Gamal El-Ghitani, one of Egypt’s most celebrated writers and novelists and author of the iconic novel, El-Zini Barakat, was the founder and first chief editor of the leading literary newspaper in the Arab world, Akhbar Al-Adab (Literature News).
Since the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution on 25 January, he has been sparking controversy, not for his literary value but for his political views on the revolution’s path, not to mention the criticism he received for his stands against the Muslim Brotherhood, which he sees as a real hazard to freedom of creativity and the identity of the Egyptian state.
In this interview conducted in his office, decorated by Irish and German writers' portraits, El-Ghitani gives the inside story of his writing, political views and the role he played as chief editor of Akhbar Al-Adab for more than 17 years.
Ahram Online: You have joined the activists in the streets protesting for freedom of expression. Do you have fears regarding these freedoms in the coming period and in the constitution?
Gamal El-Ghitany: I have serious fears about the future of the Egyptian state as we knew it since the beginning of history until today. The Muslim Brotherhood aren't a traditional political party but a group with a project that opposes the modern state itself, and, in my opinion, established originally to attack the 1919 revolution, with blessings from the British occupation, with a religious background to fight the national liberal project. Egypt was rich with great thinkers and intellectuals at the time, and we were brought up under the auspices of these masters.
Despite statements that we should not pre-dispose against the Brotherhood, we have to observe the principles; mixing religion with politics is unacceptable in principle. How do I debate someone who claims to own religion? This is a reduction to religion itself.
Although the Brotherhood's cadres are limited, they're being greatly served by those who declare their Brotherhoodisation, changing lanes with the new leadership.
The intellectuals are now at their lowest point. While they were the first fighting line in front of the French invasion, headed by Al-Azhar at the time, we find today that the Brotherhood are trying to ignore and put aside the entire Azhar institution altogether.
As intellectuals, we're individuals, each on their own, without any organising body. This stems from the weakness of the left wing that had played a traditional role in embracing the cultural movement, and when the left lost ground, the intellectuals were dispersed. Despite the rough atmosphere against freedoms during the 1960s, the intellectuals were strong and able to overcome many obstacles and be present in the public space.
Of course, the state's attempt to control the intellectuals had played a role in that, which led to many intellectuals joining the regime, while others stayed outside – thus the line was divided.
AO: You played a major role in cultural life through establishing the renowned Literature News weekly publication. What had that role entailed?
GEG: Literature News was established in 1993 and was meant to be a forum for intellectuals, not only a space where cultural news is shared. Through the cultural forum, we were able to tackle many Egyptian state issues and share in the public debate, such as the scandalous Omar Effendi public department store sale to the Saudi investor, and which Literature News ignited when it wrote that historical heritage buildings were at risk.
Culture, as we saw it, wasn't about the movements of intellectuals and the activities of the Ministry of Culture bodies, but about society in general. We were able to publish what none of the state-owned newspapers were able to share. This wasn't about journalism, but about the extent of courage of the managers of the newspaper: if we're not afraid for our positions, we can do anything.
We stood by Sonallah Ibrahim when he refused the State Award given by ousted president Mubarak, and had to spend the night in the print-shop to ensure that his photo was on the cover and the words he said on the occasion were printed.
AO: Statements opposing you and making claims about your years of leadership of Literature News have been spreading. What is your response to these claims?
GEG: One must admit that playing a public role in this atmosphere has a price. Do you think it was easy to oppose the strongest and most favoured minister in the Mubarak regime? If I had sought my own benefit, I would not have led the opposition through Literature News.
I'm very surprised about the claims that I asked to move to the National Library, while my role at Literature News was a lot more important and significant. Also, the claims about my request to head the Institut du Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World) – how could this be when I myself had nominated names for this post?
What is most disappointing is that people making claims never spoke of these matters while I headed the newspaper.
Mistakes and disputes did happen, and that's not unusual. At one point, a dear colleague, the great writer Mahmoud El-Wardani and I argued and he requested to be transferred. I accepted his request, but today I consider this one of my greatest mistakes. I still owe him great respect, not only as a great writer, but as a great human.
AO: What do you think of the changes to Literature News magazine after the appointment for its new chief editor?
GEG: Literature News is finished since Abla El-Roweini left. Whether you agreed or disagreed with its views, there's no doubt that it carried a free voice, and this is certainly not compatible with the thoughts of the Muslim Brotherhood. It will never be the same again. I read it only once since then, and decided not to continue in order to keep my image of the past intact.
I must say that Literature News wasn't my responsibility alone, but was managed by a brilliant group that is considered one of its major achievements.
It's very difficult to attempt to rebuild this experience again today after it had gone for 18 long years, nearly as long as the longest-standing Al-Resala cultural magazine, which continued for 22 years until 1984.
But there's also the financial aspect: I had been pushing for advertisements to reach Literature News in order to fund it, donating my share of the advertisements to support the periodical. It's not expected that this will go on.
AO: Literature had been drowned by politics. What is the role you perceive today for writers and intellectuals in Egypt?
GEG: Jalaluddin Rumi has a famous statement, "How do I rest when there's fire in my house," and now Egypt is on fire and we're all putting in time for that. A writer needs to find the balance between the roles.
