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Novelist Ahdaf Soueif on Egypt’s Revolution: “People Were Rediscovering Themselves”

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Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif took part in Egypt’s revolution and was in Cairo’s Tahrir Square nearly every day of the 18-day popular uprising. She joins us in our studio to discuss the revolution and its significance. “Almost overnight a civic space was created in Tahrir Square that was the ideal space, that one imagined, that everybody imagined, how the country should be or how any country should be,” Soueif says. “Everybody was finding the best in themselves and putting it forward.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryFeb 05, 2011Uprising in Egypt: A Two-Hour Special on the Revolt Against the U.S.-Backed Mubarak Regime
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In Egypt, activists are calling for a million woman march today to mark International Women’s Day. In a statement on Facebook, organizers are demanding, quote, “fair and equal opportunity for all Egyptian citizens — beyond gender, religion or class.”

It’s been nearly one month since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office following an unprecedented 18-day uprising. Millions took to the streets of Egypt in a peaceful popular protest against the Mubarak regime. In Cairo, Tahrir Square became the epicenter of the revolution with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from all walks of life gathering to call for the ouster of the regime.

Among them was the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif. Ahdaf, who writes primarily in English, is perhaps best known for her novel The Map of Love, which was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 1999 and has sold over a million copies.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahdaf Soueif was a guest on Democracy Now! several times during the Tahrir uprising, the 18 days that rocked the world. The last time we spoke to her was February 11th, moments after Hosni Mubarak stepped down. She spoke to us from her home in Cairo.

AHDAF SOUEIF: I’m just completely overwhelmed. And I was just trying to try to, you know, write my copy for tomorrow’s article, but I just — I can hardly breathe. You know, you can hear all the joy cries. The phones just won’t stop ringing, people just saying congratulations. You know what I first thought? I thought, I have seen two women in Tahrir Square sort of fully pregnant and waiting to deliver, and they’ve been saying, you know, “When it comes, when it comes, and I will call my daughter 'Liberty.'” And my first thought was that they can now have their babies. Oh, boy, you know, I mean, it’s not over. We have to be careful. We have to really sort of, you know — the work begins now.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahdaf Soueif joins us now in our studio here in New York. She’s here to deliver the Edward Said Memorial Lecture at the Columbia University tonight.

Ahdaf, thank you very much for joining us.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Amy, it’s a great pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, do you remember that moment when you had just heard, talking about those two pregnant women who can now deliver their babies in freedom?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Yeah. No, it was amazing. It was an amazing night. I mean, it was an amazing 18 days. And then it was an amazing night. And what really also stays with me is that there were three very specific chants that went up immediately. And the first one was “Lift your head up high. You’re Egyptian.” And the second one was “Everyone who loves Egypt, come and help build Egypt.” And the third was “We’ll get married, we’ll have kids.” And that just sort of — you know, the aims of the people.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what did it mean in Tahrir? You were there almost every day. From the day you arrived, I saw you there every day. And it was like a revolutionary republic in there. It was a different Egypt, very different from the one outside on the streets of the rest of Cairo. Talk about what — this kind of new kind of Egypt that was created during these 18 days.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, you know, I think that what happened — and this isn’t just me, because at one point, you know, you start thinking that maybe you were having visions or you were, you know — but everybody who talks about it talks in the same terms, that it was: people were rediscovering themselves and each other. It was as though everybody had been locked in solitary in a small little dark box, you know, and told to be afraid of everything else and sort of rattled from time to time. And you’d opened the box and stepped out and found that everything was great. You know, there was light. There were other people.

And what happened was that almost overnight a civic space was created in Tahrir Square that was the ideal space, that one imagined, that everybody imagined, how the country should be or how any country should be. People were kind of like really careful of each other. People were overly courteous. People were picking up rubbish. People were bringing things to offer. It very soon became that you didn’t go to Tahrir without something to offer, whether it was cookies, whether it was your effort, whether it was water, whether it was medicines for the field hospitals. In other words, everybody was finding the best in themselves and putting it forward. And that was just incredible.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you see this coming?

