Egyptian Novelist Alaa al-Aswany’s Career: A Study in Irony That Outdoes Any Novel!

Forthcoming in Al Jadid, Vol. 23, No. 76, 2019
Al Jadid Staff
On the left, Alaa al-Aswany photographed by Murdo MacLeod for The Guardian.

In a recent turn of events, Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswany faces a lawsuit from Egyptian military prosecutors for “insulting” the government. The accusations against him involve columns he had published in Deutsche Welle Arabic, from which prosecutors allege he insulted the president, the armed forces and judicial institutions.

Aswany’s clash with the Egyptian government is by no means the first of its kind, but has sparked outrage against the draconian measures of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has increasingly exercised censorship and imprisoned journalists and intellectuals. The foremost of Aswany’s defenders come from two categories: anti-Sisi groups and genuine progressives who believe in the freedom of speech and expression. However, in the midst of this rally against el-Sisi, one cannot ignore that, had Aswany been writing during the Nasserite era, he would not have achieved such near-worldwide success.

Although some have failed to acknowledge the impact of the limited economic and political reforms introduced in the 1970s, 1980s to the 1990s, these transformations have relatively benefited the artistic climate Aswany worked in, although to the chagrin of some of his leftist supporters. Under Anwar Sadat – and later accelerated by Hosni Mubarak – these reforms brought new policies of privatization and a measure of political liberalization, allowing Aswany to freely work without much government interference, whereas in the Nasserite era he would have been nothing more than apparatchik.

Aswany’s international success has manifested in adaptations of his works into a film and TV series. He is well-known for his progressive views, being critical of the Mubarak, and subsequently the Sisi, regimes. However, his supporters have turned a blind eye to his reactionary views of religion, women, and homosexuality, according to Shadi Lewis, an Egyptian author and psychologist, who examines the novel “The Yacoubian Building” in an Al Modon article. Lewis criticizes the novel’s portrayal of Copt characters as caricatures, as well as the way he confines women into two categories: the young, seductive women, and the old, desperate and unattractive women. Aswany also depicts homosexuality as rooted in childhood sexual assault, and in his ending wrote the death of all those involved in these acts. In spite of these views, Aswany’s political activism, both his role as one of the founders of the Kifaya opposition movement in 2014 and his work as a journalist in the anti-Mubarak newspaper Al Araby, earned him a following among Arab intellectuals. This begs the question of whether his political success gives him a pass on certain social issues.

The essay “Alaa Aswany Proves Contradiction Between the Politically Progressive and Socially Conservative Poses No Barrier to Popular Success” dwells on these issues and is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 23, No. 76, 2019.

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