Al-Aswany, Alaa. 2021. The Republic of False Truths: A Novel. Knopf: New York and London. Trans. S. R. Fellowes; pp. 416; Hardcover: $ 24.49; ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0307957221by Fouad Mami

Theoretical Clarity and Revolutionary Change: The Arab Spring in Fiction

Alaa Al-Aswany’s fictional engagement with the events known as the Arab Spring may easily seem pointless, cliché or commonsensical given the tons of films, novels and studies on the topic. But it is exactly what the title underscores for English reading audiences in his recently translated novel, The Republic of False Truths (2021) that raises his work above the waters of cliché and commonsensicality. Unlike its Arabic title which connotes the farcical element in the quasi-republic, the English title zooms on the false omnipresent that applies uninterruptedly on everyone in that republic, irrespective of class or gender. Known internationally for The Yacoubian Building (2002), the recent addition explains (and never justifies) the existential need to grapple with precisely that which most people uphold as unmistakably self-evident. Indeed, when presumably unbiased research articles, speak less of private blogs or contents in either heavy or social media outlets, find the social uprisings that led to the decapitation of the likes of Mubarak “decisively deprived of traditional narratives and are haunted by the theme of death…”[1], then the self-evident is no longer that self-evident. More often than not, resorting to abstractions—as with this presumably research piece—is triggered by this author less for exploring the essence of the experience and more to evaporate that experience from the radar of the social field. Indeed, this academic facilitates the expulsion of reality from history by borrowing from a preexisting pool of vocabulary and set of thinking structures that masturbates endlessly on death, the limits of narrative’s agency or the Kantian sublime.  

In this connection, Al-Aswany’s The Republic of False Truths serves in reversing similar masturbations and lies. Lest they fall to collective amnesia, the novel recreates the events leading to the euphoria of Tahrir Square in 2011 and 2012, the decapitation of the dictatorship’s head and a few swirling events afterward. In answer to anyone doubting the relevance from synthesizing those events in a story, just ask that person: where is Tahrir Square today in the map of Cario? Of all seventy-three chapters comprising the novel, chapter thirty-one explicitly answers: “Tahrir Square has been transformed into a small independent republic—the first parcel of Egyptian land to be liberated from the dictator’s rule.” (184) Little wonder then how now it has become an interminable construction site with the specific objective of eradicating from collective memory the very possibility of massive gathering which may or may not propagate into a revolt. If a physical space has garnered such a monumental level of hatred and revenge, then unbiased rationalizations of historical reality, let alone activists’ narratives of the popular uprising, remains an unaffordable indulgence. Not for nothing, the early twentieth century French philosopher/ activist Simone Weil (1909-1943) finds: “Official history is a matter of believing murderers on their own words…”[2] For if events that unfolded in most readers’ own life time, that is, only the other day, are decreed disconcerting and are now being falsified, there is more reason to distrust official reporting of incidents that happened where we were less aware or not on this planet yet. It is never a tautology to underscore that history writing is thus no joke.

Indeed, Al-Aswany’s novel does not shy from the task of setting things, events and people in their correct historical order. It measures these actors as variables in the scale of the experienced unfolding, not mythical or ideological unraveling. There will be people who may find that measurement missing in the scale of revolutionary ardor and passion, but what can be more radical and subversive than an honest elucidation of that which actually happened and happens. Understandably, there exists vested interests to report on that which took place in Tahrir from bourgeois’ perspective, and to justify the counterrevolutionary status quo of the present. Hence, the explanatory (never the justificatory) demand for a methodological axis serving also an existential matrix whereby falsity (false truths in the title) can be distinguished from truth. Al Aswany’s theoretical coordinates have been history’s inevitable ‘class struggle’.

