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Selmeyyah


March 15, 2011

The Egyptian novelist and activist on when she knew the revolution would succeed, the role Al Jazeera and social networking played, and the irresponsible reporting on Lara Logan’s attack.

soueif2-300.jpgIn a last-ditch attempt to assert his authority, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered in the air force. It was an exercise in futility. The end was already in sight. But as the fighter jets screamed down on them out of the clear skies over Tahrir Square, one might have expected panic to surge through the crowds. Instead, says Egyptian novelist and activist Ahdaf Soueif, this show of brute force was deflected by sheer creative imagination: “It just made your heart stop and the square, as if at a signal, started jumping up and down and pointing at their brains and chanting, ‘He’s gone crazy!’ An instant crazy-person’s dance was invented. That’s how they dealt with that.”

Soueif has written about Egypt for decades. Arguably the foremost Arab author writing in English today, her work has won her critical acclaim and a wide audience around the world. Edward Said described her as “one of the most extraordinary chroniclers of sexual politics now writing.” Her first novel, The Map of Love, consolidated her success. Shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1999, the book has been translated into sixteen languages, including Arabic, and has sold over half a million copies in English alone. The Map of Love switches between past and present, describing events in the nineteenth century with as much clarity as it does the contemporary world, both in Egypt and New York.

In recent years Soueif’s fiction has come under pressure from the author’s increasing role as a political commentator. A collection of essays, Mezzaterra, published in 2004 underlined this new trajectory. In 2007, she launched PalFest, a literary festival aimed at breaking the deadlock in the Middle East and providing a cultural platform for dialogue between Palestine and the West. Adopting as its motto Said’s remark championing “the power of culture over the culture of power,” PalFest engages with Palestinian writers and cultural centers in promoting a dialogue between East and West, taking well-known writers like Michael Palin, Henning Mankell, Roddy Doyle, or Claire Messud, to experience the situation on the ground first-hand.

Soueif has been in the thick of things for some time. Political activism runs in the family. Her mother was president of Egyptian PEN. Her sister and brother-in-law are activists in civil movements for change such as Kifaya [Enough]. And a string of sons, nephews, and nieces are all to be spotted on the front line of the new technology side of the revolution, as filmmakers and bloggers.

We met at Soueif’s house in London where her hectic schedule involved juggling public appearances with demands for interviews from the media. As we spoke, phone calls and emails arrived from Cairo with updates of ongoing developments. The previous evening (February 25) reports had come in of the Military Police attacking protesters in Tahrir Square. Since then there have been further outbursts of violence, some of it targeted at women and Christians, including the burning down of a Coptic church. There have also been more clashes with the army. All of which confirms that the revolution still has a long way to go.

—Jamal Mahjoub for Guernica

Guernica: Events in Egypt came as a surprise I think to millions around the world, but many people are unaware that there has been a growing movement against the regime over many years.

Ahdaf Soueif: I would say there has been dissatisfaction and growing unhappiness since 1973. But it’s over the last ten years that things got really bad. It was in the run-up to the elections in 2005 that civil groups started to form, such as Kifaya, such as the 9th March movement for the independence of the universities. There had been small NGOs working for years before that, like the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, or El Nadeem for the rehabilitation of torture victims, but they were very specialized, sort of law and medicine. But these others were broad-based and in direct political opposition. And they also, Kifaya in particular, started working on the streets and taking protests to the neighborhoods. They started using banners and posters, street theater and very inventive chants and they hit directly at the president and his family—which had never happened before. These were all new things that broke a boundary and set the stage, if you like, for other movements.

We saw the wall of smoke and flames that was preventing our access to Tahrir and realized that it was war.

So there have been ebbs and flows and many eruptions of protests since 2005 until now, with varying levels of popular participation. There has also been a “specialist” unrest, so that practically all sectors of civil society have, over the course of the last five years in particular, been engaged in strikes and protests and demonstrations. Obviously a lot of the time for specific demands, but ultimately all traceable to the way the economy and political life is run, and corruption.

