Doctor Alaa Al-Aswany is an unlikely revolutionary. As the misspelled shingles all the way up to his fourth floor office in the upper-middle-class Garden City area of Cairo remind you, Al-Aswany is a dentist by profession.
Outside Cairo, he’s known better as a co-founder of the Kefaya (literally, Enough) movement that galvanised opposition against Egypt’s ousted president Hosni Mubarak six years ago. Outside Egypt, he’s known best as a writer, most famously of his first novel, The Yacoubian Building.
Does the 44-year-old feel that his generation missed the chance for a revolution as forceful as the current one? “Social change can be close to physical change,” says Al-Aswany, a gentle giant with a booming baritone. “There’s a particular temperature at which water turns to vapour. This is such a moment, a ‘revolutionary moment’. The young bloggers — who wouldn’t number more than 35,000 — started it. But the revolution is no longer just theirs.”
Is it also of those who never went to Tahrir? I met some poor labourers in Natron Valley, 90 kilometre north of Cairo, where people worried about “things happening in Misr” (as the Egyptians call their country, synonymous to the rural poor with Cairo). They were more anxious about losing their daily wage than a change of regime. “They are just sitting in front of their TVs, affected by both kinds of propaganda. They aren’t relevant to the revolution,” dismisses the chain-smoking doctor. Those who live in the Yacoubian building, too, are poor — but theirs is a banlieue soap opera, not a tale of gritty rural realities.
Was it Al-Aswany who coined the term kefaya? No, it was Mahathir Mohamad. When asked what should be said to long-ruling despots, Mohamad had replied: “Enough”. Wasn’t that rather rich, coming from a man who had been prime minister of Malaysia for 22 years? “Maybe, but it captured the zeitgeist.”
What’s the most beautiful thing in the ruling zeitgeist? “It’s that people could die for dignity, something like your own independence struggle. Revolution is like falling in love — it makes a better person of you.”
In an article last year, Al-Aswany wrote of the time he saw Mubarak’s younger son, Gamal, at a restaurant. He headed over to the table but was blocked by guards. A shouted exchange with Gamal followed. At the end, the author found his wife offering him the spoon of honey as she does first thing every morning. It was all a dream. What if the doctor found another spoon of honey at the end of this winter’s frisson? “I believe in people,” says Al-Aswany like the omniscient narrator of Yacoubian. “This time, Egypt’s youth will ensure that we go the distance.”