Egyptian intellectuals, revolution, and the state
One of the most surprising and troubling developments of the last six months, for those of us interested in cultural as well as political life in Egypt, has been the alignment of the overwhelming majority of prominent artists and writers here with the military-backed authorities against the Brotherhood, with the endorsement of state violence and the abandonment of pluralism and human rights that that has entailed. A few recent pieces have focused on this troubled intersection between between art and politics, nationalism and liberalism.
At Jadaliyya, Elliot Colla writes about Sonallah Ibrahim's novel al-Jalid ("The Ice") which came out January 25, 2011.
Like these other novels, al-Jalid is concerned with Left revolution—its defeats, its disappointments, its erasure—in Egypt and across the globe. And of all Ibrahim’s novels, al-Jalid is his saddest. Lacking the laughter of his other works, it offers little more than a laconic lament, a shrug, about the passing of so many revolutions. More than once, as characters walk through the Moscow winter, Shukri says, “And we walked across the ice…” The protagonist plods on silently, surrounded by “comrades” but also alone, the only sound being that of feet scuffling cautiously over cracking ice. The image is an apt one for describing the increasingly slippery and cold ground on which the Egyptian Left began to tread from 1970 onwards. With these unsure steps, al-Jalid ruminates on the failure of most every revolution the Egyptian Left ever believed in, and with that, it seems to mourn the passing of the possibility of revolution itself.
What does it mean to read Ibrahim’s latest novel as a satire in this sense? For one thing, it allows us to begin to recognize the author's deep skepticism toward the revolutionaries' proposition that another world is possible. Al-Jalid elaborates a form of Left pessimism, a Marxist, anti-imperialist critique of injustice and oppression, but without the utopian promise of justice or emancipation.
This is how Ibrahim, presumably, viewed things in the late Mubarak years. Recently, it is the great writer's lack of skepticism -- his belief that the Egyptian army is "standing up to the West" and to a US-Brotherhood conspiracy -- and his willingness to overlook, even condone, police brutality, that has shocked some of us.
Meanwhile, on the New Yorker's site, Negar Azimi writes of Alaa Al Aswany's embrace of June 30 and describes a recent literary salon in Cairo:
When it finally came time for questions, a young man in a hoodie got up and, with prepared notes in hand, made a series of statements about the crimes of the Army, ending with the massacre that took place in Rabaa al-Adawiyah. At one point, he said to Aswany, “Ask yourself, do they have the right to kill innocent protestors?”
Aswany—probably thinking, “This again?”—seemed taken aback. “I didn’t kill anyone,” he said, defensively, “but anyone who kills a member of the Army is a traitor … The Muslim Brotherhood has blood on its hands.” He reiterated a point he had made earlier in the evening: even though many of Egypt’s Communists had spent years in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s prisons in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, their party never turned to violence. “They didn’t touch a mosquito,” Aswany concluded. The Brotherhood, he seemed to suggest, had violence in its DNA.
At that point, a well-dressed woman, with elaborately pomaded hair and a tight-fitting top, turned to her friend and said, loudly, of the boy in the hoodie and his female friends, who were veiled: “They are with the Brotherhood!”
One of the veiled women took issue, and soon, everyone seemed to be standing, pointing, and shouting. I saw a few elderly people in the room slip out, probably anticipating a fistfight.
Both Al Aswany -- a star public intellectual and writer of blockbusters -- and Ibrahim -- a revered experimental writer with great political and moral cachet -- exemplify the position of most of Egypt's muthaqafeen, who have gone from cheering the Janurary 25 revolution to cheering General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Their positions shows not only the deep animosity that (for some justifiable reasons) exists between the cultural class and Islamists; it also shows how most intellectuals here continue to see themselves as guardians and spokesmen for an idealized strong state which they may criticize and oppose but which they cannot imagine life without and which they will rally to if persuaded that it is under threat. A point that is well-made in a recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique, entitled "Fractures among Egyptian Writers," which begins:
As repression grows in Egypt in the name of the "war on terrorism," eminent intellectual figures, nostalgic for Nasserism and often of the Left, have proclaimed their support for the army. This generation of elders is opposed by writers and artists who reject the return of the "deep state" and the betrayal of revolutionary ideals.