Interview with Alaa al Aswany, Egyptian novelist.
Egyptian novelist Dr. Alaa al Aswany, who enjoys a broad pan-Arabic readership, has been a keen political commentator for two decades. He has been extremely critical of the Egyptian regime saying that it has been stifling the rightful aspirations of the people. His novella ‘Isam Abd el-Ati Papers,' banned in Egypt for several years for its portrayal of the grim reality, is now being read widely. On the sixth day of protests in Egypt where a popular uprising wants President Hosni Mubarak, who has been a dictator for 30 years, to quit, Dr. Aswany spoke to A. Rangarajan — away from the noise of military jets roaring overhead — on the protests at Cairo's Tahrir Square, the way ahead and a host of related issues that could not only herald an era of hope for Egypt but also significantly change the colour of the Middle East and Maghreb decisively … one that would be greatly liberating for the people, he added.
What do you see are the main reasons behind the unprecedented street protests in Egypt? There is a rare determination that the people are showing this time around.
There has been deep dissatisfaction in Egyptian society for a very long time and life has been for ordinary people, a crushing ordeal. If you remember that in 2003 we had the first protests and calls asking for Mubarak to go but the regime was successful in putting down the voice of popular dissent. Ever since, the political consciousness of the people has been awakened and has been building up to a movement where people want to be more in charge of their destiny and not remain hapless victims in their land. The success of the uprising in Tunisia that threw out the dictator there greatly encouraged the people here and that came in as the trigger that set off this avalanche.
I do think we need to dwell on the role of the media here, particularly the role Al Jazeera played in connecting the people of the region and showing what is happening and what is possible. How do you see that?
Indeed Al Jazeera played a very positive role in a region where all other channels were telling half-truths or total lies doctored to suit one ruling interest or the other. What we needed was somebody who would put out to the world, events as they truly are. We just needed the truth that is all. Al Jazeera did that on events in Tunisia, etc. and people from then on started organising themselves. It must also be remembered that the people who organised the protests in Egypt are people mostly in their twenties. They are bloggers, from the internet generation that is familiar with social networking tools. So the new age media too has played a significant role alongside television. I am told that Mubarak's regime even sought to block or limit Facebook access in Egypt. Though I must mention that the people out there in the streets are neither net savvy or nimble with their mobiles but they have this enormous hope in their eyes.
The determination of the protesters increasingly leads much of the world to believe that this time they would succeed. But what in your opinion would follow? There is the danger that there could be a power vacuum. True multiparty politics have not been practiced for a long time now in Egypt.
We are now seeing the emergence of a new Egypt and I am very hopeful of the future. What we need now are Free Elections. That is what the people are asking for. The regime gave selected licences for political parties and in a way chose who should be their opposition. Ridiculous! And the real political parties were unlicensed and kept away. We have enough talent and commitment within the ranks of these parties to take the country through to the new situation. The protests are neither sectarian nor factional; it is by all Egyptian people seeking a better future as a whole. So free elections are the way ahead now. That is the rallying cry not just in Cairo but, in Alexandria, Suez — all across Egypt.
How do you see the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the protests and in the days ahead? You have noticed that Rachid Ghannouchi is returning to Tunisia.
Just as in 2003, these protests too were not organised or led by the Brotherhood. Religion is not a factor in these dynamics, though the Mubarak regime has repeatedly exaggerated the role of the Brotherhood and used it to further its ends, either to exercise repressive measures or to curry favour with the Western powers. Egypt is a nation of 84 million people and the Muslim Brotherhood is an organisation of about half a million people. There are an astonishing number of women, in large numbers, participating in the protests, almost half. Senior judges have joined in. Even some officers from the military are with the people on the streets. Being the largest country in the region, restoration of true democracy here will bring about positive changes and freedom to the peoples of the Arab world. Religion need not be mixed in here. Repressive regimes make use of everything, from the Arab-Israeli conflict to religious extremism, to cloud reality and serve their ends and not the people.
Have the people of Egypt been happy so far with support that they have been receiving from the international community for their ongoing struggle?
I think that the peoples of all countries have been supporting us whole-heartedly. After all what we are trying to have is Democracy and an open and fair society — values that are cherished not just in the Western part of the world but in all places. This sympathy and support is only natural. However when we look at the governments and politicians, particularly from the West, it is a different story. This dictator in Egypt has been getting continuous support from Western governments and they knew he was a ruthless dictator and the Egyptian people see a difference between the rhetoric and practice. Hence when it comes to these Western powers, they tend to trust their people more.