Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Alaa Al-Aswany Gets a Grilling

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th December, 2014

Alaa Al AswanyAlaa Al Aswany democracyLike millions of people who have read The Yacoubian Building, I am a fan of the writing of the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany and a few years ago I was pleased to have the chance to talk to him a little when he came to an event put on by English PEN. So last night I was eagerly part of a large audience assembled on the fringes of the Gingko Conference currently taking place in London to hear him being interviewed by fellow author Tarek Osman about political developments in Egypt and the wider Arab world. For several years, Al Aswany wrote a newspaper column (now terminated) which always ended with the words “democracy is the answer”. So I was not the only person surprised by his spirited defence of the ousting of the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi last year, and his criticism of those who described the army takeover as a coup. It is true that millions of Egyptians had taken to the streets to protest against Morsi’s actions once in power and it was maybe not unpredictable that the Muslim Brotherhood would have a different attitude to democracy from Western liberals. But Al Aswany’s comments last night prompted the French-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani, who was in the audience, to launch a virulent attack on him. As a disgruntled English translator of Al Aswany’s work — whose exact grievance was not clear to the rest of us — had also shouted at the novelist before storming out of the auditorium, things were getting distinctly heated. Alaa Al Aswany, who physically resembles a big brown bear, stood his ground but was clearly not happy. And unfortunately therefore not all his answers to questions were as informative as they wold have been in quieter circumstances. The former Labour Foreign Minister, Denis MacShane, for example, asked whether a young Egyptian writer might now be writing a new Yacoubian Building, complete with corruption, sexual scandal and torture, as was the original (and therefore seen as a biting critique of the Mubarak regime), but he did not really get an adequate response. The Gingko Library has published the collected columns of Alaa Al Aswany in a volume Democracy Is the Answer.

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2 Responses to “Alaa Al-Aswany Gets a Grilling”

  1. Jonathan Wright said

    Hi Jonathan. I’m the one you call a ‘disgruntled translator’, but that’s very unfair. I’m not pursuing any grievance with Aswany. It was he who brought up our dispute, which is settled as far as I am concerned. But it’s outrageous that Aswany goes around posing as a democrat when he is really a secular elitist who wants Egypt to match his ideal regardless of the wishes of ordinary people. He gradually ceased to be a democrat when he realised that the politicians he favoured were not winning. During the brief period when Egypt had free and fair elections, Aswany once said that perhaps illiterate people shouldn’t be able to vote. He has never expressed remorse for working with Tamarrud, the organization backed by big business and the intelligence services to drive the Brotherhood out of power. And of course he has been largely silent about the restoration of the oppressive old regime. As for my old dispute, what he said on Saturday was a travesty of the truth, though I think he has long since persuaded himself it is true.

  2. jonathanfryer said

    Thanks for that helpful clarification, Jonathan.

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