The term ‘class struggle’ comes from a glossary that for better or for worse has been antinomic vi-à-vis the current counterrevolutionary climate of post 2011 Arab World. Let us recall that several Arab cities and capitals witnessed exhilarating agitations and marches in millions against dictators only to be disappointed in the following months and years. The term ‘class struggle’ is not just an ideological milestone for those activists of social movements on the left; it is a methodological eye-opener for registering and thus seizing the real movement of the world, according to the nineteenth century German philosopher Karl Marx[3]. The concept expresses a historical continuity with uprisings and revolutions of the oppressed from all over the world and from times both past and to come, and if enough oppressed people embrace the class struggle as a milestone for consciousness, the current world order will be not just shaken but redefined. Hence why the powers that be have always had a vested interest in sweeping the term ‘class struggle’, speak less of the concept, under the rug.

Through mostly written entries and dynamic interactions between a set of characters and via reading mostly their entries: Ashraf Wissa, General Alwany, Seikh Shamil, Asma Zanaty, Mazen Saqqa, Madam Nourhan and Essam Shaalan along with others readers will gain a solid understanding of what took place in Tahrir. Each character emerges from diametrically opposing backgrounds, and the novel reflects the class dimension of the uprising. Only when considered from the point of view of the class struggle, readers unveil how the counterrevolution justifies the present status quo in effusive abstractions and unabashed crusades for chasing smokescreens: death and the presumed wisdom of/in extinction!

Given this connection, The Republic of False Truths (2021) resuscitates the concept of the ‘class-struggle’ for purposes of underlying needed, if not urgent, theoretical clarity. Part of Al-Aswany’s demystification showcases that well before the restoration (July 2013) formally triumphed, most rank-and-file Egyptians expressed varying levels of exasperations at revolutionaries. Perhaps, apart from the heady eighteen days leading to the abdication of President Mubarak and which were marked by a euphoria and spectacle, the following weeks and months witnessed a steady decline in the supply of people living in impoverished and destitute neighborhoods since most of these people become disenchanted from the revolutionary project. Ironically, those people beset by black misery themselves turned hostile of the very process that promises the breaking of their chains. Counting as the evidence for this state of affairs is how the oppressed accuse the revolutionary youth of jeopardizing their security by conspiring against the country.

When Ashraf Wissa and his team display the atrocities of the military through a moving cinema project across impoverished Cairo neighborhoods, he and his tiny group of activists were attacked, their gadgets broken and themselves are accused of bringing disaster. Instead of despair, Al-Aswany’s unorthodox conclusion zooms on a needful theoretical clarity, the one that attributes the failure of the revolution less to coercion by the repressive forces and more to the oppressed own conservatism, nihilistic resignation and detachment from revolutionary agitation. In the interest of fairness, Al-Aswany shows that the military intervened only when the majority were fed up; repression came to formalize what the oppressed themselves desired to restore: security. Without a precise reading regarding the role of various actors, revolutionaries will remain befogged with myths and self-pity. Even if repression has been behind the resignation of the oppressed, and not the other way around, a legalistic and procedural response will be still inconsequential. By pushing for an unsubstantiated narrative (confusing cause with effect), Al-Aswany unveils the plans of counterrevolution. Once activists’ attention is sidetracked toward the legalistic, as when denouncing human rights abuses, the revolutionaries pronounced their own death sentence. No one else did.

Still, mounting criticism in regard to the ways in which the revolutionaries responded does not mean that Al-Aswany favors the culturalist approach, whereby the oppressed are blamed for their own misery. The Republic of False Truths hinges its revolutionary project on a deeply entrenched historicist approach. The narrative has been careful with its vocabulary and plot details lest it embarks on blaming the victims, and thus falling into justification, not explanation. Little wonder how this revolutionary-counterrevolutionary arch spells the fortunes and misfortunes of not only the Egyptian revolution but nearly of all Arab socialist uprisings. Certainly, Al-Aswany’s remarks connect directly with the Egyptian scenario, but in essence his remarks mirror most, if not all, Arab revolutions post 2011.

