Anyone who has read The Yacoubian Building, a novel published in 2002 by the Egyptian author --Alaa-al-Aswany, will regard the revolution in Egypt as long overdue. The novel’s readers will not have been astonished by the ease with which the rotting hulk of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s regime was dashed against the rocks, nor by the spirit and courage of those who engineered this extraordinary piece of history.
First things first: It is a very funny and perceptive book about the characters occupying a fashionable Cairo apartment block (which really exists) and squatting in hovels on its roof. Like the crumbling “Majestic” hotel in J. G. Farrell’s novel Troubles, about the end of British rule in southern Ireland, the eponymous apartment block was a metaphor for the state and its inhabitants are figures representative of different aspects of Mubarak’s Egypt.
I suppose that censors never have much of a sense of humor, and that irony and parody are usually beyond their intellectual grasp. However, I did find it curious that The Yacoubian Building was not banned in Egypt — or in other Arab countries — and that subsequently it was turned into a popular and widely shown film.
Al-Aswany told readers so very clearly what was wrong with modern Egypt, while demonstrating that, despite the corruption and the dead hand of the security police, Cairenes fizzed with personality and showed a feisty urban grace.
So, now that the Yacoubian state has come tumbling down, the most interesting question is not “Why did it happen?” but “Why did it not happen before?”
For years, we in the West — shame on us — talked up democracy around the world, but, despite the occasional gentle slap on the wrist of Arab despots, we accepted that there was an Arab exception to the desire for freedom and accountability. We allowed convenient cultural stereotyping to sustain what we believed was the expedient pursuit of our national interest.
While research by the Pew Centers suggested that the aspirations of families in the Middle East were similar to those elsewhere, many of us went along with the comfortable delusion that Muslim-majority societies couldn’t manage and didn’t want democracy. Did no one visit Turkey or Indonesia?
This stance conveniently avoided rows with oil dictators. Moreover, provided they were not too troublesome politically over Israel, they could earn a well-paid seat at our table. They didn’t have to like Israel, provided that they weren’t too rude about the US’ pro-Israel bias and its refusal to accept that insisting on Israel’s inalienable right to exist was not the same as allowing Israel to do whatever it wanted.
Many Arabs themselves knew what was wrong with their region. Back in the early 2000s, the UN Development Programme published two reports by Arab public servants and academics that examined the factors underlying the economic stagnation of much of the Middle East. In too many countries, they found women were marginalized (though, to be fair, not in Tunisia), education was dominated by religion and government was autocratic, unaccountable and corrupt.
Despite all the oil and gas below the desert sand, growth lagged and unemployment soared. Young men and women throughout the region found their hopes dashed and sometimes turned to militant Islam as the only alternative to a repressive state.