Robert Fisk: Alaa al-Aswany, Egypt’s greatest living novelist, knows Sisi is not a true democrat – but is still hopeful that he can ‘do good’

'I think we must give the Sisi government a chance. People are terrorised'

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The private Garden City Club: a broiling Cairo night, lots of dust outside, but the same scuffed old floorboards and art deco interior with photos of British oarsmen on the walls. And there at the dinner table is the giant figure of Alaa al-Aswany, the greatest living Egyptian novelist and the finest weather vane of the country’s contemporary up-again, down-again revolutionary history. Did he regret his initial support for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi?

A roar of laughter: “Do you know that when you last wrote that I almost convinced you that Sisi was another Dwight D Eisenhower, the press claimed I had said that ‘Sisi is another Eisenhower.’ ” I apologised to Aswany. “No, no, I understood what you meant – but that’s how they used it. But now I am accused of working for a Qatar ‘cell’, that I’m an official of Sheikh Hamed [former ruler of the aforesaid emirate which still supports the deposed president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and opposes Sisi]. I found on the internet a fake website about a committee with my name on it. What does this mean? I think this was ‘the security’.

No more laughter. Aswany, dentist and world-famous author of The Yacoubian Building (his new books, The Automobile Club of Egypt and The Republic As If still awaiting English translations), is now a target. “I got this call saying Kuwait television had shown people kicking me out of the voting booth in these elections– but it was in fact a video of extremists attacking my clinic two years ago. These people can kill you – and a reputation you’ve built up in 35 years – they can destroy it in 35 days, the Egyptian private channels and Mubarak’s businessmen. The young revolutionaries have been destroyed by these people.”

Aswany takes all this seriously. “Now they say that these revolutionaries are spies, that they work for the CIA. There was a claim that I had ‘stolen’ my novels, that I was an agent, educated in a French school and went to university in the US. Then a surgeon friend said he had been asked why he was defending me because I was ‘a CIA spy’.”

It did not end there. On the internet, Aswany was accused of not being a dentist. Yosri Fouda – a brave Egyptian TV presenter – was abused on an anonymous website, which untruthfully claimed he was going every weekend to Israel. “By chance, next morning I was treating Yosri in my clinic for a new dental bridge. When I had finished, I said to him: ‘I believe you’re going to Israel tomorrow.’ And Yosri laughed and said: ‘I believe you don’t have a dental clinic.’ ”

It’s good to have friends, especially when you are having doubts about the new president of Egypt, another military man in sunglasses. Aswany says during the 18 days of the 2011 revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, Christian churches were left unguarded and none were attacked. But when the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – of which Sisi was a member – took over, 25 churches were attacked and no one was brought to justice. After the revolution, Al-Ahram carried a photograph of a Christian and said that his ear had been cut off by a Salafist who wanted to “reinforce Sharia”. Nonsense. Aswany suspects the second-round run-off election in 2012 was rigged, that a Mubarak man, Ahmed Shafiq, won the election but that Morsi was declared the winner because “there was a plan to push the Brotherhood into power”

Morsi and his cronies tried to negotiate with Mubarak in an opportunistic manner and only joined the 2011 Tahrir Square revolutionaries – some of them now locked up under Sisi – when the Brotherhood were certain Mubarak was doomed.

Aswany recalls how, when a hundred Brotherhood supporters blocked the main railway line from Cairo to the south of Egypt because they opposed the appointment of a Mubarak supporter as local governor, the generals pleaded with the protesters to open the line. And when they refused, they were not moved. Implication: the SCAF wanted Egyptians to turn against the Brotherhood.

So, I ask again, did Aswany regret his immediate support for Sisi after the revolution? “I hope he will be a good president,” he replies carefully. “But these elections did not have a democratic criteria. If they had had a 100 per cent turnout [it was less than 50 per cent], I have no doubt that Sisi would have won anyway. The people think Sisi is someone who kicked the Brotherhood out of power and will bring them security. I hope he can do good, but I do not like these attacks against the [2011] revolutionaries.”
At a lecture in Paris, at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Aswany was violently attacked by Brotherhood émigrés – but he refused to give any lectures under the auspices of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “I think we must give it [the Sisi government] a chance. People are terrorised. They need someone who is strong, who has the key to the ‘deep state’ and knows how the state functions. That’s why people would vote for him anyway.”

Aswany is a unique figure, but as he acknowledges, referring to the late Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, “it is almost impossible to make your living as a writer in Egypt. Even Mahfouz, who was a friend of my father, had to work in a government department. But I earn from my books which are published abroad.” A regular columnist for The New York Times, he may find that his forthcoming The Republic As If will earn him much more abuse. “It’s about how a dictatorship looks ‘as if’ it is true, with fair elections, departments, and so on – ‘as if’.”

Aswany’s children are personally upset at the abuse heaped upon him. I fear for him, too. Brave guy. Long may he write – and repair the teeth of his patients.

How we all came to eat our words  on Syria – and Egypt

When he resigned as the United Nations envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi had a suspicion all along that Bashar al-Assad might fight on to victory rather than defeat. Many of the journalists who predicted 18 months ago – along with Western governments and the TV “terrorism experts” – that the collapse of Bashar’s regime was imminent, have had to eat their words. It’s the old problem, I fear, of believing that the opponents of a dictatorship will win because they SHOULD win: a dangerous theory founded upon emotion rather than analysis.

A similar metamorphosis occurred in Libya, where the anti-Gaddafi rebels were supposed to bring a shining new freedom to their country – not the shambolic tribal half war that exists now. But we all eat our words. I thought Morsi was a pretty rum President of Egypt. But never in my imagination did I think that millions of Egyptians would vote for another military regime run by the chap who staged the coup to overthrow and imprison his elected predecessor. Now the courageous young men who led the revolution against Mubarak have been outlawed and the deaths of thousands of Morsi’s supporters are as if they never were. I did utter in 2011, with some amusement, the old cliché about “revolutions devouring their sons”. It is now, of course, no laughing matter.

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