Pushing for a culturalist approximation of events counts among the reactionaries’ toolkit in a preexisting arsenal to regain hegemony. Given the brutal violence that marked the Egyptian revolution, the one which many activists fail to register as formalization of the subaltern’s dissatisfaction with the revolution, it is not surprising to mistake The Republic of False Truths as an exercise in oriental despotism. Female activists, like Asma, and after experiencing beatings and sexual abuse, utters statements that read more like self-pity. For her, it is hopeless to count on ordinary people as Egyptians are submissive by nature. Other characters too do not restrain themselves from drawing similar generalizations outside space and time as they express doubts vis-à-vis revolutionary change in a country where large sways of the populations are doubtful in the betterment of their lot. Asma’s letter to Mazen, sent from London after the former’s exile is probably the type of ranting that every revolutionary succumbs to in the face of adverse situations. Such despair risks eternalizing oriental despotism because it overlooks the dynamic of history. Despaired readings find the cliché of Oriental despotism comforting.

Al Aswany, not only rejects timeless generalizations. His spoke person is Mazen who from beginning to end underlines a historicist approximation as to why ordinary Egyptians—even well before instantiations of violence—traded security for freedom. Nevertheless, the heavy investment in media and the latter capacity for brainwashing rank-and-file Egyptian and demonizing the revolutionary youth—as specified by General Alwany’s explicit instructions—have simply born its fruits. In an exchange with the Interior Minister, General Alwany explicitly outlines his strategy: “Our goal is to tell the ordinary citizen, ‘Either you side with the demonstrations and lose your security, or you side with the state, in which case, it will protect you.” (142) Readers find that the business tycoon and media mogul, Hag Muhammad Shanawany, as per request of the Security Apparatus, have invested enormous funds and resources to ‘redirect Egyptians towards ‘the right path’: family values and the wisdom of the tested and tried’. His media prodigies go as far as ‘uncovering CIA plots of destabilizing the country and creating chaos’! Readers registers how Madam Nourhan, the celebrity broadcaster, has been hailed by Apparatus not only for literally abiding by the instructions set by the supervising army officer (set in the premises of every TV and radio station), but for her ‘innovative’ ways and quasi-effortless commitment in defaming revolutionaries, presenting fabricated testimonies that cast democracy activists as spies on the pay roll of foreign secret services. Through no fault of their own, the revolutionary committee realizes never without a cost that exclusive campaigning through Facebook and Twitter has its limits as large sways of Egyptians remain hooked up to newspapers and TV. By the time revolutionaries such as Ashraf started touring neighborhoods and featuring human right abuses committed by the military, it has become crystal clear that the it was too late. Therefore, any sensible reading cannot overlook that the triumph of the counterrevolution has been the result of steady and deliberate effort to rewrite history in favor of the counterrevolutionaries since they can afford this rewriting.

The final scene where Madany (literally signifying passivism in Arabic) or Khaled father’s, takes revenge from the police officer who killed Khaled. Al-Aswany through that scene kills two birds with one stone. On the first level, he breaks away with the liberal stance of situating revolutionary work entirely in passivist forms of agitation. His stance corroborates, however, with the inevitability of the class struggle, demonstrating affinity with Frantz Fanon’s ideas on the necessity of violence: where history simply takes its own course and classes become involved in a dynamic of cancelling each other. On the second, a milestone of theoretical clarity is gained from the failure of legalistic and procedural path and where justice fails to see the day of light. The crooked justice system in Egypt facilitates regaining that incendiary form of clarity. Not only the bereaved father refuses religious authority personified in Sheikh Shamil’s mediation as when the Sheikh visits Madany with a sack of cash in exchange for closing the case in court. Madany similarly indulges Khaled’s university colleagues for a while, agreeing with their plan of taking the murder case to court. Danaya, General Alwany’s daughter and Khaled’s close classmate and eye witness to the murder, asks Madany to relieve her from witnessing in court. Despite enamored admiration of and attachment to Khaled and his ideals, in the end, her admiration and attachment could not expand toward a revolutionary consciousness in the sense of a rupture with undeserved social status and privilege. That is how we read in the ultimate scene that the father hires thugs to kill the police officer. And that is how readers are not surprised as Madany successfully reverses the crooked justice system by taking justice (not just trying to) in his own hands.

