The Pen and the Sword

Egypt's foremost novelist on revolution, dentistry, democracy, and why the Muslim Brotherhood is a "terroristic, underground, armed group."

CAIRO — A revolution, Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany was fond of saying during the Arab Spring's heyday in 2011, was like being in love. "When you are in love, you become a much better person," he said. "And when you are in revolution, you become a much better person."

If one judges by recent events, many people here in the Egyptian capital seem to have fallen out of love. The convoy of Egypt’s interior minister was targeted by a bomb attack in Cairo today –- the first assassination attempt of a senior government official since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in February 2011. Even before the attack, Egypt was suffering through its bloodiest period yet: Security forces brutally suppressed a Muslim Brotherhood-led protest movement last month, resulting in the deaths of at least 900 people. And two and a half years after the revolution, there is not one elected official in a position of power in Cairo.

To Aswany, however, the revolution is still thriving. But instead of describing the current moment in romantic terms, this time the dentist turned novelist uses oral surgery as a reference point: "When you have an abscess, you must open it," he said. "And mostly, you don't use anesthesia, so you're going to have pain for a few seconds. And you're going to have very bad odor. And pus. But in the end you're going to recover. So what we're doing is opening the abscess of religious fascism in Egypt."

Aswany sits behind the desk in his office, alternating drags on a cigarette with sips of a small cup of Arabic coffee cradled by his large hands. The writer is a big, solidly built man -- he has likened the discipline of his craft to that of a boxer, but if he had desired he could have been the real thing. Over the past decade, a generation of Egyptian autocrats has suffered from his jabs: He was an implacable critic of Mubarak, writing blistering columns denouncing the former president for corruption, and his scathing criticism on live television of the first post-revolution prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, who had been appointed by Mubarak, resulted in the premier's quick resignation.

Aswany rose to fame following the 2002 publication of The Yacoubian Building, a beautiful, sweeping portrait of life in modern-day Cairo. The story revolves around the lives of residents in the once-proud, now-dilapidated building, exploring everything from the country's runaway urbanization to the rise of violent political Islamist movements to the fall of the country's colonial-era, Western-oriented elite. The novel also conjured up the "Patriotic Party" -- a thinly veiled stand-in for Mubarak's National Democratic Party -- and lampooned a corrupt politician, Kamal el Fouli, whose talents, he wrote, have been "diverted, distorted, and adulterated by lying, hypocrisy, and intrigue."

Such searing social criticism not only earned Aswany attention from Mubarak's security agents, but it garnered him international fame. In 2011, when Foreign Policy's Global Thinkers list paid tribute to the men and women who spearheaded the Arab Spring, Aswany and liberal politician Mohamed ElBaradei shared the top spot on the list. There were a lot of strange bedfellows back then: Aswany and ElBaradei, staunch opponents of Islamist rule, appeared side by side on the list with Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat El Shater and Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, who recently described ousted President Mohamed Morsy, a Brotherhood leader, as "the Arab world's Nelson Mandela."

Since that fleeting moment of revolutionary unity two years ago, the region's political protagonists have drifted off into warring camps. The attempted assassination of the interior minister will only increase that polarization -- while the perpetrators of the attack so far remains unknown, those opposed to the Brotherhood are likely to lay the blame at the feet of their Islamist rivals.

For Aswany, there is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood is public enemy No. 1 -- a force much more sinister than a mere political rival. "We have a political party -- the Muslim Brothers -- who are hiding underneath a terroristic, underground, armed group," he tells me, echoing the language of the present military-backed government in Cairo. "So the intervention of the Army was not to overthrow Morsy, but to protect the will of the people. And to protect the civil war from happening."

Aswany launches into a description of the Muslim Brotherhood's history: It was a terrorist movement from 1928 until 1965, he said, and assassinated the Egyptian prime minister in 1948. But then, starting in the 1970s, it claimed to have dedicated itself to peaceful change -- a ruse it was able to maintain, according to Aswany, until the June 30 protests against Morsy. "What we discover now is that they were lying to the Egyptian people," he said. "They have an underground, secret, armed fascist group, and people are well-trained."

This vision of the Brotherhood defines Aswany's perception of the current political crisis. He suggests a three-step program for handling the Islamist movement going forward:

First, he says, its leaders "should be brought to justice" for organizing terrorist attacks -- a step that he says has precedent in the prosecution of the militant left-wing Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany and the Basque separatist movement ETA in Spain. Second, the Egyptian Constitution must be rewritten to forbid any political parties based on religion. And third, he says, spreading his open hands wide, any Muslim Brotherhood members who did not commit violence and who pledge not to mix religion and politics should be welcomed back into the political process. It's a tall order for a group whose slogan has long been "Islam is the solution."

Aswany describes the July 3 military ouster of Morsy as "absolutely legal and absolutely democratic," arguing that the protests against the president amounted to a popular withdrawal of confidence. He castigated Barack Obama for not realizing this fact -- in his eyes, the U.S. president's support for the Muslim Brotherhood replicates America's long betrayal of the Egyptian people through its support of Mubarak. Washington, he says, turned a blind eye to Morsy's abuses: In January, when Egyptian police cracked down on an insurrection in the city of Port Said, Aswany noted that Secretary of State John Kerry "was visiting Cairo -- interestingly."

The American silence on Morsy's missteps -- from the Port Said violence to his November 2012 constitutional declaration granting himself sweeping powers -- speaks volumes for Aswany. "If I was Mr. Obama, I would fire all my specialists of the Middle East and try to get more intelligent people," he says.

Even as Egypt's security forces expanded the recent wave of arrests beyond Islamists, Aswany remained confident that the military was setting the country on the path of democracy. He has met the Army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, twice -- once after Aswany was given a "friendly invitation" to appear at the military intelligence headquarters to discuss a critical article he had written about the country's military ruler at the time, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Aswany said that he criticized the military junta for three and a half hours, "and many times I had the impression that despite the fact [Sisi] didn't say so, I had the impression that he saw my point. At the end, the atmosphere got really friendly."

Despite the trust Aswany places in Sisi -- he refers to Sisi as a "hero" -- the novelist says he would never vote for a former general as president. And he bats aside the suggestion that Egypt could once again fall under the jackboot of the military. "I believe in the people, and I believe in the revolution," he says. "When you have this will, I don't think anybody will be able to make a dictatorship in Egypt anymore."

Aswany's fiction, though, tells a different story. In The Yacoubian Building, the corrupt regime politician, Kamal el Fouli, lectures an underling as he prepares to rig a parliamentary election in his favor. "The Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule," he says. "The moment you take power, they submit to you and grovel to you and you can do what you want with them. Any party in Egypt, when it makes elections and is in power, is bound to win, because the Egyptian is bound to support the government. It's just the way God made him."

There must be some part of the writer who penned those lines, one suspects, who knows that the latest chapter in Egypt's drama may not have a happy ending.



National Spirit Advisor

Speaking to the centuries-old, wrathful oracle who advises the Dalai Lama on policy.

Over the last two years, a sense of hopelessness has led more than a hundred Tibetans to set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. This has put Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and the government-in-exile in an awkward position: while they don't encourage the self-immolations, they lack alternative methods to affect Chinese policy. At the same time, the process by which the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders consult and take policy positions is shrouded in mystery. The Dalai Lama and other exile leaders, for example, often get advice from oracles: powerful spirits channeled by a human medium, or kuten.

The chief state oracle is Nechung, Tibet's wrathful protector spirit. According to the Dalai Lama's 1990 autobiography, Freedom in Exile, the Nechung medium has participated in some of the key turning points in Tibetan history. During the 1959 Tibetan uprising, for instance, when it seemed that Chinese forces were on the verge of detaining the then 23-year-old Dalai Lama, the oracle told him, "Go! Go! Tonight!" The medium also wrote down the precise route the Dalai Lama should take to evade Chinese forces on his way to the Indian border.

The current, or 17th, medium for the Nechung spirit is the 55-year-old Thupten Ngodup. Born in Tibet in 1958, Ngodup experienced the early period of Communist Chinese rule and escaped with his family in 1966, the year Chairman Mao Zedong's disastrous Cultural Revolution began. He joined the exiled wing of the Nechung monastery in Dharamsala, India, in 1971.

"Dealing with Nechung is by no means easy," the Dalai Lama wrote in his autobiography. "It takes time and patience during each encounter before he will open up. He is very reserved and austere, just as you would imagine a grand old man of ancient times to be."

Nechung's current medium, a crimson-robed monk with a shaved head and an easy smile, is engaging and relaxed. But he's also politically attuned to the crisis in Tibet: when we met in February, he was preparing space for a billboard outside his residence to commemorate the Tibetans who have self-immolated. We sat together at Ngodup's home, located on the circumambulation route around the Dalai Lama's residence and temple, where servants brought us tea and sweets. The interview, conducted through a translator, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Foreign Policy: Can you tell me about the first time you were possessed by the Nechung spirit?

Thupten Ngodup: You get this feeling that the oracle is inside you. A sudden feeling. In 1984, the previous medium passed away. For three years, during which I worked as chief of rituals for the monastery, offering incense and tea, we didn't have a Nechung medium. On March 31, 1987, I was spreading incense, and I felt an electric shock through my body: I was in a total trance, and couldn't remember anything.

FP: Did you need specific qualifications?   

TN: My predecessors all came from different backgrounds: some were very high officials, some were lamas, and some were lay people. At that point [when I went into a trance], Nechung had made a choice. Two days later, His Holiness [The Dalai Lama] had a special audience for me and asked me what happened. Whatever dreams or signs I had, I told His Holiness. And His Holiness asked me, 'If you become the medium, are you okay with that? Would there be any difficulty for you?' Sometimes when you become the medium, it's difficult for your physical body. You get sickness. I told His Holiness, 'If my becoming the medium helps Tibetans and all sentient beings, then of course I am ready.' 

FP: Did they have to conduct certain tests to ensure that the spirit that entered you was not a malevolent imposter?

TN: His Holiness tested me while I was in trance. It was through rigorous testing that I became the Nechung medium.

FP: The Nechung spirit is described as wrathful. Buddhism is associated with non-violence and compassion, yet here we have this deity who is full of wrath.

TN: All of the oracles are in wrathful form.

FP: Why?

TN: A useful comparison is the family: If the children don't listen to the compassionate mother, the father sometimes has to be fierce so the children will listen. The motive, which is compassionate, is for the children to listen to good advice from their parents. Likewise, we have well-behaved human beings, and not-well-behaved human beings. The oracles are in wrathful form so people will actually listen to them. [Laughs.]

FP: I believe the Oracle was consulted very recently. What were you asked and what were the prophecies?

TN: [Laughs.] His Holiness, members of the government, and high lamas were there. But I don't know what I said, because I was in trance.  

FP: How many times are you consulted in a year?

TN: There's no fixed number. Whenever His Holiness needs, he asks me to go into a trance. And the Tibetan government consults with me two times, once in summer and once in winter.

FP: How many times did His Holiness request you last year?

TN: Around seven or eight times.

FP: And you never know what you're asked and what answers you give?

TN: Many people ask that question. I tell them it's like last night, you had a dream or many different dreams, and in the morning you can't remember them clearly. It's that kind of feeling. The first time I saw myself on video, I thought: That's not me.

FP: So you wouldn't know, for instance, if you had been consulted about the wave of self-immolations inside Tibet?

TN: I don't know. But let me make this clear: They don't simply rely on the prophecies of the Nechung Oracle. We follow a democratic process in exile. Everything is discussed in the parliament and the cabinet, and if they are not clear, or want to hear the opinions or prophecies of the Oracle, they will consult. Ultimately, the decision depends on them, not the Oracle.

FP: Have you been asked recently about the Middle Way, the policy favoring "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet, versus a policy seeking independence [which young activists increasingly favor]?

TN: Even last year, they asked this question. When I'm in a trance, I don't know what I'm asked, but later I have seen it written in government files that the Oracle made a clear statement that there is no better policy than the Middle Way -- at the moment.  

FP: What are your thoughts on the self-immolations, which number over 100 now?

TN: They are self-immolating because they want to draw international attention to what is really happening inside Tibet: that there are no human rights, no freedom of religion... I feel that this form of sacrifice that Tibetans are doing is a form of nonviolence. You have the right over your own body, and they are sacrificing their bodies for the sake of others. If you look at where they are self-immolating, they are not doing it in a [crowded public space] where they could hurt others. They are doing it in a place where they hurt themselves and nobody else. 

Jeffrey Bartholet