Guernica: Was there a particular moment when you felt that things were getting serious? A point when you realized that this actually had a chance of succeeding?

Ahdaf Soueif: I think it was when we climbed up from the river on to the Kasr el-Nil bridge on the side of Tahrir [Liberation Square] on the Friday [January 28th] and became part of the mass of people that was trying to take Tahrir. We saw the wall of smoke and flames that was preventing our access to Tahrir and realized that it was war, and that everybody knew it, and there was no question that anybody was going to turn back, and that simply by being there you were a part of that, and you were carried along by it. That was when we knew that it had to happen.

Guernica: The situation has worsened in terms of the gap between rich and poor, the opportunities for young people, the high rate of unemployment of university graduates, et cetera.

Ahdaf Soueif: Basically, there is huge unemployment and the gap between rich and poor was becoming more and more obscene. And the behavior of the rich was also becoming more and more offensive. Young people would be racing each other on the airport road or on the bridges, killing the odd pedestrian, or the huge estates, gated communities with commercial security firms which are known to shoot people. These are on the periphery of Cairo and other cities. The selling off of the country’s assets. This was a very sore point and it ranged from high profile to local. The selling off of the Omar Effendi department stores, for example, was a huge scandal. People stood up and took the regime to court, and it would become a cause célèbre, and in the course of the court hearings details of corruption would come out, but somehow the deal would still be pushed through, or be delayed. Then, for example, there was the story of people in a small town called el-Ayyat in Giza. Somebody dies and they go to bury him and find the cemetery has been encircled by a wall and by security and they are told that it’s been sold. So they go back home and pick up their weapons and go and fight a battle with the security and get rid of them and pull down the walls and put their own guards in the cemetery. This was spreading across the country. Wherever you looked you had the definite sense that the place was being stolen from under your feet. And meanwhile there was no prospect of anything getting better. It wasn’t like this was a bad patch because it was going to make things better. It was a sense that the country was being deliberately run down and looted.

Guernica: Where did this arrogance stem from? Was it that, particularly after 9/11, the role of the regime was greatly enhanced?

Ahdaf Soueif: I think if you are looking at the relationship between East and West and how it has contributed to this, you have the fact that after 9/11 it was possible for the regime to play the card of being anti-terror and anti-Islamist at the same time, as if the two were synonymous. And so the regime had the feeling that it had carte blanche from the powers, specifically the U.S. and Britain, to do what it liked to its own people. Then you have the business of extraordinary rendition. If the United States flies people to Egypt to have them tortured then it is only a matter of time before torture has a trickle-down effect and becomes something that is just commonly used, in jails, in interrogations, in police stations. It becomes the de facto thing that happens. If a pickpocket is caught or if you want some information out of somebody, or whatever, then you have electrocutions and hangings upside down and sleep deprivation—the lot. It became major, absolutely major. And of course, because it was so linked to corruption, it was also inefficient. It wasn’t as though we had trained torturers who would not kill you in the process, it was people dying and being thrown out of windows. It really became a reign of terror whereby anybody, because you were living under the emergency laws, anybody could be taken off the street and subjected to some level of physical abuse. And this is directly to do with the impunity that the regime felt it had because of its role as a vassal in the war on terror. That is directly traceable. Now, linked to that, the fact that global capitalism encourages the elite to have a set of interests that belongs to them—as separate from whatever country it is they are exploiting. They become distanced. So what is Gamal Mubarak’s relationship to Egypt? Is it that he actually feels he belongs to Egypt in any meaningful sense, or that he has a responsibility towards it? No. It’s clear that this is simply not the case with people like Gamal Mubarak, Ahmad Ezz, and all those people. Their relationship to the country is to keep it in a state where it can be used and exploited. But they are living their lives almost in another dimension. You know, they have their shut-off places where they can enjoy the sea and sunshine and so on, and they have their planes which take them to other parts of the world. So the sense of belonging to some kind of untouchable international community is very powerful. A global elite of businessmen and politicians and fixers, and of course Egyptians must have been very low down because they were corrupt and small scale in comparison but still, that was where they felt they belonged. That was where their ambitions led. Their identification.

