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)