AHDAF SOUEIF: You know, we have seen something coming for at least 10 years. It’s been like things can’t go on as they are. The country is simmering. The country is boiling. And there have been protests, almost continuous protests, since 2003, and rising in tempo and momentum for the last two years. However, it still took us all by surprise, because the movement has been very slow. And also, we’ve kind of dreaded — I mean, the common wisdom was that when it came, it would be such an eruption it would be sort of mobs and masses, and it would be violent and destructive, and there would be a lot of anger in it.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And it would be Islamist.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Either that, you know, or — it wouldn’t be an Islamist mob. Do you see what I mean? It would be either an Islamist kind of revolution or takeover, or it would be, you know, sort of something really like what happened in the ’70s. And the fact that it happened the way it did took us by surprise, and the fact that it happened when it did.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you aware of Asmaa Mahfouz’s video, the YouTube video that went up —

AHDAF SOUEIF: I’d heard of it. I had —

AMY GOODMAN: —- this 26-year-old woman, part of the April 6 uprising -—


AMY GOODMAN: — where she called on people, and men, in particular —- she said, “You would be shamed if you didn’t come out on January 25th” -—


AMY GOODMAN: —- and that it was National Police Day -—


AMY GOODMAN: — and that they wanted to protest police brutality?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Yeah, I had heard of the tape. I watched it subsequently, of course. And of course I knew — everybody knew that there had been a call for protests on the 25th of January because it was National Police Day. And so, people wanted to mark how unhappy they were with the police. But there have been calls for protests, as I said, really since 2003, '04, ’05. And people have gone out on protests, but they've been, you know, maybe a thousand people, maybe maximum 2,000, and they would be ringed with five times their number of security forces. So that’s what we expected to happen on the 25th. We thought again it would be like that. And it wasn’t, because the moment was right, you know?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And something that helped spark the moment was social media. You’ve written a foreward to a forthcoming book called Tweets from Tahrir.



AMY GOODMAN: I hope your tweets are included in it, Sharif.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I think they might be. But they — I mean, Facebook is very widely used in Egypt. I think it’s the fifth biggest country that uses Facebook.


SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: What was the role of social media in this uprising?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Oh, it was tremendously important in mobilizing and in the first stages of organizing. So, social media, as you know, of course, is just like rapid communication, and people immediately know what’s going on. And it forms a community, really. And when the call went — the Khaled Said website — basically, there are very many groups on Facebook which are Egyptian activist groups, which sort of call for strikes, for demonstrations, for whatever. And one of them in particular which was very active was the “We Are All Khaled Said.”

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Explain who Khaled Said is.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, Khaled Said is a young man who was killed by the security forces in Alexandria last year. And he was — he happened —- he was not an activist. And that was really his great strength, because he became a kind of everyman. Until then, people who were on the sidelines could easily say that people who were dragged away and kidnapped and tortured and ill-treated by the regime kind of knew they had it coming because they were activists, because they were politically dissident against the regime. But Khaled Said wasn’t. He was a young man who happened to be in possession of a video, which many people were in possession of, which showed police dealing narcotics, basically. And he was killed in the street by two security -—

AMY GOODMAN: Coming out of an internet cafe, right?

AHDAF SOUEIF: —- two people of the security forces. Coming out of an internet cafe, exactly. And so, that really became a touchstone for -—

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And the picture of his broken face was distributed very widely.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Yeah, there was a before and after. And his family were very active. He has a mother and a sister. And the image of the mother sort of, you know, grieving and then actually sort of being there in protests and being at the court at the trial of the two men who killed him, and so it again became very much a touchstone. And so, his website, which was run by Wael Ghonim, the — from Dubai, which is another wonderful sort of aspect of all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: The Google marketing executive.