Guernica: And to an extent this mechanism applies all across the region.

Ahdaf Soueif: Yes, but particularly with countries that are considered moderate and friends of the West. You would probably find that the dynamics are different in Syria, say, but are the same in Egypt and Jordan. Saudi is different again, because they actually are wealthy.

Guernica: This connects to what we witnessed, which was a restored sense of pride, in being Arab at the regional level, particularly after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. More specifically in the case of Egypt that restoration was crucial and very evocative of the spirit of Nasser’s age.

Ahdaf Soueif: Crucial. 1967 was the beginning of the defeat of course, but ’67 was a defeat that could have been overcome and that we were starting to overcome, with the rebuilding of the army, the war of attrition, the insistence on finding out what had gone wrong, student demonstrations demanding trials for the top army brass and so on. By 1970 something in the psyche was on the way to being mended, but then Nasser died and Sadat comes in and swings the country around. Instead of “Freedom and Equality” he espoused “Faith and Prosperity.” Still, 1973 happens and there is a bit of restoration of pride in that you have managed to break through the Bar Lev line, that we were back in Sinai and so on. And then, for reasons that remain unclear, that achievement is sold down the river and we’re back to square one, and then Camp David, which isolates Egypt from the rest of the Arab world. They remove the Arab League from Egypt and basically your regional role is canceled, and you’re the traitor. That is 1979 and basically it’s downhill from there. The evidence of the sense that the country was going in the wrong direction was the killing of Sadat in 1981. Then Mubarak comes in and it carries on in the same direction and it escalates with the corruption and the global capitalism. Then 9/11 happens and really that is the beginning of the darkest period in our modern history. Because of the position Egypt was made—by the regime—to adopt in the war on terror we ended up in a situation where the Arab world is not just divided but decimated. Egypt is actually helping the neo-colonialists in their destruction of Iraq and Palestine. And yet it is in a very odd position because it is being looked to by its neighbors to be responsible for shifting the Arab world out of its sloth, i.e. “nothing is possible without Egypt.” At the same time it’s being denigrated as being a sellout, as being hopeless. Your education system has failed. Your young people are leaving the country and working illegally abroad. There’s all that, and then there are the actual overt expressions and statements by your government about you to the world. The patronizing, “We know the Egyptian people, we know what they need.”

Guernica: And also the idea that Mubarak was holding back the fanatics.

Ahdaf Soueif: There is the presentation of Egypt as a country that is intolerant and volatile; that if this regime left it would just become a fanatical, extremist country. The active promotion, the creation even, of sectarian divide. Our minister of labor proposing a project to send Egyptian women abroad to work as servants in the Gulf and the Arab countries. The repeated statements that “these people” are not ready for democracy. We had an enormous sense that we were being deactivated and run down. The stuff which has surfaced recently about the Nile, where also it became clear that the government had ruined a great resource we had which was our friendships in Africa and the role that Egypt had traditionally played in Africa in the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties. That was simply destroyed. All the liberation movements in Africa had had a friend and sponsor and supporter in Egypt. Under Nasser we had friends and supporters all over the continent and particularly in the Nile Valley. Egyptian academics, for example, were encouraged to go and teach in the new African universities and their salaries were paid by the Egyptian government. It was a national duty to go and work in Africa and there were very strong friendships. This was all totally destroyed. The country was being rundown, internally and externally. The texture of our society was being messed with. The regime was, basically, murdering Christians and accusing Islamists of doing it. Our heads were being messed with because the message which was coming to us constantly was: “You can’t do anything. You have no agency. You are powerless.” To do anything you had to turn to the government and they would take a cut of whatever you did, and if it turned out to be successful they would take it all. And meanwhile you were being maligned; you were being badmouthed to yourself and to the world. And that was a large part of what people were expressing in Tahrir: “They said this, they said that about us and we are proving that it isn’t so. This is the real Egypt.” And so, when Mubarak left, the chant was, “Lift your head up high, you’re Egyptian.” The second chant was, “Anyone who loves Egypt, come and help build Egypt.” And the third was, “We’ll get married, we’ll have kids.”