The message from that scene helps readers seize the realization that revolutionary work cannot be a cerebral undertaking. It is and remains a spontaneous eruption and, in his circumstances, no one can convince Madany not to recourse to violence. He spontaneously takes that road not because he thinks only violence brings him a satisfying closure, but despite all rationalizations to the contrary. Readers find Madany has lived his entire life as a slave, literally from hand to mouth. But that dreadful experience subscribes in direct opposition to appearances. Galvanized by his prodigy, Danya asks Khaled: “When did you read all these books?” Khaled answers: “The credit should go to my father who noticed that I liked to read when I was small, so he gave me a subscription to the palace of culture. I began borrowing books, reading and returning them. Imagine that a simple, uneducated man could value reading so much!” (83) If there exists one hero in this novel, it is Madany because when catastrophe hits, he rationalizes light years better than university professors! As will be developed below, Madany deserves the title of Spartacus defying the decadent Roman empire.    

Madany’s decision is different from poetic justice in the sense that the latter is bourgeois whereas the former is prehistoric and can only be embraced by the subaltern. Both religious and civic authorities scold individuals from taking justice in their own hands, and thus encourage people stripped of their basic rights to aggravate servitude by seeking institutional mitigation of justice. In line with Hegel’s reference to deep history whereby he relatives political and cultural time[4], Al-Aswany shows that institutional mitigation other than being essentially pointless, given how justice is administered under dictatorships, remains counterrevolutionary. Not only the police officer was not arrested in preparation of the trial, he wasn’t even suspended from work or put on probation during the months leading to the final sentence which unsurprisingly finds him not guilty. For the benefits of theoretical clarity again, Al-Aswany illustrates that Khaled’s killer’s show trial has to be read specifically not as a dysfunctionality of the justice system either in Egypt or elsewhere. Rather, it has to be read as part of an immanent logic of dictatorships, and which Khaled’s father clearly registers, acts upon and professionally executes.

Indeed, that last scene can be disturbing because Al-Aswany masterfully positions it in gothic aesthetics. In displaying the inevitability of violence, Al-Aswany brings a satisfying closure from the perspective of the class struggle to that other gothic scene that triggered the finale. In chapter forty, we read how Madany in his own hands puts pieces of Khaled’s brain back in the hole caused by the pistol shot. Khaled has been a principal organizer of a field hospital near Tahrir Square charged of providing first aid to demonstrators. The officer aims to kill because Khaled dares (note the word dare in Kant’s definition of the Enlightenment) to reject the officer’s insult. It is a scene which comes to shake passive readers from their reifying experience and keep these audiences forever invested. That gothic structure generates a movement within the consciousness of individuals of the middle class or who identify as middle class. It is a movement which renders that consciousness receptive (hospitable) to a prehistoric form and logic of justice, the primitive law: an eye for eye! All else becomes synthesized by the same invested audiences as alienation, domestication and obviously, counterrevolution.

The way Fanon theorizes revolutionary violence suggests how Al-Aswany cannot be stigmatized by calls that organically propagate beyond the accepted perimeters of passive resistance. By raising a credible threat over life, speaking and executing a language that truly hurts the ruling classes, the revolutionary ardor of Tahrir Square reaches the tipping point in the Hegelian system, whereby quantity metamorphizes to quality. Violence, Fanon specifies, remains purifying in the sense of ridding oneself of hesitations and doubts, thus crystallizing practical predispositions to register false truths for what they are. What else today’s revolutionaries hope to gain?   

[1] Walid El Khachab, (2021) “Death of the Revolution, Death of the Event: Cinema and Politics in the Aftermath of the Egyptian Spring.” Journal of the African Literature Association, 15:3, p. 525.

[2] Simon Weil, An Anthology. Penguin Modern Classics. 2005. p.105

[3] Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Samuel Moore. The Merlin Press (2015), p. 3

[4] Hegel, Philosophy of Right.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s