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An evening with Alaa Al Aswany

July 15, 2011
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Last night the well known author and columnist Alaa Al Aswany gave a talk at El Sawy Culture Wheel, Cairo’s amazing youth club and culture centre on the bank of the Nile. This was the first of a planned series of once a month talks Al Aswany will be giving at the Culture Wheel, and the hall was packed, with an audience of at least two or three hundred people.

With the advertised title of “Egypt after the revolution”, Al Aswany’s talk focused on the concepts of reform and revolution. While praising the successes of the 25 Jan revolution, he launched scathing criticisms towards Essam Sharaf’s government and the role being played by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in maintaining the old, corrupt system which should not be reformed, but rather restarted from scratch by a revolutionary government. However despite the fierce criticism he held back from calling for the SCAF to be overthrown.

He also directed criticism towards the Tahrir sit in, arguing that closing the mugama3 (the great bureaucratic domain which ordinary citizens must navigate in order to negotiate various paperwork issues) was a gift to the counter revolution. Between the extremes of the revolutionaries and the counter-revolution, the mass of the Egyptian people are the mutafarrageen, those who watch everything unroll on TV. Actions like the blockade of the mogama3 interfere with their everyday lives, and may turn them against the revolution – protests should instead target the actual loci of power.

He called for the unity of the revolution to be rekindled, lamenting the fracturing of the various political tendencies. Pluralism is healthy in a democracy, but the people need to be united until the aims of the revolution have been achieved.

After his lecture he invited the audience to write questions on comment slips, and promised to answer them all. I slipped out after a few of the questions, but not before witnessing some minor controversies. Inevitably someone went off topic and posed a question about his books, specifically taking him to task over the sex scenes contained in them. More significantly someone argued that he was encouraging people to act irresponsibly in pushing for more radical action: Al Aswany brusquely suggested that the questioner was in the pay of the old regime, and the questioner was heckled by the crowd when he stood up to defend himself.

While much of the talk was well received by the audience, I also heard negative comments about him. I also wonder how in tune he is with the new, young revolutionary politics: while he promised to engage in a dialogue, the set up was very much a lecture by Alaa Al Aswany: even if he did finish reading out the stack of questions handed to him, they seemed to be more interruptions in his lecture than a way to engage in a real conversation.

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