Alaa al-Aswany Believes in Democracy, Except When He Doesn’t

The famous Egyptian novelist is diving back into politics at a revolutionary moment, but hasn’t figured out what he’s fighting for.

Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany in Paris on Feb. 12, 2014.
Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany in Paris on Feb. 12, 2014. JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

The conflagration of protests against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that have engulfed Egypt since Sept. 20 was sparked by a newcomer. The leadership of the 2011 Egyptian revolution has thus largely been reticent to lend an imprimatur to the actor Mohamed Ali, whose video critiques lit the fuse that spurned this new wave of revolutionary upheaval. But there have been some exceptions. Alaa al-Aswany, the internationally renowned novelist and political activist—who famously stood in Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011, to give his support to the incipient insurrection that wound up toppling the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak—immediately used his platform on social media to deem the anti-Sisi protests a historic moment.

Aswany has brought his political experience to bear, most recently writing an op-ed for Deutsche Welle’s Arabic section articulating how the current revolutionaries could avoid mistakes made during the previous uprising. Reminding his readership to disregard the naysayers, he encouraged the new movement to commit to its struggle until its goals had been fully accomplished, to elect a clear and decisive leadership, and to wholly reject compromise with the ancien régime.

Aswany’s decision to again take up the revolutionary mantle has refreshingly legitimized the current protests as a continuation of Tahrir Square’s popular demands for democracy and liberalism. Yet, at the same time, it has also shed light on Aswany’s political contradictions, which themselves reflect deeper contradictions in Egypt’s revolutionary politics since 2011. Those paradoxical posturings, moreover, have not been resolved by Aswany’s latest political intervention; if anything, they have been magnified by it.

As I and my colleagues and contributors chronicle in our recently published anthology, Aswany is a representative of a class of Egyptian secular liberals who, despite decades of valiantly fighting for democracy and the liberal rule of law in Egypt, often at tremendous personal sacrifice, astonishingly abandoned those commitments in the lead-up to the events of July 3, 2013, when a coup deposed the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Most explicitly lent their enthusiastic support to the military coup that aborted Egypt’s brief democratic experiment, with many going as far as acquiescing to the August 2013 massacre of some 1,000 nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated protesters in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo.

Aswany, whom our book investigates in detail, was in no way exempt from this paradoxical shifting of gears. Prior to the events of 2011, he was explicitly conciliatory toward the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in the democratic process. His pre-revolutionary op-eds in oppositional newspapers like Al-Dustour and Al-Shorouk evince a stark recognition of the Mubarak regime’s demonization of the Brotherhood as a subterfuge against its iron grip on the country. Even if he was ideologically not sympathetic to the Brotherhood’s agenda, Aswany emphasized national unity. In his book On the State of Egypt: What Caused the Revolution, he writes: “Despite our political and ideological differences, we have come together to perform our national duty.” He then moves on to caution his reader that the Mubarak regime “has deliberately exaggerated the role and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood for use as a boogeyman against anyone who calls for democracy.” Aswany entered Tahrir Square in January 2011 emboldened precisely by this emancipatory ethic.

But as the revolution progressed, this sentiment waned, and Aswany’s positions increasingly grew antagonistic toward the Brotherhood and its potential to subvert the ambitions of the revolution. Ostensibly having lost faith in the democratic process, he enthusiastically lent his support to Morsi’s forcible removal by military coup, viewing the rise of Sisi as a Faustian bargain in service of preserving the 2011 revolution’s ultimate ambitions. For Aswany, the Rabaa massacre even was an unavoidable corrective.

Accordingly, Aswany’s valiant and admirable critiques of Sisi over the past few days cannot be separated from his obsession over the putative threat of the Muslim Brotherhood on Egyptian society, which led him to support the July 2013 coup and the rise of Sisi in the first place.

Aswany’s reaction to Morsi’s mysterious death only a few short months ago is extremely telling. While he acknowledges the Sisi regime’s culpability in the plain medical neglect of Morsi during his incarceration, Aswany spends the rest of his column relying on hackneyed caricatures of the Brotherhood as a traitorous terrorist outfit to imply that it shares responsibility for the former president’s demise.

