In a special interview with renowned Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, the Middle East News Agency captured some of his thoughts on the previous regime, as well as on the current moment the country faces.
Born in Cairo in 1937, Ibrahim has leftwing politics and was imprisoned from 1959 to 1964. His novels are a unique blend of his personal experiences and the observation of the world around him. In 2003, he was chosen for the National Award by then president Hosni Mubarak.
Ibrahim described his reaction upon receiving the news that he was awarded the National Encouragement Award by Mubarak in 2003: "I never expected to win such an award and was surprised by the decision. However, when the surprise disappeared, I felt strong pressures: if I accepted the award, all my history and values that I have defended for years would be lost. If I simply excused myself, they'd find a replacement in minutes." What he decided to do was to attend the ceremony and read out a statement refusing the award. In his attempt to mark a small impact in the inert political environment at the time, it was an unprecedented incident in the Mubarak era.
Although the family supported Ibrahim in his decision, some friends advised him to take the award money (1000EGP) and donate it to the Palestinians for example. Ibrahim, however, knew that the impact on the audience of his chosen behavior would be far stronger.
In response to the claims by Farouq Hosni, minister of culture at the time, that he prevented the imprisonment of Ibrahim, the author explains that he never had troubles after refusing the award. He was not part of any political organisation and without any power to mobilise people did not experience any trouble. The one exception was a play that was not allowed to run at public theatres despite having been approved and rehearsals begun.
Apparently, Shaker Abdel-Hamid, the current minister of culture, had previously condemned the way in which Ibrahim rejected the award, but the novelist says that he has apologised to him after the revolution.
Looking back at what the previous regime had done, Ibrahim highlighted three attempts to limit the involvement of intellectuals in public life. First, by helping intellectuals appear in society and giving them access to publishing through the state, intellectuals became complicit. Second, there was the deliberate distinction between what is cultural and what is political, rendering the opinions of intellectuals in politics invalid, and limiting the role of intellectuals in political organization. Finally, there was fake affluence and growth, encouraged by Egyptians travelling and working abroad especially in the Gulf.
Ibrahim is highly critical of the claims that the United States was behind the revolution, as was claimed by an Iraqi author. According to Ibrahim, America was indeed aware of the slow collapse and had "opened various channels of conversation, including with the Muslim Brotherhood." But, says Ibrahim, "US intelligence cannot move the people," pointing to the different movements active before the revolution such as April 6 Youth Movement and pro-democracy Kefaya.
Ibrahim does not question the results of the parliamentary elections, but he refuses the implications of the elections to be the monopoly of power by the Brotherhood. He suggests that some of their statements have been very worrying regarding personal freedoms.
Referring to a book he read recently, Ibrahim used the experience of Sudan as example, where the Islamist Gafar Numeri started out as a usual person who even drinks alcohol but who later turned into an Islamist applying the strict laws including the Huduud (extreme punishments in Islam) and cutting the hands of anyone stealing. He says that in Sudan there is now a union for those with one hand. Ibrahim feels that such a situation may not be too far off for Egypt, although most Egyptians are moderate religious people who pray and fast, living simply.
With regard to the presidential elections, Ibrahim is a strong supporter of Hisham El-Bastawisi, pointing to his history of political opposition. He does not mind Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi or Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, though he refers to Abul-Fotoush as too conservative. He remains unsure who he will vote for, given the constant changes of the political map and candidacies.
Ibrahim argues that "there should have been a law to ban figures of the previous regime from political participation right after the revolution." He is concerned that there is not one leading unit for the revolution that could have played a key role in achieving the revolution’s goals.
The leftwing has certainly receded before the Islamists, according to Ibrahim, because most leftists are great thinkers and intellectuals but not so good at action. He said they could not respond to the Brotherhood’s simple slogan of "Islam is the Solution", leaving the vagueness of the slogan unquestioned and allowed the Islamists to avoid getting into details.
Regarding leftism in Egypt, Ibrahim says that "the Egyptian mindset is not so close to the leftwing that is mostly dependent on criticism, creativity and thought, that is not so common in conservative Egyptian society." Words only do not change society he says.
For Ibrahim, the risk of dividing Egypt due to sectarian tension is not fiction, but something that could very well happen, "if persecution of Copts and discrimination does not stop." He fears that this may not be possible if an Islamist president took over.
"People are aware," Ibrahim believes, "of the attempts to destroy the revolution." While acknowledging that many powers have worked to make people doubt the revolution, leading them to look for stability even if this meant a new dictatorship, he was still certain that in the end people are aware, judging by the declining popularity of the Brotherhood.
"I am waiting for a new revolution or a second wave of the revolution…Bearing in mind that the enemy is now more aware and there are lots of possibilities. One thing remains certain, that all the revolutionary powers should unite to face the united enemy."
As for future plans, Ibrahim revealed that he is working on a new novel but that does not deal with the revolution, but rather the overall conditions in the country.
"It's difficult to write about what's going on now. It needs a long time, especially that its interactions are still ongoing."