Wednesday 6 February 2013

The road to revolution, from street protestors to the Muslim Brotherhood, fiction to reportage, nonviolence to violence: Ahdaf Soueif on the Egyptian activism of the past, present and future

This is the transcript of a  talk given in the last week by the Booker-nominated novelist, journalist and Palestine Festival of Literature founder, Ahdaf Soueif, at a non-UK university. Questions were posed by the chair, a prominent academic at the university’s Asian and Middle Eastern Studies institute, and by an audience of academics and specialists affiliated with the institute. And they were all fantastic amazing genius women hurrah!

Chair: Congratulations on the success of Palfest, a festival that’s produced in the teeth of a lot of difficulties and struggles and so is an act of protest itself, not just an excuse for a get-together.

AS: Thank you, I’m delighted to be here.

Soueif is invited to read from her latest book, the non-fiction Cairo: My City, Our Revolution which is an account of the 18 day anti-Mubarek demonstrations and protests in Tahrir Square and also a remembrance of the city she has known all her life.

Let’s go back to the start of the protests. How did they arise?

AS: Well, it was interesting to see the protestors rushing in as the central security vehicles were racing to get out. But I think, funnily enough, that when they tried cutting off people’s communications – there was no telephone network, no Internet service – it had the effect of motivating and propelling people. All the people came out to talk to each other because there was no other way of knowing what was going on. So every person was in one place, fully concentrated. We came together as individuals in a great co-operative project and the goal was to reclaim our country.

Did you see something like this coming?

AS: Yes. We felt it simmering. We were always talking about what was going to happen, although we felt that the era of big revolution had passed. So what form would it take? Would there be mobs? Would the army be staging a coupe to purge and self-renew? So we knew something would happen, but we did know what it was going to look like. Since about the year 2000 we felt the country was being run down, deliberately – but we couldn’t quite believe it. What the regime did was rob people of a sense of agency. There was a feeling hat you couldn’t do anything, achieve things, you couldn’t influence anything. And then in 200 after the 2nd Palestinian Intifida, there were demonstrations that didn’t really die down. There was a proliferation of small civil-society associations, an informal network of activist organisations, human rights organisations. Then in 2003 there were the big marches against the Iraq war, which happened all over the world. And then in 2004 there were protests against the upcoming Egyptian elections, and through into 2005 we saw the Kifaya [Enough] movement, a street movement which started with people standing on the steps of the High Court with stickers over their mouths. By 2010 there wasn’t a single sector of society that wasn’t in protest. Even the tax collectors. And I said all of this, actually, in an interview in Jaipur. I said the country’s boiling.

With events happening so swiftly, do you feel tempted to update the book?

AS: Well, the book goes up to October 2011 and my American publishers wanted me to update it up to October 2012. It’s interesting to do because the tonality of the experience is changing so much; I write a weekly column in which I try and least to represent the revolution to itself, to encourage, to show certain things up. But it’s been hard to write [the book update] simply because on the ground there’s so much to be done and a huge part of me wants to be out on the street and part of the action. You tell yourself that producing something like a book is part of the revolutionary effort, but in the moment that you’re doing it, it feel unsatisfactory. You could be marching, organising, buying dressings for field hospitals, being with the young people at their meetings and demonstration.

What has been the response from those in power – the ones the protestors are demonstrating against?

AS [Smiles]: Well...nobody in the business of bureaucracy or repression has time for this [literary] kind of thing. They’re busy killing people, or passing terrible laws. They’re operating at the macro level. I’m currently rendering the book into Arabic; those who’ve read it so far are those who read it in English. But I heard something wonderful from one young revolutionary: she said that when she felt despair, she went back to this book, remembered and regained are hope. People are emotional when they read it – they remember experiences they went through, they read it and think, “Oh, I was in the next street along, just the next street.” I also wrote about the experiencing of living the revolution in my home town. It was amazing and it felt like, for all of us who were from Cairo, the city was working with us. You could see thing happening, see the young people fighting, visors, gas – and yet behind them would be the Egyptian Museum which contains all the Pharaonic artefacts...and the army used it to drag people in and beat and torture them. So, everything that happened added a layer of symbolism as it was the city of my childhood and the places meant something for me, like there was a big building by the side of Tahrir Square and my aunt used to work there. I watched the graffiti going up in Tahrir, knowing there were snipers at the windows, and yet this was the city of my childhood.

What about the young revolutionaries?

AS: Their parents used to go on about the [politically active] Cairo of the 60s and 70s but they [themselves] had never felt any revolutionary energy. Now the city has come alive for them. The newspaper I write in is staid but extremely correct-thinking and is with the revolution. I wrote a piece about the young cadets of the military academy because a protest had gone on there. It was at the end of the weekend and all the young cadets were coming back and had to go past the protest. It was so strange because there were young people on one side, young people on the other side, all Egyptians, both sides probably loving their country equally, bandanas and scarves versus army caps. What I do is very very little compared to what they do.

What is happening in terms of  the response to protests now?