Good humor and fun and jokes were very much part of Tahrir and consciously so.

Guernica: As we speak the violence in Libya is ongoing. One extraordinary aspect of events in Egypt, is that to a large extent it was peaceful. There was a conscious effort to avoid violence. The people in Tahrir were chanting selmeyyah! [peaceable], all the way through. There were casualties, of course, but for the most part the protesters used violence only in self-defense. Humor—always a key aspect of the Egyptian character, came to the fore, as a means of maintaining the calm.

Ahdaf Soueif: Good humor and fun and jokes were very much part of Tahrir and consciously so. The jokes—very often they are only funny to Egyptians, but that’s okay, and they are always spot on. Like the day before Mubarak left, I was passing by an area that didn’t smell very good and a guy was saying, well, maybe our smell will get rid of him. The day the [fighter] planes flew over and it just made your heart stop and the square, as if at a signal, started jumping up and down and pointing at their brains and chanting, “He’s gone crazy!” An instant crazy-person’s dance was invented. That’s how they dealt with that. Then the planes went and the helicopters came in and everyone stood and raised their placards, tilted them so that the pilots could read them. And we had stand-up comics. People erupted into whatever form of expression came naturally to them. A recurrent trope in Egyptian comedy is the mad person who wears a saucepan on his head. And so suddenly in Tahrir, after the battle with all the stones being thrown by the thug militias, not everyone had crash helmets so people went home and brought saucepans and put them on their heads. You stood in Tahrir and you would have placards coming through with jokes or inventions, or people coming by wearing saucepans, or dressed in togas with things written on their bodies. Or a guy with a brown paper bag on his head with a great big question mark on it—that was in the middle of the teargas. At one point there was this great wall of transparent plastic pockets. A sheet of plastic pockets. About 10 meters by ten meters, and behind it was this group of kids who were busy drawing caricatures, recording the jokes in the square, and stuffing them into the pockets, so as you stood the pockets were filling up with jokes.

Guernica: This was very much a tribute to the creativity and inventiveness that was evident in Tahrir. The way they used the streetlamps to tap into the power grid to run their laptops and charge their telephones. Groups of people sitting around blogging, all wired up to the system.

Ahdaf Soueif: Like the shelters that sprang up when it rained. A businessman brought in rolls and rolls of plastic and immediately a tent city sprang up and before that the field hospitals that were organized on the spot. You went into the tiny mosque on the edge of Tahrir, really not much more than a big passage, that was turned into a hospital. And there it was with different stations and different doctors and the supplies at one end. And when things calmed down a bit they had a big dispensary on the street outside. I went up with a friend who had a terrible headache. There was a big table with all sorts of medicines and young doctors in attendance. They sat him down, they took his blood pressure, gave him a carton of juice and painkillers. The doctors told us that although there were no injuries that day, people did have sudden drops of blood pressure and others came in with chronic conditions or just any ailments that came up. The supply lines of medicines and the organization were remarkable. Think also of the supply lines of food and how that all just came into place. I also found out that the big mosque, Omar Makram, had opened up its bathrooms and basically there were separate queues for women, for men, for the elderly and children, and somebody met you when you approached to use their bathrooms, and if you were diabetic you were taken to the top of the queue. It was like everybody’s mind was employed in thinking “what is the best way of doing what I am doing and making it happen?” Which is completely the opposite of what has been happening for ten years which is just, you know, get away with as little as possible, as little as possible to deal with what is going on and keep your head down. This one was people standing up, being counted, and doing their absolute best in the situation they were in.