AHDAF SOUEIF: The Google guy in Dubai — put out this call for the protest on the 20th of January and was amazed, within a very short space of time, to get something like 360,000 responses saying, “We’ll be there.” So at that point about 11 groups, Facebook groups, decided to meet and coordinate this. And they coordinated the 25th of January. Very soon afterwards, they said that if they were to have any credit, they would have credit for about 20 percent of the people who came out on the 25th of January. The rest was all follow-on.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, you have told the joke that is going around Egypt.


AMY GOODMAN: It might be appropriate to share here.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: There’s a joke that Mubarak dies, and he goes up and sees Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the two former presidents of Egypt. And, you know, one was assassinated, one died by heart attack. And so, he says — they ask him, “How were you killed? Was it heart attack or assassination?” He says, “No, it was Facebook.”

AHDAF SOUEIF: That’s right.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: But on the role of social media, I mean, I often — a lot of people I spoke with, you know, they shut off the internet in an unprecedented move to try and cut off communications. On the 28th, the Day of Rage, they cut off the cell phones. This was perhaps the stupidest thing they could have done, because a lot of people that I spoke with who were never active before said, “You know, I was going to stay at home, maybe, check it out on Facebook, call my friends, but I couldn’t. And so I hit the streets.”


SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And so, I think while social media is very, very important in organizing, especially in this country it can sometimes be used to be complacent and not actively take part in the streets.


SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: But we didn’t see that in Egypt. Everyone took part in the streets, and that’s what made this successful.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Absolutely. Everyone came out. And as it went on, more and more people came out, as word spread and then as people got curious, and people came down to see what was happening, and as the rumors went 'round about how everybody in Tahrir was actually an agent of the Americans or the Israelis or the Iranians or Hezbollah or Hamas, who were all suddenly working together happily to destabilize Egypt, so people were coming out to see for themselves. So you're completely right.

I think that the new media were very good in the buildup. They were essential in the buildup. But actually, even when it came to the actual organization of where the protests were going to start from and the routes they were going to take, people did not do that on the media. They met, and they did that in private rooms and so on. So, yeah.

And then again, I mean, to pick up on what you said, I think that everything that the regime did from the moment that the revolution started was stupid and was counterproductive. And even when they made a move that looked as if it might reap dividends, they ruined it within a few hours by making, you know, a move in a different direction. So it’s very good. I mean, we’re very glad that they demonstrated their obtuseness in this way.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to Ahdaf Soueif, the great Egyptian novelist, author of The Map of Love and other books, most recently has written a foreword for a new book called Tweets from Tahrir. We’ll be back with her in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, with Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who was with Ahdaf Soueif in Tahrir. It’s remarkable to be with both of you on this day, on this day that, well, it’s planned a million women will march in Cairo. But Ahdaf, we wanted to ask you about your book, your book The Map of Love. You’ve written many books, but this book, which tells the story of Egypt in a very interesting way, going backwards and looking at it today. Why don’t you lay out the plot, if you will, the storyline?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Oh. Well, The Map of Love is two love stories, one that takes place at the end of the 20th century and one that takes place at the beginning. And in both stories, the love affair is between people of different cultures. So, the woman is from the West, and the man is from the Arab world. In the old story, he’s Egyptian. In the new story, he is Egyptian-Palestinian-American. And basically, the novel tells the story of these two love affairs, and in doing so, it kind of traces what happened to Egypt in those hundred years, so sort of where we are now, or where we were 10 years ago, in terms of how we got there, and traces back that a hundred years before. And it also explores, of course, the — well, the possibility of true cross-cultural relationships and whether they are, you know, more possible now or were more possible a hundred years ago, the role of language — when is language really a tool of communication and when it impedes communication and so on. But, of course, the history and the politics are also central to the lives of the characters in the novel.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Let me ask you about the current situation in Egypt right now. Egypt is now ruled by a council of military, of army generals. We’re far away from democracy. They have appointed a panel to make amendments to the constitution. It’s an eight-member panel. There’s no women on this panel. They made their recommendations, and there’s going to be a national referendum on them. First, what’s your reaction to the fact that there’s no women on the panel? But secondly, also, there’s still — you said that a lot of work needs to be done on that day, on February 11th.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, of course, the way you put it sounds quite sort of, you know, scary and negative. But the regime, as it left, somebody, some institution had to take control of the country until — in transition. And the military were the obvious people to hand over to. And so, the high command of the military is the acting president. Now, there have been two opinions ever since that happened. One is that this is a good way to go. And the other is that this military high command should have disbanded itself and put a sort of presidential council of military and civilian people. But really, I mean, people are not in agreement about this. There are arguments, either side.

