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Interview with Ahdaf Soueif

In 1999, Ahdaf Soueif’s second novel, The Map of Love, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, eventually losing out to JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. The next year, the Guardian commissioned her to travel to Palestine – her first visit – and write about her experiences of a people increasingly marginalised and oppressed by the Israeli state. Thus began a decade-long crusade in cultural activism, in the shadow of her friend and mentor Edward Said. ‘This conflict has been a part of my life all my life,’ she wrote in December 2000. ‘But seeing it there, on the ground, is different. What can I do except bear witness?’ Since then, she has put fiction to one side, reluctantly, and grown into Egypt’s – and perhaps the Arab world’s – foremost political voice in Britain.

 

In 2008, she launched the Palestinian Festival of Literature, an annual event dedicated to bringing Palestinian and international writers and artists to audiences across Palestine. Her latest book, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, is a passionate and engaged chronicle of the events before and after the fall of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011. A few days before the 25 January demonstration marking the anniversary of the revolution in Cairo, Soueif invited me into her south London home to discuss her writing career, Palestine, and the progress of democracy in Egypt. Below is a short extract from the interview, which can be read in full in The White Review No. 4.

 

Q

The White Review

— Would Nasser, right now, be supporting the people or the army?

A

Ahdaf Soueif

— The people, definitely.

Q

The White Review

— Your latest book, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, is an incredibly fervent account of the revolutionary passion in Tahrir Square. But one gets the sense that, in light of the increasing repression by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces against the revolutionaries, there is not so much hope. How do you feel, a year on, about the chances of the revolution being completed?

A

Ahdaf Soueif

— I think we’re going to complete it, or die in the attempt. There’s nowhere else to go. I believe it will happen. Last January in the Guardian, my nephew Alaa Abd-El-Fattah {who was imprisoned twice as an opponent of the regime} said something that I really recognised. He said, more or less, that realistically, on 25 January 2011, we would have thought that we would still be fighting this fight a year later, but that it would be with Mubarak. It’s not surprising that we are where we are. It would have been wonderful if SCAF had made a different decision on 11 February, or indeed at any point since 11 February. The more they act, the more you can see how impossible it was that they would actually decide to grab this historic opportunity to protect the country.

Q

The White Review

— The image that comes to mind is the hydra: you got rid of Mubarak, but the state apparatus has come back bigger, meaner, more evil.

A

Ahdaf Soueif

— Maybe not a hydra because that’s really, really nasty. I think there was almost a false head: we ripped open the packaging and now we’re faced with the real thing that’s there in the box. Now things are nastier and more drawn out and SCAF are playing the same old divisive game and, of course, you have got sectors of society that are saying, ‘Enough, enough! Let’s have stability.’

Q

The White Review

— Which divisions are they playing on? Liberal revolutionaries against the Muslim Brotherhood?

A

Ahdaf Soueif

— Well that’s one division that they are emphasising but we won’t let the army divide us along these lines. They’ve also tried the Muslim-Christian thing – with of course the Maspero massacre – and then the people and army divide. Any possible division is played on and we need to resist that and work towards creating lines of connections all the time.

 

The eighteen days of revolution gave us a sense of how we could be, and that was real. People did work together across ideological frontiers and discovered their common ground and that there’s a massive area to work in before you actually hit the differences.

Q

The White Review

— How do you feel about the election results, with the Muslim Brotherhood winning over 45 per cent of the vote, followed by the Salafist Nour party with around 20 per cent of the vote? Is this a blow for the revolutionaries?

A

Ahdaf Soueif

— They are not, of course, what we would have wanted. We thought that in fair elections the Islamists would probably get 30-40 per cent instead of 65 per cent across the board. You can see why and how this happened though.

 

The liberal forces that had the money to go down and start working in the street from 11 February onwards didn’t – they sat and talked among themselves as they have always done and argued and obsessed about the Islamists and you couldn’t attend a meeting with any of them without them predominantly talking about the Islamists and how scary they were and how backward and how organised and… OK, so go on the street and work! ‘Oh,’ they’d say, ‘but there’s no time,’ so then they came up with the ‘constitution first’ initiative which made them look profoundly undemocratic.

 

So they lost time and played into the Brotherhood’s and the Salafists’ hands by vilifying them at a time when nobody from the non-regime side should have been vilified. Even if the Islamists were lying and were going to double-cross us, we should have believed in their good faith and worked with them. But setting up a discourse against them alienated a lot of people! You would talk to people and they’d say, ‘Why is everybody insulting the Islamists? They haven’t done anything!’

 

The liberals played it very, very badly and the progressives didn’t have the money or the manpower to do anything – although everywhere they managed to go they got a seat.

Q

The White Review

— Is there not an argument to be made in favour of SCAF retaining the power to intervene in the writing of the constitution to avoid the process being largely controlled by the Islamists?

A

Ahdaf Soueif

— No, because what SCAF want are provisions in the constitution to ensure their own continuity, and what they are going to do if the constitution is written under their aegis is to use it as an occasion to create more division and more conflict in the country. Writing the constitution is a brilliant opportunity to either become very divisive or to pull the country together. We really need them not to be in power while the constitution is being written. It would just set us back because when we get rid of them eventually we’ll have to rewrite the constitution. There is really no argument at all for SCAF to remain in power for a single day. Their effect on the country is pernicious.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think SCAF will allow for the constitution to be written outside of their control?

A

Ahdaf Soueif

— We are pushing now for them to hand over power since we have an elected body in existence now.

Q

The White Review

— What is the Muslim Brotherhood doing?

A

Ahdaf Soueif

— If they continue to refuse to take power, they will be providing cover for the military and they will lose a lot of credit with the street. We are trying to make sure that people realise that the revolutionary forces, instead of being mad-eyed idealists who will bring the country to its knees and want somebody from Tahrir to be president are in fact saying, ‘You, the people, have elected these representatives, we believe in you, we believe in them, we want them to take power.’ It’s a pretty solid position. If they decide that they want to take power then that will bring them into conflict with SCAF, which is good.

Q

The White Review

— And then what happens?
A

Ahdaf Soueif

— We keep pushing.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Jacques Testard is the publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions and a founding editor of The White Review.

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