The rot remains: Egypt's dentist turned author drills deeper

The novelist says the old regime is far from gone. By Robert Fisk

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Alaa al-Aswany, dentist, revolutionary (he'd like that bit) and author of the astonishing The Yacoubian Building, is producing a new novel. He writes in the morning when he's not filling, cleaning or yanking out teeth. It will be called The Automobile Club of Egypt and will be set in the 1940s, yet just the faintest whiff of tear gas may penetrate its pages. "At the end of the novel, I had to imagine how it was to be a rebel and to say 'No'," he tells me in his dentist's surgery. "And, by coincidence, we had the revolution here!" His book on the overthrow of Mubarak is already selling well: On the State of Egypt: What Made the Revolution Inevitable.

Aswany is a professor in the art of staying on the sidelines of the revolution while acting as its commentator and, at times, its instigator. "I'm not a politician," he booms. His dentist's chair sits menacingly behind me. "I said I would never hold any post whatever [in government]. I am a writer."

But he's a critic, too, and drills away at the decaying bits of February's overthrow of Mubarak. "The biggest mistake of the revolution was that overthrowing Mubarak was too good to be true. Three million people were celebrating. Twenty to thirty thousand, maximum, were saying, 'We must not leave the square. We must elect representatives of the revolution in every city'. But these people were seen as suspicious, as too aggressive. I know now that they were right."

There remains a whole department for the security state in Egypt. The Minister of Justice himself, Aswany goes on – his voice turns to loud thunder at this point – said that 450,000 paid thugs were working for the police in Egypt. "Documents were published in Tahrir newspaper which included a letter from a security official to his superior saying that 'We now have on duty in Cairo 69,000 thugs' – this is after the revolution. Of course, the Minister of the Interior denied this.

"The Minister of the Interior said seven times that 'We don't have snipers in the Ministry of the Interior'. Then we discovered there is an official Department of Snipers in the Ministry of the Interior.

"The Military Council are now, I think, trying to find another source of legitimacy. They are only there because of the revolution. Mubarak resigned and transmitted his authority to them – which is unconstitutional. So now they want to have a base other than the revolution – the elections! We had fair voting – but we didn't have fair elections."

Aswany excoriates the judge who allowed former members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) to stand as candidates in this election under different party names. "What is this?" Aswany roars. "If I lose my dentist's licence, would I be able to go and work as a dentist in another hospital?"

Aswany says he thinks he knows why the people of Egypt went to the polls in such numbers last month. "The Military Council said that the voters were showing support for them (because they arranged the elections). But no. The people were voting to get rid of the Council and to push the country ahead. The people who voted were not revolutionaries, but they thought: 'If this is the way for a democracy, then we're going to do it'. We are talking about a real revolution – but this takes time, to get rid of the old regime and build a new one."

The Dentist and the Ancien Régime. A novel? Or contemporary history?

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