On the State of Egypt; What Caused the Revolution by Alaa Al Aswany (2011)
Addressing distinguished guests at the Mansion House last month, William Hague called the Arab Spring ‘perhaps the main event of the twenty-first century so far.’ More significant than the rise of al-Qaeda, which changed the course of Western foreign policy in the region, or the global economic crisis, which has accelerated the relative decline of the West vis-à-vis China and the BRIC countries, the fall of three Arab dictators (to date, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen) is taken as evidence of the insuppressible human desire for freedom that is an article of faith for Western liberals.
Thousands of voices have called for change, sometimes in unison, sometimes with very different interpretations. To highlight one alone is unfair, but the value of an eloquent, primary source is unquestionable, whether it be Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X or the Egyptian writer and dentist, Dr Alaa Al Aswany. Since achieving no little fame with his satire, The Yacoubian Building, Dr Aswany has been blogging, criticising the government of Hosni Mubarak, chronicling incidents of injustice associated with the regime and becoming a lightning rod for. As he admits, the revolution that took place earlier this year took him totally by surprise, but this collection of blogs, newspaper articles and essays serves as the first attempt to explain the causes of both the rise and fall of the Mubarak era.
For Dr Aswany the last glorious moment in Egypt’s past was the 1919 uprising against British rule. But although Nasser and Sadat were undoubtedly dictators, Mubarak’s thirty-year reign represents the culmination of the rot in Egyptian culture and society. Amongst the many reasons, the themes that Dr Aswany keeps returning to are religion and corruption.
Corruption had, by 2007 at the very latest, created a state where almost every public functionary was dependent on the regime rather than the public. The major newspapers, the intelligence services and even the hospitals behaved as if the only man they need please was the President. The proceeds of Egypt’s relatively high economic growth supplemented the political power of the elite solely, while those who might have taken a more robust view of their political and social rights simply left the country in search of better opportunities – the more knowledge-based typically to the West, those involved in construction, manual labour or domestic service to the Gulf States.
“…until the end of the 1970s Egypt, open-minded and moderate, showed true religiosity in behavior and social relations, whereas now, sullen and strict about the externals of religion, the country is far removed from the spirit of Islam.”
Dr Aswany is also uncompromising in criticising religious elements in the support of the ancien regime, despite being a Muslim himself. Specifically, Saudi Wahhabiism is described as an alien part in Egyptian culture, exported aggressively in the wake of the petroleum-fuelled boom of the 1970s onwards. To Dr Aswany, the Wahhabi tradition of indiscriminate obedience to Muslim rulers, the treatment of other religious groups as conquered infidels and the strict observance of forms have reduced Egyptian Muslims to unthinking, prejudiced and ultimately dangerous tools of despotism.
Moreover, the absence of democracy’s moderating effects has allowed the regime to play religious minorities off against each other so that the Coptic Christians are forced to look to the United States for protection of their rights, when they have a long tradition of foregoing specialist status in order to participate in national politics, and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood justifies the persistence of the regime.
“What brings about revolution is awareness of the causes of injustice, so everything that prevents people from being aware of their rights becomes an instrument in the hand of despotism.”
What is truly remarkable is how freely available the information that fed the revolution was, even before Wikileaks and before Vodafone was leant on to cut its networks in Egypt. Dr Aswany may have spent a considerable amount of time abroad, as have almost a million other diaspora Egyptians, but he catalogues so many videos taken of torture, executions and violent crackdowns on protests that it seems certain that if not widely seen, evidence of the regime’s violent foundations was becoming increasingly well known. Even if this had been a deterrent to take to the streets, the visible homelessness, the chaotic state of the public hospitals and infamous incidents of religious violence meant that most people had increasingly poor experiences of the regime, whilst knowledge of vote-rigging was common.
To explain the revolution requires more than this, however. The French Revolution came at a time of increasing awareness of liberal ideas while the breakup of the Soviet Union was against a background of proximity to a more successful economic and political model. Dr Aswany is clearly enamoured with liberal Western political ideas, but contends that Islam has made Egyptians more conservative and capable of living with hypocrisy. Why then did the Egyptians disown Mubarak?
Ultimately, I think Dr Aswany’s answer is that the revolution was the cry of wounded human dignity. Firstly, many of his stories involve Egyptians being sent to several different hospitals and being refused treatment at each, like a scene from The Death of Mr Lazerescu, or being asked for a bribe. Secondly, Egyptians regard Gulf States seeking domestic servants in their country as an affront, especially as the idea of Pan-Arabism is a deep political instinct. Thirdly, attitudes to women and sexuality play a highly significant part in Dr Aswany’s rejection of the cult of power and formulaic Islam. Despite, or rather, because of the introduction of the hijab and the niqab, sexual harassment has risen exponentially, leading us to conclude that societies which seek to place the blame on victims merely encourage the urges of the perpetrators.
The book is also full of interesting insights into the character of the revolution. For someone who has spent a great deal of time in America and clearly idolises its best political traditions, Dr Aswany is sceptical of the USA’s foreign policy, as he is of Israel’s and to some extent, Britain’s. It is too early to tell whether anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic feelings become part of the fabric of the new political order but these do seem to have been avoided for the most part, whilst American and British aid may in time rehabilitate the image of those two countries.
Still another interesting aspect of Dr Aswany’s thought is its latent nationalism and pan-Arabism, and the potential impact this could have on neighbouring states. A democratic Egypt could be a force for reform and stability across the regime, just as it defined policy towards Israel from 1979 onwards. Equally, it could act as a third axis between Iran and Saudi Arabia’s attempts to dominate the Middle East. However, the introduction of new players in that drama is always unsettling and often counter productive.
“Democracy is the solution.”
Dr Aswany signs off his missives with the axiom ‘democracy is the solution.’ By his own logical construct of Egypt’s ills, he is right. Much could be improved by introducing checks and balances, accountability to the public through elections, freedom from the central government for public bodies and the rule of law. Culturally, freer politics could also lead to greater individual interpretation of Islamic law and ethics, but that would be an inversion of the order in which the despotism was created. The revolution has not been religious so far, save for a few examples of religious groups protecting each other at prayer. That could be the heady atmosphere of the streets. Most likely, religious change will be dependent on restricting or balancing Saudi-funded initiatives.
Ultimately therefore we have a small snapshot of the revolution, but full of colour and life. Dr Aswany has a gift for making political ideas moral and moral ideas political in a transfixing fashion. It would be a happy outcome if democracy were to be introduced in Egypt and all of these ills were to be eradicated. However, democracy is based above all on consent, and whether consent will be easy to achieve is not solely within the grasp of political ideas in a country as complex as Egypt. Iran is cited as a worst-case scenario, whilst in Eastern Europe condition-based accession to the EU was the saving grace of several countries but Ukraine’s Orange Revolution has faltered as a result of neighbouring powers and the credit crunch. In many ways, the revolution is now out of the hands of the idealists and into those of the pragmatists. Egypt must pray for a Washington to match its Federalists.