Clarifying the Arab Spring

Fouad Mami reviews 'The republic of false truths' by Alaa Al-Aswany (Faber and Faber, London 2021, pp464, £12.79)

Alaa Al-Aswany’s fictional engagement with the events known as the Arab Spring may seem pointless, given the tons of films, books and studies on the topic, but the English title of this recently translated novel underscores the fact that it rises above the realm of cliché and ‘common sense’. Unlike its Arabic title, the English version zooms in on the false omnipresent that applies uninterruptedly to everyone in Egypt, irrespective of class or gender.

The republic of false truths serves to expose various lies, recreating the events leading to the euphoria of Tahrir Square in 2011 and 2012, the decapitation of the dictatorship’s head and a few key moments afterwards. To anyone doubting the relevance of synthesising those events into a novel, I would ask, where is Tahrir Square today on the map of Cairo? Chapter 31 of this 73-chapter book provides an explicit answer: “Tahrir Square has been transformed into a small, independent republic - the first parcel of Egyptian land to be liberated from the dictator’s rule” (p184). It has become an interminable construction site with the specific objective of eradicating from collective memory the very possibility of massive gatherings, which may or may not propagate a revolt.

If a physical space has garnered such a monumental level of hatred, then the unbiased rationalisation of historical reality, let alone activists’ narratives of the popular uprising, remains an unaffordable indulgence. Not for nothing, the early 20th century French philosopher/activist, Simone Weil (1909-43), comments: “Official history is a matter of believing murderers on their own words …”1 For if events that unfolded in most readers’ own lifetime - that is, only the other day - are decreed disconcerting and are now being falsified, there is certainly reason to distrust official reporting of incidents that happened when we were less aware or not on this planet yet. It is never a tautology to underscore that history writing is thus no joke.

Indeed, Al-Aswany’s novel does not shy away from the task of setting events in their correct historical order. It measures the actors as variables within the scale of unfolding experiences, not mythical or ideological unravelling. There will be people who may find that form of measurement lacking in revolutionary ardour and passion, but what can be more radical and subversive than an honest elucidation of that which actually happens? Understandably, there exist vested interests reporting on what took place in Tahrir Square from a bourgeois perspective, and justifying the counterrevolutionary status quo of the present. Hence, the explanatory (never the justificatory) demand for a methodological axis serving also as an existential matrix, whereby falsity (or “false truths”) can be distinguished from reality.

Class struggle

Al-Aswany’s theoretical coordinates have derived from history’s inevitable class struggle.

The term, ‘class struggle’, comes from a glossary that, for better or for worse, has been antinomic vis-à-vis the current counterrevolutionary climate of the post-2011 Arab world. Let us recall that many Arab cities witnessed exhilarating events, with millions standing up against dictators, only to be disappointed in the following months and years. But the term is not just an ideological milestone for those activists of social movements on the left: it is a methodological eye-opener for registering and thus seizing the real movement of the world, according to Karl Marx in The communist manifesto.

The concept of class struggle expresses historical continuity with uprisings and revolutions of the oppressed from all over the world, and from times both past and to come. If enough oppressed people embrace the class struggle as a milestone for consciousness, the current world order will be not just shaken, but redefined. This explains how the powers-that-be have always had a vested interest in sweeping that term under the carpet.

The dynamic interactions between a set of characters allows readers of this book to gain a solid understanding of what took place in Tahrir Square. The characters emerge from diametrically opposing backgrounds, and in this way the novel reflects the class dimension of the uprising. This allows readers to grasp how the needs of the counterrevolution justify the status quo via effusive abstractions and unabashed crusades for the chasing of smokescreens.

The republic of false truths resuscitates the concept of class struggle for the purpose of underlying urgently needed theoretical clarity. Part of Al-Aswany’s demystification showcases that, well before the restoration (July 2013) formally triumphed, most rank-and-file Egyptians were expressing varying levels of exasperation at revolutionaries. Following the heady 18 days leading to the abdication of president Hosni Mubarak, which were marked by a degree of euphoria, there was a steady decline in support from people living in impoverished neighbourhoods, as more and more became disenchanted with the revolutionary project. Today the oppressed frequently accuse the revolutionary youth of jeopardising their security by ‘conspiring against the country’.

When the film actor turned activist, Ashraf Wissa, and his team displayed the atrocities of the military through a mobile cinema project moving across Cairo’s working class areas, he and his tiny group of supporters were attacked, their gadgets broken and they themselves were accused of bringing disaster. But, instead of despair, Al-Aswany’s unorthodox conclusion zooms in on the need for theoretical clarity - the failure of the revolution did not result from the actions of the repressive forces as much as the conservatism, nihilistic resignation and detachment of the oppressed themselves. Al-Aswany shows that the military intervened only after the majority showed their discontent: the repression served to formalise what the oppressed actually desired: security.

Without a precise reading of the role of various actors, revolutionaries will remain befogged by myth and self-pity. Even if repression had provoked the discontent of the oppressed, and not the other way round, a legalistic and procedural response would still be inconsequential. Once activists’ attention was diverted towards the legalistic, as when denouncing ‘human rights abuses’, the revolutionaries were pronouncing their own death sentences.

