In an interview in 2015, the Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany made the powerful observation that dictatorship “is like a disease . . . When you live under dictatorship, you become sick.”
Every day throughout the shortlived revolution of late January and early February 2011 (Egypt’s social and political response to the events of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movement), Aswany was present at Tahrir Square in Cairo, the centre of the protests against the 30-year regime of then president Hosni Mubarak.
The uprising led to the ousting of Mubarak and the swearing-in of the country’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, but it was followed by the Islamist Morsi’s own removal from office in 2013 as a result of a military coup led by his defence minister, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Morsi died in 2019 while undergoing a much-criticised criminal trial; Sisi remains as a hardline president, with powers to support his authoritarian rule. Ten years on from the Tahrir Square demonstrations, the wheel seems to have come full circle.
The Republic of False Truths, Aswany’s new novel, reimagines those 18 days of revolution, when the hope of democracy for millions of Egyptians seemed within reach. It is a multi-voiced work of elation and despair — as the power of the people briefly triumphed over an oppressive and unscrupulous autocracy — and a vivid take on both sides of the revolution, from the perspective of those who either enthusiastically supported or violently opposed the reforms.
Aswany brought out the original Arabic-language version of The Republic of False Truths in Lebanon in 2018, its content deemed too explicit and incendiary for an Egyptian publisher to risk. It has been banned across much of the region. Now, three years later, it appears in a lively, versatile and frequently chilling English translation by SR Fellowes.
Aswany’s celebrated debut The Yacoubian Building (2002) offered a commentary on contemporary Egypt through the varied lives of the inhabitants of a ramshackle multi-occupied residence. The Republic of False Truths is similar in its construction, with a mixture of voices — corrupt generals, idealistic students, factory workers, hypocritical religious leaders, intellectuals, teachers and media personalities — and narrative techniques telling the story of the brief and bloody revolution.
Justifiably praised for his gift for emotional storytelling, which led his first novel to be compared with the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s world-renowned Cairo Trilogy, Aswany also leans towards the satirical interpretation of writers living under authoritarian rule. His novels call to mind the work of China’s Yan Lianke, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa and Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk. A practising dentist as well as a bestselling novelist, Aswany is also a founder of the democratic movement Kefaya (“Enough”), elements of which appear in the book. The Republic of False Truths is, above all, a robust and brave undertaking. For this reason a surreal air hovers above the prose, which veers between uneasy irony and straight-out reportage, even though the characters are fictional.
General Ahmad Alwany is, we are repeatedly told, a “pious” man. He loves his family. He also facilitates the Mubarak regime by torturing and murdering “enemies of the state”. The novel opens with an account of his morning ablutions: virtuous prayer, followed by a voluptuously calorific breakfast, a shower, a quick flick through the pornography channels on his television — the foreplay for lovemaking with his wife. Then a visit to a prison cell, where a tied-up, badly beaten man is electrocuted and the man’s wife brought in, stripped, and threatened with rape until he confesses.
Aswany’s skewering of the excesses of corruption — of the illegal acquisition of properties and businesses, of the infiltration of media organisations and institutions — is written in a deceptively benevolent style, further enhancing the background noise of disquiet and outright terror, which grows almost deafening as the novel progresses. The general’s wife regularly holds “seminars” for Sheikh Shamel, who purports to be a respectable Islamic scholar, but whose “Godliness” TV channel is a front for the procuring of vulnerable young women; meanwhile, the general’s treasured daughter, medical student Danya, is beginning to rebel against the very regime her father is paid to maintain.
Elsewhere in the city, the Copt intellectual and hashish-smoking dilettante Ashraf, “an aristocrat in his fifties”, becomes energised both by his involvement with a working-class woman and with the revolution. This narrative, together with the growing relationship (relayed in email form) and activism of teacher Asmaa and student engineer Mazen, carries most of the book’s sense of urgency and drama. Direct testimonials from women arrested by the authorities at Tahrir Square and forced to undergo humiliating “virginity tests” run alongside the almost-caricatured descriptions of the architects of their torture.
If the novel has a major flaw it is that Aswany relies too much on stereotypes to create a sense of depth and connection. Yet despite this The Republic of False Truths is a blistering, bold dissection of a failed revolution, and of the disenchantment and dissent that inevitably follow.
The Republic of False Truths by Alaa al-Aswany, translated by SR Fellowes, Faber & Faber RRP£16.99, 464 pages/Knopf RRP$28.95, 416 pages
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