The military put together an ad hoc committee of respected people, but really appointed by the military, to effect very small changes in the constitution. We know that we want the whole constitution looked at and rewritten. And we, in fact, want it built very clearly on the constitution of 1923, together with the constitution of 1954, and amended to suit today. But what happened was that they put together this small committee of eight people in order to change the articles that governed elections, the idea being that the country should go into elections as soon as possible and democratically elect a government, which would then enable the military to go back to barracks, and then that’s the end of the situation.

The fact that it didn’t have any women on it is — most of us think is irrelevant, because this, as I say, was put together very quickly by the military to do a very specific job of enabling the constitution to enable us to have elections. And there will be a founding committee to discuss and change the whole constitution, and that will be at least 40 people and will be representative of everybody, at a later stage.

So, at the moment, of course, we don’t look like we have a democratic process, because we don’t have one. But we are still in a —- well, we’re in an infinitely better place than when we had the regime. And also, we have caused the removal of the cabinet that was left by Mr. Mubarak, and we now have a cabinet and a prime minister who were put forward by revolutionary forces. So, that is a very important -—

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: But the military is cracking down. I mean, we’ve seen them jail activists, and recently one person who took part in a protest, a peaceful protest, was arrested, tried by a military tribunal two days after he was arrested, sentenced to five years in prison. His name is Amr Abdallah al —

AHDAF SOUEIF: Amr al-Bahari.



SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Your sister was actually a witness —


SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: — to his arrest. Doesn’t that concern you that the military rules by decree right now?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Yes, it concerns us very much, and people are protesting it and working against it. But we do understand that they are a military. In the end, this is an army, and it’s an army that did not carry out the revolution, that was not consulted about the revolution, and they have found themselves in this place where they are the caretakers, the guardians, of the country and of the revolution. And the army itself is divided. So, the top brass of the army were, of course, part of the regime, and — but the bulk of the army isn’t, and the bulk of the army reflects the feelings of the country. And so, they are — I mean, you know, there are balances in there. There are struggles in there. But taken as a whole, the sense is that the army, so far, does not want power, that the army is trying to do the job that it thinks it is there for. And they would like to return to barracks as soon as possible, and that’s why they are pushing through this process of a tiny bit of constitutional reform, a kind of elections, so that they can go back to barracks.

We’re in a difficult situation, because you could say that they’re doing the right thing and that we should somehow get a civilian government that is elected in some way, so that they can go back, or you can say that they should put in a presidential council, which is not military, and they should go back to barracks anyway and allow the democratic process to take longer.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Ahdaf’s sister. Your nephew, Alaa Abd El Fattah, is a well-known activist, blogger in Egypt. Sharif talked to him in Tahrir Square on the 15th day of the uprising. He described what he hoped the transition to a post-Mubarak Egypt would look like.

ALAA ADB EL FATTAH: What I personally dream of is revolutionary mandates, that we don’t need to deal with the complexities of the current constitution. The current constitution was created by an illegitimate government anyway. I’m a radical leftist, but I can’t claim that this is the general mood in the square or in other cities, you know, among the revolutionaries. Egyptians — it’s amazing that this uprising is happening, and it’s been an incredible one, but Egyptians are generally, you know, conservative in their action. And so, the moment you remove the very hated enemies, I think, I’d expect that a majority of them would ask for smoother transitions.

