Why Egypt’s Liberal Intellectuals Still Support the Army
Source Charles Brown
Date 14/01/09/13:00
Why Egypt’s Liberal Intellectuals Still Support the Army
Posted by Negar Azimi

When the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany took the stage in October at
the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris to promote the French translation
of his latest novel, he was presumably not expecting to be heckled and
chased from the venue by a crowd of his own countrymen. But minutes
into his talk, the author’s voice was drowned out by the shouts of
Egyptian emigrés who had come out for the chance to tear him to bits.

One of the Arab world’s most popular novelists, Aswany was a prominent
supporter of the demonstrations that climaxed with the dramatic fall
of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. (Wendell Steavenson wrote a Profile of
Aswany for the magazine in early 2012.) More recently, in his columns
for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (and, since October, for
the International New York Times), Aswany has been a relentless critic
of Mohamed Morsi and his followers in the Muslim Brotherhood—and a
passionate defender of the man who deposed him, General Abdel Fattah
el-Sisi, whom Aswany has called “a national hero.”

In clips of the Paris gathering posted on YouTube, one can see the
room erupt into chaos resembling a food fight. The event’s host, the
translator and former ambassador Gilles Gauthier, helplessly pleads,
“This event is about literature!” while Morsi supporters in the
audience stand up to chant “Down with military rule!” and “Traitor!”
in Arabic. A sea of hands shoots up in the crowd, waving the
four-fingers gesture that has come to be an emblem for the mass
killing of Muslim Brotherhood protestors at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiyah
mosque in August. (“Rabaa” means “fourth” in Arabic.)

Before long, Aswany, a practicing dentist with the girth of a
night-club bouncer, is standing up, jabbing his finger and shouting,
“Down with the dogs of the Morshid … You are traitors … You have
betrayed the revolution!” As if that were not enough, members of the
crowd advance on the stage, pushing a security guard back, onto the
table at which Aswany and Gauthier are sitting, splitting it in two.
As unidentified objects begin to fly at the author’s head, the two men
slip through a glass door at the back of the stage and escape down a
trap door in the floor. It is an unlikely, if not inelegant, exit.

The scene is painful to watch, and yet not entirely surprising. Two
thousand miles from Cairo, it serves as a window onto the vast
polarization of the Egyptian political sphere over the past twelve
months, which culminated two weeks ago with the military-backed
government’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as an illegal
“terrorist organization.” The new designation set off an even more
aggressive crackdown on the group, most of whose leaders have been
jailed. Protests in several Egyptian cities have escalated into
violent confrontations between Brotherhood supporters and police; on
Friday, thirteen people were killed, and almost fifty wounded, in
clashes across the country.

* * *

Ardent supporters of the Brotherhood have been pitted against
partisans of the current military government since the events of this
summer, when protestors filled streets and squares across Egypt to
demand that the country’s first freely elected President step down.
(Estimates of their number range from 476,000 to the oft-cited but
highly implausible thirty-four million.) Morsi, predictably, refused
to budge, and was kidnapped by the Army, a move his supporters
protested with prolonged sit-ins—until these were broken up with
considerable violence in August, killing somewhere between six hundred
and two thousand six hundred people. (The numbers game in Egypt is an
impenetrable thicket.) The victors cast their triumph as a
revolution—merely the next phase in the photogenic uprising that began
with Mubarak’s removal; the vanquished called it a military coup,
topped off by the bloodiest massacre in modern Egyptian history.

The fact that no independent investigation has been conducted into the
deaths of Brotherhood supporters does not bode well for those
embracing the photogenic version of events. Nor, for that matter, does
the passage, in November, of an anti-protest law that makes it
virtually impossible to gather ten or more people in one place without
a special permit. Dozens of activists have already been jailed for
violating it; they were joined in prison, at the end of December, by
three Al Jazeera journalists, who were essentially arrested on charges
of sympathy for the banned Brotherhood.

The elaborate semantic disputes over the facts of Egypt’s recent
history can be dizzying. To use the word “coup” in describing the
events of this summer will invite, in some circles, the suggestion
that the Brotherhood’s ascendance was the work of a Western conspiracy
involving an odd troika: two-faced local human-rights groups, flush
with foreign money; biased anti-military and pro-Morsi journalists
with the Times and other U.S. outlets; and, of course, the secret
leadership of Barack Hussein Obama.

Referring to the July events as a “revolution,” on the other hand,
will lead the opposing camp, consisting of Morsi supporters and
critics of the military (who are, increasingly, an unpopular
minority), to point out that there may have been more legitimate means
of expressing disapproval of Morsi—through, say, civil disobedience or
a public campaign for early elections.

