politics. Before the revolution he authored scathing criticisms of President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime in regular press columns, often ending with the words, “Democracy is the solution.”
A translated collection of his political writings, “On the State of Egypt: A Novelist’s Provocative Reflections,” has been published by the American University in Cairo Press, with an introduction reflecting on 18 noteworthy days of Egyptian history.
The columns fearlessly censure the president, the ruling party and the vast security apparatuses that have monopolized power, silenced dissent and rigged elections. They also explore Western fears of Islam and Arabs and broach subjects like the niqab full-face covering, false religiosity and preachers who hypocritically buttress tyrannical regimes.
In one opinion piece originally published in the independent daily al-Shorouk, Mr. Aswany recounted the history of the Iranian revolution and the shah’s complete loss of contact with his people, before drawing a parallel with Egypt.
“I don’t know how President Mubarak thinks, though I imagine, based on the theory of ‘dictator’s solitude,’ that his conceptions are completely detached from the reality of what is happening in Egypt,” he wrote.
The column, titled “When Will Mubarak Grasp This Truth?,” originally published on April 6, 2010, ended with a call for democratic and constitutional reforms and transparent elections.
After Egypt’s 18-day revolution, Mr. Aswany’s weekly columns have become regular features in the top-selling daily al-Masri al-Youm.
And, in a March 2 guest appearance on a late night talk show on the ONTV private satellite television channel, he faced Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister appointed by Mr. Mubarak on Jan. 29, and told him to resign.
“When you were a minister in Hosni Mubarak’s cabinet, haven’t you heard that state security practiced torture?” Mr. Aswany asked him pointedly. “The prime minister should be concerned with trying the people who killed the martyrs, more than presenting candy and chocolates” — a reference to a moment when Mr. Shafik, trying to show good will, had offered to pass out candy to protesters outside Parliament.
When Mr. Aswany woke up the next morning, Mr. Shafik had submitted his resignation.
“I believe that the crimes that have been committed against our people, everyone who was responsible for these crimes, including Hosni Mubarak, should be brought to justice,” said Mr. Aswany, who is a dentist by training as well as a writer, at his office and dental clinic in the Garden City district of Cairo.
On Feb. 17, addressing a weekly literary and political gathering — his first since Mr. Mubarak’s downfall, Mr. Aswany was both jubilant and cautious, warning that the old guard and the state security services would set traps to undermine the revolution.
“The agencies of suppression, state security investigations — who have for sure sent people here as they do every week — the state security investigations are here and working and I caught three of them in Tahrir Square,” he told his audience, welcoming the security agents he knew there with feigned delight.
“And be careful, there will be efforts, the same old trick, to display large support for the Brotherhood in order to send a renewed message to the West that it is either dictatorship or the Brotherhood,” he said, referring to Western fears that a rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood could turn Egypt into an Islamic fundamentalist state.
Mr. Aswany has always been dismissive of the idea that democracy would usher Islamists into power.
The strongest party in Egypt “is the party of Facebook,” he told another literary and political salon on Jan. 27.
“That is a real party, which has allowed a group of youth to get 400,000 people on the streets. No other party, including the Muslim Brotherhood, has succeeded in doing that.”
A version of this article appeared in print on March 10, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune.