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Ahdaf Soueif interview: ‘Bread, freedom and dignity’

This article is over 12 years, 5 months old
Writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif has reported from the front line of the Egyptian Revolution from the 18 days that brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak to today. Ahdaf talked to Judith Orr about the struggles in Egypt, the subject of her new book, Cairo
Issue 2287
Ahdaf Soueif addresses the crowd in Tahrir square during the 18 days of revolution in early 2011
Ahdaf Soueif addresses the crowd in Tahrir square during the 18 days of revolution in early 2011

Your writing about the Egyptian Revolution celebrates the courage, imagination and resilience of ordinary people. Why are they your focus?

The revolution is about people bursting through the lid that has been placed on them.

It has confirmed everything I already believed. I never lost faith in the idea that the people were waiting, that under the surface their anger was simmering away.

For that I was often told that I was a romantic, that I was looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles.

Maybe that’s true. But I always thought the strategies people used to survive—the way they made a living, the jokes that they told—showed their resilience.

You have simultaneously been part of making a revolution and writing about it. Was it difficult to extract yourself from the moment in order to record it and assess its significance?

The articles, spoken pieces and short things weren’t difficult because I wrote them from within the revolution.

But writing the book was a much more sustained effort.

I wrote through August, September and October last year.

I wanted to both recreate the feeling of the 18 days [the period leading up the fall of Mubarak] and also to put them in context.

Writing the book meant staying home for days, and not being on the ground. That was very hard.

Someone said to me, what about objectivity?

I replied, I never set out to be objective—I am partisan and my writing is a form of activism.

You write that in the early days of the struggle people often described themselves as merely protesting. At what point did it feel like something bigger—that you were making a revolution?

It was on 29 January, the day the police and security forces withdrew from Cairo, the lights were cut off, and the army was on the streets.

That was when the regime finally understood that this was more than a protest. Then after the “Battle of the Camel” on 2 February, everything shifted gear once again.

How do you react to Western governments that now rush to embrace the revolution?

Governments are hypocritical. People are what matters to me.

I got such a sense of just how intensely people all over the world are watching us when in March I travelled abroad to give talks. The amount of goodwill was incredible and hugely encouraging.

Already Western commentators are arguing that the revolution has been hijacked by Islamists. How do you respond to their claims?

In what sense has it been hijacked?

We had elections. Despite those elections not producing the parliament that I personally am looking for, that is the parliament that was elected. That is the one we have to work with.

We have to work out how to stop Western governments intervening in our affairs.

Perhaps it is too idealistic to imagine a situation where they don’t interfere at all but we need to work out how to lessen their leverage over us.

One solution is deepening democracy. And that fact we now have a representative government helps.

The other is developing the economy. This is so we do not need finance from any other states.

But these things take time.

On several occasions, solidarity action has pushed back the threat of religious division. How important has this been?

It’s very important because division was the strategy of Mubarak and is the strategy of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [Scaf, the military regime that replaced Mubarak].

They have always sought to divide us—not just Muslim from Copt, but rich from poor, urban from rural, Islamist from non-Islamists.

They even try to stir divisions among Muslims.

One of the brilliant things about the 18 days in Tahrir Square was the way people understood that Egypt is defined by its diversity. You got the sense that the people actually gave voice to that ideal, and were determined to hold on it.

The Scaf has also tried to break women away from the movement. Are they succeeding?

No. And that itself is some kind of justice.

The worse the regime behaves towards us, the harder we push back.

So, for example, they subjected women protesters to what they called virginity tests. But Samira Ibrahim, who is from a conservative background, took them to court with the full backing of her family and won.

She did a tremendous service to women’s ability to participate in the revolution.

After the attack on the “Blue Bra Girl” [see timeline, below], women made it very clear that they would stand up for themselves. Some 3,000 marched in response.

The regime wanted to make women hesitate before taking part in political actions. Yet they have had the opposite effect.

Doctors, professors and scientists united with workers, street kids and the poor during the 18 days in Tahrir Square. How do the more middle class elements feel about the revolution now?

I haven’t seen any research on what proportion of the middle classes want to back off a bit and I don’t want to speculate.

But I do know about the demography of Tahrir Square. If you list the people that were killed there in December you see that everybody is still represented.

A significant feature of the revolution has been the involvement of organised workers. How important are the strikes and the formation of new unions?

I think that they are the heart of the revolution.

The spectacle was Tahrir Square, but without the strikes, without the labour force walking out, it wouldn’t have happened.

Workers are still striking today, but they are also taking to court the bosses of companies that were fraudulently sold off.

Their action is creating awareness of just how corrupt the regime was, and how much it was running down the economy.

That kind of information is keeping the middle classes on board.

At the start of the revolution the popular slogan was, “The army and the people are one hand.” Now the demands are for the Scaf to go. How much of a shift is this?

It’s very important. If the Scaf had taken a different approach then the armed forces would have remained a popular institution.

Now the criticism is not just about the Scaf. People are looking at the way the army is run, in particular the way that conscripts are treated. The generals use them as a form of indentured labour.

The high number of conscripts that are killed during training is also something that was not known before the revolution.

How cohesive is the army, is there potential for splits?

It’s hard to speculate, but there are rumours of aborted uprisings within the army. The Scaf and the army leadership in general are very worried about fault lines within the military.

You write that because the revolution is a process, not an event, that you are writing about something that is still unfolding. What are your hopes for the future?

The revolution has very specific goals. They are very big, but they are specific—bread, freedom and human dignity.

They require a complete restructuring of the state, redistribution of power,

re-establishing education, health and the rights of the citizen, and the creation of mass employment and social justice.

My hope is that we maintain a sense of revolution on the streets.

We can pressure parliament, take public action, and through the struggle of workers we can start working towards those aims.

We are only starting out on this road but already the people have discovered a sense of their agency.

Cairo: My City, Our Revolution is published by Bloomsbury, £14.99, and is available from Bookmarks bookshop

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