We’ve seen an escalation in the amount of personal violence that the army is using against the protestors. They had been reluctant at first. I got a phone call from SCAF, which was the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, after a meeting which had been basically us on one side, SCAF on the other. It was on my landline, which almost never rings. “The second so-and-so general of the such-and-such department of so-and-so, such-and-such division is on the line and wishes to speak with you.” And he kept me on the phone for an hour and a half, going on and on, quite rambling, about how the army had Egypt’s nest interests at heart. He kept quoting my articles back at me. I was taking notes, desperate to record it, but I didn’t have the equipment to do that. Eventually he got off the phone and I realised that he had made three threats. First, my nephew was in jail because they’d accusing him of sabotaging an army vehicle and stealing weapons out of it and all sort of stuff. And the general said, “I’m sure you’re very much affected by it.” And I said, “Well, the case is going to trial.” And he said, “Because of course it could still go either way.” Then the second thing he said was, “You wrote an article? Anybody can write an article. Somebody could write an article saying this woman basically lives in London, every year she goes to Israel – when I don’t go to Israel, I go to Palestine – why is she taking an interest in Egypt?” And the third and weirdest thing he said was, “You know Dostoevsky? He said that in the absence of God anything is permitted, even murder.” It was from The Brothers Karamazov. I said, “Yes? So what? Which character said it? A good character or an evil character?” And he got really, really angry: “I tell you Dostoevsky said it!” I realised later it was some kind of threat.

Where do you stand now on the non-violent intentions of the revolution?

AS: We were very proud of the non-violent nature of the revolution. Those eighteen days showed us the best we could be. They were so positive and an antidote to how we’d been made to feel bad about ourselves. We were altruistic, organised, creative, co-operative. We were like a nation on its best behaviour. But Mubarek and then the army were not as well-behaved. So it has not remained bloodless. People were killed from day one and quite soon within the eighteen days young men set fire to the police station. But even when we had to fight with the security services, the young people would take his [the security service guy’s] weapons and turn him loose. But ultimately we have to have a revolution and we have to have change. The last two years have show the revolution’s attempt to remain nonviolent and retain faith in the institutions of state. But the government’s pushing things away from nonviolence.

There’s now emerged a new ‘Black Bloc’ of young people. They put on black clothes, cover their faces and say they’re the warriors of the revolution, who’re going to be on the frontline, that this is the fighting battalion. They’re sick of being beaten by Mubarek, the army, the Muslim Brotherhood. They say that this is not a turn-the-other-cheek revolution. So now, we want a revolution – but it may be bloody.

What do you think about the current crop of books about the Middle East revolutions?

AS: Many of the current books about the Arab Spring are by people from the outside, so perhaps you could say they’re more analytical. But they’re not from within. If you want a really current flavour then look at the blogs, the tweets, the essays by artists – they carry the real blood of the story now. I do feel that fiction can be important in this, in drawing in hearts  and minds. Fiction lasts. You create characters who people fall in love with and they carry you along with them. I did a signing at a bookshop in Cairo and a young woman showed me her copy of my novel The Map of Love, it was a pirated edition, full of notes, writing, drawings. She told me that at one of the sit-ins, they were passing it amongst themselves, reading out little bits and talking about it. It was humbling and moving. When it comes to my own fiction, if everything could just freeze for eight months, I could write my novel! And then everything could start up again. I do see myself wanting to engage fictionally with what is happening but for any process to begin to happen I’d need to be locked away again, and I couldn’t bear to be locked away now.

Are you ever in doubt?

AS: In May 2012, for the first time, the revolutionaries carried weapons. That was a new trend, although the overarching wish was for things to remain non violent. My nephew spoke out in protest and he was attacked  for it, he was defensive and a debate was had. And sometimes you have sit-ins which last and last and get frayed: people leave, authorities try to infiltrate street vendors come in – the ethos is that protestors and revolutionaries are as friends and as one with the poorer people. But vendors are easy to infiltrate by the authorities. So there have been fights, things have been stolen. I found out that one tent was actually being run as a prison by revolutionaries, in which they were keeping two people who’d stolen from them. We speak about it amongst ourselves, instead of giving ammunition to the enemy. That’s the decision of the people on the ground and I stand by them because they’re the ones at risk of being shot, beaten, taken to jail. So you can talk, you can be critical, and you must decision to what degree and what moral view you take of the situation.

What is happening right now?

AS: Now there’s a great deal of turbulence. We are in a continuing revolution. It would have been amazing if the 18 days had worked and at the end of the military rule we got a government of the revolution. There’s political Islam and there are the secular state advocates, and a lot of us were not unwilling to go with political Islam on the basis that they are a part of Egyptian society and if the people elected them democratically we would work together. So it was a choice between the military and Morsi. His promise was that he’s be a president of all Egyptians, not just the Brotherhood. But the Brotherhood don’t want to work with us. We’ve seen the killings and the beatings. They don’t believe in the goals of the revolution – bread, freedom, social justice. They don’t share the principles of the revolution. Their economic policy is even more to the right of Mubarek: the IMF, the Ford Bank, privileging the rich. They’re even talking about reconciliation with the heads of the old regime in return for the return of stolen money – at the same rates as when it was stolen! – and they’re saying it’s “because we need stability.” We thought our problems would be with the social agenda, not economics and development. 

We want pretty obvious and simple things: an education system, transport to be out of the hands of private companies. Universal healthcare, insurance, sustainable development. Meanwhile, they’re distracting everyone by pushing through a divisive social agenda. There is no recognition that they rose on the back of a policy or a manifesto, or that they came to power on the back of a revolution. Since Sadat first started using the Islamist ticket to beat down the Left, we’re seeing the Islamist groups come to power democratically through the ballot box. So let’s see. The country has specific and very clear aims. Let’s see if they deliver. If they don’t, the country will protest, through the ballot box or through uprising. It’ll be the country saying, We won’t take it any more. Not just artists and intellectuals talking about whether or not to wear a headscarf or freedom of speech, the whole country will reject them. So we will have gone through this phase. How bloody will it be? What will happen in the next four to six months? A lot will be tested.