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Egypt’s Alaa al Aswany Learns the Cost of Writing Against the Regime

7 minute read

Before he became a bestselling novelist, before he embarrassed Egypt’s former prime minister on live television, before he heard military prosecutors were suing him, Dr. Alaa al Aswany was in the business of fixing teeth. When he started out, Aswany’s dental practice had afforded him the ability to write without being financially beholden to the state. As his star rose he couldn’t bring himself to drop a profession that kept him engaged with everyday Egyptians.

“When you become successful, there is a risk you can get disconnected from real life,” Aswany, now 61, told TIME recently by phone from Cornell University in New York, where he was scheduled to deliver a series of lectures. “I didn’t do that. I was always with the people.”

After he wrote the The Yacoubian Building—the Arab world’s best-selling novel for five years running after its publication in 2002—Aswany pared back appointments to one or two per week. Although they became less frequent as he spent more time working overseas, the author’s Cairo clinic remains open. Aswany performed his most recent surgery there last July, he says, a porcelain bridge.

But returning to Cairo has become risky. One of Egypt’s most renowned authors, Aswany hasn’t appeared on television or written “a line” in the country since strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2014, he says. He published his 2018 novel The Republic, As If—an elegy for Egypt’s 2011 revolution—in Lebanon because no local publishing house dared put it out.

That did not stop Egyptian lawmakers slamming the writer for its contents last year. And this March, Aswany learned through an article in Egyptian newspaper Egypt Today that he was being sued at the military General Prosecution Office in a lawsuit that called for his trial over accusations he had insulted ‘the president, the Armed Forces, and judicial institutions.’ The lawsuit referenced a series of columns Aswany had written for Germany’s state broadcaster Deutsche Welle, including one that criticized the appointment of military generals to public office. “This is disturbing,” he says of the charge, because Egypt’s military courts have “full authority to do anything.”

Censorship and the muzzling of critical press was a facet of Egyptian life under Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year authoritarian rule as well as under his successor Mohamed Morsi, but crackdowns on free expression have worsened under Sisi, media watchdogs say. Reporters Without Borders ranks Egypt 161st out of 180 countries on its press freedom index and says at least 31 journalists and media assistants are in jail there unjustly. Aswany’s case is the latest example of the Sisi regime “using all tools at its disposal to silence independent media and civil society,” Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director at Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says.

Those tools include a new media regulation law that imposes crippling financial burdens on independent websites and classifies blogs and social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers as media outlets, liable to be shut down by authorities. Regulators have blocked more than 500 websites since the summer of 2017 and under cybercrime laws passed last year, even visiting a banned website is punishable by a year in prison.

Literary figures and artists have also been targeted by Sisi’s regime. Only two weeks before Aswany learned of the charges against him, a military court upheld a five year-prison sentence handed down to a publisher and bookseller for “divulging military secrets” after he distributed a translation of a banned book written by an Israeli writer. Last summer a military court sentenced poet Galal El-Behairy to three years’ imprisonment for “insulting the military” and “spreading false news” in a collection of poetry called The Finest Women on Earth, according to international writers’ association PEN International. And this March, Amr Waked, an award winning Egyptian actor living in Barcelona said a military court had sentenced him to eight years in prison for “disseminating false news and insulting state institutions.” These cases are part of a broader pattern of trying civilians in military courts. Human Rights Watch says that since 2014, some 15,000 civilians have been referred to Egypt’s military courts, which along with the country’s criminal courts have issued 2,500 initial death sentences.

For Aswany, there is nothing surprising about the regime cracking down on authors and actors. “Fiction is always more dangerous than non-fiction in criticizing dictatorships,” he says, because it allows readers to ”feel the suffering of the people.” He credits dissident writers and artists in the country for helping inspire the 2011 revolution that led to the downfall of Mubarak. But the people who hold the levers of power have adopted a “never again” policy, he says, resolving to “never again give any room for opposition or different ideas.”

Aswany was among the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square who forced the resignation of Mubarak in 2011. He describes the days leading up to the dictator’s exit as “the most beautiful” of his life. Before, he had understood the Egyptian people “theoretically”, he says, but living like a huge family facing regime snipers together bought a deeper understanding. “Millions of people were determined either to die or to live free, and this is something I will always be very proud that I participated in.”

Aswany did not only participate in demonstrations. A few weeks after Mubarak fell, he interviewed one of the autocrat’s final cabinet appointments, the new Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. It was the first time an Egyptian leader had answered unscripted questions broadcast live since 1977, the New Yorker reports, and appeared to be a last, desperate attempt to present an urbane, conciliatory face of the regime to the Egyptian public. Aswany didn’t let that happen, tearing into the prime minister over his apparent tolerance for protesters being shot dead. Shafik became rattled and belligerent and the talk show descended into a shouting match. He resigned the next morning.

It’s unlikely this kind of confrontation would be televised in today’s environment, with Sisi in power. And Aswany can’t count upon the the leader of the U.S., where he has now exiled himself, to pressure the regime into changing its behavior. President Donald Trump has shown himself to be a friend to strongmen around the globe. He has been a steadfast ally of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman even after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He once praised Sisi as a “fantastic guy.” Says Aswany, “Every time the President of the United States supports an Arab dictator, more people are victimized.”

To avoid being one of them, Aswany says he’ll follow the advice of his lawyer before returning to Egypt. Between lecturing at U.S. grad schools and literary festival engagements he stays in Brooklyn, where he writes five days a week from 7am until 1pm. He doesn’t practice dentistry in the U.S. but befriends people in bars, learning about their lives in the same way he did at his Cairo clinic. Despite the regime’s increasing repression, he says he is optimistic about the struggle for freedom and democracy in Egypt. “I read history,” he says, “I know that it takes time.”

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Write to Joseph Hincks at joseph.hincks@time.com