However, Al-Aswany’s criticism of the revolutionaries does not mean that he favours a culturalist approach, whereby the oppressed are blamed for their own misery. In fact, The republic of false truths hinges the revolutionary project on a deeply entrenched historicist approach. It is this revolutionary-counterrevolutionary arch that determined the fortunes and misfortunes of not only the Egyptian revolution, but also those of nearly all the Arab socialist uprisings. Certainly, Al-Aswany’s remarks connect directly with the Egyptian scenario, but in essence his remarks mirror most, if not all, Arab revolts post-2011.

Pushing for a culturalist account of events counts among the reactionaries’ toolkit to regain hegemony. Given the brutal violence that marked the Egyptian revolution, it is not surprising that some mistake The republic of false truths as an exercise in oriental despotism. The accounts of the female activist in this novel, Asma, after experiencing beatings and sexual abuse, read more like self-pity. For her, it is hopeless to count on ordinary people, as Egyptians are submissive by nature. Other characters too do not restrain themselves from drawing similar generalisations, expressing doubts vis-à-vis revolutionary change in a country where large swathes of the population are doubtful whether their lot can be bettered. Her letter from London, where she is in exile, is probably the type of ranting that every revolutionary might succumb to in the face of adverse situations. But such despair risks eternalising oriental despotism, because it overlooks the dynamic of history.


But Al-Aswany rejects timeless generalisations. His spokesperson in the novel is Mazen, who from beginning to end underlines a historicist approach as to why ordinary Egyptians - even well before the violence - traded security for freedom. Nevertheless, the media’s brainwashing of ordinary Egyptians and its demonisation of the revolutionary youth have borne fruit. In an exchange with the interior minister, general Alwany explicitly outlines his strategy: “Our goal is to tell the ordinary citizen, ‘Either you side with the demonstrations and lose your security or you side with the state, in which case it will protect you’” (p142).

Readers learn that business tycoons and media moguls, like Hag Muhammad Shanawany in this novel, have invested enormous funds and resources to “redirect Egyptians towards ‘the right path’: family values and the wisdom of the tested and tried”, in line with the requests of the security apparatus. His media prodigies go as far as “uncovering CIA plots of destabilising the country and creating chaos”! Readers learn how Madam Nourhan, the celebrity broadcaster, has been hailed by the apparatus not only for following the instructions of the supervising army officer (stationed in every TV and radio station), but for her ‘innovative’ methods and commitment to defaming revolutionaries, such as presenting fabricated evidence that paints democracy activists as spies on the payroll of foreign secret services.

Eventually, revolutionary activists realise that campaigning exclusively through Facebook and Twitter has its limits, as large numbers of Egyptians remain hooked to newspapers and the TV. By the time revolutionaries such as Ashraf start touring neighbourhoods to present the human rights abuses committed by the military, it has become crystal-clear that it is too late. The triumph of the counterrevolution resulted from the steady and deliberate effort to rewrite history.

The final scene features Madany (literally signifying ‘passivism’ in Arabic) taking revenge on the police officer who killed his son, Khaled. He had been a principal organiser of a field hospital near Tahrir Square, charged with providing first aid to demonstrators. The officer killed Khaled because he dared to reject an insult. Through that scene the author kills two birds with one stone. First, he breaks from the liberal stance of situating revolutionary work entirely in passivist forms of agitation. Secondly, theoretical clarity is gained from the failure of the legalistic path - the crooked justice system in Egypt facilitates the regaining of that incendiary form of clarity.

Not only does the bereaved father reject religious authority - personified in the mediation of sheikh Shamil, who brings Madany a sack of cash in exchange for closing the case in court. He also indulges Khaled’s university colleagues for a while, agreeing with their plan to pursue the murder case in court. Danaya, who is general Alwany’s daughter, Khaled’s former classmate and an eye witness to the murder, asks Madany to relieve her from giving evidence - in the end, her admiration for and attachment to Khaled did not produce revolutionary consciousness or a rupture with privilege. That is why Madany resorts to hiring thugs to kill the police officer, rejecting the crooked system and taking justice into his own hands. The message from that scene is that revolutionary work cannot merely be a cerebral undertaking. It needs a spontaneous eruption and, in this situation, no-one can convince Madany, who has lived his entire life as a virtual slave, not to resort to violence.

If there exists one hero in this novel, it is Madany, because, when catastrophe hits, he rationalises things far better than a university professor. Both religious and civic authorities warn people not to take justice into their own hands, thus encouraging those stripped of their basic rights to aggravate their servitude by seeking the institutional mitigation of justice. But Al-Aswany shows that this is not only pointless, given how ‘justice’ is administered under dictatorships, but is counterrevolutionary. Not only was the police officer not arrested in preparation for the trial: he was not even suspended from work. And, unsurprisingly, he was found not guilty. Al-Aswany’s point is that the show trial of Khaled’s killer has to be read not as a dysfunctionality of the ‘justice system’, either in Egypt or elsewhere. Rather, it has to be read specifically as part of the immanent logic of dictatorships - something that Khaled’s father clearly registers and acts upon.

Fouad Mami

  1. S Weil Simone Weil: An Anthology. London 2005, p.105.↩︎