Alaa al-Aswany in Paris, February 2014. Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
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You can't betray the revolution: why Egyptian activist Alaa al-Aswany likes being a dentist

“A revolution is basically a human change, not a political one,” he says. “People are no longer the Egyptians they were under Mubarak.”

Alaa al-Aswany, one of Egypt’s best-known novelists and activists, says he considers himself “lucky” to be a dentist. Dental surgery, he tells me, helps him stay connected to “the people”. Since the publication of his 2002 bestseller, The Yacoubian Building, al-Aswany has seen patients only twice a week. Occasionally fans book an appointment, arriving with flowers. “I usually give them their money back,” he says. But mostly al-Aswany keeps his professions separate. “When you have bad teeth, you really need a dentist – you don’t need a poet,” he chuckles, with a gravelly smoker’s laugh. “I try to be serious.”

Al-Aswany studied dentistry in Cairo and Chicago in the 1980s. He opened a clinic in the Yacoubian Building, the run-down art-deco block in central Cairo that inspired his second novel. In the mid-1990s he moved the clinic to the nearby district of Garden City – ten minutes’ walk from Tahrir Square. In late January 2015 he relocated again, this time to a candy-coloured villa in a modern suburb an hour’s drive from central Cairo. When we met in the book-lined office above his clinic, I wondered if his move signalled a retreat.

Long before he joined the anti-government protests of 2011, al-Aswany was outspoken in opposing Egypt’s former leader Hosni Mubarak. He believes his public profile helped protect him from imprisonment – or worse. But when the film adaptation of The Yacoubian Building premiered in Cairo in 2006 al-Aswany wasn’t invited. He says he was considered too “unpredictable”, particularly as one of Mubarak’s sons was on the guest list. Now doors are closing once again. His regular politics columns for the Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm – now translated into English and compiled into a book entitled Democracy Is the Answer – stopped abruptly in June 2014. He blames “unwelcome external pressures” and declining support for the revolution.

In today’s polarised Egypt, al-Aswany is a divisive figure. The state media have accused him of being a “Qatari agent”, their preferred label for anyone deemed overly critical of the country’s president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. In 2013 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood attacked al-Aswany in Paris because of his endorsement of Sisi’s popularly backed coup to overthrow the Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi.

Still, he told me, he won’t give up. If he can’t find another platform, he’ll start publishing on his Facebook page. “As soon as you participate, it becomes a very, very strong belief in you. You cannot betray the revolution,” he says. The idealism of his 2011 columns is striking, in part due to the contrast with The Yacoubian Building’s unflattering portrayal of modern Egyptian society, and in part because when he wrote them he was already in his mid-fifties and had lived most of his adult life under a dictatorship.

“A politician must work within the permitted area, but a writer must be a dreamer,” he says. Still, by 2013 the tone of his columns had changed. When at least 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood protesters were killed by the army in 2013, al-Aswany argued that the Egyptian state was in effect waging a war and that “we all have a duty to support [it] in this fight against terrorism”. Today he is “frustrated” by government repression but still “optimistic”.

“A revolution is basically a human change, not a political one,” he says. “People are no longer the Egyptians they were under Mubarak.” 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder