Partisan Writing

Alaa Al Aswany, The Republic of False Truths (Faber and Faber, 2021).

Hard to believe, but it’s now been over a decade since the Arab Spring.

Admittedly, there wasn’t much to show for it in the end. Dictatorships were either replaced by new dictatorships, or else by never-ending, nation-devastating civil wars.

Egypt, the largest and most powerful nation to experience a revolution in 2010/11, is now undergoing a period of immense growth. The growth is purely economic, however, and the military continues to crack down on dissent with an iron fist.

The Egyptian experience is extremely valuable to learn from when it comes to modern revolutions.

Now, a decade on, Alaa Al Aswany gives us a Great Novel of the events: The Republic of False Truths. Yet, in doing so, he demonstrates that the most important lessons are still unfaceable for modern revolutionaries.

Aswany’s novel begins as a multilayed, nuanced study, spanning multiple levels of Cairo society; from a stoical general and his high society hangers on, to a cynical pot-smoking Coptic actor, to a devout newsreader who longs to wear the headscarf, to a medical student, a union rep, and a factory owner.

We see them all living separate lives. Cairo, a vast hive of activity, is anonymous here, with the many atomised units buzzing along individually, never meeting, never inhabiting the same cafes, bars, or even streets.

As the protests grow, we see this change. Egyptians pick sides. The sides come together. Aswany’s choices are surprising, and there is a joy in seeing these strangers come together; a joy reminiscent of the January days themselves.

Cairo’s geography itself changes. The actor in his penthouse, the student in the café and the worker waiting for the bus are all revealed to be in the same square: the legendary Tahrir.

The counterrevolution, meanwhile, circles its wagons, and we see the general, his spiritual advisor and wife, the newsreader and the factory owner are all brought together in Mubarak’s reinforced bunkers.

Mubarak steps down at the end of the first act. It’s time for the real conflict to begin.

So far, the novel reminds me of John Sommerfield’s May Day, a 1936 novel about the general strike in London. The same effect is created; a fragmented form solidifying into two hostile halves.

The second and third acts take a more confrontational, action-oriented approach to depicting events. The military and the police are the aggressors, while the revolutionaries reel back in shock and horror.

We hear about the live rounds being fired, and about the military vehicles driving through crowds. We are shown the interrogation centres. The unmarked graves out in the desert.

It is dramatic, and highly affecting reading. These things really happened, and it’s lucky that Aswany already has a bestselling novel to his name (The Yacoubian Building (2002)) which, hopefully, serves to protect him from the government’s wrath.

And yet, as with May Day, that was written by a Communist, one can’t help feel that there’s something in Aswany’s writing that pollutes it. A lurking bias that prevents him from railing against the government’s “false truths” quite as effectively as he would like.

There are three glaring mistruths in The Republic of Mistruths that, I suspect, are not honest omissions, but omissions for the sake of propaganda.

Firstly, characters write to each other expressing their amazement that there was “no sexual harassment. None whatsoever.”

Sexual harassment was, of course, widespread in Tahrir Square. One need only look at crowd shots to see that women were outnumbered twenty-to-one. We have footage of Western female journalists being grabbed and manhandled live on video.

That Tahrir wasn’t just full of liberal middle class students ought to be celebrated, but the infamously handsy Arabic population didn’t automatically become saints simply by turning up. The Square was still dangerous, and, no, this wasn’t all just “government provocateurs”.

The second mistake was to paint the Muslim Brotherhood as agents of the military regime.

Yes, they took power for a short time, but they were elected democratically. The military proceeded to declare them terrorists. They shipped Morsi, their leader, out of the country, and cracked down on the group.

Hundreds died in those clashes, police versus brotherhood, with 183 agitators receiving the death penalty. You can see them, herded together in cells.

Finally, the biggest missed opportunity of the novel can be found in Aswany’s refusal to depict the military’s sudden embrace of the revolution.

This was the most important lesson of the events (and one that should be noted well by supporters of corporate wokehood): el-Sisi, the old regime’s Director of Military Intelligence and top general, declared himself to be “protecting the revolution” in 2013 and, in doing so, seized back power for the military dictatorship.

The tremendous, tragic irony of this is lost on Aswany. In Aswany’s version, the dictatorship simply paint the revolutionaries as evil (which they did) and take back power the old-fashioned way, denying that the revolution has any validity at all.

But this isn’t what happened. They co-opted the revolution. And because the revolution had no clear aims and no clear leaders, there was no clear consensus that this co-option was invalid.

Maybe el-Sisi was the Arab Spring, just as Lenin was Communism and Napoleon was France?

It’s unlikely, but then, frankly, so is Aswany’s sacred tale of demons and martyrs.

The first act, with all of its troubling nuance and cynicism, demonstrates what a truly great novel about the Arab Spring could be.

The opening chapter, for instance, is one of the best openings to a book I have read in recent years. The general (who I was at this point assuming was el-Sisi) wakes early, prays – feeling truly and honestly in touch with God – eats a healthy breakfast and moves back to the bedroom. There, he watches pornography, which we learn is no sin as his arousal allows him then to pleasure his old and corpulent wife.

So far, it’s a bit lurid and distasteful, but we’re getting to like the general in an anti-hero kind of way. He gets into his car, doing important state business while the driver negotiates the streets of Cairo. He is not perfect, but he wants to do good. Perhaps we will come to like him?

He gets out of the car and steps into the torture chamber.

The scene is powerful, unsettling, and absolutely masterful. If the rest of the novel could have maintained the quality of the first act, this would have been a world classic.

As it is, it’s a missed opportunity – but one still very much worth reading. Perhaps in another decade, Egypt will be ready to show the true face of its revolution, and reflect on it properly, no airbrushing.

  • Joe Darlington

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