Alaa al-Aswany: 'Overthrowing Mubarak was too good to be true'

The Monday Interview: Alaa al-Aswany, giant of Egyptian life and letters, tells Robert Fisk how he joins the crowds in Tahrir Square, has written the revolution into his new novel – but resists making speeches

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So here's the real news. 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 fixing, 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. Disclosure: his English publisher is also mine. But enough puffery for the Dentist of Cairo.

Aswany is actually a humble man, 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 and I will remain a writer. When I go to Tahrir Square, they ask me to make speeches. But most of the time, I prefer just to be with the people."

But he's a critic, too, and drills away at the decaying bits of last February's "successful" 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."

Even now, Aswany says, there is a whole department for the security state in Egypt. "One of the goals of the revolution was to bring these criminals to justice. Nothing happened. Now we have the security state working at full power. Drug dealers have infiltrated the square. The thugs then suddenly disappeared when the elections came. You don't have to be intelligent to know that these thugs are still under instructions. They disappear for elections and now they are returning."

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 and said there was no police official with this name.

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 – and that one sniper must always accompany every unit of security troops. So this minister is either lying, or he doesn't know anything about his ministry."

By an extraordinary coincidence, just a few hours after Aswany talks to me, the Egyptian press announces that a man nicknamed the "Eye Sniper" – his picture, in uniform, actually appeared on the front pages, identifying him as Lieutenant Mahmoud al-Shinnawi – has handed himself in for questioning by state prosecutors. An Egyptian human rights group documented 60 cases of protesters with eye injuries and the lieutenant was filmed apparently aiming rubber-coated steel bullets at protesters' heads. One of Aswany's fellow dentists, Ahmed Harara, lost an eye in the January-February revolution. He lost his other eye in the police attack last month.

"I think there was an agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood [largely the winners in the first round of parliamentary elections] and the army that, after 10 months, crises could be fabricated – that there should be pressure put on the people to come to hate the revolution. But then – surprise – on 19 November, the people went to the street to defend the revolution again.

"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. It doesn't make sense. Mubarak was no longer in his post. In the 1971 constitution, there is no mention of a Military Council. So now they want to have a base other than the revolution – the elections! They are saying that Tahrir Square no longer represents Egypt. The truth is that we had fair voting – but we didn't have fair elections."

Aswany excoriates the judge who allowed former Mubarak National Democratic Party (NDP) members – originally banned from political life – 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? The NDP have been looking into every detail of the revolutionary groups, accusing them of taking money from abroad. But they closed their eyes to the millions of dollars which came from the Gulf to the Salafists and the Brotherhood."

Aswany has a caustic view of the Muslim Brotherhood, which won around 35 per cent of the vote in the first round of national elections, and expresses this in an almost Hogarthian way. "You know the story of the Brotherhood candidate who was in a café when someone told him his wife was entertaining her lover at the candidate's home? So the candidate goes home and finds his wife with her lover. And he just says to his wife, very calmly: 'You are divorced.' And, as he leaves, one of the neighbours asks him why he's so calm. He replies: 'I'm not stupid enough to lose two votes.'"

The Military Council, Aswany says, invited Egyptians abroad to vote. The Egyptians in the Gulf went easily through the registration procedure, but, in Europe and America, the registration was slow. Egyptians in the Gulf are likely to support Islamist parties. "The Council told Egyptians abroad they had the right to vote – but it proved complicated."

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?

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 26 May 1957 in Cairo, Egypt– the only child of the novelist and lawyer Abbas al-Aswany. Now lives in Cairo with wife and three children.

Education: Attended the Lycée Français in Cairo. In order to have a stable career he studied dentistry at Cario University. Moved to the US in 1985 to study dentistry at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Career: His novel 'The Yacoubian Building', a portrayal of modern Egyptian life told through the characters in a downtown Cairo apartment building, was published in 2002 and remained the bestselling novel in the Arab world for five years. It has been translated into 23 languages and was adapted into a television series and a film. This year Aswany released a collection of essays entitled 'On The State Of Egypt: What Made The Revolution Inevitable'.

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