Many of those who believe it was a “coup” would add that there is
evidence that the security forces, Army, and even remnants of the
Mubarak regime helped orchestrate the protests against Morsi. In this
view, the twists and turns of the past three years were nothing but
theatrical diversions in an elaborate farce choreographed by the
military and the old regime: first, let the octogenarian dictator
fall; appear enlightened by allowing an underdog Islamist candidate to
win the election; let the country descend into chaos—so the Army can
once again come to the rescue, welcomed with open arms by the grateful

Amid these rival claims, Aswany’s passionate defense of the military
sits squarely in the mainstream of public opinion, and yet it has
surprised and disappointed some of his admirers. After all, we expect
our writers and intellectuals to be moral giants, holding up a mirror
to the world’s inequities. In Egypt, this expectation has particular
resonance, as several generations of politically committed
writers—beginning with Naguib Mahfouz and continuing with Sonallah
Ibrahim, Gamal Al-Ghitani, Ahdaf Soueif, and Hamdi Abou Golayyel—have
made vivid the many grinding injustices of Egyptian life. Across the
decades, one finds a familiar cast of literary types: the thuggish
politicians who take your bribes, the drug dealers who ply you with
cheap painkillers, the pimps who sell your sisters, the police who
beat you to a pulp, the Islamists who censor your books and trash your
cinema, and—of course—the unacknowledged, but omnipresent, Big Man.

Aswany’s 2002 novel, “The Yacoubian Building,” which had all the
pyrotechnic melodrama of a soap opera, deftly showcased the social
ills of Mubarak’s Egypt through the interwoven stories of the
inhabitants of a once glamorous downtown-Cairo apartment building. One
of his characters, a young man tortured and raped by the police, turns
to radical Islam; Aswany uses his story to illustrate how the state’s
abuses have bred terrorism. An ominous Mubarak-like figure, fearsome
and never identified, lingers in the background throughout. A
spectacular best-seller, the book was adapted into a big-budget film,
and then a television series. Aswany’s new prominence did not diminish
his criticism of the regime: he was one of the founders of Kifaya, a
heroically rag-tag anti-Mubarak coalition composed of Nasserists,
socialists, liberals, and assorted others who, in 2004, began to stage
protests against the government—usually a hundred people at most,
ringed by far larger crowds of state security police in riot gear.
These gatherings, which for so long seemed futile, were in many ways
among the seeds for the uprising that toppled Mubarak.

* * *

I met Aswany in Cairo last month at the Garden City Club, a
members-only bar and restaurant on the roof of a faded but regal
art-deco building. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the incident
in Paris, which Aswany waved away with a mischievous laugh. (“It was
very hot,” he recalled.) Turning back to the events of the summer, he
was less mirthful. “Mr. Morsi cancelled the democratic system last
November,” Aswany said, referring to the former President’s
extra-constitutional decree granting him sweeping new powers untouched
by legislative or judicial oversight. “He cancelled the law, the
constitution, and put himself above all the courts. He acted like a
Turkish sultan, you see?”

In Aswany’s view, the November, 2012, decree was only Morsi’s most
dramatic failure: there were legions of others, from the minor
(distractedly scratching his own crotch in front of the Australian
Prime Minister) to the major (bungling the economy; appointing a
member of the Islamist group Gama’a al-Islamiya, whose militants
killed dozens of tourists in Luxor in 1997, to be the governor of
Luxor province).

“You know, I gave him a chance,” Aswany said. “Many of us did.” But
the writer’s distaste for the Muslim Brotherhood is deep-rooted, and
long predates Morsi’s election. “They are terrorists,” he said. “We
had the feeling we were in a room of gangsters. People woke up every
morning asking, what did these people do overnight? Did they give up
the Suez Canal? Did they make an under-the-table deal about Sinai? Did
they ban ballet? They wanted to ban the ballet! Ballet is not erotic!
At the same time, you have their people in the parliament trying to
convince us that it is O.K. to marry a girl that is fourteen years old
… this is a disease; it is pedophilia!”

He grew more animated. “They are like a bad version of Don Quixote
because they live in history. They believe they were chosen by God to
restore the glory of their religion. This type of fascism is very,
very dangerous!”

I pressed him about the killing of Morsi supporters in August. “We
don’t have the numbers yet.”

About the word “coup”:

“There was a warning, and Morsi refused to step down. The Army
interfered to protect millions who were already in the street. This is
not a coup d’état.”

About whether General Sisi, for whom there has been cultish enthusiasm
in Egypt, should run for president:

“I cannot answer that question until we have a system of fair
elections.” (This is not a likely development anytime soon.)

And, finally: What if Morsi had stayed?

“They would have controlled the whole country. There would be
Brotherhood in the media, Brotherhood in the Ministry of Culture,
Brotherhood everywhere!”

