Thanks to Ben Macintyre for this backgrounder on writer Alaa al-Aswany. We know so little of Egypt that we don’t immediately recognize social profiles that are distorted. But this one rings true:
The unlikely literary voice of the unfolding Egyptian revolution is a 53-year-old dentist named Alaa al-Aswany. In recent weeks, Aswany has emerged as a figurehead of the democracy protest, an Egyptian Danton addressing the crowds in Tahrir Square. But it is as a novelist, rather than an activist, that Egypt needs him.
Aswany’s bestseller, The Yacoubian Building, offers an extraordinary insight into the economic, religious and political forces churning through Egypt, It is the book of the revolution, not because it is political or incendiary but because it reflects, with humour and bitterness, the profound anger of so many Egyptians.
… First published in Arabic in 2002, it is a scathing indictment of Egypt’s oppressive political system, ingrained corruption and social dislocation. Through the stories of people living in a fading art deco apartment block in Cairo, Aswany offers a microcosm of the nation: a land of ruthless profiteering and political repression, of police brutality, domestic violence, Islamic extremism and sexual manipulation.
This is an Egypt that has failed to live up to its expectations, where qualifications and skills count for little unless backed by bribery or influence. It is dominated by an all-powerful single party, the fictional “Patriotic Party”, immediately identifiable as Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party.
The atmosphere of cynical manipulation is summed up by the novel’s political fixer, who declares: “The Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule. The moment you take power, they submit to you and grovel to you and you can do what you want with them.”
As a definition of what the crowds in Tahrir Square are fighting, this could hardly be more precise.
…This is a society riddled with moral decay. The son of the Yacoubian doorman cannot afford the bribe needed to enter the police academy, so he turns to radical Islam. The terrorist is created by the rot of graft.
… If Mubarak is finally ousted and genuine democracy comes to Egypt, opponents and supporters of the regime may both say of Aswany, as a man once said of Solzhenitsyn: “It is you and your writing that started it all.”