Renowned Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim first spoke to Jadaliyya in spring 2011, just a few months after the outbreak of the January 25 Revolution, and discussed the Egyptian people’s dreams of change after their ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. Over the next two years, the leftist writer offered his thoughts in various venues regarding Egyptians’ experience with the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and then of former President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2014, Ibrahim’s latest novel, Berlin 69, was published by Dar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida. Now, after the most recent trials and shocks of Egypt’s revolutionary process, Sonallah Ibrahim has accepted another invitation from Jadaliyya to summarize his thoughts on the fortunes of the 25 January, and what became of the demand for “bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity” heard across Egypt’s squares in 2011.
Reem Abou-El-Fadl (RA): You stated in your interview with Jadaliyya in May 2011 that you do not necessarily consider the 25 January events a revolution but rather a popular uprising for regime change. Is this still your view? Do you think that the revolution might have unleashed dreams and expectations that were unrealistic?
Sonallah Ibrahim (SI): Whether it was a revolution or an uprising, it was the natural result of forty years of oppression and exploitation by the regimes of Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. It unleashed hopes and dreams that were totally realistic. How can aspirations for a humane standard of living be considered unrealistic?
RA: Do you consider the 30 June 2013 demonstrations to be a popular movement too, and do you see them as a continuation of what happened on 25 January 2011, or not?
SI: The 30 June 2013 demonstrations were definitely a popular movement and a continuation of the 25 January uprising. After one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, it had become clear to people that this regime was against all that they had rose up to achieve in 2011, and that it was a turn back centuries in time. It was enough that the Muslim Brotherhood regime was backed and sponsored politically by the United States and the West.
What differentiates the 30 June from the 25 January is the pronounced involvement of the army in the movement, for its own private interests of course. This created the distinction between the two: the army did not participate in the first movement, and the Brotherhood—who had joined the January 25 Revolution late—did not participate in 30 June. Meanwhile the foloul (remnants of the Mubarak regime) forces saw the second movement as an opportunity to rescue themselves, and to restore their recently destabilized authority. This is why the foloul intentionally create distinctions between June 2013 and January 2011, and even attempt to adopt 30 June as their own.
RA: You had a clear position in support of the effort to overturn the rule of the Brotherhood. Are you still supportive of this?
SI: Of course. Overturning the Brotherhood was necessary and the struggle against them was a struggle against reaction and foreign control. On a different note, the regime of President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi has turned out to be a continuation of the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
RA: Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi appeared during the rule of the Brotherhood as a military leader unknown to the public, but was widely treated as a popular hero after the Brotherhood were removed from power. How do you evaluate his first year as president? How do you view his relationship with political trends in Egypt, whether the revolutionary, that associated with capital, or the 30 June coalition?
SI: He is closer to the capitalist trend, as evidenced by the measures he has taken, as well as those he has not taken.
For example, he has not implemented the minimum and maximum wage until now, while reliance on foreign companies has increased. He has issued legislation on taxes that serves the interests of big business, as well as legislation enabling reconciliation with those who squandered and embezzled public funds. The most prominent figures guilty of this were found innocent in the name of the law, while the revolutionary figures have been hounded and imprisoned.
In foreign affairs, the regime has embroiled itself in the reactionary system of the Gulf powers, as illustrated by the invasion of Yemen. It has also returned to a hostile position vis-à-vis Iran, after earlier signs of a potential reconciliation. Lastly, the regime has entrenched its political, and particularly military, ties with the United States, France, Germany, and Britain.
RA: In your view, what are the reasons for the comparison some have drawn between the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser and President Sisi? Do you see any similarities between the two presidents and their experiences in power?
SI: There is only one element common to both and that is the desire for monopoly of power and the repression of all opposing or competing forces, whether on the Right or the Left. Beyond that, however, there are no similarities. The two experiences are different in every respect. Abdel Nasser came of age in a revolutionary environment and was engaged in fierce battles with the ruling class and foreign powers. He worked toward the realization of autonomous economic development and a kind of social justice, as well as the modernization of the country. By contrast, Sisi came of age in the arms of the Mubarak regime and even at its helm, and until now there are no signs that his own orientations are any different.
RA: With relations between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood in their current state, do you see a way out?
SI: It is better to ask about the relationship between the people (and not just the regime) and the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no way out in my opinion except that the Brotherhood abandon their use of violence and participate in the peaceful political process.
