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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser