Journey to the heart of the Arab Spring

The sheltered pedestrian street of Sharifín, in the heart of Cairo, is one of the best-kept and emblematic veins in the center of the Egyptian capital. Here is located, from 1928, the headquarters of one of the most ancient of the world. And today the shadow of its centuries-old buildings and its stretched palm trees have made it one of the favorite spots for young skaters in the city, who travel up and down it.

In its meager 200 meters, however, There is a building – number six – that stands out for the opposite: it is the only one that seems forgotten, with a worn façade and parts that have given way over the years. Perhaps precisely for this reason it is not surprising that the apartment 20 of its fifth floor has been chosen by the Egyptian bestseller Alaa Al Aswany to accommodate the residence of the young revolutionary Mazen, one of the protagonists of his latest novel, The Republic was this (Anagram), which has just been translated into Spanish. “The young revolutionaries, for some reason, fell in love with the city center. It was common to find a single young man or a single young woman renting a studio ”, justifies Al Aswany. ” is closely related to the revolution ”, he recalls.


  • In the beating heart of Tahrir
  • An Egyptian military court prosecutes the author of “El Edificio Yacobián”
  • The Republic Was This is a poignant fictional polyphonic account of the failed revolution of 2011 in Egypt, which goes through, in a harsh and humane way, from its preparation to its fierce repression. Along the way, the novel immerses itself in the brutality, putrefaction and injustice inherent in the Egyptian regime, but also in the fears and contradictions, the submission and rebellion of its most everyday protagonists. Without complacency to either side, it was published in Arabic in 2019 and banned by the Egyptian authorities.

    Al Aswany (Cairo, 64 years) is one of the most internationally successful Egyptian storytellers and his career is closely linked to his political activism, which has forged part of his fame. The author was introduced to the world of literature at an early age by the hand of his father and mentor, Abbas Al Aswany, lawyer and writer. And as a child he pointed out ways: his first work was written with 11 years and in it he criticized his uncles based on his mother’s opinion. “My father gave me [entonces] my first two lessons to write fiction: ‘When you write about anything you must have more than one source, and if you write about real people, you must change their names,” he explains with a smile.

    Un joven egipcio muestra la bandera nacional, mientras grita consignas contra el presidente Mubarak, el 11 de febrero de 2011, en la plaza Tahrir de El Cairo.
    A young Egyptian shows the national flag, while shouting slogans against President Mubarak, the 11 February 2010, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. PEDRO UGARTE / GETTY IMAGES

    Although he finished with a degree in dentistry and practiced for years as a dentist in a clinic in Cairo – which he still maintains – Al Aswany combined it with literature and became a best seller with the fact that It is still his best known book, The Yacobián Building . His political activism, however, ended up becoming a more controversial facet.

    The writer was one of the most popular voices in the opposition to the Hosni dictatorship. Mubarak and the struggle for democracy, and participated from the beginning in the protests of 2011 . But he soon became a staunch critic of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first civilian and democratically elected president – something he questions – and of his Islamist Muslim Brotherhood organization – towards whom he had maintained a conciliatory attitude in the past. Thus, Al Aswany came to support the coup of 2013 that sentenced the incipient democracy in the country, and that he considered a new wave of revolution. Today the writer continues to be a critical voice of the regime and has had to leave Egypt.

    However, Al Aswany himself could well be one more character of The republic was this capable of grasping the contradictions, or at least the complexities, of the country. In the novel there is a wide range of protagonists who, in their own way, embody different sectors of Egyptian society and who, for the most part, face the difficult dilemma of having to choose, paraphrasing one of its protagonists, between putting dignity first. and freedom to life, or give both for a piece of bread.

    All of them, moreover, are cleverly divided by the pen of Al Aswany. On one side are the corrupt and clinging to power, subtly caricatured: the pious general who fails to perform any duty of the prophet while leading a brutal repressive apparatus, the ultra-conservative telepreacher who blesses the worst atrocities of the regime, and a chaste and beautiful presenter that makes manipulation his way of acting personally and professionally. The rest are traced by the author with delicacy and respect, regardless of their position: from young revolutionaries who are affected in a very different way by the popular uprising to an older Coptic actor who has always lived humiliated and the revolution shakes his life, or an old communist militant closed to any possibility of change.

    Frame from ‘The Yacobián Building’, a film by Marwan Hamed based in Alaa al Aswany’s novel of the same name.

    Two trouble spots in the novel are the time frame and part of the reading that makes the story. With respect to the first, the book covers from 2010 to the end of 2010, thus avoiding one of the most momentous episodes in recent Egypt history: the coup d’état. Al Aswany notes that the book reveals the end of the revolution, and notes that “in 2011 it was already very clear what happened next ”, a debatable deterministic perspective that, in any case, avoids the controversial how .

    On the other hand, Al Aswany portrays the Muslim Brotherhood as a perverse organization and seamlessly controlled by its leadership, an excessively simple description of the largest Islamist group in the country that, in addition , ignores the fundamental role of part of his paintings in the popular uprising and the very high price they have also paid.

    In Egypt, The republic was this is prohibited. Already in 2019 Al Aswany was sued by the Military Prosecutor’s Office for insulting the president, the Army and the power judicial as a result of its publication and other texts of his, according to the writer himself, who resides in the United States not involved in his case. “I have refused to send my lawyers for two reasons: it will not change anything and, secondly, I reject the fact that any writer can be taken to military court for his novels. I do not recognize this, ”he explains.

    Despite his interpretation of the revolution, the harshness of what was narrated and the consequences of having done it, Al Aswany slides that, Ultimately, The republic was this is written from hope: “[En el libro] you have the girl, Asmá, who does not it is not at all optimistic and charges against the Egyptian people. I don’t agree with her, ”he notes. “Her fiancé, Mazen, is still optimistic, and I feel closer to [él]. Why? Because when a revolution occurs there is something that changes, and that something is irreversible. ”

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