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Ahdaf Soueif: Amidst Egypt’s Bloodshed, “We Are Trying Keep the Discourse of the Revolution Alive”

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As reports emerge that former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak could be released this week, we speak to the acclaimed Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif. A prominent backer of the 2011 Tahrir Square, Soueif reflects on the state of the revolution and the growing divide in Egypt. “One of most depressing things that we’ve seen has been how a strand of what was the revolution, and what was either progressive or liberal, has so completely backed, endorsed, egged on the military and the police and have completely, unrelentingly demonized the Brotherhood and Islamist currents,” Soueif says from Cairo. “And I think that is part of why we’ve had an escalation of violence. It’s as if everyone is playing out a role that is expected of them.” We’re also joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Chris Toensing, executive director of the Middle East Research and Information Project.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are in Cairo with Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now!'s correspondent. He's there; we’re based in New York. And Ahdaf Soueif has just joined us, the Egyptian write, author of The Map of Love and other books, including, most recently, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. She also wrote the foreword for Tweets from Tahrir: Egypt’s Revolution as It Unfolded, in the Words of the People Who Made It.

We welcome you, Ahdaf, to Democracy Now! once again. You have written a piece in The Guardian_, “Now Egyptians Are All Paying the Price.” We last spoke to you, Ahdaf, on egypts”>July 3rd, when you were calling for the ouster of Mohamed Morsi. What has happened?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, what has happened is that, A, the army, or General Sisi, instead of possibly enforcing an early referendum on early—a referendum on early presidential elections, simply announced the ouster of President Morsi. And so, as expected, the supporters of President Morsi, whether they were Brotherhood or slightly broader supporters, dug in, declared sit-ins and marches, and, you know, would not accept that they had lost the country. Everything went wrong from there because there was no logical and planned and forward-looking way that the government or the army dealt with the supporters of President Morsi. So it just became a face-off with each side showing how powerful they were, and people started getting killed. And it’s really just been a spiral of violence and of polarization ever since.

And I think that—I mean, what we’re seeing now is we’re seeing sort of big, monolithic kind of structures taking up certain positions, as if they’re setting the map for what is to come. And as Sharif was saying, there is no part for the revolution in any of this. In fact, what’s happening is that all these behemoths that are now lining up to fight each other, are actually all profoundly anti-revolution. And at the same time, the situation and the rhetoric and the long hardship that people have suffered is making it possible to whip up the people behind them, you know, whether it’s behind the Brotherhood or behind the army and the police state. And so, we are living through this extremely unpleasant time where you see the people embracing a fascist discourse really on every side.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahdaf Soueif, do you think this could have been predicted? I mean, you had this unusual alliance, you know, progressives like Tamarod and others calling for the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, but that required the military and putting their faith with the military—and then, what their statements are today?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, I mean, there is a big question mark on Tamarod, really. I think we have to wait and see what information comes out and what other positions they take up.

I don’t know about whether—I mean, I’m uncomfortable with questions about whether things could have been predicted. I think that from the point when the military decided or the state decided to take—to take a physical, violent line with the sit-ins, then we were on this path without a possibility of change. I mean, we need, of course, to remember that the sit-ins were to varying degrees armed, the Nahda sit-in more than the Rabaa sit-in. We need to remember that the sit-ins caused death and that we know that people were taken into these sit-ins and were tortured. We need to remember that the Brotherhood, in their year of ruling the country, resorted to violence, and that also that they did not—that Mohamed Morsi’s government did not make any moves towards clipping the wings of the Ministry of the Interior, which is a very brutal force in the country. And, in fact, what the Brotherhood tried to do when they were in power was that they tried to court the institutions of brute authority: They courted the military, and they courted the Ministry of the Interior. In other words, they courted the bits of Mubarak regime that were—of the Mubarak regime that were his instruments in enforcing his rule, and they tried to make them work for them. And so, what we are seeing now is we’re seeing these very instruments turn, naturally, against the Brotherhood. And I think, yeah, it’s not—it’s not surprising that we are where we are once the decision had been made to break up the Brotherhood sit-ins by force.

And also, Amy, we have—with the Ministry of the Interior, we have such a combination of willingness and a kind of natural willingness to use brute force together with inefficiency, and that is really a very, very dangerous and lethal combination. And so, for example, the fact that last night we had 38 prisoners dying in personnel carriers, prisoners who—I mean, they weren’t convicted; they were people who had been taken off the streets and were being held on remand. And they were in—they were being moved from one jail to another, and they were killed, in—while they were in the care of the Ministry of the Interior. It’s very possible that this was not intended, but that doesn’t matter, because, basically, the proclivity, the natural tendency of the Ministry of the Interior is to use force. And I think that—I think that the very important shift that has happened in this last set of incidents is that the Ministry of the Interior has moved back into central position in the state. And because what it has done now in breaking up these—breaking up the sit-ins violently and the huge numbers of people it has killed, because it has been done with the cover of the state, it’s going to be extremely difficult in the future to take it to account for having done this previously during the two-and-a-half years before that, the two-and-a-half years of the revolution. And this is partly what this is about.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring someone else into this discussion right now from Washington, D.C., Chris Toensing, executive director of the Middle East Research and Information Project and editor of MERIP’s publication, Middle East Report — he co-edited the book The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt — and ask you about the U.S. role here, Chris. The front page New York Times on Saturday, “U.S. Sees Ally Holding Cards.” And it’s about the close relationship the U.S. has with the generals, with the officers in Egypt right now, and talking about how much the U.S. needs the military, which the Times says is sort of—sort of handcuffing the U.S. right now, you know, with President Obama not calling what has taken place a coup, not cutting yet the $1.5 billion. Can you talk about that relationship, Chris?

CHRIS TOENSING: Sure. I think there’s a lot of truth in those reports. I mean, essentially, the U.S. is in a form of trap of its own devising, where it allies with forces in countries with autocratic governments which pledge to secure U.S. interests as the sine qua non of the alliance. And then, when these countries experience political turmoil, when the natural aspirations of the citizens of these countries for a more free and democratic country come to the fore, as today and in the last two years in Egypt, then the U.S. is in a trap of its own devising, because its rhetoric, its foreign policy rhetoric vis-à-vis the Middle East and vis-à-vis the rest of the world, is that we support freedom, we support the spread of freedom and democracy in the world, and yet it comes to conflict with what we view as our interests in the various parts of the world. And time and time again, administrations of whatever ideological stripe—liberal, conservative, neoconservative, liberal internationalist, Republican, Democrat—they choose autocracy and U.S. interests over democracy and an uncertain outcome. That is what’s happening in Egypt. And at a time like this, when the guarantor of U.S. interests in Egypt is the prime bad actor and the prime violator of what the United States proclaims to be its values and the goals of its foreign policy, then, by definition, that bad actor in Egypt holds almost all the cards, and the United States is basically reduced to wheedling totally ineffectually on the sidelines—unless the United States is willing to abandon its interests, which it has almost never proven willing to do.

AMY GOODMAN: It quotes Mattis, the former head of Central Command, saying, “We need them for the Suez Canal, we need them for the peace treaty with Israel, we need them for the overflights,” — that’s Egypt allows almost no notice for U.S. planes to fly over, for example, to go to Afghanistan — “we need them for the continued fight against violent extremists who are as much of a threat to Egypt’s transition to democracy as they are to [us],” he basically said. Let me bring Sharif back into this conversation to talk about those issues, and also, Sharif, the latest news we have in Sinai, the largest killing of Egyptian forces there in many years.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right, well, this is an attack that came this morning. Twenty-four police—policemen were killed somewhere in northern Sinai. There’s been conflicting accounts from the Interior Ministry about how that happened. They first said that they came under RPG attack. They later said that the bus, the minibus that was carrying the soldiers, was stopped, and the policemen were forced to—forced out and shot on the ground. I think we’re going to have to wait and see what happens with that.

But I think I agree with a lot of what Chris was saying with regards to U.S. policy towards Egypt. There is a lot of hatred and vitriol on both sides here against the United States. I’ve never seen this kind of animosity towards the U.S., both from people who support the military, people who support the Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi, as well as revolutionaries, as well. I mean, I don’t understand what the policy is effectively trying to achieve, other than, of course, these national security objectives that the U.S. ostensibly is trying to—is trying to win over. But it—I think, in the long term, what we’ve seen time and again with the U.S. supporting Mubarak, supporting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, supporting the Brotherhood, now supporting the military, they’re willing to work with any strong actor, the strongest actor on the ground that they think can provide some realm of stability in Egypt, so they can achieve their objectives. But if we’ve learned anything over the last two-and-a-half years, it’s that you cannot enforce stability. There has to be a political solution. But right now the regime is going for a security solution, which is not a solution, which is just driving us into a deepening spiral of violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahdaf Soueif, what do you think needs to be done right now?

AHDAF SOUEIF: That’s a very, very difficult question, Amy. I think that, for our part, we are sitting this one out, but are keeping—keeping a discourse out there that insists on condemning both sides, insists on valuing human life, insists on valuing human rights, and tries to keep the discourse of the revolution alive.

Now, the thing in the future is that whatever—whatever the shape of the next phase is, whoever comes to government, if they don’t actually manage to start putting the country on the road to social justice, if they don’t start putting the economy right, if they don’t start, you know, showing a bit more awareness of the great desire of the people for more social justice and for—you know, just to be able to live, to have a house, to have a job, to have education, to have healthcare, then that government is also going to fall. What will the shape of that next wave be? And is it at all likely that a government that is sponsored by the military is actually going to want to put the country on the road to social justice?

Also, people—even though at the moment people are sounding pretty—pretty fascist, pretty chauvinist, yet I think that when things shake down, it is still true that we have now arrived at a space where people in general will not tolerate being brutalized by the state. And so, again, this is something that the people will come into conflict with the government about. And I think that the revolution needs to get ready for what is to come, and perhaps to try to do what it has not succeeded at doing so far, which is to develop a vision and a discourse that appeals to people, that people can understand, and to try and reach people with it, and wait for the moment when the country is ready to turn once again.

AMY GOODMAN: You quote, in your piece in The Guardian, Ahdaf, a much-shared tweet that says, “Three of my comrades in the revolution have brothers in the MB [the Muslim Brotherhood] sit-in. What am I supposed to feel?”

AHDAF SOUEIF: Yeah, well, the thing—

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about whether there is a dialogue right now in the country on the streets. And what about that—well, the coalition a few weeks ago, which was between the military and progressives, what’s happening? Are you seeing any conversations between those in the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, other Islamists, and progressives, very concerned about what’s happening now with the military?

AHDAF SOUEIF: No, I don’t think that that is happening. In fact, at a very, very tiny level, we tried to have a discussion in our family, to two members of the family who have been—who are supporters of the Brotherhood and who were at Rabaa and who were at the Nahda sit-ins, meeting with progressive, outspoken members who are very active revolutionaries, and trying to work out some kind of areas of common agreement. And while, ultimately, everybody accepted that the other was speaking in good faith and that the other would not lie, yet their—I don’t know, the universes were very different. And so, when one of the Brotherhood supporters went and checked on a fact we had given him about seven people having been tortured by the Brotherhood in the Nahda sit-in, and he came back, and he said, yes—he had first rejected that that had ever been a possibility, and he came back and said that, “Yes, it had happened, and you were not lying. You were being truthful when you said that. However, these are the reasons why people were tortured.” And so, then you say, “But there should be no justification whatever for torture.” And then the conversation really stops there. And this was at a very small and personal level.

There is—I do not think that there is a dialogue really going on at the moment between the—between Brotherhood supporters and the others. It should, however, really be noted also that with the continued brutalization of the Brotherhood supporters by the police backed by the army, there are people who are not supporters who have drifted or who have gone deliberately to show solidarity. And some of these people have been killed. People who were part of—very much part of the revolution, even part of the 30th of June to get rid of Morsi as president have actually been killed by the state as they tried to show support for the Brotherhood in their time of tribulation.

And the final thing that I will say is that you said that the progressives in their coalition with the military. I think that one of the most depressing things that we’ve seen, really, has been how a strand of what one would have—what was the revolution and what was either progressive or liberal have so completely backed, endorsed, egged on the military and the police, and have completely, unrelentingly demonized the Brotherhood and Islamist currents. And I think that this is part of why the—why we’ve had an escalation of violence. It’s as if everybody’s playing out a role that is expected of them. And I think that there was a wish by some of the progressives and the liberals to actually see the Brotherhood act in the most abhorrent way possible, so that they would have been proved right in their long-standing hatred of them. And a side effect of that, of course, is the vilification of Mohamed ElBaradei for continuously urging a negotiated solution to the issues we’re facing.

AMY GOODMAN: And I asked Sharif this question, but, Ahdaf Soueif, your response to the possibility that Mubarak, the former dictator, will be released in the next, say, 48 hours, at least according to his lawyer? Were you able to hear that, Ahdaf, that Mubarak will be released? I was wondering your response. We may have lost the audio for Sharif and for Ahdaf Soueif. The IFB just dropped, so we’re going to have to leave it there. But I—let me put that question to Chris Toensing before we move on to our last segment. The significance of what this means right now, Chris Toensing?

CHRIS TOENSING: Sharif got it exactly right: It’s symbolic. Mubarak is not going to be the president of Egypt ever again. Neither will either of his sons. There is no possibility of a Mubarak political dynasty in Egypt. But what the goal of releasing Mubarak at this stage would be, would be, essentially, if you will, a big long middle finger in the face of the Egyptian people from the Egyptian deep state to say, “Right now we’re in charge, we’re calling the shots, we can do whatever we want, we can release this figure who inspired so much loathing and hatred and was the face of our hated regime for 30 years, and there’s absolutely nothing that anybody can do about it.” That would be the message that would be intended by such a move. And important to recall, in that regard, that ever since Mubarak was ousted, there has been a small but vocal contingent of sort of old regime supporters who have been very adamant that Mubarak was unjustly accused, that he was the victim of a witch hunt, and they have been organizing and calling for precisely this, his release from prison and the clearing of him of all charges and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris, I want to end—


AMY GOODMAN: I want to end back in Cairo, because we just reconnected with them.


AMY GOODMAN: Ahdaf Soueif, the question, as we wrap up this discussion, and if Sharif wants to end with any final words—Ahdaf Soueif, the question of the significance of Mubarak being released and what that means, if in fact it’s true, according to his lawyer, that he might be released within the next few days?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Yeah, I think, as Sharif said, it would be very largely symbolic. He doesn’t matter now, except as a symbol. And I agree that this would be to say everything is back to where it was, and you can’t do anything about it. And there we are. And I think, of course, that this ties in very much with the desire to bury the revolution of January 25th. But I will also say, as a comment on what Sharif was saying earlier and what he wrote in his last article, that the whole point of insisting on optimism and on seeing a way forward and not getting into despair, the whole point of that is to do that when the time is darkest. And this is where we are now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us in Cairo, Democracy Now!'s Sharif Abdel Kouddous, and we'll link to Sharif’s pieces in The Nation at democracynow.org, and Ahdaf Soueif, the acclaimed Egyptian novelist, author of The Map of Love. Her other books most recently include Cairo: My City, Our Revolution; she also wrote the foreword for Tweets from Tahrir. And, Chris Toensing, thanks for being with us in Washington, D.C., executive director of the Middle East Research and Information Project and editor of MERIP’s publication, Middle East Report.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Madison, Wisconsin, to the publisher of The Progressive magazine. He was arrested this weekend for taking pictures of protesters in the Capitol in Madison. Stay with us.

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