The Egyptian Revolution and “The Republic of False Truths”

26 September, 2022

 

The Repub­lic of False Truths, a nov­el by Alaa Al Aswany
Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by S. R. Fellowes
Pen­guin Ran­dom House 2021/July 2022 paperback
ISBN 9780307947345

 

Aimee Dassa Kligman

 

The Repub­lic of False Truths is pub­lished by Pen­guin­Ran­dom­House in the U.S.

Alaa Al Aswany’s orig­i­nal nov­el in Ara­bic (جمهورية كأن), which trans­lates as The Repub­lic, As If, was pub­lished in 2018 by a Lebanese pub­lish­ing house, Dar Al-Adab, as no Egypt­ian pub­lish­er would dare touch the work. It was sub­se­quent­ly trans­lat­ed to French as J’ai cou­ru vers le Nil (I ran towards the Nile) the same year by Actes Sud, known for its trans­la­tion work of for­eign texts and award win­ning authors. It was trans­lat­ed to Eng­lish by S. R. Fel­lowes, but was only released in the US in 2021.

Al Aswany, author of the inter­na­tion­al­ly acclaimed The Yacoubian Build­ing, has been an out­spo­ken leader of the pro-democ­ra­cy move­ment. He was high­ly crit­i­cal of the Mubarak regime, authored polit­i­cal columns, held salons and was a co-founder of the group Kefaya (“Enough”). He has con­tin­ued to crit­i­cize the cur­rent lead­er­ship in Egypt.

Despite his age, he was very present dur­ing the 18-day mas­sive demon­stra­tions in Tahrir Square, in which a major­i­ty of Egypt’s edu­cat­ed youth par­tic­i­pat­ed and which even­tu­al­ly led to Hos­ni Mubarak’s res­ig­na­tion. When Abdel Fat­tah el-Sisi came to pow­er though a mil­i­tary coup, Al Aswany was banned from writ­ing, pub­lish­ing, and from appear­ing on TV.

 

Autop­sy of a Revolution

It is well known that Egypt’s 2011 rev­o­lu­tion failed. Nonethe­less, The Repub­lic of False Truths is expert­ly writ­ten, giv­ing the read­er an inti­mate per­spec­tive of Egypt­ian fam­i­ly con­flicts, gov­ern­ment col­lu­sion and mil­i­tary abus­es of pow­er. Had we not been told that this is a work of fic­tion, the sto­ry as authored by Al Aswany would seem entire­ly plau­si­ble, with only names changed, and per­son­al lives imag­ined. We are intro­duced to sev­er­al char­ac­ters in their respec­tive envi­ron­ments at work and at home. The read­er will need to rec­og­nize that in Cairo, the neigh­bor­hood in which you live reveals your social sta­tus or that of your par­ents. Your place of study or work will also dis­close to the read­er your intel­lect, your influ­ence (or lack of) and how con­nect­ed you are to the rul­ing class.

Al Aswany fic­tion­al­ized themes of cor­rup­tion, police sav­agery, class exploita­tion, and total­i­tar­i­an rule, as well as the polit­i­cal and social out­rage that drove many Egyp­tians dur­ing that peri­od. One of the unde­ni­able con­clu­sions we draw from this nov­el, accord­ing to its author, is that Egypt­ian Mus­lims suf­fer from igno­rance about their own reli­gion and the tyran­ny of their rulers. Often­times, Al Aswany accus­es them of cow­ardice and sub­mis­sion through the voic­es of his char­ac­ters. It is impor­tant to note that at no time does the author speak in his own voice. He has reit­er­at­ed in sev­er­al inter­views that in all of his writ­ings, the char­ac­ters devel­op “a life of their own, and run away from him.”

How­ev­er, there is no fic­tion to be found dur­ing “The Bat­tle of the Camels,” the “Maspero Mas­sacre,” the delib­er­ate release of pris­on­ers to counter the Egypt­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies’ extra­or­di­nary deter­mi­na­tion, the infa­mous “Vir­gin­i­ty Tests,” (emphases mine), that were shame­less­ly con­duct­ed by an immoral and per­vert­ed mil­i­tary force, and three real life accounts of tor­ture by female vic­tims (only the names were changed to pro­tect the women who still live in Egypt).

