Analysis

Sissi Wants West to Pay for Egyptian Brainpower. But Its Writers Cannot Return Home

Egyptian writers and actors who speak their minds face time in prison if they return from self-exile. Will the latest referendum make it easier for them to come home? Don’t hold your breath

Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany in Paris in February, 2014.
JOEL SAGET / AFP

General Ahmed Alwani is an important man, the head of intelligence for the Egyptian government. Despite his aides’ requests to build a mosque in the villa where he lives, he insists on going to the mosque near his home every morning “to be with the people.”

Alwani is a God-fearing soul. He has done the hajj to Mecca, he eschews drink and doesn’t smoke. He’s been married to the same woman for 30 years despite her “man-sized belly” and he’s withstood attempts by foreign intelligence agents to recruit him by setting honey traps.

One morning after finishing his prayers he goes to his office, where a special prisoner awaits in the interrogation room – an activist who has had his share of beatings from intelligence investigators. Alwani whispers something to the interrogators and they again beat up the prisoner, attach clips to his testicles and proceed to shock them. He screams with all his might but continues to whisper: “I know nothing.”

“If you don’t confess, we’ll bring in your wife and attack her,” Alwani threatens. The man being interrogated doesn’t open his mouth. Alwani carries out his threat: Into the room they bring his wife, wearing a jalabiya, who also looks like she’d been beaten. “Undress her,” Alwani orders. “Does your wife even have nipples?” he asks with interest. “I prefer large, dark ones,” he adds and orders the interrogators to remove her brassiere. The woman lets out a terrible scream and the prisoner blurts out that he’s ready to admit everything. The interrogation is a success.

Alwani is not a real figure. He is one of the heroes of “The Republic, As If,” the latest book by the Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany, author of “The Yacoubian Building” and “The Automobile Club of Egypt” (which have been translated into Hebrew). His characters are well known to the Egyptian public, especially among those who have spent time in interrogation basements.

>> Egypt takes pride in an actor winning the Oscar for playing a queer icon, but locks up transgender women - in men's prisons

“The Republic, As If,” released a year ago by the Lebanese publisher Dar al-Adab, is banned in Egypt, Jordan and other Arab countries – but it can be purchased on Amazon. The book is a stinging indictment of the regime of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and the country’ generals, who Aswany believes smashed the protest movement and buried its achievements. Aswany, whose books have been translated into 37 languages, lives in the United States, where he teaches literature. He cannot return to Egypt due to the charges that await him there for offending the president and inciting against the regime. These are security offenses that carry a severe punishment, but Aswany is not giving up. In an article in Deutsche Welle Arabic, where he began writing a column after Egyptian papers refused to publish his work, he explains: “To the military prosecutor general, if my crime is to openly express my thoughts, I recognize that and am proud of them. That which you call a crime is the duty of every author. I will continue to perpetrate this crime until the day I die.”

Aswany isn’t the only one who can’t return to this homeland because of the danger of imprisonment. Actors Amr Waked and Khaled Abu al-Naga await jail terms for “disseminating false information” and incitement against the country if they return to Egypt. Last month at a Congressional hearing they called attention to the human rights violations and lack of freedom of expression in Egypt. A few days later the Egyptian Actors Syndicate expelled them from the organization. In its statement, the syndicate said that the actors “sought the help of foreign forces without the authorization of the public, in order to speak against the public’s will, with the aim of getting them to support the agenda of conspirators against Egypt’s security and stability.” In other words, they’re accused of treason for what they said in Congress.

Both actors say they aren’t panicked by the decision. They intend to set up an Egyptian opposition movement in exile, called the Egyptian platform for human rights. Waked, who starred in the movie “Syriana” alongside George Clooney, currently lives in Barcelona. He told the Arabic-language news site Asharq Al-Awsat that he cannot return to Egypt because he has been sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison by a military court. “I will return to Egypt when the legal system there is independent and free of the executive branch,” he said.

It seems that Waked shouldn’t hold his breath. Egypt is currently holding a three-day referendum for the public to reject or approve constitutional amendments that would permit Sissi to serve until at least 2030. The amendments would also give him the authority to appoint the judges who would handle the offenses that artists, actors and journalists are accused of.

In March Sissi demanded that Western countries pay Egypt for using the brainpower of Egyptian immigrants who have contributed to their adopted countries. One can guess that Waked, Abu al-Naga, Aswany and many other brilliant Egyptian minds would not find themselves on the list of potential donors to their homeland’s coffers.