Book Review: Succession, revolution, and sexual harassment

Well-known Egyptian novelist and intellectual, Alaa Al-Aswany, who caused turmoil among Egyptians after his fiery interview with now-former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, has just published a new book. “On the State of Egypt” includes Al-Aswany’s views on Egypt, its politics and society.

The book was published by AUC Press only a few weeks prior to the Egyptian revolution of the 25 January, but later Al-Aswany re-launched the book with an addition of a four page insert that summarizes the writer’s experience in Tahrir. In it, he blames the delay of the revolution on the repression, distraction, poverty and compromising nature of the Egyptian citizen.

“On the State of Egypt” comprises 45 essays and articles written over the course of five years (from 2005 to 2010). They are concerned with three major subjects: the presidency and the succession, the people and social justice, and freedom of speech and state repression.  In one piece, Al-Aswany states that Egypt was in a “changing set” mode, the regime planning for a smooth succession scenario in which a mostly-unloved Gamal Mubarak is placed on his father’s throne with no disagreement from the people or political parties. According to Al-Aswany, a key to the success of the plan was supplying Israel with oil, gas and cement which has, over the last five years, become an Egyptian duty.

Al-Aswany writes strongly that Egyptians are ready for democracy. The prominent novelist also discusses the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming that the regime has successfully turned the opposition party into an ineffectual scarecrow.

Al-Aswany also delves into other topics, such as Mohamed ElBaradei (the former head of the IAEA and potential presidential candidate), who he seems to be a fan of. According to Al-Aswany, the regime changed its plans for succession as soon as ElBaradei became a perceived threat. Al-Aswany sees in ElBaradei a figure that may very well lead our country one day; after all, he received a doctorate from New York University and a Nobel price. But whether those accolades are enough has yet to be seen.

One of the most interesting articles in the book is a piece about how autocratic rulers see themselves. Al-Aswany explains that after years of ruling, a group of close followers, family members and friends will gather around the ruler, preventing him from seeing beyond them. They compete amongst one another to gain his trust and strive on pleasing him and preventing any annoying piece of information from reaching him. They act as a wall between the ruler and the ruled. The syndrome is called dictator’s solitude, and Mubarak clearly suffered from it.

Most of Al-Aswany’s views are in agreement with the majority of Egyptians; however, the author’s tone in his pre-revolution articles differs dramatically from his tone during the interview with the former Prime Minister. These earlier articles are much softer and less assertive, even though they were consistently in opposition to the Mubarak regime.

Al-Aswany’s articles on sexual harassment and how extremists look down on women are deep and thorough; Wahhabi teachings infiltrated our country from neighboring countries, according to the writer. Al-Aswany recalls the days when women wore mini-skirts in broad daylight and were not harassed. He quotes an Al-Masry Al-Youm interview with a harasser, who claims that any woman who walks alone in a crowded area is actually inviting young men to harass her.  

Al-Aswany’s style of writing is very systematic; he divides his thoughts into points. It’s clear, but sometimes too static. Adding to this, because of the timing of the book, most of the questions raised in the articles have already been answered in the last three weeks. “On the State of Egypt” might have been a more interesting read before the revolution.   

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