By Heba El-Sherif
For months, fans of renowned Egyptian novelist and columnist Alaa Al-Aswany enjoyed their Tuesday morning coffees with his biting wit and critique of current Egyptian affairs, boldly wrapped up in his weekly column published in Al-Shorouk daily.
But last Sunday, after weeks of unpublished columns due to government pressure, his fans enjoyed a different discourse.
In the third of a series of book signings hosted by Al-Shorouk bookstores, readers from across the spectrum huddled around the tiny coffee space in its Mohandiseen branch. After discussing his latest release, a compilation of columns written between 2008 and 2010 titled “Egypt on the Bench,” Al-Aswany opened up the forum for questions.
The attendants included revered TV presenter Hamdy Qandil, renowned journalist Yosri Foda, film producer Mohamed El-Adl, singer Ali El-Haggar, Hussein Abdel Ghany and, the evening’s moderator, Wael Qandil.
For two and a half hours, Al-Aswany discussed the function of symbolism and simplicity in literature, characteristics of autocratic regimes, adopting the philosophy of revolution, Tunisia and the importance of change coming from the top.
Al-Aswany was fast to quell claims that the Tunisian revolution cannot take shape in Egypt, a belief roundly circulated in the media; he insisted that Egyptians are better educated and cultured than their Tunisian counterparts.
“Celebrating Tunisia should not make room for comparison,” he said, adding that the Tunisian revolution was a turning point, filled with lessons to everyone who is seeking change.
“And I tell you, change is coming to Egypt, and it is coming very soon.”
Al-Aswany supported the online call by Egyptian activists for a day of mass protest on Jan. 25, to coincide with Police Day, lauding those in the audience who were determined to take to the streets despite government intimidation.
“A revolution does not have to be violent, you can revolt in your own home,” added Al-Aswany, explaining that being revolutionary does not only lie in being part of on-street protests; it is a philosophy “of questioning the status quo, and everything that is deemed comfortable.”
“We should not only be calling for a revolution; we should be calling for change.”
An autocratic system brings out the worse in its people, according to Al-Aswany, who favors a top-bottom movement for change rather than starting by changing people’s attitudes.
Regarding it a Salafist-borrowed ideology, Al-Aswany said that those who followed a bottom-top approach to bringing change have reached stagnation, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood and the earlier approach of Hamas to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, before adopting armed resistance.
When asked about who would take lead after a hypothetical scenario of a Tunisia-style revolution, he admitted Egypt fares poorly when it comes to an organized opposition: “The real opposition that is, not the appointed one.”
Meanwhile, he lauded movements spearheaded by April 6 and the “We are All Khaled Saeid” Facebook page, dedicated to 23-year-old Alexandrian who was reportedly tortured to death by police last year.
On literature, Al-Aswany said that personifying animals, a technique he often uses, does not just provide a medium in which one can criticize the government openly without pointing obvious fingers; the jungle and the rules governing its inhabitants have always inspired man.
“Plus, even if circumstances change, the animals will always remain,” he told his audience.
He recalled an article he wrote chronicling an elephant who wanted his baby elephant to succeed him in rule, a process facilitated by his comrade donkey. All the while, smaller, less powerful animals led by a giraffe took to the streets, peacefully toppling the elephant rule.
“I’m talking about Tunisia,” he joked.
Al-Aswany went on to criticize Egyptian authors who remain loyal to the Nouveau roman, a genre of 1950s French novels based on ambiguity through focusing less on plot and more on the world it is set in.
Al-Aswany explained that writers need to be close to people because therein lies their stories, and to whom these stories are told.
“Many are now writing for no audience, and that’s the easiest way of writing. What is deep is essentially very simple, in both writing and in life,” he said.
“Egypt on the Bench” is available in local Bookstores.