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Alaa al-Aswany: Dentist, Writer and Critic of the Powerful

Egypt faces- Alaa al-Aswany
Alaa al-Aswany. Photo LEEMAGE

Although the Egyptian revolution in 2011 would push Alaa al-Aswany into the limelight, he was already famous long before the events that would topple long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Born in 1957 in the Egyptian capital Cairo, al-Aswany originally studied dentistry, first in Cairo and then in Chicago, United States, before returning home to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. His first novel, The Yacoubian Building, was an overnight sensation. Translated into 31 languages, it offered a microcosm of Egyptian society by focusing on one building in central Cairo, where most of the primary characters either live or work. These include an opportunistic businessman, a homosexual newspaper editor and a doorman whose son is driven to extremism by police brutality.

Published in 2002, the book made al-Aswany the Arab world’s most read author and Egypt’s best-selling modern writer. It was subsequently made into a big-budget film in 2006 and spun off into a television series in 2007. His eagerly awaited second novel, Chicago, was published in 2007. In decade since, he has become equally famous in Egypt as an outspoken political critic. For several years, he wrote columns for several newspapers, openly criticizing the Mubarak regime and the deteriorating conditions in Egypt.

When the revolution erupted on 25 January 2011, he quickly joined the young protesters in Tahrir Square, becoming one of the best-known celebrity faces of revolution during the 18 days it took for Mubarak to step down. He used his time in the square to talk to people about democracy and liberalism and to educate them about their rights.

When Mubarak finally stepped down on 11 February 2011, al-Aswany was one of the people who celebrated and left the square after the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) took over – which he has repeatedly called a “major mistake”. He soon also became a critic of the SCAF, which he says has repeatedly failed to support the aims of the revolution.

It was in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, however, that al-Aswany became a household name. During an appearance on a talk show, al-Aswany confronted fellow guest and Mubarak appointee, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. The showdown made television history. It was the first time that Egyptians had seen a civilian holding a person in power to account and they were stunned.

The next day, Shafik announced his resignation, which was widely attributed to his defeat by al-Aswany. This quickly made al-Aswany an important figure in post-revolution Egypt. Young people supported him and cheered him for ousting someone they considered one of the last remnants of Mubarak’s rule. However, others regarded him as rude and disrespectful. It was the start of the controversy that would shape the public’s relationship with him.

Al-Aswany continued to be a vocal critic of the SCAF, accusing them of trying to derail the revolution, maintain their political position and protect their economic interests. He blamed them for orchestrating several attacks on protesters in Tahrir Square and near the State TV and Radio Maspero building that left many dead.

He was equally critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, which came to power in 2012, and their attempts to push an Islamist agenda instead of the revolution’s secular liberal approach. He maintained that they had used the revolution to come to power before turning against the revolutionaries, and that they had colluded with Mubarak’s regime before its fall – and with SCAF afterwards – to secure their place in Egyptian politics. He contended that the Muslim Brotherhood was violent, despite their frequent claims to the contrary, and that they were honing an Islamist militant agenda to rule Egypt.

When a movement dubbed the Tamarrud (‘rebellion’) emerged demanding that the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, President Mohamed Morsi, be removed or replaced by early elections, al-Aswany wrote prolifically in support of it.

When the military ousted Morsi in July 2013, al-Aswany also supported their decision to interfere “to save Egypt”. This raised the ire of Islamists across the country, and he became one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s biggest enemies. When, the following month, the military violently cleared two camps of Morsi supporters who were protesting his ouster, killing nearly a thousand people in the process, al-Aswany denounced the deaths but not the clearance of the camps. He repeatedly called the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists, blaming them for setting fire to hundreds of churches across the country in retribution.

After former army chief Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi assumed the presidency in 2014, al-Aswany was perturbed by the military’s quick return to power. He had hoped the Tamurrud would pave the way for a civilian government to take over. Instead, it had cemented the role of the army in Egyptian politics to an extent not seen even under Mubarak.

Three years on, al-Aswany remains a controversial figure. He says he has been barred from appearing in any TV shows or writing for any Egyptian media outlets, whether state run or private. He is still hated by most Islamists, who accuse him of contributing to Morsi’s ouster, the death of thousands of civilians and a return to military rule. One thing has not changed, however: he continues to criticize those in power, arguing that a democratic, liberal alternative to the army and the Islamists is the only way for the country to progress.