Egypt's future has been written

After the United States’s invasion of Iraq, the American military took to reading TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom for after-the-act advice. During the occupation of Tahrir Square, the US state department anxiously pondered Egypt after Mubarak.

But diplomatic top brass and opinion merchants could have saved themselves much angst in the past weeks—and recent decades—had they turned to the late Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957) and Sugar Street (1957) were published within two years, forming a profound picture of three generations of a Cairene family in the 1920s and after.

Although the concluding chapters of Sugar Street are far removed in time from the Cairo of late January and early February 2011, they speak nonetheless very much to the future of Egypt.
The brothers Ahmad and Abd al-Mun’im are in the same prison cell, detained by a government that they oppose from very different ideological standpoints. Ahmad is a communist, Abd al-Mun’im a Muslim Brother.

The family’s newborn, however, is the latter’s son: the Muslim Brotherhood made flesh. More than half a century ago Mahfouz discerned what would be the lay of his native land and ­delineated that subtly.

Rather more direct was Alaa Al Aswany in The Yacoubian Building (Fourth Estate, 2007). The biggest-selling novel in the publishing history of the Arab world, it is a frontal onslaught on Mubarak’s Egypt—its venality, corruption and bribery. It deals, too, with many of the questions of reform versus conservatism that confront those who wrought the February revolution and those who must oversee the country until “democratic” elections in September.

Notably, the protagonist of The Yacoubian Building is Taha, son of the building’s doorman. When his ambitions to become a policeman are thwarted because he has neither family wealth nor influential connections, he joins a student Islamic organisation. Such trajectories might no longer be inevitable in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

What is certain, though, is that democracy will bring as much pain to Egyptians as to Western powers for whom that has always meant “democracy” with their preferred despot installed.

The finest version (and most beautifully produced book) of Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy is translated by William Maynard Hutchins, Olive E Kenny, Lorne M Kenny and Angele Botros Samaan (Everyman’s Library, 2001)

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone is writer, teacher and independent scholar based in Johannesburg. He is formerly the books editor of the Mail & Guardian and director of the M&G Literary Festival. All Under Heaven, the memoir of his (mainly) Chinese family in South Africa (David Philip, 2004), was shortlisted for the 2005 Alan Paton Award. Accone is a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. Read more from Darryl Accone

    Client Media Releases

    MTN, SAPS recover stolen batteries
    Supersonic keeps customer interaction simple too
    Food gardens planted at Mtubatuba school for Mandela Day
    The Field guide to business success
    Why your company needs a Web site