Al Aswany’s nos­tal­gia for Egypt’s cul­tur­al glo­ry in the ’50s and ’60s makes him over­es­ti­mate not only the lib­er­al atmos­phere of the coun­try under Gamal Abdel Nass­er (pres­i­dent from 1956–1970), but also the strong lack of oppo­si­tion to Islamism. You would only need to watch any Egypt­ian film from the 1930s to the 1960s to see the Egypt he cites. Dur­ing that peri­od, women did not wear the hijab or niqab, and near­ly all women were unveiled, includ­ing the stu­dents of the reli­gious Al-Azhar University.

Where­as he fre­quent­ly denounces Sau­di Ara­bia and its Wah­habi inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam as one of the great­est threats to Egypt and pos­si­ble demo­c­ra­t­ic reform, he doesn’t include, or ignores, the very real threat posed by Egypt’s Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, found­ed in 1928 by Islam­ic schol­ar Has­san el Ban­na. After WWII the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood acquired a rep­u­ta­tion as a rad­i­cal group pre­pared to use vio­lence to achieve its reli­gious goals. The group was impli­cat­ed in sev­er­al assas­si­na­tions, includ­ing the mur­der of a prime min­is­ter. Al Aswany also fails to men­tion that Egypt’s loss in the 1967 war was the main cause for the expan­sion of reli­gious­ly inspired polit­i­cal activism which accom­pa­nied rejec­tion of West­ern culture.

For fur­ther read­ing on Wah­habism, see Ter­ence Ward’s The Wah­habi Code.

As for Sau­di Arabia’s Wah­habism, to which Al Aswany refers as “Islam of the Desert,” it loomed large after the oil cri­sis of l973, and became the most rigid and pun­ish­ing ver­sion of Islam. Wah­habism is used to advance a polit­i­cal agen­da in order to retain pow­er, and resem­bles fas­cism. There are copi­ous ref­er­ences in The Repub­lic of False Truths of char­ac­ters trav­el­ing and liv­ing in Sau­di Ara­bia, and return­ing to Egypt dra­mat­i­cal­ly “altered.” Anoth­er fre­quent impli­ca­tion is that suc­cess is equat­ed to land­ing a job in “The Gulf.” This nat­u­ral­ly will take the appli­cant to any of the coun­tries bor­der­ing the Per­sian Gulf, includ­ing Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Sau­di Ara­bia, and the UAE. All of them are top vio­la­tors of reli­gious lib­er­ty, accord­ing to the most well-known index­es of inter­na­tion­al reli­gious freedom.

Sau­di Ara­bia spends bil­lions to spread the Wah­habi ide­ol­o­gy; they have also con­tributed large sums of mon­ey to Egypt’s near­ly six mil­lion Salafis, who are known for their doc­tri­nal intran­si­gence and strong con­dem­na­tion of any group or move­ment that does not share their reli­gious views. That par­tic­u­lar threat which has its nexus in Alexan­dria is not men­tioned in the book.

Sev­er­al young, edu­cat­ed char­ac­ters of the sto­ry cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly refused to work in “The Gulf.” It is worth­while not­ing that there is a gen­er­a­tional abyss in the Egypt­ian men­tal­i­ties of the rul­ing class, between the adults who have lived a life­time under author­i­tar­i­an rule and today’s Egypt­ian youth, who have seen the world via the Inter­net, and yearn for freedom.

