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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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.