The Muslim cordon freed a space for the Christian prayers and the other way round. The national anthem was sung in Coptic.

Guernica: One striking aspect of Tahrir was the way it broke all the social barriers. Rich, poor, Westernized, non-Westernized, suddenly brought together by the sense of being Egyptian which had been denied for many years.

Ahdaf Soueif: You were there because you wanted the regime to fall. That was the basic position, and from there you started talking to people and soon you were talking about all sorts of other things and discovering just how communal everyone felt, how similar and how your values, the values of offering whatever food you have to the next person, or of listening to someone telling you something, or laughing at the same joke, were the same. People just rediscovered being part of the same community, rediscovered being Egyptian. And they articulated that, they said the regime was scaring us of each other. And here we are, and of course we find there is nothing to be afraid of. We celebrated mass and Friday prayers one after the other and everybody said the amens together to everything. The Muslim cordon freed a space for the Christian prayers and the other way round. The national anthem was sung in Coptic. People really rejoiced. It’s hard to convey the sense of joy and relief at shaking free and discovering that underneath you were what you had long ago thought you were. That it was always there. That all of what has happened to us could be shaken off because all the true stuff—what it means to be Egyptian—was still solidly there. And the constant expression and articulation of it, the consolidation, was remarkable.

Guernica: You had a story about sitting down next to a man with a beard.

Ahdaf Soueif: Yes, I was sitting on the grass next to a man with a beard and with a prayer mark [on his forehead], and with a child on his knee. He was talking to his wife and she was in the full niqab with just her eyes showing, and he was talking to her about how we were all part of the same community, that we were all Egyptians, and how he had gone to pray and he asked someone to pour water for him to wash and that someone turned out to be Christian and they had embraced as brothers. Then he lit a cigarette and caught me glancing at him and he thought I was looking at him because he had a beard and he was smoking. He said, “You’re surprised because I have a beard and I am smoking? Well, was I born with this beard?” I laughed and he said, “You know what? I just couldn’t afford razors. When he leaves I’ll buy as many razors as I like.” And this other guy, my niece told me, also bearded with the prayer mark, approached her. She thought he was going to say, “Why aren’t you covering your hair?” He said, “I just want to tell you I’ve been feeling a bit downhearted and was thinking of going home, but seeing a young woman like you here in the square full of resolve has strengthened me and I am staying until the end.” So, it’s not just the willingness to learn and to change, but the need to express it. To put this out into the public sphere, to make that be the discourse and the story that is being told, and that was what everybody felt.

Guernica: You are describing the inner transformation of society happening right in front of you. It had always been there, but had been suppressed to such an extent that, I think you mentioned earlier, that you felt the old Egypt had gone forever.

Ahdaf Soueif: Well, I didn’t, and I think many of us didn’t, but I think there was a terrible dread. I think that I truly kept saying that I hoped that forty years was an insignificant amount of time for a society that had been stable for seven thousand years to be irrevocably corrupted. And that somewhere the old Egypt was there, but it was very hard to see. It was so buried, so disguised, so ill-treated, so piled over with other stuff. And this revolution was this great shaking-off. The recognition that, “Oh, my God, this is what I’ve been missing, this is what it means to be Egyptian, and clearly everyone around me is feeling the same thing.” One of my cousins, who smokes and wears jeans and is married to an Irish guy, confessed to me that she had always been afraid of women with veils on, particularly the niqab. And she was sitting on the pavement in Tahrir and a group of niqabed women had come and sat next to her and she had felt frightened. And within minutes, she said, they were talking to her, insisting that she eat with them, they unpacked the eggs and bread they had and fed her. And as she started to talk with them she realized they were all the same, they were just dressed differently. And that was a moment of transformation for her. In fact, this transformation, this new way of feeling, this new sense of belonging and security, that you are really in your country, was so powerful that on the night when he [Mubarak] didn’t resign and everyone was afraid of what would come next, when people started moving to march up to Heliopolis [a two-hour walk] to the presidential palace—she went with them. We’re talking about a woman in her mid-fifties, who’s quite frail and not a revolutionary. But such was the need to hold onto this new entity that had been born, to try and safeguard it, to do whatever you could to make it not slip away and be beaten, that she marched from Tahrir to the presidential palace where it was suspected that that would be where people would get most hurt.

