“Egypt is a great country that has yet to have a go… at building a modern, democratic and strong state… A revolution has to lead to a comprehensive change; the past has to be fully dismantled so that we can build Egypt as we want it to be.”
These lines reflect the essence of much of prominent Egyptian novelist Alaa Al-Aswany’s musings on democracy in his weekly articles.
The quote, however, is from the heart of his recent novel, ‘The Automobile Club,’ published in the spring of this year, about the ability of a revolution that is still unfolding to move beyond poverty-prompted humiliation and subjugation to embrace dignity and rights.
In 2002, just one year after Hosni Mubarak initiated a plan for political succession, Al-Aswany issued his literary debut ‘Yacoubian Building,’ capturing the shocking image of a declining Egypt.
Maintaining his focus on downtown Cairo, Al-Aswany stepped back in time from the 1990s context of ‘Yacoubian Building’ for ‘The Automobile Club,’ set against the backdrop of the 1952 Revolution that removed the country’s last monarch and established a democracy that is still struggling to find its way towards a “modern, democratic and strong state.”
Al-Aswany’s first novel was an unmistaken critique of the mismanagement of Egypt throughout several decades, but particularly during the Mubarak era.
His latest book describes the fall of Egypt’s ruling dynasty. It is the story of decline, unfairness, poverty, humiliation, anger, deviation, and ultimately revolt, as echoed in the more recent demands for the end of the Mubarak and Morsy presidencies.
Moving towards a 'strong, modern and democratic Egypt'
Egyptians, Al-Aswany told Al-Ahram Online, took to the streets in January 2011 not just to demand an end to unfairness, but ‘inevitably’ to call for democracy, which he insists – as he does at the end of every article he writes – “is the answer.”
“It is the answer to unfairness, to abuse, to discrimination and all other social ailments, but it has not happened yet,” he said.
A key figure of the 25 January Revolution, Al-Aswany stood firm against the presidential nomination of Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister in the summer of 2012. Although he personally did not vote for Morsi, he made no secret that he thought Shafik – who ran against Morsi in the second round of the elections in June 2012 - would be the worst choice.
In June 2013, Al-Aswany told Ahram Online that he was confidant the rule of Morsi, “which had firmly betrayed the demands and the spirit of the January Revolution, was coming to an end sooner or later.”
This week, following a showdown at the Paris Institute of the Arab World, when he was verbally attacked by a group of pro-Morsi supporters during a literary seminar to discuss his new novel, Al-Aswany firmly insisted that the entire Brotherhood – and not just Morsi – parted ways with democracy and liberties championed by the 25 January Revolution, and that their rule and beliefs are as anti-democratic as those of the Mubarak regime.
Speaking before the 30 June demonstrations that led to the ouster of Morsi, Al-Aswany was sure that Morsi’s rule had already collapsed, simply because he had failed to heed the call of the nation for ‘a strong, modern and democratic Egypt,’ exactly as he said Mubarak did over and over again during his three-decade rule.
“As far as I am concerned, 30 June  was simply 12 February 2011 – the day following the ouster of Mubarak,” he said. The reason, he explained was that the months following Mubarak’s departure were wasted by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that oversaw the transitional period before Morsi’s inauguration.
“But a revolution is not just a political act, it is a major humanitarian evolution. People are one thing before a revolution and another after they take to the streets and protest; it is always this way, and what the Brotherhood failed to see was that Egyptians broke the wall of fear that was thought to be ever so invincible under the tight police apparatus during the rule of Mubarak,” Al-Aswany said, adding, “before the 25 January Revolution, most Egyptians dreaded the idea of going to a police station for any reason, but since the revolution we have again and again seen Egyptians defying the abuse of the police force and insisting on reforms.”
He maintains the ups and downs will continue, but inevitably the march towards democracy will go on, as ‘The Automobile Club’ prophesies. Al-Aswany says the protagonists were challenged over and over again, but they continue to keep going.
Salha is Al-Aswany's Egypt as Zohra was the Egypt of Mahfouz
When the family of the kind, generous Abdel-Aziz Hammam lost its once well off and later deprived and humiliated patriarch, it went on against the odds, even through considerable days of misery.
When Salha Hammam, the apple of the eye of Abdel-Aziz walked into an unfortunate marriage with an impotent drug addict, whose only claim to fame is his new-found and almost illicit wealth, she did not give in, and, with the help of her brother Kamel, divorced him and resumed her studies. Kamel himself, who tried hard to make ends meet to help his family move on after the death of his father, was arrested for political activism, but he never lost faith, even when in prison.
It is hard for the reader to miss the parallels between Al-Aswany’s Salha and Zohra of Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘Miramar,’ and between Kamel in ‘The Automobile Club’ and Ali of Mahfouz’s ‘Cairo Modern.’
“Salha is brilliant, smart and sensitive, she is also very reasonable,” said Al-Aswany. She is his Egypt as much as Zohra, the smart, ambitious, even if also subdued, protagonist was the Egypt of Mahfouz.
“In a sense, Kamel is like Ali; he is the smart and brave man who wants his country to see a better day – and who actually works for it. But, Ali is less orchestrated in nature than Kamel. I think this is predominantly the difference between the old Leftists and the new generation of revolutionary men and women we saw in Tahrir Square,” Al-Aswany explained.
The road to Tahrir Square, which Al-Aswany himself walked through the 25 January Revolution and again with the June 30 demonstrations, starts exactly where his book ends, when a group of angry and humiliated employees decided that it was the end of their subjugation by Al-Kou, the man who effectively managed the automobile club. Al-Kou endlessly humiliated his employees, while being firmly demeaned by his employer – a repulsive Mr Wright - who does not only stand for the smug foreign occupation, but also for the abusive and outright immoral ‘head of operations,’ who is willing to do whatever it takes through his reign over the club to maximise his gains.
“Well, you could think of Al-Kou as Ahmed Ezz of the Mubarak regime, or as Khairat El-Shater of the Brotherhood, and you could think of the automobile club as the policy committee of Gamal Mubarak or the Guidance Bureau of Mohamed Badie. The parallels are there in both scenarios,” Al-Aswany said. He added that the key question regarding his latest book is the much wider and much more significant question that remains to be answered: ‘How will Egypt find a firm road towards democracy?’
Al-Aswany drafted the first lines of his recent novel in 2008, when heavily engaged in all forms of anti-Mubarak political and literary resistance. The book was released in spring 2013 and topped the Egyptian bestsellers list as his other books have previously.
The English translation was delayed due to a disagreement between the novelist and the publisher regarding the nominated translator, but it is now in process of publication. Soon enough, an English speaking audience will get to know Kamel, who is hoping for a better day for Egypt, and Prince Chamel, a member of the royal family who dreaded its rule, and hoped for a revolution that might eradicate the past and allow for a new, better and more dignified future, even for those who feared to challenge Al-Kou.