“We must cure tyranny with the medicine of democracy”
The Arabic version of tyranny has generated corruption, fanaticism and terrorism. To get out of this political and socio-economical stalemate we need to democratize the Arab world from within, pacifically. This is the opinion of one of the most important and committed Arabic intellectuals in recent years: Ala Al-Aswany. The author of the bestseller ‘The Yacoubian building’ is a member of the opposition movement ‘Kifaya’ (Enough!). Ala Al-Aswany is 50 years old and is a dentist. He has recently published his second novel entitled ‘Chicago’, which bravely deals with religion, politics and sexuality.
Do Arabic leaders use Islamic fundamentalists as scarecrows, as if to say either choose us or the fundamentalists?
Our leaders our afraid of democracy and do all they can to avoid it. Their terror is of losing power. The trick of using ‘scarecrows’ in front of both national and international opinion is really an absurd and ridiculous joke. The Arabs, like all human beings have the right to live in a democratic system which guarantees dignity and freedom.
Looking at the recent electoral victory of Hamas and Muslim brothers in Egypt, there are those who are of the opinion that organising free, legitimate elections means handing over power to fundamentalists. What do you think?
There is the question of principals: the winner of correct elections has the legitimate support to govern. If we truly believe in democracy we must the people’s choice irrespective of the people indicated, be they communists or Islamic integrationalists or Satanists. This said, we must tackle a serious problem regarding religious and ideological extremism in the Arab world. At this point we should consider this extremism as a symptom and not as an illness. I am a dentist by profession, and by studying medicine I have learned that it is important to distinguish between the symptoms and the illness. We cannot cure a patient effectively if we only settle for the symptoms. Today our illness is tyranny while the symptoms are social injustice, poverty, corruption, and religious and ideological extremism. Therefore, if we want to crush extremism, we must cure tyranny with only one medicine called democracy.
Since September 11th 2001 the debate on the democratisation of the Arab world is still open. How does the argument of ‘exporting democracy’ value this?
First of all, democracy is a right and a value for all of humanity. Therefore, I find aberrant the theory which says some peoples deserve democracy and others do not. Furthermore, we must not forget that the United States have supported the worst dictatorships both in the Arab world and in Latin America. Still today, there are right-wing Western governments which are willing to support dictatorial regimes to protect their own interests and the benefits of multinationals.
The democratisation is also a priority on the internal Arabic agenda. Where do you need to start from: abolition of media censorship, facilitation of political parties, or teaching about democracy in schools?
All the justifications and demands to for a return to democracy are welcome for the Arabic regimes. Debates, conferences and meetings on conditions for democracy have no sense. We cannot talk of democracy only on a theoretical level; first we need to put it into practice. And to simplify the argument, I am of the opinion that democracy consists of respecting human rights, legitimate elections, alternating those in power without it leading to violence and coup d’états, and the people’s right to choose their own leaders.
Why have you always claimed it is the intellectual’s right to occupy oneself in politics?
I believe that a writer must be sensitive to the questions which concern his/her own country. My interest in politics lies not in the winning myself a seat, but in defending my ideas. Today, Arabic writers are called upon to carry out an important job which is to promote democracy. There is a general decay, and unfortunately tyranny is everywhere. There are 22 Arabic countries and not one democracy!
In your novels, ‘The Yacoubian Building’ and ‘Chicago’ which have just come out in Cairo, you have violated three taboos (sexuality, politics and religion). How come you have not been censored? Do you have an immunity being a well-known writer?
There is no censorship in the editorial sector in Egypt, but books can be sequestered. Therefore, there is a difference between censorship and sequestration. My destiny is no different from the rest: there is no immunity for citizens in the Arab world regardless of his/her cultural, moral, social (etc.) weight. Everything is precarious and everything can change from one moment to the next!
And how have integrationalists reacted, being strong in Egyptian society?
I was very aware of the integrationalists’ reactions when a popular Egyptian newspaper decided to publish ‘Chicago’ in episodes. I received many comments, 10% of which from a fundamentalist readership. So I asked the newspaper to give me an entire page to replicate it to the critics. In this way I explained the novel to them and how to read it without identifying the characters with the author. In the end I was able to convince many of them. Nevertheless, I believe that the writer must continue along his way without being conditioned by the reactions of the critics.
Translation by Sonia Ter Hovanessian