There’s also other benefits for smoother transitions. Like right now everyone is — we are really united, but there are topics that are very divisive. They are just not relevant right now. But if we immediately embark on writing a new constitution, revolutionarily reshaping Egypt, we might have to start discussing secularism versus — you know, everyone wants a modern civic state.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That was Alaa Abd El Fattah, your nephew. I also want to play a clip of your niece, Mona Seif. She was very active in Tahrir, interviewed very often on international news networks. We interviewed her on Democracy Now! several times, both in person and on the phone. And we reached her in the early morning hours of February 3rd, the night that Mubarak’s thugs attacked. This is some of what she had to say.

MONA EL SEIF: We came here peacefully demanding for Mubarak to leave. We were so numerous yesterday. This is not our demand alone. This is the demand of the majority of Egyptians all over the country. We were here peacefully. Yesterday was such a festive day. If you saw the place, you would think it was a park. We had children playing and people chanting and dancing and singing. And now, all of a sudden, it’s this war zone, just because they leashed at us those thugs, with their weapons and their knives and their cocktail Molotovs thrown at us from rooftops. We are here because we’ve lost a lot of people for a certain demand and a certain cause, and we owe it to them to stick it and stay here.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That was Mona Seif, Ahdaf Soueif, your niece. What does it feel like to hear her talk so emotionally about that night?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, you know, it’s —- it continues to move me. I mean, basically, the young people have been just incredibly, incredibly wonderful. And I mean, all the young people of my family were there and were there on that night. And, I mean, Mona’s younger sister, who’s 17, was also in there, and she -—

AMY GOODMAN: Can we play one little clip?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I actually spoke to Sanaa, as well. She had published a newspaper —

AHDAF SOUEIF: That’s right.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: — after Mubarak’s fall, to intentionally break Egyptian law. This is some of — I asked her about the role of the youth. This is some of what she had to say.

SANAA EL SEIF: It all started with an event, and we kind of told our friends and everything, and somehow it got bigger and bigger. And we realized that we have a very effective tool that we didn’t realize that until it all flamed, kind of. So, that’s when we thought, well, we can actually do something. We have tools, and we can do it. And, well, we’ve done it, while the grown-ups didn’t, so we can actually do it. So that’s when we got involved and started thinking of other things to do.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And did you ever imagine that this would happen?

SANAA EL SEIF: No, not at all. I mean, it was a joke. I mean, people asked me, “What are you going to do on the 25th?” And I was like, “Yeah, I have a revolution. I’m not — I’m busy.” But it was amazing. It was a perfect timing, actually.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: So, that was Sanaa El Seif, your niece also. And she succeeded in publishing this newspaper called El Gornal. It’s available online and in print, as well.

AHDAF SOUEIF: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: I have to ask, before we end, Ahdaf, speaking of families — and we only have a minute — Sharif’s grandfather, Ihsan Abdel Quddous, the great writer, if you were influenced by him, and also his great-grandmother, Rosa al Youssef? Speaking of two great families in Egypt.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, of course, absolutely. I mean, who wasn’t influenced? Who didn’t read all of Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s books and watch the films that were made from them, and read, you know, the history of Rosa al Youssef and the magazine that she produced and so on? It’s a — yeah, it’s a big heritage, you know? And it tends to be that way.

AMY GOODMAN: And for those who don’t know Ihsan Abdel Quddous, how you characterize his writing?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, it was — I mean, you can think of it as big, romantic, easy-to-read novels. And then, if you go a little bit below that, you will find that they are very liberationist, that they are feminist, in fact, and revolutionary. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of revolutionary, I want to thank you very much, Ahdaf Soueif, for being with us. We’ll all be at your speech tonight at Columbia University, the Edward Said Memorial Lecture. Thank you for being there in Tahrir and being with us on International Women’s Day.

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