CAIRO — Alaa al-Aswany, one of Egypt’s most famous novelists, talks to visitors in a dental surgery room. Aswany, 56, was (and still is) a dentist by trade before, in middle age, rising to fame and controversy as a writer both of novels (The Yacoubian Building and Chicago) and opinion (long running columns in the independent and opposition press). He was dressed in a grey jacket and black shirt and, unusually for a dentist, smoked throughout the interview we conducted over the weekend.
Genial and expansive, he’s also angry — most of all at the Muslim Brotherhood, whose year-long government was, to his joy, cut short by the army last month. But he’s also fuming at the West, especially the U.S.: he thinks America has “no credibility left” in the Middle East’s most populous country because of its hypocrisy and naiveté.
What Aswany says matters. He’s a world literary figure, routinely listed among the world’s most influential Muslims. He had his own part in bringing down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak thanks to a confrontation on television between the writer and Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister Mubarak appointed. It was the first time Egyptians had seen a government figure chastened on live television, prompting Shafik’s resigned the next day. Shafik went on to become a presidential candidate but lost in runoff elections to Mursi.
He rejoices in the end of the Brotherhood government, and refuses to condemn the army for the many deaths it caused when breaking up Brotherhood protests two weeks ago. That combination is a popular attitude among those who would call themselves liberals and secularists. This broad swathe of citizens now also believe that the ruthless squashing of the protests cleared the way for the real revolution, a democratic revolution, to come into its own.
Long a critic of the Mubarak regime and of the short-lived Mursi presidency, he is now consulting with the new army-backed government on the shape of the future constitution and on the “road map” that, he believes, will lead Egypt to democracy. He dismisses the once-popular view that Egyptians were submissive with an impatient wave: “These were the ideological and political assumptions of the Mubarak regime. I never believed it. The Egyptian revolution swept all that away. Egypt is ready for democracy.” He confessed he felt “frustrated” that Mubarak was released from prison last week — but added, “It hardly matters now.”