On the State of Egypt: What Caused The Revolution, By Alaa Al Aswany, trans. Jonathan Wright

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The Independent Culture

Why bother to read a collection of newspaper articles, especially when they turn on fast-moving events in a country where reality's face changes all the time? First, these come from Egypt, focus and fulcrum of the Arab transformation, and touch on trends and movements that resonate around the region, and the world. Second, they spring from the conscience and imagination of a witness to upheaval who combines first-rate observation with firm principles and an unerring moral compass. Last, and best, that writer is Alaa Al Aswany, a peerless teller of personal stories that reveal a general truth, and one incapable – as admirers of The Yacoubian Building, Chicago or Friendly Fire will know – of a dull or timid paragraph.

The pieces gathered in On the State of Egypt date from 2009 and 2010, and first appeared in the independent newspapers al-Dustur and al-Shorouk. Straight away they explode the Western fantasy that no one in Egypt believed revolution possible or imminent until media-friendly Facebook and Twitter users assembled at Cairo's Tahrir Square on 25 January. Indeed, Al Aswany tends to write as if the psychological transition – the rejection of tyranny, corruption and all the daily humiliations that partnered them, and the broad acceptance of a "national duty... to ensure peaceful democratic change" – had already happened.

In February 2010, he reports on the ecstatic welcome given to the nuclear scientist and pro-democracy campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei on his return home, boldly stating even then that "Egypt has woken up, an Egypt that from today onward no one can enslave". All that his mentally liberated fellow-citizens lacked, at that moment, was a vehicle for change. But he knew it would prove swift. Egyptians, he writes, are "like camels"; they may put up with maltreatment for ages but "when they rebel they do so suddenly and with a force... impossible to control".

Keynote topics and values recur, most of all in the sentence which signs off every piece: "Democracy is the solution". As every Egyptian would spot, these words recast the all-things-to-all-people slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood, "Islam is the solution". Al Aswany does not fear the Brotherhood. He argues that they "would never win" a truly free and fair election. We shall see. With great force, he does show that the kleptocratic despotism of Mubarak and his clique needed religious militancy as a shadow enemy to justify their atrocious record – which he chronicles - of theft, torture and murder.

With all his trademark courage and clarity, he denounces the import of Saudi-funded Wahhabi fanaticism into Egypt as a mass soporific and distraction. Standing up for the "open-minded and moderate" Islam of Egyptian tradition, he excoriates this "veneer" of religiosity, "contracted like an infection from Bedouin societies that are closed, backward and hypocritical". Some brilliantly forensic essays examine an epidemic of sexual harassment of women, veiled or uncovered.

He finds in it a symptom of the toxic fusion between slumland poverty and this alien extremism among young men who "live without dignity" and have "lost all hope". And Al Aswany's censure of the niqab as an irreligious fetish that degrades women calls up a rare nod to his original profession – dentistry - when the "pious" attack him: "I have learned in surgery that the process of opening an abscess with a scalpel, while essential for the health of the patient, necessarily involves malodorous pus coming out".

For all the robust humanism of Al Aswany's political analysis, many readers will harvest from this book a sheaf of memorable, moving stories, translated by Jonathan Wright with all the collar-grabbing immediacy we expect from his fiction. On 42nd Street in New York, he meets an Egyptian hot-dog seller, a medical graduate driven abroad like so many by the "three nos... no job, no marriage, no future". As the elite cheer on the national soccer team in the African Cup of Nations final, a poor labourer, Hani, takes his sick young wife Nora from one shambolic, stonewalling hospital to another. "God answered our prayers" and Egypt wins – but Nora dies. A far-sighted scientist, Dr Hamza designs low-cost homes for a flood-ravaged area of Aswan. But the contract has to go, at a much higher price, to cronies of the government, since "a despotic regime gives priority to loyalty over competence".

These anecdotes become miniature allegories, little snapshots into the soul of the nation that recall the melancholy short stories of Friendly Fire. But whereas that volume felt steeped in a mood of stagnation, here the waters of hope flow. Egypt has learned, with Al Aswany, that "the consequences of courage are never worse than the consequences of fear".

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