In a particularly obnoxious theatrical move, Aswany calls into question Morsi being a democratically elected president in the first place, relying on the dubious charge that all elections won by the Brotherhood were a function of bribing poor voters with either cash or staples like oil and sugar—a charge Aswany qualifies, with no evidence whatsoever, as having been “proved conclusively.” As per his previous columns, he ends his missive with the signoff “democracy is the solution”—a clever pushback to the Muslim Brotherhood slogan of “Islam is the solution.” But if democracy truly were the solution for Aswany, perhaps he should be willing to reconsider having willingly aborted the democratic process in July 2013. Perhaps removing an unpopular president through proper democratic channels would be more in keeping with the dictum Aswany is proposing.

In his latest op-ed, Aswany offers further explication as to why he finds the latest round of protests especially appealing. Seeing Sisi’s policies as having failed to provide even basic economic security to everyday Egyptians, Aswany points to the support of what he calls the “stable citizen” as the biggest casualty of Sisi’s rule. The stable citizen, who supported Sisi in 2013 not in the name of revolutionary ambitions but simply for the preservation of material stability, has finally recognized that he has been duped by his current leader. Accordingly, this stable citizen has largely galvanized this latest round of insurrection—but not in the name of lofty ambitions of freedom or democracy but rather in opposition to the abject poverty Sisi’s rule has left behind.

This is of course encouraging for Aswany to recognize, but this posturing falls far short of reckoning with the fact that he himself backed Sisi in 2013 not merely on the basis of economic stability but of preserving the ambitions of the bona fide revolution inaugurated in 2011. Nor does it suggest any reconsideration of having lent continued support to an all-out war of attrition against stance even remotely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood—which Aswany quickly points out was not involved in this latest round of protests. It seems, then, that Aswany has only tepidly rethought his democratic blind spots.

Despite being increasingly open to reckon with the havoc wreaked by Sisi’s overreach on Egyptian society, Aswany’s role as an opposition figure nonetheless remains indelibly tainted by his paranoia over the Brotherhood’s role in subverting revolutionary ambitions—which, if his positions to date are any indication, necessarily justify the most heinous punitive measures in response. In so doing, Aswany’s paradoxical stance between supporting revolutionary demands on the one hand and remaining willing to employ the most draconian measures against the Brotherhood on the other hand plays precisely into the overblown “political Islam” narrative Sisi is using to dismiss the protests in the first place.

And more problematic still is that Aswany’s blind spots speak to a more systemic set of contradictions that are endemic to liberalism in Egypt more broadly—contradictions that, if Aswany’s latest posturing is any indication, have emphatically not been resolved six years later. And if these contradictions are not properly addressed, they stand to compromise the present revolutionary moment. For liberalism in Egypt to carry its weight in serving this incipient insurrectionary instance, liberals like Aswany will need to more robustly defend their political project and its ultimate aims and values. And when necessary, they will need to fundamentally reconsider the foundations of that project and recalibrate it as necessary.

In the case of Egypt, this would mean rethinking the statist and militantly secular underpinnings on which liberalism in Egypt was ultimately founded in the 19th century, which produced an antagonism for religion so systemic that even the earliest generation of Egyptian liberals were willing to ally with an increasingly powerful authoritarian state in pursuit of their quest to establish proper liberal subjects.

More broadly, though, Aswany and his ilk must assiduously recognize that in the face of renewed authoritarian populism, the status quo ante is no longer sufficient to defend their brand of liberalism from the all-out assault presently being waged against it. More of the same will simply ensure liberalism’s planned obsolescence—precisely as Sisi and his enablers in the likes of Donald Trump have portended. For liberalism to be saved, and to be an enabler rather than a detractor to the noble ambitions of this latest uprising, liberals like Aswany will need to exercise a great deal of introspection. One can only hope they rise to the occasion.

Daanish Faruqi is currently a visiting scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights and is the editor, alongside Dalia F. Fahmy, of Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism: Illiberal Intelligentsia and the Future of Egyptian Democracy.

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