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.”