An Update for Democracy
Author Alaa al-Aswany firmly believes that worldwide democratic movements inspire each other
Interviewer: Frank Meyer, Deutschlandradio Kultur
Egyptian author and political activist Alaa al-Aswany compares the political protests in his home country to the insurgencies in Germany 25 years ago: just as protesting a rigid system led to the fall of the Berlin Wall back then, today's Egyptian uprisings are opening up new opportunities.
Frank Meyer: And Europe's most significant contribution to world culture must surely be democracy. A majority of participants in the Goethe-Institut's Europe Survey affirms this. In Egypt, many of those we asked added a little something. They said that, for them, Europe means progress. This was the topic of my talk with author and political activist Alaa al-Aswany before the programme. He is perhaps most well-known for his novel "The Yacoubian Building," which has been translated into numerous languages. Alaa al-Aswany is the most read novelist in his native Egypt and has played an important role in the recent political upheavals. My first question to him was: what do you think about, when you think about Europe?
Alaa al-Aswany: Asking an opinion on an entire continent is a bit of a vague question. I'll try to give a rather specific answer. Europe, of course – for us Egyptians it symbolises democracy, art and culture, first and foremost. And then we also have a certain history of colonialism – after all, we were once part of the British Empire. However, our biggest influence, at least in terms of culture, may have been France. Egypt's most prominent writers and intellectuals were heavily influenced by French culture. And when I think of Germany, for instance, then Germany really stands for industrial perfection.
Meyer: Our main reason for inquiring into this is the fact that many of your fellow Egyptians stated in the Goethe-Institut's Europe Survey: "for me, Europe symbolises progress," which makes us, from our viewpoint, wonder what kind of progress they have in mind. After all, our own perception of Europe is usually that we're just busy nit-picking and not really getting anything done in the European Union. So what kind of progress are the Egyptians thinking of?
al-Aswany: I need to remind you that Egypt has always been an incredibly cosmopolitan country, not only in recent decades, but for centuries. In the 70s, for instance, about a third of all inhabitants of Alexandria were of European descent. But when we Egyptians picture European progress, we simply associate it with democracy – precisely the democracy that has enabled this European progress, so the association isn't all that miraculous. And if we want to attain progress in Egypt, that means we want to become more democratic.
Meyer: Talking about democracy in contemporary Egypt: in your country, an elected president, Morsi, has recently been unseated. This has been seen as a military coup in parts of the west. What is your take on Morsi's removal from office? Was it in any way a democratic process?
al-Aswany: Well, it definitely wasn't the coup d'état it is viewed as in Europe. The details are simply missing. After all, in November of 2012, Morsi proclaimed that he was going to set himself above the law. He basically declared the constitution null and void and it was his violation of the constitution that represented the actual coup, not what happened afterwards. Of course, Morsi had been elected in a democratic manner, but he went on to become a dictator.
A similar case occurred in Peru in 1992, when Alberto Fujimori, a lawfully elected president, suddenly proclaimed himself to be above and beyond the constitution, overturned the judiciary branch and emerged as dictator. Back then, the West showed a totally different reaction, although Morsi's declaration is nearly identical word-for-word to Fujimori's. What they both said is very similar indeed, but back then, the US, for instance, discontinued political relations and exerted formidable force. Germany and Spain put an end to all economic aid to Peru and the resulting economic pressure finally lead to the Peruvian dictator Fujimori renouncing his proclamation. None of this happened in Morsi's case. After he made his actions public last November, there was no such exertion of pressure upon Egypt.
Well, for instance, the parliament would have called for a vote of no confidence, but this would have had no effect, as Morsi had already disenfranchised the legislative branch via the Supreme Court. That was the cause for the collection of signatures of 22 million Egyptians, which has been confirmed by the UN. And then 30 million Egyptians took to the streets to show the world that they wanted to get rid of this dictator. And it was the Muslim Brotherhood that then took quasi-fascist action towards their own fellow citizens, which led to the military getting involved, basically just to protect peaceful protesters from the Brotherhood. What I'm trying to say is that this was no coup d'état, because a coup isn't in effect until a military faction, a military elite, forcibly assumes power and ends up ruling. None of this applies to Egypt, as we will have a newly elected president and parliament in a manner of months.
Meyer: Mr al-Aswany, let's turn the issue around: in the course of one year, Egyptians have taken down two regimes – that of Hosni Mubarak and that of the military, mostly through application of consistent pressure from the streets. If we look at it this way, the courageous Egyptian people do seem to be outclassing the Europeans at the moment, at least in terms of actual democratic practice, doesn't it?
al-Aswany: I, for my part, believe mostly in humanism, in common human values. So, naturally, I see the recent occurrences in Egypt as issues of humanity, first and foremost, and I also see a sort of mutual inspiration. So, for example, one could say: this revolution seems to be following the same ideals that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Or one could say that the social protests happening now in Germany and Italy, and to a much greater extent in Brazil, are also somehow linked to the state of affairs in Egypt, simply because people are moved and driven by each other. And after all, we are all one family, and we shouldn't let ourselves be divided. And I have very many European friends who are at times much closer to me than, for instance, my Egyptian friends. But all that really counts in the long run is human experience and human interdependence.
Meyer:Mr al-Aswany, you have already spoken several times of a certain pattern of human experience that has been in existence in Egypt for decades and how it permeated the autocratic regime and gave rise to countless little autocrats and sneaks in everyday life. Has this changed at all through the recent happenings in Egypt, through the rebellion?
al-Aswany: Definitely, since these autocratic regimes have all kinds of negative effects. People just don't count anymore; you get the feeling of losing touch with your country. And there end up being many, many terrible results. A country is effectively paralysed and people who may have a special talent just don't get anywhere. And it's only the corrupt people who end up having successful careers. Material possessions don't even really count. Even people who are reasonably well-off financially have no chances of advancement. And that's not even mentioning the people who are already poor and now become oppressed as well. But I will never forget how all those young people took to the streets during the first wave of the Revolution, after Mubarak's fall. We mustn't forget that 60 percent of Egyptians are under 40 years of age. And these young people have basically embraced the streets. And it was a very uplifting experience to see the young folks suddenly flooding the squares and avenues.
Meyer: Now that we're talking about Egypt and Europe, Mr al-Aswany, and what you've just mentioned – young people hitting the streets, taking responsibility and exerting their power over the country – let's take a look at Europe. I imagine that you may get the impression that Europeans do not sufficiently value what they have, the value of democracy. Do you ever get that feeling?
al-Aswany:Well, whenever my European friends ask me this question, I always answer using a metaphor. I say it's like owning a car, which is bound to break down at some point – like any car, it needs maintenance and you have to start replacing parts. Let's say this car is your democracy.
In Egypt, we need a car to start with, before we complain about faulty spare parts. And of course, every democracy, every democratic system needs to keep on inventing, needs an update. And there are definitely problems in European countries. There are serious issues in Italy, for example, because the people, I believe, are not appropriately represented by their government. But getting back to the automobile metaphor: we Egyptians need the car first of all.
Meyer: So European democracy is like a car with all sorts of flaws and errors, says Egyptian author and activist Alaa al-Aswany. Sincere thanks to Cairo, Mr al-Aswany, and thank you for joining us!