An hour of Iftar coffee in the old Garden City Club, and Alaa Aswany almost – almost, I repeat – has me believing that General al-Sissi is the best military leader since Dwight D. Eisenhower, that the Egyptian army can do no wrong and that Mohamed Morsi was the worst – if not the most boring – political leader in the Arab world.
Perhaps because he is a dentist as well one of Egypt’s finest living writers – millions have read The Yacoubian Building – Aswany has an unerring eye for rotten arguments.
He is a big man and has by chance met both Al-Sissi and Morsi, the first for a friendly ticking-off after an unflattering article, the second to warn the president that he was heading for disaster. The coup was not a coup, according to Aswany. It was the third wave of the revolution of January 2011 which got rid of Moubarak. And he is a happy man.
“I believe in the people and I think there are many details missing in the West,” Aswany says, and here he casts a cold eye in my direction. “You must not forget that this guy (Morsi) did not win at the first round of elections. Eight million Egyptians did not make him their first choice. They were voting in the end to stop Ahmed Shafiq (widely seen as a Moubarak leftover). Two weeks before the election this guy was unknown. I met him first on the second day after the election in a room with a broad spectrum of people. There were Trostkyists, Salafists. Everyone, including me, was saying that this was a Muslim Brotherhood with which we disagreed on about everything but I said that he was our first elected president and he must succeed in advancing the goals of the revolution. I told him ‘you can lose the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood but you will be supported by the people’.”
A large Aswany hand moves into the air at this point, “But I also told him he could try to do a deal with the old regime in order to achieve the aims of the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘If you choose this path, Mr President,’ I said, ‘you will lose sympathy because you will lose the people.’ His answer? ‘Of course I will achieve the goals of the revolution.’ But he didn’t choose this path. He chose the second. You know, you should look again at Shafiq’s complaints at the original polling; he claimed that many Copts were prevented from going to the polling stations and this appears now to be true. It was to have been investigated but on the day of the announcement, the judge said he was ‘not competent’ to announce the result. What do you make of that?”
It was at Aswany’s second meeting with Morsi that he realised he did not trust him. “I realised for the first time what kind of a person he was. I realised he listens to you — and anything you said to him, he would smile and say ‘Thank you for this good idea’. He would say ‘this is our Egypt, we can live and die for Egypt,’ that sort of stuff he found very effective. I told him he had not kept his promise to release young revolutionaries who had been arrested by the army but that he had released some terrorists. Of the terrorists, he said ‘I know them.’ Of the students, he replied: ‘I wanted to have them released — but I couldn’t.’ To me, a promise is a commitment, not a choice. I said to him, ‘But how can you promise something and not do it?’ He did not reply."
Aswany refused to join Morsi’s Committee of the Constitution and Committee of Human Rights. The author touches his chest. “Those people all the time needed a ‘jacket’ so they could say ‘We have Aswany with us.’ There was a similar case in Peru where they had a president called Fujimori who put his decisions above the law after elections. The international community was absolutely against this and the US cut all diplomatic relations. Morsi did the same as Fujimori, he staged a presidential coup d’etat’. You know I was a big critic of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces after the 2011 revolution but I can’t be against what they did on 30th June this year. We didn’t have a parliament and if you don’t have a parliament, authority goes back to the people.”
Al-Sissi was clearly more Aswany’s cup of tea. “I met him after 2011 when I was ‘invited’ to the Military Service building in Cairo. I had written an article against Tantawi (at the time commander of the Egyptian army) which Al-Sissi didn’t like. I said to him that I had the right to write what I thought and told him he could arrest me if he wanted. He told me he wouldn’t arrest me and was very friendly. I had the impression he didn’t necessarily agree with the decisions of Tantawi. I had a good impression about Al-Sissi. I thought I could trust this man.”
Morsi, Aswany believes, was not interested in real democracy or, for that matter, Egypt. “He may have been the president but he was only Number Six in the Muslim Brotherhood and he kept in his place when he was elected. A hundred and thirty people were killed in six months, there were 3,400 detainees under Mr Morsi. Most of the people killed had voted for Morsi. People started reaching the conclusion that Morsi was another Mubarak, but with a beard. But when we learned that 20 prison inmates had been raped! Even that didn’t happen under Mubarak.” Alas, Alaa Aswany is wrong. Under Mubarak, prisoners were forced to rape each other in the Tora prison complex and given female names by the warders.
But Aswany is off now against the Brotherhood. “The Muslim Brotherhood is a religion. They care more about themselves. Political Islam is different from Islam – it was a religion to get to power. Political Islam as an idea is falling apart. You had a scene where millions of protesters against the Brotherhood were praying in squares all over Egypt. They were saying: ‘We are going to keep our religion. Your religion is not a religion – it is about power.’ That is what they were saying.”
Aswany is an energetic man. He drinks through a second coffee and bounds down the stairs of the ancient club. A few hours later, General al-Sissi, the man he says he trusts, called on Egyptians to go onto the streets and allow the army to fight “violence” and “terrorism”. And Al-Sissi abused Morsi in the same speech, which several Egyptians likened – in a rather frightened way – to a Nasser tirade. I only hope Aswany is as good in his judgement as he is in his prose. Otherwise, he and other authors could receive another friendly ‘invitation’ to visit the army.
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