Advertisement
Share

How Egypt’s leading novelist captured the Tahrir Square moment — and his warning for us

An author, eyeglasses poised below his face, looks off-camera.
Alaa Al Aswany’s latest novel, “The Republic of False Truths,” captures the idealism and the failures of the Tahrir Square protests.
(Abdallah Hassan)

On the Shelf

The Republic of False Truths

By Alaa Al Aswany
Translated by S.R. Fellowes
Knopf: 416 pages, $29

If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookstores.

When Egypt erupted in revolution in 2011, Alaa Al Aswany was among the hundreds of thousands protesting every day in Cairo’s Tahrir Square until President Hosni Mubarak was finally forced from office. Al Aswany stood out among the throngs, and not just because at 53 he was decades older than most.

He was a successful dentist, but he was also an outspoken leader of the pro-democracy movement, writing political columns, holding salons and starting the group Kefaya (“Enough”). Oh, and in his spare time he was among Egypt’s most successful novelists. He had followed up “The Yacoubian Building,” his 2002 bestseller, with “Chicago” in 2007.

The success of the revolution was short-lived: The hard-line Muslim Brotherhood won power in an election only to have it seized by the military, which implemented a new dictatorship under Abdel Fattah Sisi. Al Aswany’s columns and public seminars were soon quashed and he was forced to leave the country for his safety.

“I was probably too hopeful,” Al Aswany says on a video call from his home in Brooklyn while discussing his novel “The Republic of False Truths.” “I made a big mistake. I thought the revolution was representing all Egyptians, but we were the minority and, at some point, people turned against us. This novel is a way to understand what happened.”

Advertisement

“The Republic of False Truths” was published in Lebanon in 2018 — banned in Egypt but widely read as samizdat. Though it is being released here in English only this week, the book was written partly in the U.S. while Al Aswany taught writing at Bard College in New York.

“I wrote easily there because I felt secure,” he says.

Naguib Mahfouz, the cafe denizen who became the first Arab author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature -- for novels that evoked the scent, color and texture of life in the streets of his native Cairo -- died Wednesday.

The novel is filled with drama both historical and intimate, shifting perspectives among a wide array of characters in the lead-up to the protests and their immediate aftermath. Some are archetypal: an outwardly pious general who oversees torture and murder; a sheikh who twists religious law to justify both government corruption and his procurement of young virgins; passionate young revolutionaries (including the general’s daughter) putting their lives on the line.

But there are also characters as full of surprises as the middle-aged dentist-revolutionary who created them. Nouran is a rising star in TV news who becomes a full-on state propagandist while accumulating wealth and power. Ashraf Wissa is a wealthy stoner constantly at odds with his wife, which prompts him to seduce their beautiful young housekeeper — only to fall in love with her and, newly awakened, to discover a passion for the unfolding revolution.

The book is funny and even sweet in parts, but increasingly violent and grim as women are abused by soldiers, the body count grows — even major characters are not spared — and hopes for a democratic future start to fade in the face of the power-hungry Islamists and an implacable military.

"The Republic of False Truths," by Alaa Al Aswany
(Knopf)

The gap between the events and the book’s publication is deliberate. Al Aswany waited four years to begin writing so that he could see events more clearly and allow them to spark his imagination. Although “Republic” covers only a handful of days surrounding the protests, it is informed by all that came after.

“I thought if I present what happened in 2011 then people could better understand what has happened since then,” he says.

Al Aswany says he is deeply saddened by Egypt’s last decade, though at peace with himself and his convictions. He wants the novel’s readers here and in the Middle East to understand why the revolutionaries failed. “You have thousands of Egyptians in jail now because they were defending the rights of the people,” he says, “but those people either don’t care or attack the revolutionary youth and say they were traitors.”

Totalitarian regimes gradually twist the souls of even ordinary citizens, he explains. “You learn how to survive by being a hypocrite. When your kid comes to you and says, ‘For homework I will write about the great achievements of our president,’ if you say, ‘No, this president has no achievements, and you should write what I’ve told you,’ he will get in trouble and you will too. But if you tell him to write what he learned in class then you will be a hypocrite. That’s how it begins.”

Ayad Akhtar, author of the new novel, “Homeland Elegies,” talks capitalism, Trump and literary tokenism with “Conditional Citizens” author Laila Lalami.

The novel captures the dizzying rush of hope the protesters felt but also exposes the cynical machinations of the military in shaping public opinion. Older people were overwhelmed by the youthful revolution’s stridency and chaos, Al Aswany says, and were primed to believe propaganda that claimed the election held no promise of true democracy.

“An old man told me, ‘When I grew up the elections were rigged; when I fell in love and got married the elections were rigged; we had kids and the elections were rigged. Give me one single reason why I should join you now, why I should be angry that the elections are rigged.’” In fact, Al Aswany argues, this posture of resignation became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What the author sees now, however, is hardly a return to the status quo. He describes Mubarak as a tiger who brimmed with confidence and thus didn’t always need to lash out. Sisi, by contrast, is a “wounded tiger,” living in terror of suffering his predecessor’s fate. (In 2019, he stifled a protest by jailing more than 4,000 people in a month, the largest number in years.)

“He has said many times that what happened in 2011 will never happen again, but it sounds as if he was talking to himself,” Al Aswany says. “A wounded tiger is very dangerous. His fear makes him cruel.”

Though the author is not counting on a large-scale revolution anytime soon, he allows himself to hope Sisi’s iron rule is unsustainable. He tells the story of the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, who ruled for 30 years with a philosophy of offering citizens bread and a stick. “He said, ‘The bread is for everybody but anyone who asks for more than what we offer will get the stick,’” Al Aswany says. “The problem in Egypt is that you just see two sticks with no bread. I’m not quite sure this formula will last.”

The timing of the novel’s U.S. publication could not be better, he says: America after Trump, and after Jan. 6, increasingly resembles a republic of false truths.

“This book could be useful here because people must understand that you need to defend the idea of democracy,” Al Aswany says. “People don’t realize how demagogues and fascists can say things that appeal to normal people even if the ideas are very dangerous. If you trust a demagogue or a fascist, even if he’s elected, he could ruin the democracy.”

As Al Aswany well knows, once an autocrat has power, he will destroy the truth, and his country, to maintain it.

Annette Gordon-Reed, Ayad Akhtar, Héctor Tobar, Martha Minow, David Kaye and Jonathan Rauch discuss the Jan. 6 riot and what we do about it.


Advertisement