This, I felt, got to the heart of what many secular intellectuals fear
most. I heard it over and over again this fall: given enough time, the
Brotherhood would have spread its tentacles throughout the system,
until it became the system. “We don’t want to turn into Iran,” the
newspaper editor Ibrahim Eissa told me, explaining why he felt the
ongoing crackdown on the Brotherhood was necessary. Eissa, a friend of
Aswany and a prominent Egyptian liberal, faced multiple prison
sentences for criticizing Mubarak in the aughts. These days, his
weekly television talk show is a wince-worthy carnival of affection
for the military. In a landscape in which good choices are few and far
between, the Eissas of Egypt have attached themselves to what they may
perceive as the lesser evil.

Aswany and Eissa are not lone wolves: if anything, they reflect the
views not only of most Egyptians, but of their fellow liberal writers.
In the past few months, Al-Ghitani and the feminist writer Nawal El
Saadawi have gone on record defending the military’s role in the
events of the summer, as has Ibrahim, probably Egypt’s most admired
novelist, who was venerated for his principled and unyielding
opposition to the Mubarak regime. Very few prominent writers—among
them Soueif, who hails from a family of prominent human-rights
advocates, and Belal Fadl—have rejected the binary choice between the
military and the Brotherhood. In September, Soueif and others launched
the Road of the Revolution Front, a group that aims to reject what it
calls the fascism of both sides. And yet it remains small and, in many
circles, unpopular.

* * *

A few nights after the Garden City Club encounter, I drove up to
Moqattam, a desert suburb that hangs above the smoggy city, atop one
of Cairo’s few plateaus. Aswany was holding his weekly literary
salon—a tradition that goes back some fifteen years—in a cultural
center called Shababeek. As I walked in, Aswany was squinting beneath
an overly bright spotlight, giving an interview to a local television
station. I heard him exclaim, “I was not afraid!” It took me a second
to realize he was referring to the incident in Paris, faithfully
fulfilling the role of a man who would never bend to humiliation.

Upstairs, where he would be talking, about eighty people—a respectable
cross section of stooped and young, veiled and unveiled, men and
women—patiently waited for their host, in a room whose walls were
painted black, as if to communicate a “contemporary” atmosphere. (I
imagined that many Arabic rap concerts and slam-poetry readings had
been held there.) As Aswany walked in, he was besieged by well-wishers
and worked the room like Frank Sinatra. He climbed onto the stage, and
the room fell into a reverential hush.

The theme of that evening’s session was satire and its importance in
democracy. Only a few days earlier, the popular satirical show hosted
by Bassem Youssef—invariably described as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart”—had
been cancelled, ostensibly because Youssef had gone one step too far
in his jokes about the military. Aswany passionately defended Youssef,
and then went on to present a short history of satire’s role in
Egyptian political life. At one point, he had the room in stitches as
he told joke after joke, including one of his favorites from 2011:
“Someone tells Mubarak the people are saying goodbye—and Mubarak says,
but where are they going?”

When it finally came time for questions, a young man in a hoodie got
up and, with prepared notes in hand, made a series of statements about
the crimes of the Army, ending with the massacre that took place in
Rabaa al-Adawiyah. At one point, he said to Aswany, “Ask yourself, do
they have the right to kill innocent protestors?”

Aswany—probably thinking, “This again?”—seemed taken aback. “I didn’t
kill anyone,” he said, defensively, “but anyone who kills a member of
the Army is a traitor … The Muslim Brotherhood has blood on its
hands.” He reiterated a point he had made earlier in the evening: even
though many of Egypt’s Communists had spent years in Gamal Abdel
Nasser’s prisons in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, their party
never turned to violence. “They didn’t touch a mosquito,” Aswany
concluded. The Brotherhood, he seemed to suggest, had violence in its

At that point, a well-dressed woman, with elaborately pomaded hair and
a tight-fitting top, turned to her friend and said, loudly, of the boy
in the hoodie and his female friends, who were veiled: “They are with
the Brotherhood!”

One of the veiled women took issue, and soon, everyone seemed to be
standing, pointing, and shouting. I saw a few elderly people in the
room slip out, probably anticipating a fistfight.

Things eventually calmed down, and a young veiled woman—from the same
group of friends—posed another question. Aswany had said General
Sisi’s duty was to protect the people, she began, but why were those
who criticized him brought before military courts? Some of her own
friends, she said, had been jailed for this reason.

Aswany, looking both impatient and dyspeptic, acknowledged that there
would be no democracy without opposing opinions. Then his face
brightened, as if pleased by an idea, and he said, happily, that she
had the right to call what happened this summer a coup if she wanted.

I left soon after, mostly because the tensions in the room had grown
to the size of a Goodyear blimp. As I walked out, the first thing I
saw in front of me was an old Morsi poster, worn away by time and
abuse, so that he no longer had a chin. On it, red spray paint
advertised “Walid for Real Estate,” along with a cell-phone number
that was missing two digits. I thought back to my conversation with
Aswany a few nights earlier, when I had asked him whether he thought
democracy was simply an electoral process, or if it represented a more
diffuse set of values.

“Democracy is our homework,” he said. “If in one year we end up with
military rule, we don’t blame the military. We can only blame

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