When crowds seized Cairo’s Tahrir Square last January, Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif threw herself into the revolution that would, after 18 days, force president Hosni Mubarak from power and ignite hopes that freedom would finally come to the Arab world’s most populous and important nation. Soueif has chronicled those days in a new book, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. Today, more than a year later, the military still runs the country, and democracy is a yet unrealized dream. Soueif spoke with Maclean’s from Cairo. She will be speaking at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in Montreal on Saturday and at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Sunday.
Q: You write that you wanted this book to be an intervention, rather than just a record of what happened. What did you mean?
A: I felt it was very important to remember the 18 days as a true lived experience. They were going to be like a talisman. It was clear that a time was coming when people would be saying: “Did that really happen? Were you not all suffering from some sort of delusion?” And I thought it was important to have that there, to keep going back to, and to see as an early manifestation of the society that we ultimately hope to bring about.
Q: Why did you want to hold on to those 18 days? What was so special about them for you?
A: There was such a deep sense of altruism, and there was a deep sense of common purpose. And part of the purpose was to be who we really were. So yes of course it was about removing the regime, and yes of course it was about righting the wrongs that were being done in our society. But it was also about being a certain way with each other. I know because of what we’re going through now that it is tremendously important to remember that we actually lived the way we wanted to live and were the people we wanted to be for 18 days.
Q: How much of that altruism, that unity, is there in Egypt today?
A: People are insistent. Whatever happens at the level of political parties and the army, they’re going to continue working on the ground, and that’s what’s going to create change.
Q: Do you think you and some of the other revolutionaries misjudged or had too much confidence in the goodwill of the army?
A: We weren’t able to come up with a body that was strong enough to say to the army: “You’re not in charge; we’re in charge.” Having failed to do that, what option did we have other than to trust the army? I’d say it’s completely understandable that we should trust the army, because the army has a history of refusing to attack the Egyptian people. It’s a people’s army. Everybody has a husband, a father, a son in it. So it was not illogical and it was not stupid to trust them. It was optimistic, but it wasn’t stupid.
With hindsight, we shouldn’t have left the streets. We should have stayed. But you stay because you demand something specific. We knew that the common denominator was broad: get rid of Mubarak; we don’t want corruption; we want freedom and human rights. But there was no mechanism to arrive at a common set of concrete demands.
Q: The revolutionaries that you write about are mostly liberal and secular, but the most dominating political forces that have emerged since those 18 days are the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. Did you anticipate this, and what does it mean for Egypt?
A: The Brotherhood has been a political force for some time, even though they were officially banned. So it was clear that if you have a revolution that calls for democracy, freedom and openness, then they were going to be part of the outcome. The Salafists also, but they were more of a surprise, because until the revolution their declared position was that engaging in politics was sinful.
We believed that they had become so numerous and strong because they were the only avenue of opposition since [former president Anwar] Sadat closed down every other avenue. But he couldn’t close the mosques. And our belief was that you should give them room because they are citizens and because they have paid the price, and they have actually worked and organized. And they helped people. Many, many people would not have had medical treatment or had clothes or food if it had not been for them over the last 30 years. So you have got to make room for them. You have got to work with them. And you have got to trust that when the political climate is freed up, and there is a whole spectrum of political positions that people can take, then things will find their natural balance and people will head into whatever political persuasion they really hold. And within five or 10 years, the whole map will change.
But it’s changed. That was the position until they actually took parliament and started grabbing every possible thing. Their behaviour since they took parliament has been party behaviour rather than national interest behaviour. And that has been very disappointing and very disillusioning. Because it’s just glaringly obvious that we’re at a point where everybody should put the national interest first and pull together. And that’s not what they’re doing.
Q: What I wonder, and what I worry about, is whether some of the trends that you celebrated in Tahrir Square — this freedom of expression, the experimental films, the pluralism — is compatible with political Islam and especially with Salafism. Is it?
A: That’s down the line. The whole thing about films and novels and so on, it’s important. And if it’s a battle we’ll have to fight, we’ll fight it. But at the moment, the crucial thing is, are they going to do a deal with the military? Where are they on the big economic issues? Where are they on education? What are they going to do about health? These are the big questions. When it comes to banning films, we will make sure the films are shown. And we will screen them on the walls of parliament. But that is not really the fight that concerns the 84 million people. That concerns just a few of us, and we are happy to postpone that for the moment.
Q: Do you think a pluralistic, democratic, secular, free Egypt is still obtainable?
A: Yes. I think of course it’s obtainable, and that’s what we’re working for. During the 18 days, we thought we were at the beginning of a great big broad avenue that we were all on, and we were just going to go on a straight line to a secular, free, democratic country. And obviously that’s not what’s going to happen. It’s going to take longer, and there’s going to be more cost. But it’s going to happen, because I think the majority of people are not going to stop until it happens.
Q: Where will the revolution go next?
A: We insist on being optimistic. We very much see this here in Egypt as part of a general sense that the world is not being run in the interests of the majority of its citizens. And then you have conflagration points in different bits of the world at different points. And we feel that if we could bring this one home and without really much more heartbreak, then it would be good for everybody, not just us.