A cast of fic­tion­al char­ac­ters appears suc­ces­sive­ly in the book. The read­er will nev­er hear Al Aswany’s voice, but rather his char­ac­ters will speak on his behalf. These include:

  • Gen­er­al Ahmed Alwany, Head of the SCAF; an extreme­ly pious man with a pen­chant for pornog­ra­phy (“which is not con­sid­ered a major sin like mur­der, for­ni­ca­tion or the con­sump­tion of alco­hol”) and is quite adept at order­ing his under­lings to tor­ture and slaugh­ter cit­i­zens. When he real­izes what is hap­pen­ing in Tahrir Square, he pro­claims that a con­spir­a­cy by the West is at hand.  His wife, Hag­ga, is the moth­er of his three chil­dren, and has an unhealthy obses­sion with the Mus­lim Brotherhood.

    For his safe­ty, Egypt­ian dentist/author Alaa Al Aswany is cur­rent­ly liv­ing in exile with his wife in New York City, where he has been teach­ing cre­ative writ­ing work­shops and giv­ing talks at major uni­ver­si­ties. This is where he wrote The Repub­lic of False Truths.  All of his books are banned in Egypt, even though his 2002 best sell­er, The Yacoubian Build­ing, was trans­lat­ed into 34 lan­guages, and pub­lished in more than 100 coun­tries. It was also adapt­ed for film. Two more acclaimed nov­els fol­lowed, Chica­go (2009) and The Auto­mo­bile Club of Egypt (2016). The New York Times has sug­gest­ed that Al Aswany is the biggest sell­ing nov­el­ist in Ara­bic, Yas­mi­na Khadra not with­stand­ing. Al Aswany’s favorite author is said to be Fyo­dor Doestoevsky.
  • Danya Alwany, daugh­ter and favorite child of Gen­er­al Alwany. An accom­plished stu­dent of med­i­cine who does not obey her father. She is heav­i­ly influ­enced by Khaled Madany, and even­tu­al­ly falls in love with him. She goes to Tahrir Square against the advice of her parents.

  • Ashraf Wis­sa, a Cop­tic “failed bit play­er” and lover of hashish who despis­es his wife Mag­da, and has no rela­tion­ship with his two chil­dren, Sarah and Bru­tus.  He is a rare ves­tige of a bygone ele­gant and aris­to­crat­ic era. By far, Ashraf is the most inter­est­ing char­ac­ter, as we watch him devel­op from a cyn­ic to become an engaged par­tic­i­pant in the rev­o­lu­tion, brought on by a chance meet­ing with Asmaa.

  • Asmaa Zanaty, a teacher of Eng­lish at a girls’ school and a mem­ber of the Kefaya move­ment.  She is strong willed, rebel­lious and is not eas­i­ly dis­suad­ed. She falls in love with Mazen when she sees him at one of their polit­i­cal reform move­ment meet­ings. A staunch sup­port­er of the rev­o­lu­tion in all its aspects.

  • Sheikh Shamel, the community’s reli­gious teacher who received no for­mal reli­gious edu­ca­tion, but rather obtained a uni­ver­si­ty degree in Span­ish. Worked in Sau­di Ara­bia as a sports club admin­is­tra­tor for a decade, after which he returned to Egypt and decid­ed to pros­e­ly­tize Wah­habism (for which he is hand­some­ly paid). He’s inde­cent­ly wealthy. “He is said to have tak­en the vir­gin­i­ty of 23 young girls, all in com­pli­ance with holy law.”

  • (The above char­ac­ter is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the way Al Aswany car­i­ca­tur­izes his cast)

  • Ikram, Ashraf and Magda’s maid­ser­vant. Unpol­ished and une­d­u­cat­ed, she is an hon­est and lov­ing char­ac­ter through­out the sto­ry. She has a young daugh­ter Shahd, and is mar­ried to a drug addict. In one of her con­ver­sa­tions with Ashraf, she declares: “Pover­ty is ugly, Ashram Bey.”

  • Mazen Saqqa, a chem­istry grad­u­ate from Cairo Uni­ver­si­ty and an engi­neer at the Ital­ian owned Belli­ni cement fac­to­ry. A polit­i­cal activist and mem­ber of the Kefaya move­ment, where he finds “a group of the most coura­geous and noble Egyp­tians.” He falls in love with Asmaa and they engage in what seems to be an inter­minable cor­re­spon­dence. In one of his let­ters, he writes to her: “our bat­tle is not with the head­mas­ter, it’s with the cor­rupt sys­tem that pro­duced him.” Here again, we are hear­ing the voice of Al Aswany through one of his imag­ined characters.

