A coffee break is an ideal meeting time for someone as quietly frenetic as Frannie Léautier. At the end of a long day of her virtual meetings ... in several different time zones, we connect via the ubiquitous Zoom, sipping our East African coffee as we work through my lengthy roster of questions.
Contrary to what some would like to believe and what some have been hoping for in vain for years, the figure of the activist intellectual is not dead. Since the publication and worldwide success of his novel The Yacoubian Building, released in 2002, the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany has remained outspoken.
Even back then, he openly discussed Egypt’s corrupt regime and the increasingly potent force of radical Islamism. In 2011, as the Egyptian revolution unfolded, the Cairo-born novelist, 54 years old at the time, did not shy away from speaking out on television or in the press.
On the State of Egypt: What Made the Revolution Inevitable (AUC Press, 2011) brings together a collection of articles, translated into English from the Arabic, he wrote for the daily Egyptian newspapers Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Shorouk.
The situation in Egypt has not necessarily improved since the military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rose to power in 2014. In the introduction to his new book, Al Aswany writes: “Three years later, when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power, my work was blacklisted in Egypt.” It’s around this time that the idea came to him to write The Dictatorship Syndrome, a general essay about a type of political system which unfortunately continues to exist today.
“I started work on the book immediately and finished around half of it in Cairo,” the author recounts. “My relationship with the Egyptian regime had by then deteriorated to the point where my presence in my own country represented a threat both to me and to members of my family, so I copied the half-finished book onto a USB drive and hid it between the toothpaste and shaving cream in my washbag as I left the country. Whenever I enter or exit Egypt, the authorities pull me to one side and make me wait as they go through my suitcase twice before letting me go. Had they found material for a book, they would have confiscated it and had it examined by a committee of officers and I would then have, most probably, been hauled off to court and seen levelled against me yet another charge of ‘slandering the institutions of state’.”
Hitler, Gaddafi and Bokassa
Al Aswany finished writing The Dictatorship Syndrome in New York City. Written in easy to read language, the work is first and foremost directed at Egyptians living under the thumb of el-Sisi. However, it’s more than a mere lampoon against a head of state for whom the author has many reasons to resent.
In the manner of a seasoned teacher, Al Aswany provides a plethora of examples to demonstrate his point. While Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak are two central figures in the book, they are also joined by a host of associates who made a mark on the history of mankind, i.e., Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, François Duvalier, António de Oliveira Salazar, Francisco Macías Nguema and other loveable protagonists.
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Nevertheless, Al Aswany’s intention isn’t to give a history lesson. More ambitious, the intellectual analyses the mechanisms that lead to dictatorship: those characteristic of the figure of the autocrat, but also those that drive an entire people to accept – in a way – the absolute power of one man alone.
In the chapter The emergence of the good citizen, Al Aswany expands on this idea by targeting the small acts of cowardice of each individual, to which not even democracies are immune: “The good citizen creates their own safe microworld in total isolation from everything going on outside it, and they are completely uninterested in anything except earning enough to bring up their children. Their sense of belonging is restricted to their spouse and children. They will give greater priority to tracking down a drug to increase their sexual potency than to the drafting of a new constitution for their country.”
Although he also lists the reasons why dictators are to blame and their worst accomplices, Al Aswany hits home when he writes: “The good citizen and the dictator are two sides of the same coin. In the final analysis a dictator is just one man and his guards could arrest him at any moment, for no matter how strong his institutions of oppression, they cannot hold back a whole people when they decide to rise up. The emergence of the good citizen is one of the worst symptoms of dictatorship.”
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