Alaa al-Aswany spent every day in Tahrir Square leading up to the fall of Hosni Mubarak. His 2002 novel, "The Yacoubian Building" is set in downtown Cairo and tells the story of residents of an actual building in Cairo. The novel paints a picture of a Cairo where only the "corrupted and corruptible" can succeed.
But now Aswany is in the news again. Aswany says President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government is suing him for "insulting the presidency." He spoke to The World's Marco Werman from his home in New York City, where he has resided since facing threats from Sisi's government.
Alaa al-Aswany: Well, they have been angry with me for five years now. The first week that Mr. Sisi became the president, I was banned from any TV appearance. Then, I was banned from writing in the Egyptian newspapers and banned from organizing my weekly seminar that I have been organizing for 20 years. So, it's not new but this is an escalation. They say that I insulted the presidency and that I insulted the state institutions. These kinds of accusations don't mean anything legally but they are used over and over to punish anybody who criticizes the president.
No, they are using my latest novel. It was about the revolution and of course, I described what I saw, how the authorities treated the revolutionary youth, how they were killed and how they were sexually abused by the officers. This is one reason. The problem is, now, anybody who criticizes the president's policy will be considered somebody who was insulting the president.
It was a phenomenon — translated to 77 languages and millions of copies sold. I used the place as the main character. The Yacoubian building is a real building which still exists in downtown Cairo. I tried to present my characters, which are the tenants inside the building, to reflect all the social and political problems of the time, but it's basically fiction.
Of course, we were the democratic secular state and we fought for that. Unfortunately, Egypt, in my opinion, has been cornered between two fascist groups, the military and the Islamists. They have many things in common and they have made an alliance against the revolution and against the democratic force many times. I have been against them because I'm defending the democracy. I have been against the regime for decades. I have been against Mubarak, against the military council, against the Muslim brotherhood and against Sisi. I must tell you that Sisi's is the worst regime that has ever happened in Egypt, as far as the violation of human rights is concerned.
Yeah, just a few weeks before getting banned. I wrote, for example, the elections through which Sisi arrived to power were not free elections or fair elections. So, I was banned. It was too much for the regime and I was banned from everything.
The American universities always have a place for visiting professors of creative writing and writers in residence. I had invitations a long time ago, but I didn't find any reason to leave Egypt. So, after being banned from everything I stayed in Egypt physically, but I did nothing. So I began to accept the invitations. But every time I go back to Egypt, they give me a very hard time in the airport. Every time I was detained for two hours. It was terrible, but I insisted on going back for two or three months and then back to America.
A military case in Egypt is totally decided by the president. Even if I go or send my lawyer, it's totally useless to participate in something like this because in the end, the president will decide the sentence.
The interview was edited and condensed for clarity.