Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany first rose to fame for his novel “The Yacoubian Building,” in which characters from disparate walks of life are united through their connection to the eponymous structure, as both inhabitants and visitors. Al Aswany’s most recent novel, “The Republic, As If” (Al-Joumhouriyya Ka’anna), which was published in 2018, employs a plot device similar to that of “The Yacoubian Building” by uniting a range of characters from various sectors of society through their connection with one facet of the story. While the uniting factor in “The Yacoubian Building” is a physical location, in “The Republic, As If,” all of the characters’ stories revolve around Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
The novel begins shortly before the revolution with the morning routine of General Ahmed Alouani, who is, by his own estimation, an exemplary Muslim. After completing his morning rituals of “prayer, reading the Qur’an, breakfast and then licit copulation,” the general gets in his armored car and is driven to work. The branch of the military that Alouani commands, referred to only as the Organization, is concerned specifically with finding and rooting out opposition to Mubarak’s administration.
He extracts information from the opposition member by bringing the prisoner’s wife into his cell, ordering his officers to undress her, and threatening that the officers will rape her if her husband doesn’t comply with the interrogation.
Alouani arrives at work to find his subordinates at an impasse in their interrogation of an opposition member, who is bruised and hanging from a rope by his wrists. Alouani quickly succeeds where the officers reached a standstill: he extracts information from the opposition member by bringing the prisoner’s wife into his cell, ordering his officers to undress her, and threatening that the officers will rape her if her husband doesn’t comply with the interrogation.
Alouani’s enthusiastic infliction of torture is startling in contrast with his displayed religiosity, but it is not the only sign of his immorality. Hints of Alouani’s hypocrisy pervade the description of his morning routine. He takes pride in his sexual vigor and faithfulness to his wife even as he requires pornography to engage in their “licit copulation,” and congratulates himself on abstaining from abuses of power. The narrator archly points out that Alouani calls the director of his daughter’s medical faculty before each semester’s exams merely to ensure that he “would not accord any preferential treatment to his daughter, who always passed with a mention of excellence.” Alouani’s disingenuousness in considering himself a paragon of religious virtue is clear, but the narrator coyly avoids admitting this hypocrisy outright. The depiction of Alouani’s character provides a revealing window into the pre-revolution Egyptian government, filling in the background of corruption against which the novel’s young idealists rebel.
The novel’s focus on each character’s relationship to the revolution leaves little room for any detailed portrayal of them outside this political and ideological context. “The Republic, As If” is first and foremost an elegy for and autopsy of the revolution, and Al Aswany fleshes out his characters’ inner lives only insofar as they pertain to their political affiliations. While this approach leaves something to be desired in terms of the characters’ depth, it allows for an exploration of the narratives through which Egyptians of differing backgrounds understand and relate to Egypt’s past, future, and present national identity.
Several characters who uphold the status quo espouse the belief that Egyptians are submissive by nature, incapable of thinking for themselves, and therefore unworthy of a government that represents their interests.
Throughout “The Republic, As If,” negative views of the purported nature of Egyptians are at the root of much of the public’s complacency. Several characters who uphold the status quo espouse the belief that Egyptians are submissive by nature, incapable of thinking for themselves, and therefore unworthy of a government that represents their interests.
One proponent of this view is engineer and factory supervisor, Issam Chaalane. Issam initially comes off as villainous in dismissing his employees’ complaints about corruption, but turns out to have spent years in prison as a young man for criticizing the government. While he became accustomed to torture in prison, Issam’s belief in the value of political struggle dissolved after prison guards sexually assaulted him.
The bravery of the Tahrir Square protesters refutes Issam’s lack of faith in the Egyptian people. But the novel’s triumphant mood in the days leading up to Mubarak’s overthrow sours in the following months, when the military brutally drives most Egyptians back into complacency through a combination of violence and propaganda depicting the protestors as financially-motivated puppets of the Israeli and American governments.
Through torture and sexual assault, the military convinces many of the protesters themselves that their voices are insignificant.
Through torture and sexual assault, the military convinces many of the protesters themselves that their voices are insignificant. The tragedy of these violating displays of power is that the government would not need to torture protesters if it did not consider them a serious threat; the effort the military expends on breaking protesters’ wills is a testament to its fear of them. By convincing the protesters that their struggle for justice is futile, however, the military crystallizes the absolute power that started off as mere posturing. Two of the main characters, Asma and Mazen, emerge from torture and violation at the hands of the military with divergent perspectives on whether Egyptians should hold out hope for a government that respects their rights and treats them with dignity.
“The Republic, As If” concludes with an act of vigilante justice that serves as a tie-breaker between these two views. The father of a young martyr, faced with glaring corruption and indifference when he seeks justice for his murdered son through official channels, takes matters into his own hands. By ending the novel with an unlawful act of retribution, Al Aswany points out that injustice on an institutional level does not necessarily negate the individual will to effect change.
“People sick with subservience need a period of convalescence for the full cure to take effect,” Al Aswany wrote in a 2014 New York Times opinion piece. Egypt’s 2011 revolution failed to cure the country of corruption and injustice, but “The Republic, As If” points out that rebellion may nonetheless have had a salutary effect on its citizens.