Guernica: It’s not over yet. Even as we speak there has been more violence perpetrated by the military on the protesters in Tahrir.

Ahdaf Soueif: There’s been violence by the army against the people, which is a new development.

Guernica: There’s still a huge amount of work to be done in transforming what has emerged, this ideal, into something tangible. To improve the lives of all those who came out and put their lives at risk. Let’s not forget a lot of people were killed.

Ahdaf Soueif: Four hundred young people. Killed for protesting peaceably. For expressing a preference. For wanting to live—really live—as agents of their own lives.

Guernica: Yet this message of the complexity, of the internal complexities of Arab society in the twenty-first century. It seems to me crucial that this gets across to the West.

Ahdaf Soueif: Because the effect of the West has been lethal, and yet it could be benign. I was speaking at the Royal Society of the Arts three nights ago and people said, “We’re ashamed that we didn’t know this was happening in your country, about the violence and the repression and so on. What can we do and what could we have done?” And I said, “You don’t need to blame yourselves for not knowing what the state of my country was, because we can’t all be knowing what’s happening in every country in the world all the time. But you can take it as given that what your country does affects us and affects the rest of the world. So what you can do is you can mend your system. You can insist on the foreign policies of your country being in keeping with your professed commitment to freedom, human rights, and democracy. You can work against your arms trade.” Basically, any British or American person who asks that kind of question—you can be quite sure that they have a raft of beliefs and positions which they believe are good. And that would be good, in fact, for the rest of us. And their job, since they are living in a Western democracy, is to bring their governments in line with those beliefs and positions.

Guernica: Which is difficult when David Cameron goes traipsing round the region with his arms dealers, and when he popped up in Egypt for his photo-op in Tahrir he refused to meet the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], a party which is likely to play a significant part in any elected government.

Ahdaf Soueif: Which is ridiculous, because the Ikhwan are part of the texture of society and because also this sort of animosity is a way of hardening positions. Basically, if the West were interested in a peaceful world where as many people as possible lived free and dignified lives, then really they should just back off and leave the region to sort itself out. Keep their money and keep their arms and keep their advice and just stay out of it until we sort ourselves out.

You could have this wonderful hybridity of technology and know-how and modernity and tradition and community and natural resources and manpower if we were all to set ourselves to working and living together.

Guernica: Can you comment on the way the media has dealt with the attack on CBS reporter Lara Logan? It has been seized on as an example of how things are not as rosy as they appear. How has the incident been reported in Egypt and what has the reaction been?

Ahdaf Soueif: The attack on Ms. Logan was not carried out by protesters but by anti-revolutionary thugs. Brutal physical attacks which—when against women—include sexual assault have since 2003 been a trademark of the thug militias used by the Mubarak regime. Many Egyptian women protesters have—over the years—been subjected to these. The attack on Ms. Logan was particularly severe because the attackers were instructed to regard the foreign media as their enemy, and so the attack was not just harassment; it was punishment. After all, the day before, these same thugs had ensured that all foreign media were confined to their hotels and that the recording studios stayed closed for fear of being trashed. The assault on Ms. Logan was a sad and deeply-regrettable incident and many people, speaking on behalf of Egypt and of the revolution, have apologized to her and have condemned her attackers. But responsible reporting should always place the attack in the context of the counter-revolution, of the kind of tactics commonly used by the Mubarak regime—the kind of tactics and behavior this popular revolution is most vehemently against.

Guernica: Talking about the region, one key player is obviously Israel. This situation is going to change Egypt’s relationship with Israel, as it will for other countries in the region. It seems to me that this is a great opportunity for Israel.