RA: How do you see the future of the Islamist organizations in Egypt? Do you see any new ideas on the political scene or are there rather attempts to resurrect old ideas?
SI: The Islamist trend will continue as long as the modernization of the country stalls, whether in terms of education, media, industry, or living conditions. There are indeed promising efforts among the youth to crystallize new ideas that respond to the changes that we have seen unfold.
RA: Do you agree with the journalist and writer Muhammad Hassanein Heikal’s statement in April 2015 to the effect that the Palestinian cause is no longer the primary Arab issue? How do you envisage future relations between Egypt and Israel?
SI: His statement is a sound reading of the status quo. I do not see normal relations forming between Egypt and Israel unless Israel ceases its racist policies, which is impossible.
RA: How do you see the mood among Egyptians toward the Palestinian cause at the moment? Has it changed?
SI: The Egyptians grew tired of talking about the Palestinian issue and became more preoccupied with their own affairs and the sudden changes in stances and policies in Egypt. This has happened before several times, the first after 1948, and the most important time after the death of Abdel Nasser and the launch of the counterrevolution under the leadership of Sadat. He raised the slogan of ‘Egypt First’ and used it to attract millions of Egyptians who had suffered the consequences of the 1967 defeat against Israel.
Things changed, however, after the Palestinian intifada, which drew the sympathy of the Egyptians and increased their awareness. The matter is dependent on the performance of the Palestinians themselves, followed by revolutionary mobilization among Egyptians, and their consciousness that the issue relates in the first instance to their national security, and their future, and not only to a particular neighbor.
RA: Returning to Egypt and the world of literature, you mentioned in an interview in 2013 that writing requires ‘a comprehensive view of events,’ and at the Eastern European Lights debate at the French Cultural Center in Cairo in June 2015, you said that you had not written about the years of the revolution until now ‘perhaps because they seem vague,’ or ‘because the catastrophe has been beyond what I could bear.’ What do you mean by these phrases?
SI: Writing about a particular event is never obligatory. There are many factors that push an author to write about a certain topic.
RA: In your last two novels, Ice and Berlin 69, you dealt with the Russian and German experiences, and in your recent intervention in Cairo you mentioned that there were certain lessons to be learned from the two cases for the Egyptian situation. What were these lessons and why did you choose these historical events in particular?
SI: There are many lessons, the most important of which is the danger of the monopolization of power by a particular political group, or leader, without the participation of other sectors. The next is the disregard of a fundamental law in Marxist thought, namely the negation of the negation. That is to say, that the dissolution of certain contradictions (through change, i.e. revolution) will create new contradictions that require dissolution in turn. So there is no final revolution, and the revolutionary process (i.e. rebellion against the status quo) continues just as life does.
Another important lesson is the need for training in collective action, and the limiting of personal conflicts and exaggerated perceptions of individual capacities.
RA: Egypt lost several of its literary figures this year, such as the poet Ahmad Fuad Nigm and Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi, and the novelist Radwa Ashour. Among the writers on the scene today, who do you anticipate can work toward innovation and renewal in Egypt and the Arab world? Since 2011, it has often been said in Egypt that the intellectual elite have the responsibility to guide the revolutionary public and to produce leaders for it. Do you share this view and do you believe in this distinction between elite and public?
SI: Why should we anticipate that? I mean, why should writers be the ones who carry the responsibility for renewal and reinvention? There are other sectors in society that are capable of this. Moreover, the public is not in need of guidance but rather of leaders, and not necessarily ones with a doctorate. I know many illiterate people who are intellectuals: the intellectual is anyone capable of thought and the inference of outcomes.
The political parties ought to be the ones playing this role, for example, but unfortunately they are failures. We should therefore speak of the elements that different fields might produce, based upon their capacities for leadership, and what they offer in terms of public service. As for the field of culture, there, it is creative production that sets the standard.
RA: You stated recently that the situation in Egypt can be summarized in two words: ‘the revolution continues.’ What does this phrase mean and what are the arenas in which you see this revolution? Do you expect an outbreak soon?
SI: No revolution ever has been or ever will be the end of the road. Any revolution creates new circumstances and therefore new contradictions and the need for change. Therefore the act of revolution is permanent. As long as the demands of 25 January remain unmet, and the ruling class and foreign hegemony continue, there will be an outbreak.
[To read this interview in Arabic, please click here.]