  • Essam Sha­lan, aka “Uncle Fah­mi”: man­ag­er of the Belli­ni cement fac­to­ry, and a close friend of Mazen’s deceased father. He mar­ries Nourhan in spite of the wide dif­fer­ence in their ages. A Marx­ist since ado­les­cence, he is quite vocal against the bour­geoisie, and refus­es to live with self-deceit. He attempts to school Mazen in the real­i­ties that have dis­eased Egypt. A dia­bet­ic alcoholic.

  • Nourhan, a very attrac­tive, oppor­tunis­tic and deceit­ful­ly reli­gious woman. She becomes a hero­ic TV per­son­al­i­ty and even­tu­al­ly Direc­tor of Pro­gram­ming at the state spon­sored TV sta­tion. She seduces mar­ried men to obtain a lux­u­ri­ous life. Uses her posi­tion in the media to spread “fake news.” Akin to Fox News.

  • Madany Said Abd El Wares, a wid­owed devot­ed father of two, Hind and Khaled. He is Essam’s chauf­feur and trust­ed con­fi­dant. His son Khaled is his glo­ry and rea­son for liv­ing. He also under­goes a trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence dur­ing the revolution.

  • Khaled Madany, a med­ical stu­dent and son of Madany, mild man­nered and not swayed by reli­gious teach­ings. He is his father’s pride and joy, though, in one con­ver­sa­tion, he tells him: “What com­plaint, Hagg Madany? We’re in Egypt. Injus­tice is the rule.” He is in love with Danya. He dis­plays enor­mous courage when con­front­ed by the sav­age offi­cers of the Egypt­ian army.

  • Muham­mad Zanaty, father of Asmaa, whom he con­sid­ers an afflic­tion. Spent a quar­ter cen­tu­ry in Sau­di Ara­bia and was pro­found­ly influ­enced by its cul­ture. An accoun­tant by trade. He suf­fers from dia­betes and high blood pres­sure. He prefers to let his wife, who is unnamed, to han­dle his daugh­ter Asmaa.

  • The Supreme Guide, head of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood. The group was severe­ly restrict­ed under the rule of Hos­ni Mubarak, and yet, they play an impor­tant role in the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary effort.

  • Muhammed Shanawany, a cor­rupt mil­lion­aire busi­ness­man with close ties to the Mubarak fam­i­ly. Assist­ed Alwany in set­ting up four major state TV chan­nels whose pur­pose was to broad­cast the the­o­ry of a con­spir­a­cy planned and fund­ed by the CIA and the Mossad. Peo­ple were paid to appear on those broad­casts to pro­vide false testimonies.

(L) Egypt­ian stu­dent Khaled Saïd, mur­al on a Berlin Wall by graf­fi­ti artist Andreas von Chrzanows­ki (pho­to cour­tesy Joel Sames), and a Cairo mur­al of Khaled Saïd after tor­ture and death at the hands of the police.

The events of Jan­u­ary 25, 2011 were trig­gered by the bru­tal tor­ture and mur­der of a young student/blogger Khaled Saïd by the police in the city of Alexan­dria. He is men­tioned by name in the nov­el. Here are murals from the before and after pho­tos of Khaled Saïd.

Bla­tant­ly miss­ing from the book, and a fact that should have segued in rela­tion­ship to Khaled Said is the name of Wael Ghon­im, or at least, an imag­ined per­son in the nar­ra­tive who could have eas­i­ly been rec­og­nized as Ghonim.