What writers and artists should struggle for is to retain rights for freedom of thought and expression. Allowing the statements last week from one of the Azhar scholars about the artist Elham Shahin is despicable; accusing her of adultery because she portrayed that role on the screen. The legacy of Egyptian culture has to be respected, and the view of the female as just a body for fulfilling desires is very offensive to Islam and the legacy of the Prophet Mohamed.
Although there was a great atmosphere of freedom right after the revolution and newspapers had huge space to display various points of view, this changed after the victory of the Brotherhood president, when they started interfering using the same tools as the previous regime, namely the Shura council, exercising its right to change the editors-in-chief and the High Press Council. Individuals with a bear minimum knowledge of the trade are being appointed just because they belong to the Brotherhood.
Days ago, the first veiled TV anchor was introduced. At a time when the USA is showing pictures from Mars and the first man on the moon just passed away, the greatest achievement the Brotherhood are bragging about is showing a veiled lady on TV. Nearly 100 years ago, an Egyptian citizen issued a magazine at his own expense called 'Unveiling', demanding that women remove their face cover. Soon afterwards, we saw the 1919 revolutionary women lead protests without covering their faces.
Everyone's free to wear what they wish, but trying to force a certain behaviour is very misleading. Instead of trying to bring forward the new talents of Egyptian music from the squares, the new minister of culture is proud of the veiled anchor.
AO: What's your view about literary life in Egypt over the past few years?
GEG: Literary life is facing dangers, starting when major publishing houses start adopting the 'bestseller policy'. Looking at the list of bestsellers is alarming, when top of the list is a light comic book and the serious books are at the bottom of the list.
It reminds one of a light book during the 1950s that sold some 200,000 copies titled 'Accept My Shame' by Aziz Armany at a time when Naguib Mahfouz was selling some 2000 copies at most. Serious literature has a different client and they should not be mingled in the same list, otherwise you totally kill literature altogether.
Today, formal Arabic poetry is dead. Colloquial poetry had a renaissance before the revolution and some were published in Literature News, but this generation never had sponsors or mentors, or even great singers to take their poetry to the people like Um Kalthom did to Beiram El-Tunsi's poetry. I suffered, personally, when a great talented poet would send a couple of wonderful poems and then disappear.
But even Naguib Mahfouz's books are suffering: the readers are moving to other titles. If Mahfouz's books are never studied in any school, how will his work be known?
The revolutionary spirit hasn't yet impacted literature; it's bound to take time. But it's also disappointing that the political current that rose to power after the revolution is working against history itself and against culture and arts. I'm sure it will come out, but if there's no attention to that, it's going to die.
AO: You're taking part in the commemoration of Naguib Mahfouz, organised by the Ministry of Culture these days.
GEG: Indeed, but I would have definitely preferred that they bring young people, the revolutionary youth, and see what they think of Mahfouz, even if they disagree with him.
AO: As an experienced military correspondent, how do you evaluate the role of the SCAF during the transition period?
GEG: Many claim that I'm defending the SCAF, but I'm defending the Egyptian state that I sensed was under attack since 28 January when the jails were open with Hamas forces help as claimed. This Implies the great movement of the Egyptian masses was misused.
Despite that, SCAF did protect the revolution during its first days (for its own reasons probably), but it had unfortunately not recognised the nature of the revolution and started the clash with the youth. I had myself called for a change of the SCAF leadership before Morsi took steps to this end. The SCAF made many mistakes, the worst of which was handing the country over to the Brotherhood.
AO: Do you think Tareq El-Bishri is responsible for this?
GEG: El-Bishri must be tried. I bear enormous respect for this great historian and his team and their effort. However, I have noticed that he started changing his views for a certain reason; to the extent that once during a debate at Literature News he nearly left angry just for mentioning the change of Article 2 [of the constitution].
Upon the demand of the SCAF for the amendments of the constitutional articles right after the January 25 uprising, El-Bishri should have stated that the constitution must come before elections. Yet instead, he insisted on leading us into the trap we're still in right now. Being a learned historian, I request that he be held responsible for these actions
I'm honestly not optimistic at all about the paths of the Egyptian revolution. My generation are living their last quarter hour, and had hoped to see a couple of good days. Instead, we've been living through challenges ever since the 1960s, and the revolutionary force we observed was never organised into a power leading to development and instead was taken over by anti-revolution groups.
The Brotherhood will not easily leave power without more blood, while they own powerful institutions and militias and are now taking over the rest of the state institutions.
AO: What new writing should we expect from Gamal El-Ghitany soon?
GEG: I nearly stopped writing last year because I spent very long hours in front of the TV until I finally decided to stop watching due to repetition. The sound of the political parties is so far softer than the sounds of the television. Now I go back to reading and writing as usual.
I cannot spend a day without some reading, including some reading of historical books and the dictionary. I would have loved to write my experience as a reader at some point, but there's no time and my priority is for creative work followed by newspaper articles that could also eventually become a book. I write short stories only between one major piece of work and another. Right now I'm finalizing a novel.