Ahdaf Soueif: Yes, if Israel were actually forward-looking and interested. It depends on what Israel wants. If it wants to be a country, a nation that is accepted in the region and that can live in safety and have friendly relations, then the path is very, very clear. They need to sort out a just solution for the Palestinians and they need to drop the whole notion and rhetoric of exceptionalism and how they are better than everybody else. If what they are interested in is a situation which is always full of conflict, in which they can remain exceptional and continue to make a lot of money exporting security systems and barbed wire and collecting aid, then what is happening is against their interests. Now, if these movements work and if the governments that come into place are truly representative they will have the power to speak for the people. An Egyptian government that is born of the revolution if it says, yes, we will normalize relations, then relations will be normalized, but that can only happen when Israel sorts out its issues with the Palestinians. It can’t happen as long as the situation stays as it is. We have a chance for overall peace and for the region to get on with the job of living its life and developing itself and re-inventing itself and seeing what it can contribute to the human race. It could be brilliant. I mean, you could have this wonderful hybridity of technology and know-how and modernity and tradition and community and natural resources and manpower if we were all to set ourselves to working and living together. With decency.

Guernica: Much is made of the role played by social networking and technology. It was clearly important in mobilizing people, yet when the internet was cut off, people still poured into Tahrir.

Ahdaf Soueif: It was probably a necessary condition for the beginning, but it also wasn’t a sufficient condition, because if it hadn’t been the case that millions of people, i.e. about eighty million people are actually dissatisfied and bordering on desperate, then however much technology you had you would never get those numbers onto the streets. But when the Khalid Said website [We Are All Khalid Said, named after a young activist who was murdered by police in Alexandria in June 2010] put out the call for protests on January 25th and within a short space of time got three hundred and fifty thousand people saying, “I will be there,” they knew that something was up. And so all the other groups said, “Well, let’s meet and work out a strategy.” People have had revolutions before with printed materials and so on. This is a tool of the moment and it is more powerful and immediate than the old tools. But it is still only useful up to a point. Even without the government jamming anything, the fact is that when you have a million people crammed into a space your mobile telephones don’t work. So something else has to take over.

Guernica: And what was the impact of Al Jazeera on events in Egypt? How much of an influence did it have on making people aware of the revolution?

Ahdaf Soueif: Al Jazeera was important, but it wasn’t the most important thing. People who were watching TV, i.e people who were at home, were flicking between channels so the channels would balance each other out. They kept an eye on the Egyptian independent “Dream,” on Al Jazeera Arabic (regarded as a bit too prone to hysteria), Al Jazeera English (very good), Al Arabiya (OK but a little suspect), and (not the Iraqi) Alhurra (surprisingly good).

People didn’t need TV to make them aware of the revolution; they just had to look out their windows.

Guernica: What do you envision happening next? Can you say something about the immediate and long-term steps you see as necessary for Egypt to take to ensure it is on the road to democracy?

Ahdaf Soueif: I think the most important thing for us, long term, is to develop the type of democracy, the type of economy and the political structures that best suit us. We are seeing a tremendous burst of innovation and creativity, we are seeing the empowerment of the people, and we are seeing a national conversation taking shape. I hope and trust that this means that we will be creative enough and insightful enough and wise enough to try to devise systems that play to our strengths and allow the majority of our wonderful, brave, and gentle people to achieve their full potential.

Guernica: Now, I know you are working on a new novel. How does the revolution affect that?

Ahdaf Soueif: I don’t know, and I won’t know until I get back to working on it. About my fifth thought, I think, when the revolution broke out was, “all that work might now be obsolete.” But maybe that’s because I was actually writing it while wanting to push the potentiality of a revolution. I mean, it is a novel. It’s not a political tract. People who’ve read what I’ve done so far have assured me that it hasn’t lost validity. In terms of hubris I have lost, because I won’t be able to say look at what I published four years ago. But that’s okay, it’s probably good for my character.

Photograph via Flickr by PalFest

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