Wael Ghon­im was, in many ways, the face and the fall­en hero of the rev­o­lu­tion. As Google’s head of mar­ket­ing for the MENA region, and very active on social media plat­forms, he was able to teach and mobi­lize young Egyp­tians to rise in protest of a tyran­ni­cal gov­ern­ment rule. The new enlight­en­ment econ­o­my (Face­book, Twit­ter), of which he pos­sessed con­sid­er­able cur­ren­cy, enabled pre­vi­ous­ly impos­si­ble col­lab­o­ra­tions and coali­tions. It intro­duced new plat­forms for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and mobi­liza­tion, which caught the regime by surprise.

Ghon­im was arrest­ed in Tahrir Square and sub­se­quent­ly detained blind­fold­ed for 12 days. He grant­ed a cou­ple of inter­views after his release from jail, one of which I was able to view on CNN.

 

Any account of the Arab Spring in Egypt must include Ghonim’s voice who was a de fac­to spokesman for the rev­o­lu­tion. He was invit­ed to speak with the Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or; Ghon­im was also the admin­is­tra­tor of the Face­book page titled “We Are All Khaled Said,” which he cre­at­ed fol­low­ing the death of the young man at the hands of Egypt­ian police.

In Tahrir Square, a ban­ner demand­ing the removal Mubarak’s regime went up.

By Jan­u­ary 28, 2011, tens of thou­sands of Egyp­tians had been mobi­lized by means of social media, which turned into a smor­gas­bord of demands direct­ed at Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak’s 30-year autoc­ra­cy. They brave­ly fought secu­ri­ty forces, attacked police sta­tions, burned gov­ern­ment build­ings, and chant­ed “bread, free­dom, jus­tice,” as well as “erhal” (Ara­bic for “leave”).

The var­i­ous sto­ry­lines involv­ing the main char­ac­ters all con­tribute to the events lead­ing to the crescen­do of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary effort, and even­tu­al­ly to its demise. Hav­ing per­son­al­ly invest­ed much time watch­ing the failed rev­o­lu­tion­ary coup in Jan­u­ary 2011 and its after­math, the con­tents of the book have crys­tal­lized for me many of the hor­rif­ic ele­ments which could not be detailed in the media.

As I con­tem­plat­ed the mean­ing of the nar­ra­tive, I began lis­ten­ing to a few inter­views of Al Aswany, one of which was par­tic­u­lar­ly edi­fy­ing in under­stand­ing the spec­tac­u­lar upris­ing and dis­mal fail­ure of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary under­tak­ing. Though none were specif­i­cal­ly about The Repub­lic of False Truths, the inter­views, held in Eng­lish and French, served to elu­ci­date the author’s posi­tion on Egypt­ian society.

 

 

One par­tic­u­lar inter­view was held in Frank­furt in 2019, con­duct­ed in French by Daniel Medin. Al Aswany men­tioned the name of a French polit­i­cal theorist/philosopher named Éti­enne de La Boétie who had writ­ten a trea­tise in Latin in the 16th cen­tu­ry, which was even­tu­al­ly trans­lat­ed to French in 1576. He want­ed to demon­strate that a dic­ta­tor­ship could not exist with­out the con­sent of the pop­u­lace. The Dis­course of Vol­un­tary Servi­tude was most like­ly writ­ten when de La Boétie was 17 years of age. The rel­e­vance of the premise becomes clear:

This text con­sists of a short indict­ment against abso­lutism which aston­ish­es by its eru­di­tion and depth, as it was writ­ten by a young man. This text rais­es the ques­tion of the legit­i­ma­cy of any author­i­ty over a pop­u­la­tion and tries to ana­lyze the rea­sons for the sub­mis­sion to it [“dom­i­na­tion-servi­tude”].

The bril­liance of La Boétie’s the­sis is to argue that, con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, servi­tude is not imposed by force but vol­un­tary. If this were not the case, how could one con­ceive that a small num­ber of indi­vid­u­als would force all oth­er cit­i­zens to obey so sub­servient­ly? In fact, any pow­er, even when it is first imposed first by force, can­not sus­tain­ably con­trol and abuse a soci­ety with­out the col­lab­o­ra­tion, active or resigned, of a major­i­ty of its members.

