It’s been a tough few years for Alaa Al Aswany, the Egyptian author who spent 18 days in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring of 2011, a period he has called “the most beautiful days of my life.”
In 2014, Al Aswany, a globally famous critic of Egypt’s corrupt society—his 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building, a dissection of Cairo culture, has sold over 1 million copies worldwide—was banned from publishing his weekly column in an Egyptian daily. The next year he was prevented from putting on a public seminar and not allowed to publish at all. Then two years ago he was sued by Egyptian military prosecutors for insulting the president, armed forces, and judiciary in his latest novel, The Republic-As If, which was released the year previously but banned in his home country. Finally, after being repeatedly harassed while trying to travel outside the country, Al Aswany, who speaks fluent English—he has a master’s degree in dentistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago—decided to accept the invitations of American schools that wanted him to guest-lecture, and moved to the U.S. He currently resides in Brooklyn.
“Every time I traveled,” Al Aswany told The Daily Beast, “I was detained for at least two hours, and asked very provocative questions. So, at this point, I began to accept invitations from American universities like Bard and Princeton to teach creative writing.”
It’s easy to see why Egyptian authorities weren’t happy with The Republic-As If,” which has recently been published in the U.S. and retitled The Republic of False Truths. It’s a scorching novelization about the heady days of Tahrir Square and the brutal crackdown by the Egyptian military and security forces opposed to it. Featuring a wide range of characters, from a drug-addled actor who joins the revolution to a TV host on a Fox News-like government propaganda channel and a cement factory manager, medical student, and teacher who support the Tahrir outburst, Al Aswany’s book takes no prisoners as it addresses the venality and brutality of the Mubarak regime. And as if to emphasize his point, the author even includes the real-life testimony of women who were forced by the military to take “virginity tests,” where they had to strip naked while anyone who passed by could ogle them.
“I didn’t change one word of those testimonies, but I did change the names, because many of [the women] are still in Egypt” says Al Aswany. “Right after the revolution, these women even testified on TV, because it was possible. Everything is on videos.”
The Republic of False Truths is not afraid to criticize what Al Aswany sees as basic flaws in the Egyptian character, which is depicted, before Tahrir, as avoiding confrontation, cowardly and submissive, with a willingness to put up with graft and deception at all levels of society. “Egypt, where the serious thinker and brilliant scientist find no recognition.” says one of his characters, “and where the glory—and what glory!—goes to liars and imposters.”
Not surprisingly, Al Aswany does not let fundamentalist Islam off the hook. One of the book’s key figures is Sheikh Shamel, a slick TV imam who rails against the revolution and is given to pronouncements like, “Be on your guard, then, my brothers and sisters, and beware the cross-worshipping Christians and ape-and-pig-descended Jews, and their agents the secularists, who bear Islamic names and live among us and stab us in the back.”
Given this negative imagery, it comes as a bit of a surprise that Al Aswany is not really down on Islam but on Wahhabism, a particularly conservative form of the religion. “Islam is a religion like any other,” says Al Aswany. “We used to have a positive reputation, that’s why Egyptian society was really progressive—we had women’s rights, civil rights, we were protected by our interpretation of Islam. But beginning in the ’70s, we had the Wahhabists. It’s aggressive, fascist in its interpretation of Islam. I’m not against Islam, I’m against the Wahhabists.”
Al Aswany’s novel also appears to have some interesting American parallels, particularly the role of the government-approved media in spreading falsehoods. The book goes into great detail describing how the government sets up an “alternative facts” TV news outlet, which quickly becomes the go-to source for Tahrir coverage. “The Egyptians live in the Republic of False Truth,” says one of the characters in the book. “They live in a mass of lies that they treat as if they were true.”
Sounds like Al Aswany could also be referring to Fox, Breitbart, and their ilk? Well, not exactly. “In a dictatorship, not one single word is said without the approval of the government,” he says. “They receive instructions. The situation in America is very far from what is happening in Egypt. It doesn’t mean the American media is perfect, but you have room to express what you want to say.”
Despite the pessimism that seems to give the book its reason for being, and Al Aswany’s sometimes sarcastic language, which he uses to describe corruption in everything from the military and the religious establishment to education and the Egyptian film industry, The Republic of False Truths is ultimately about hope. Reading it, it becomes impossible to forget those days in early 2011 when it seemed Egypt and other countries in the Arab world were on the verge of a true cultural and political rebirth.
“It was dreams come true,” says Al Aswany of the period and his time spent in Tahrir. “Sometimes I felt it was too good to be true. Any person who joined the revolution would never forget this experience. We had courage, we were willing to die for our freedom. But the counter-revolution had everything; they had the money, the army, the police.”
So a short period of democracy led to a military coup, the imprisonment of a legitimately elected president, a tainted election, and the ascension of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president in 2014, a position he still holds. Egypt seems to lurch from one authoritarian regime to another, and Al Aswany, asked if it will ever end, doesn’t seem comfortable making any predictions about the country’s future.
“I believe dictatorship is wrong, and anything wrong in human nature will end,” he says. “So, I believe that dictatorship will end in Egypt, most probably in our lifetime. Hopefully.”