When Basma Abdel Aziz wrote her latest novel The Queue, Egypt had just experienced the first phase of a revolution that overthrew the three decade rule of dictator Hosni Mubarak and resulted in the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s modern history. The country was riding a wave of democratic euphoria, but where Egyptians saw prosperity, Abdel Aziz noticed that the country’s powerful military was still lurking in the background — exactly as it had during the Mubarak era.
Despite being released two months before Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became Egypt’s de facto leader, the novel’s setting — a dystopian, unnamed Arab country where common people wait in an unmoving line seeking government approval on various requests — closely resembles modern Egypt. Government oppression is rife and state propaganda is ubiquitous in both Abdel Aziz’s created world and today’s Egypt.
ThinkProgress spoke to Abdel Aziz — currently on a tour of the United States — by phone to discuss her novel. The book was written in Arabic and translated to English by Elisabeth Jaquette.
Basma Abdel Aziz (BAA): I started writing the book in September 2012. This was three months after the Muslim Brotherhood took office and started ruling Egypt. In the novel, the system is mostly militaristic and not religious, so it was weird for some readers. People would ask ‘Why is this?’
I didn’t have a clean answer. I was feeling the system of Mubarak had not fallen and would come back.
ThinkProgress (TP): Have you ever had trouble with the government, either under the former regimes or the current one?
BAA: I had my troubles with the government since the time of Mubarak. I was denied a post with a psychological department [at a local university] because of my human and political rights activity. I didn’t have troubles during the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, but now I have many troubles. I write for [daily, independent Egyptian newspaper] Al-Shorouk, but you cannot write what you want. There are always redlines and restrictions.
I started working at the Nadeem Center [an NGO for torture victims and victims of violence] in 2002 and it has been attacked twice in the last month. [Editor’s Note: The Egyptian government ordered the Nadeem Center to be closed down earlier this year.]
I have many friends and colleagues in prison now. It’s not so weird, I am not scared and it won’t stop me from [advocating against] the totalitarian regime.
TP: Is the situation worse now than in years past and than under other regimes?
BAA: Much worse, yes. I’m working as a psychiatrist and in human rights and as an activist, and torture is increasing — the number of people and the intensity of it. During the Mubarak and Morsi era, we counted the number of victims by year. Maybe we lost five people [in one year]. Now we count [that many] by day or week.
TP: Why do you think the regime still retains the amount of support that it does?
BAA: There are many reasons. People are very much scared of a religious regime and chose a military rule to escape from the Muslim Brotherhood. Some like having a ruler that controls everything in life — they believe he knows everything and owns the absolute truth and they feel like children with no effort to change their life. Some see no other choice and some are just so exhausted. Or [they don’t see] any other revolutionary movement.
TP: Your novel reflects the reality in Egypt, but you chose the setting to be an unnamed country. What was the thinking behind that?
BAA: The idea of having a totalitarian authority and dictators and using religion [to rule relates] to many countries. I wanted to make it universal and not just confined to Egypt and the Arab world. It is not only directed to Egyptian readers but to international [ones too.]
Yehia [the novel’s main character] is an ordinary citizen — a middle-aged man who is not originally a dissident or political. He was wounded in clashes between security forces and other dissidents. He faces down authoritarianism by refusing to get the bullet extracted at a military hospital because they will make the bullet disappear. It is the only evidence that people got shot in the streets.
TP: Yehia was the one character whose values held steadfast throughout the novel. The other characters who waited in the queue were conflicted and some experienced radical transformations. What were you trying to express by having your protagonist stick to his morals while others evolved or went through phases of serious self doubt?
BAA: I wanted to explain and explore the change to [the characters]. Some people come highly attracted to authoritarianism and support its existence by surrendering or giving up. There is the cousin of a soldier killed in the clashes who came to the gate to honor and get compensation. He saw his cousin as a martyr but the queue saw a different truth — maybe he is not a hero — and he had an internal conflict. But he denies the fact and continues in this fake situation — ‘No, he’s a hero or martyr’.
[With Yehia I wanted to show that] maybe totalitarianism or authoritarianism is not so powerful or clever as we assume. We are helping it to be [that powerful].
Originally published in ThinkProgress.