Hav­ing remained in con­stant con­tact with Egyp­tians (both expats and in situ) since my family’s per­son­al exile from the coun­try in 1962, the why and how of a dic­ta­to­r­i­al regime became crys­tal clear, as I found a num­ber of Egypt­ian cit­i­zens to be com­plete­ly obliv­i­ous, or per­haps pur­pose­ful­ly igno­rant of and/or deny­ing the iron-fist­ed dic­ta­tor­ship wield­ed by Abdel Fat­tah el-Sisi. Incom­pre­hen­si­bly, many Egypt­ian women go as far as laud­ing his accom­plish­ments. An Egypt­ian woman expat I befriend­ed on Face­book once wrote to me: “We pre­fer our lead­ers to be mil­i­tary men.”

 


 

In The Repub­lic of False Truths, Alaa Al Aswany assem­bles a mosa­ic of char­ac­ters whose des­tinies inter­twine from the begin­ning to the end of the events in Tahrir Square (pho­to Jöel Sagat, Agence France Presse).

Back to the book. If we know the out­come, why both­er read­ing it?

Al Aswany, with his usu­al flair, is a mas­ter sto­ry­teller and gives us a doc­u­men­tary of sorts to under­stand the Egypt­ian quo­tid­i­an: what each of his char­ac­ters think, feel and do in response to a myr­i­ad of sit­u­a­tions. We’re invit­ed to explore the divide between the small, albeit enor­mous­ly wealthy elite and the work­ing class, between domes­tic work­ers, stu­dents and the unem­ployed. It is impos­si­ble to ignore his lam­poon­ing of the forces which con­trol the pop­u­la­tion — the armed forces (in the name of nation­al secu­ri­ty, always) and the reli­gious oper­a­tives (Allah be praised, this is haram).

How can Egypt call itself “Umm El Donia” (Moth­er of the World) if it con­ducts itself so immoral­ly? Al Aswany takes aim at the hypocrisies of pow­er, espe­cial­ly the patri­ar­chal kind, and shows how polit­i­cal crises can divide fam­i­lies along gen­er­a­tional lines. He does not spare us the fanat­i­cal regres­sion and oppres­sion of women by sex­u­al­ly obsessed men, who soothe their lust by demand­ing that women cov­er them­selves. Their repressed libido is in glar­ing evi­dence dur­ing a scene depict­ing the rape of a young man, and fla­grant­ly dur­ing the “vir­gin­i­ty tests” obscenities.

As to why the rev­o­lu­tion failed? The book does not go that far, but fail­ure is implied in var­i­ous chap­ters as we watch injus­tices unfold, and hopes and dreams are crushed by the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary forces. Would it have been dif­fer­ent, had there been a cohe­sive, alter­na­tive polit­i­cal par­ty which could have tak­en over, and giv­en the Egypt­ian peo­ple a choice out­side a mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship or a theoc­ra­cy? Per­haps, but there would have also been a need for all insti­tu­tions which are com­plete­ly cor­rupt to be replaced…

 

Born in Alexandria, Egypt to a multilingual Sephardic family, Aimée Dassa Kligman benefited from a French education until the age of 11. Her family was exiled from Egypt in 1962 and lived in Paris, awaiting a visa for the US. With a passion for writing, she became an English/French/Spanish language teacher at age 18, and eventually the owner of a fine arts paper company, for which she traveled the world to meet suppliers and hold seminars on the art of hand papermaking, appearing in the Who’s Who of International Entrepreneurs in 1996. She created “Women's Lens,” a bilingual blog that focused on Ashkenazic descrimination of the Arab Jewish community and wrote several book reviews dealing with Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewry. During a transition period, she was Foreign Policy Editor for the Middle East for Examiner.Com. Dassa Kligman aligns herself with the ideology of Tom Segev, Gideon Levy and Shlomo Sand. Retired from her career, with a daughter and three grandchildren, she lives in New York City, where she is writing her memoir.

Alaa Al AswanyArab SpringCairoEgyptian revolutionel-SissiMubarakTahrir Squarethawra

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